The Arts on the Stamps of the World — February 11

An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.

By Doug Briscoe

Probably our best known birthday subject for today is the remarkable Josh White, but we’ll go in chronological order and save him for last.

Bernard Le Bovier (or Le Bouyer) de Fontenelle (11 February 1657 – 9 January 1757) was a man of letters and of science and combined these interests in elegant writing that was accessible to the lay reader. His literary background may be due in part to the fact that his uncles were the dramatists Pierre and Thomas Corneille. Fontenelle wrote a poem in Latin at the age of 13 and a play—the tragedy Aspar—ten years later. It failed miserably. He also provided the libretto for Pascal Collasse’s opera Thetis and Peleus of 1689, but his first important work was the Nouveaux Dialogues des morts (1683), which anticipated Steve Allen’s TV show Meeting of Minds (1977-1981) by bringing together famous great thinkers of different eras and inventing dialogues between them. His anonymously published Lettres galantes du chevalier d’Her … (1685), a picture of the society of the day, was also very well received, and in the following year he brought out his most famous work, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, which elucidated Copernicus and is held to be one of the first major works of the Enlightenment. Other important works followed, and in 1691, after being thwarted by contrarians for some years, he was finally admitted into the French Academy, where he served as secretary to the Academy of Sciences for forty-two years. His extensive Histoire du renouvellement de l’Académie des Sciences was a précis with analyses of the proceedings of the society, written in a very fluent and approachable style. Fontenelle died in Paris one month shy of his 100th birthday. A crater on the moon was named for him in 1935.

The German-Jewish poet and playwright Else Lasker-Schüler (1869 – January 22, 1945) was married to the brother of the great chess master Emanuel Lasker in 1894 and published her first poems five years later. 1902 saw the appearance of Styx, her first book of poetry, and 1903 saw her divorce from Jonathan Lasker and her second marriage. Her subsequent writings—prose works, a play, another volume of poetry—made her name as the foremost woman of German expressionism. Following her second divorce she led a bohemian lifestyle in Berlin until the death of her son in 1927, whereupon she fell into a deep depression. Lasker-Schüler won the Kleist Prize in 1932 (we saw just yesterday that Brecht won it ten years earlier), but that, of course, did not shelter her from harassment by the Nazis. She left Germany for Zurich, then Palestine, and finally Jerusalem, where she lived the rest of her life. Her output, besides her poems, consists of three plays, short stories, essays, and letters.

Another woman writer was Stockholm-born Elsa Beskow (née Maartman; 1874 – 30 June 1953), who authored and illustrated children’s books. She studied art (as did young Else Schüler) and in 1894 began contributing to a children’s magazine called Jultomten (The Christmas Elf). The stamp shows a drawing from Pelle’s New Suit (1912), one of her forty books.

The Italian painter Carlo Carrà (1881 – April 13, 1966) went through a number of stylistic phases in his career, and the stamp shown, Harbor View (I can’t find a date for it) is not really representative of most of his work. (You can see some more typical examples here and here.) He left home when he was only twelve to work as a mural decorator. In the following years he sought experience in Paris and London, returning to Italy, specifically Milan, where he would take up teaching, in 1901. He became one of the leading Futurists, but turned away from that school around the beginning of World War I and began painting in a simplified style reflective of such influences as the Trecento, children’s art, and Henri Rousseau. Another influence was Giorgio de Chirico, with whom Carrà worked in 1917 and formulated a style they dubbed “metaphysical painting.” Probably Carrà’s best known canvas is his Funeral of the Anarchist Galli of 1911. Although himself an anarchist in his younger days, Carrà became more reactionary with the close of the war and after 1918 was a strong supporter of fascism. He also wrote a number of books on art.


