An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Other than Fernand Léger, there are no really Big Names for today’s Arts Fuse, but a number of highly gifted worthies grace our page. In order of their births (following Léger as our headliner), they are French playwright Pierre de Marivaux, Swedish balladeer Carl Michael Bellman, Portuguese writer Almeida Garrett, Czech writer Božena Němcová, French novelist Édouard Estaunié, Chinese musician Liu Tianhua, French poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, American actor William Talman, and Serbian writer Borislav Pekić.
Fernand Léger (February 4, 1881 – August 17, 1955) studied architecture and worked as a draftsman before turning to painting at around age 25. Most of his work from this period, influenced by impressionism, he subsequently destroyed. In 1909 he met Lipchitz, Chagall, and Delaunay. It was with Delaunay and others that Léger presented the first collective Cubism exhibition in 1911. Léger served in World War I for two years and nearly succumbed to the effects of a mustard gas attack at Verdun. The dehumanization of the conflict led to a “mechanical period” of metallic, tin-man-like figures. (I don’t find any of these represented on a stamp.) Léger for a time toyed with the idea of giving up painting for filmmaking and even directed a film of George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique in 1924. He visited the United States in 1931 and lived here during the Second World War, teaching at Yale. Léger worked in various media, stained-glass, ceramics, and costume and set design, for example. Instances of his work as seen on stamps, in addition to the Monaco portrait stamp, include Le 14 juillet (1914), Les loisirs sur fond rouge (1949), and the murals he painted with Bruce Gregory (1917–2002) in 1952 for the UN building in New York. Supposedly Harry Truman said of one of them, “I just don’t understand this. It looks to me to be scrambled eggs.”
The second of today’s four French artists is Pierre de Marivaux (1688 – 12 February 1763), primarily a dramatist, though he also left a couple of incomplete novels (La Vie de Marianne and Le Paysan parvenu); even so they remain highly regarded. As for anecdotes about his life, Marivaux disparaged the philosophes and thereby earned the enmity of Voltaire, and he invested his inheritance in the Mississippi Bubble of 1720, after which he was forced to earn his living from his pen. His thirty or forty plays number among them the comedies Le Triomphe de l’amour (1732) and Les Fausses confidences (1737).
As a child, Carl Michael Bellman (1740 – 11 February 1795) was found to be easily able to express his thoughts in rhymed verse. He learned five languages beyond his native Swedish and was a performer on the cittern and a facile mimic, but his gifts were not enough for him to escape his debts as he grew to manhood and developed a taste for wine (or beer), woman, and song. For a time he lived in Norway to escape his debts but was able to return to a secure position in the Stockholm customs office. Nearing thirty, Bellman began writing his poems and songs, seeing no conflict between sacred and secular—ribald would be a better word—with some of the ostensibly “religious” songs being Bible parodies. He produced two collections in 1790-91. Bellman is credited with an exceptional ability in word-painting and plumbing the depths of meaning in his musical settings. Some go so far as to compare him with Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Mozart, or, in another sense, with Hogarth. Alcoholism, gout, and tuberculosis destroyed his health. He is buried in an unknown location in the Klara Churchyard in Stockholm.
João Baptista da Silva Leitão de Almeida Garrett (1799 – 9 December 1854) is seen as the author who introduced Romanticism into Portuguese letters. His noble birth did not excuse him from prosecution for his 1818 volume of poetry O Retrato de Vénus (The Portrait of Venus), condemned as “materialist, atheist, and immoral.” Sounds good. Garrett thrice had to flee dangerous situations, first when Marshall Soult’s troops invaded Portugal during the Peninsular War in 1809—the family relocated to the Azores—and again in 1823 as a result of a coup d’état that drove him to England, where he immersed himself in Shakespeare and Walter Scott and absorbed the influences of Romanticism and the Gothic. This influence is felt in two poems that are seen as the first examples of Romanticism in Portuguese, “Camões” (1825) and “Dona Branca” (1826), both written in France. After a return to Portugal and the founding of two newspapers there, Garrett’s third exile was occasioned by the rule of the reactionary King Miguel of Portugal, which drove him again to England, though he returned during the Liberal Wars in support of Pedro IV and lived out his days in his homeland. He also wrote plays and novels and was ennobled by Pedro’s successor Maria II as Viscount of Almeida Garrett.
