The Arts on the Stamps of the World — February 13

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


By Doug Briscoe

On February 13 we commemorate the birthday of Feodor Chaliapin, Grant Wood, Georges Simenon, et al., and the death date of German Baroque composer Johann Joseph Fux.

Not having recognized the name, I wouldn’t have expected to find four stamps from four different countries reproducing art works by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (February 13, 1682 or 1683 – April 28, 1754), but the work of the Venice-born Rococo painter, besides appearing on an Italian stamp of 1982 (detail from The Fortune-Teller, 1740), shows up on stamps of San Marino (Rebecca at the Well, also c. 1740), East Germany (a 1959 issue of A Young Standard-Bearer, which is in the Old Masters Gallery in Dresden), and Cuba (The Spinner, in that country’s National Art Museum). Briefly active in Bologna before his return to Venice, Piazzetta achieved considerable fame and was the first director of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia in 1750.

Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin was born in Kazan on February 13 (O.S. February 1) 1873. Following his debut in Tbilisi, he appeared at the Imperial Opera, St. Petersburg in 1894. At the Mamontov Opera north of Moscow he met his lifelong friend Rachmaninov, through whom Chaliapin learned the part that would become his signature role, Boris Godunov. From 1899 to 1914, Chaliapin was at the Bolshoi, though he appeared at La Scala in 1901 under Toscanini (in Boito’s Mefistofele) and at the Met in 1907. Diaghilev introduced him to Paris and London just before the war. He left Russia permanently in 1921, and with his great popularity he was important in introducing much of the Russian repertoire to the West. He made many recordings and died on April 12, 1938. Chaliapin had nine children from his two marriages, his son Feodor, Jr. (1905–1992) an actor who, late in life, was in the film The Name of the Rose as the stern old monk Jorge de Burgos and in Moonstruck as Grandpa Castorini. Just as yesterday’s birthday girl Anna Pavlova had a dessert named for her, so, too, does Chaliapin (Senior) have an eponymous dish, the Chaliapin Steak.

Iowa-born Grant Wood (1891 – February 13, 1942) lost his father at ten and was apprenticed as a metalworker, later working in handicrafts and as a silversmith. He was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Europe in the 1920s, but he was more struck by the work of van Eyck than by any of the Impressionists. (Later he bolstered his all-American image by suppressing the story of his bohemian Paris adventures.) In 1932 he helped in the creation of the Stone City Art Colony, a foundation designed to offer aid to artists during the Depression. He died of pancreatic cancer on his 51st birthday. The woman depicted in his iconic American Gothic was his sister Nan Wood Graham; the man was Dr. Byron McKeeby, her dentist.


Incredibly, Belgian writer Georges Simenon (1903 – 4 September 1989) cranked out almost 500 novels, the best known of these being his series involving his detective Jules Maigret. At only fifteen, Simenon was writing copy for the Liège Gazette, covering human interest stories, including crime. He also wrote his first novel that same year (1919), though it wasn’t published until 1921. Besides the 150 articles he wrote for the Gazette, he supplied them with 800 (!) humorous pieces within the next three years. This astonishing output has been attributed to his alleged ability to write 60 to 80 pages every day. (Seems utterly incredible to me, but I don’t know how else you write nearly a thousand articles in three years and 500 novels in seven decades.) The very first Maigret story was actually written at the request of Joseph Kessel (whom we acknowlegded here just three days ago). Simenon traveled around the world in the 1930s and lived in the Vendée during World War II, keeping up an important with correspondence with André Gide, but his behavior vis-à-vis the occupying Germans came under scrutiny after the war, partly because he had dealt with German film studios regarding the rights of his books. In any case, Simenon left Europe for Canada and lived for ten years in the United States before returning to France and Switzerland. The Maigret stories have been seen in any number of films and in no fewer than five TV series, two British, two French, one Italian. In 1977, anticipating Wilt Chamberlain, Simenon claimed to have had sex with 10,000 women since his 13th birthday.