Like Else Lasker-Schüler, Danish architect and designer (though he hated the latter term) Arne Jacobsen (1902 – 24 March 1971) was a Jew who had to flee Nazism. Born in Copenhagen, he aspired to become a painter but was persuaded by his practical-minded father (that old story again) to study, not the law, anyway, which was so often the case in this time-honored scenario, but architecture. Even before graduation Jacobsen won a silver medal at the Paris Art Deco fair for his design of a chair. At the exposition he was struck by the work of Le Corbusier, and he absorbed the style of Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius when he travelled to Germany soon afterward. These influences informed his gold medal-winning graduation project, which, appropriately enough, was an art gallery. Jacobsen won another award for his collaboration with Flemming Lassen on the “House of the Future” competition of 1929. He set up his own office but fled to Sweden for two years during the occupation. On his return in 1945, Jacobsen created what has been called “the world’s first designer hotel”, designing everything right down to the ashtrays. A similar approach was used for St Catherine’s College in Oxford. And yet, it is more for his furniture designs, to some degree inspired by Charles and Ray Eames, that Jacobsen is remembered nowadays. In addition to his own stamp, Denmark issued another celebrating his famous “Ant chair” design of 1951.

The eventful life of Joshua Daniel “Josh” White (1914 – September 5, 1969) makes for fascinating reading, and I couldn’t resist going on at considerable length about it. Born in Greenville, South Carolina, he became at the age of seven one of the countless victims of violent racism when his father was severely beaten and then committed for the rest of his life (only nine years) to a mental institution. Two months after the incident, Joshua White left home to travel with the street musician Blind Man Arnold, for whom White would collect coins given by appreciative listeners. But White was exploited by Arnold, who essentially rented him out to other singers like Blind Joe Taggart, who in turn also shamelessly took advantage of the boy by, for example, keeping him in rags and barefoot (to evoke the sympathy of the crowds) until he was sixteen and making White sleep in fields or stables while Taggart got a hotel room. But all the while White was learning and blending the guitar techniques of these men, and the peripatetic existence led him to Chicago, where his gifts were recognized by the record producer Mayo Williams. For a time White backed for a variety of artists, but all the money went to Taggart and Arnold until Williams threatened to notify the police. In the meantime the records had caught the attention of a New York outfit for whom at first White recorded religious songs—being billed as “Joshua White, the Singing Christian”— and then the blues as “Pinewood Tom”. The next exciting (not good) development came when White injured his hand and left it untreated so that it became gangrenous. White refused the recommended amputation and suffered paralysis, but suddenly regained full use of the hand some time later. A stroke of good luck came when the Broadway producers of a musical in the works called John Henry were listening to records in search of a singer for the role of Blind Lemon Jefferson opposite the great Paul Robeson. They narrowed their choice down to two performers, Pinewood Tom and The Singing Christian, unaware that they were one and the same—Josh White. From this 1940 outing White’s career got a boost that led him to gigs with Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Burl Ives, and others. He formed a duo with the white singer Libby Holman as the first mixed-race male and female team. They even appeared in a movie together, which inaugurated White’s career as an actor in film and on radio. He performed at FDR’s inauguration, made a national concert tour, the first by an African-American popular artist, and became an international matinee idol. He grew very friendly with the Roosevelts, who acted as godparents for his son Josh White, Jr. But things took a turn for the worse after the war. Having accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt on a European speaking and concert tour designed to lift the spirits of the post-war population—in Stockholm they drew a crowd of 50,000—White was intercepted at Idlewild by the FBI, who, motivated by the Red Scare and White’s ostensibly “fellow traveler” positions on segregation and international human rights, interrogated him for hours and proceeded to harass him for years until, following what he assumed would be his exculpatory HUAC testimony in 1950, he left the US for London. In 1955, a courageous young record producer, Jac Holzman, invited White back with an enticing promise of artistic control (but not much money). White’s acceptance led to the Josh White 25th Anniversary album and the establishment of Elektra Records. His blacklisting in television was shattered by JFK when the president invited him to appear on Dinner with the President in 1963. The next year White performed at the March on Washington and, in January 1965, the inauguration of LBJ. There is so much more to Josh White’s story, including the creation of The Josh White Guitar Method with UK guitarist Ivor Mairants, but I’ve gone on long enough.

We wind up with a nod to Thomas Alva Edison (1847 – October 18, 1931), inventor of the phonograph (1877) that has so enriched our lives by capturing musical and other performances for posterity.

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

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