There is some doubt about the birth date of Božena Němcová (BOH-zheh-na N’YEM-tso-vah), though current scholarship mainly agrees that she first saw the light of day on 4 February 1820 as Barbara Pankel (or Panklová). Her first published work was the nationalist poem “To Czech Women” (Ženám Českým) of 1843. Her writings consist largely of poems and fairy tales, her best known novel being Babička (The Grandmother) of 1855. Her importance in her native land is such that her image can be seen on Czech currency. She died in poverty after a difficult illness, estranged from her husband, on 21 January 1862 in Prague.
Another novelist was the Frenchman Édouard Estaunié (1862 – 2 April 1942), who in his capacity as a scientist and engineer was responsible for coining the term “telecommunication”. He started writing novels in 1891 and was elected to the Académie française in 1923.
Liu Tianhua (1895 – 8 June 1932) played and composed for the traditional Chinese instrument the erhu (a two-string fiddle), an example of which is shown on the stamp as well as on a separate stamp I’ve thrown into the mix. He wrote 47 etudes for the erhu, along with pieces with titles such as “Song of melancholy” and “Bird song in a desolate mountain”, most of these dating from the late 1920s and early 30s. He also wrote for the pipa.
Jacques Prévert (1900 – 11 April 1977) has the double distinction of being about equally known as a poet and as a screenwriter, though his reputation abroad is likelier fixed in film rather than in poetry, which is more popular in the French-speaking world—where it is pervasively taught in schools— than elsewhere. For my own part, I certainly know him better for the splendid Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis, 1945) and other films he wrote for director Marcel Carné. With Paul Grimault Prévert collaborated on a number of screenplays for animated films as well. But one of his other most highly acclaimed creations is the song “Les feuilles mortes” (“Autumn Leaves”), for which he wrote the lyrics in 1945 (music by Joseph Kosma); the song was introduced by Yves Montand and covered by a wide range of singers: Édith Piaf, Joan Baez, Nat King Cole, Patti Page, Doris Day, Jimmie Rodgers, Frank Sinatra, jazz greats Miles Davis, Stéphane Grappelli, and Toots Thielemans, and tenor Andrea Bocelli, for starters. “Classical” composers such as Germaine Tailleferre and Hanns Eisler have set some of his poetry, too.
William Talman’s main claim to fame is his rôle as Los Angeles District Attorney Hamilton Burger in the popular TV series Perry Mason. Born on this day in 1915, Talman served in the Pacific during World War II, rising from the rank of private to major. It may surprise you to learn that Raymond Burr auditioned for the role of Burger, but the executive producer of the show, having strongly admired Talman’s performance in the movie The Hitch-Hiker, decided on Talman. Talman was also the first Hollywood actor to film an antismoking public service announcement (I’m of an age to remember it well) at a time when he knew he was dying from lung cancer, to which he succumbed on August 30, 1968. The stamp is one from a US sheet issued in 2009 to remember favorite old TV shows.
This brings us to Borislav Pekić (PEH-kitch, 1930 – July 2, 1992), one of the more significant Serbian writers of the last century. After a childhood spent in various cities in Serbia, Montenegro, and Croatia, he was arrested shortly after his high school graduation and charged with belonging to a subversive organization; sentenced to fifteen years’ incarceration, he served five and then turned to the study of psychology, though he had been writing fiction for some years. The first of the novels to be published, Vreme čuda (1965), was widely read and appeared in English as The Time of Miracles a decade later. In the meantime Pekić had begun writing screenplays for Yugoslav film studios, ultimately producing some twenty original scripts along with adaptations of his novels. Some time after moving to London in 1971, he started work on what would become his masterpiece, The Golden Fleece (Zlatno runo, first volume published in 1986), which received great acclaim, with comparisons to James Joyce (whose birthday was the day before yesterday), Thomas Mann, and Aldous Huxley.
A graduate of the University of Massachusetts with a B.A. in English, Doug Briscoe worked in Boston classical music radio, at WCRB, WGBH, and WBUR, for about 25 years, beginning in 1977. He has the curious distinction of having succeeded Robert J. Lurtsema twice, first as host of WGBH’s weekday morning classical music program in 1993, then as host of the weekend program when Robert J.’s health failed in 2000. Doug also wrote liner notes for several of the late Gunther Schuller’s GM Recordings releases as well as program notes for the Boston Classical Orchestra. For the past few years he’s been posting a Facebook “blog” of classical music on stamps of the world, which has now been expanded to encompass all the arts for The Arts Fuse.