Johann Joseph Fux (rhymes with “books,” so stop snickering) was born some time around 1660 and died on this date in 1741. He wrote a huge amount of sacred music as well as nearly two dozen operas and a substantial corpus of instrumental works, but he is historically most important for his famous treatise the Gradus ad Parnassum, which Wikipedia describes as “the single most influential book on the Palestrinian style of Renaissance polyphony.” He was chosen by Emperor Leopold I himself to serve at the Imperial court in Vienna. There are two parallels with Mozart. When the emperor had one of Fux’s masses performed, the dominant Italian court musicians condemned it, so Leopold arranged for the performance of another Fux mass, this time presented as the work of an anonymous Italian composer, and the clique applauded it, whereupon, to their discomfiture, it was revealed to be a work by Fux. Mozart had to deal with a similar prejudice in the same city and at the same court a century later. The other Mozart/Fux connection is that Dr. Ludwig Köchel prepared not only the famous Köchel Catalogue of Mozart’s works (1864), but also created one for Fux (1872).

Ivan Krylov (1769 – November 21, 1844) was a fabulist whose work initially was based on Aesop and La Fontaine, but who later invented his own stories, adding a touch of satire. Born in Moscow, he wrote a full-scale work, in this case a play, when he was even younger than Simenon, just fourteen, and sold it to a publisher, though in the event it was not printed. With the money he bought copies of plays by Molière and Racine, but whatever lessons he learned did not lead to success until many years later. He was nearly forty when he translated two of La Fontaine’s fables, and a subsequent collection of them met with such success as to point him to his métier. A large number of illustrations and paintings were based on the fables, and composer Anton Rubinstein set five of them to music. Shostakovich set two of them as his Opus 4 when he was just sixteen.

Beloved in his native Romania, writer Ion Luca (I. L.) Caragiale ([O.S. February 1] 1852 – 9 July 1912) is a central figure in that country’s literature. He worked primarily as a dramatist, poet, and journalist and was notably active in the political sphere. Though his uncles were important theater troupe managers, Caragiale began his own professional career with poems and other pieces in a satirical magazine and became friends with the important, but short-lived Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu. His first play, A Lost Letter (filmed in 1953), was a hit and remains (in the opinion of people who know about such things) Caragiale’s best work. The pages of Wikipedia are graced with an extre-e-emely lengthy and detailed article on Caragiale for those who wish to pursue the matter further.


Hungarian Impressionist painter István Csók (1865 – February 1, 1961) is especially known for his nudes, portraits, and landscapes of the Lake Balaton region. He enjoyed numerous international exhibitions (Rome, San Francisco, London…), was one of the six winners of the first Kossuth Prizes in 1948 and won again in 1952. He is represented on two stamps with his Godfather’s Breakfast and Resting Woman.

Although she is perhaps more highly regarded for her political accomplishments, Sarojini Naidu (née Chattopadhyay, 1879–1949) did earn the nickname The Nightingale of India for her poetry. Her mother was a poet, and her father the founder and director of a college in Hyderabad. Naidu studied at the University of Madras and in London and Cambridge. Her first poetry collection, The Golden Threshold, appeared in 1905. Twenty years later she became president of the Indian National Congress and toward the end of her life served as the first governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, the first woman to govern an Indian state. Aldous Huxley wrote or her, “It has been our good fortune, while in Bombay, to meet Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, the newly elected President of the All-India Congress and a woman who combines in the most remarkable way great intellectual power with charm, sweetness with courageous energy, a wide culture with originality, and earnestness with humor.”

In this Arts Fuse series, we have already seen a stamp for both Vsevolod Meyerhold and Konstantin Stanislavski, both of whom were powerful influences on actor and theater director Yevgeny Vakhtangov (1883 – 29 May 1922). He joined Moscow Art Theatre in 1911 and by 1920 had his own studio, which, after his death, was renamed the Vakhtangov Theater. His production of Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot has played at the theater ever since 1922, the year in which Vakhtangov died. The stamp is one of a set of three issued for the fiftieth anniversary of the Vakhtangov Theater.

Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911 – 20 November 1984) was born in the Punjab during the British Raj to a secular Islamicist family that was a center of literary gatherings of local writers. He was encouraged to undertake Islamic studies at the local mosque, where he learned Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, but was also educated at a Scottish mission school. Faiz became a teacher himself at various institutions, lecturing in languages, fine arts, literature, economics, and commerce. He joined the British army in World War II and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. An agnostic and globalist, Faiz co-founded the Communist Party of Pakistan in 1947. He was a tireless opponent of tyranny and oppression and was himself arrested and exiled in the 1950s, living in the USSR (he was a good friend of Yevgeny Yevtushenko) and the UK until his return to Pakistan in 1964. Faiz was the first Asian poet to receive the Lenin Peace Prize (1962) and was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize for literature.

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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