The Arts on the Stamps of the World — June 25

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


By Doug Briscoe

I believe I may safely declare that today’s two giants are George Orwell and Antoni Gaudí. But Gaudí is not our only prominent architect today: we also send a birthday greeting to Robert Venturi. And, as for artists in pairs, there are two cartoonists to recognize (Kewpies and Smurfs, everyone)! Additionally, we pay tribute to a “one-hit” French composer and a Russian poet who happens to have been the father of one of the greatest film directors.

I’ve never read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Actually, other than Animal Farm, I’ve never read any of the works of Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950), better known as George Orwell. You know how it is—too many books, too little time. One of the benefits of doing a column like this (if I may dignify it with that designation) is being reminded of all the books I need to read, all the music I need to listen to, and all the art I need to see (oh, and all the stamps I want to collect). So I went to my 5,000-volume library and took down Down and Out in Paris and London along with Oblomov, of which I was reminded while writing on Goncharov a few days ago and which I’ve also never read, and added them to my stacks—yes, stacks, plural—of books I want to read some time soon. Soon. Those stacks have been sitting there for years and years, and they never decline in size. And I ain’t gettin’ any younger. So, anyway, here are two George Orwell stamps, one from the Czech Republic (perhaps because they’ve lived through their own Nineteen Eighty-Four scenario) and the other from the Republic of Guinea.

I’ve never been to Barcelona and thus have never seen Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece the Sagrada Família. But then he never saw it either, given that he died a century before its (projected) completion. It’s now about 70% finished and is expected to have its final touches in place by 2030 or maybe 2032. The stamp from Mali gives us an idea of its grandeur and the unique vision of its creator, who was born on this day in 1852 and died on 10 June 1926. On the minisheet of four stamps from Sierra Leone can be seen the Casa Batlló (1904); sights at the Park Güell (1900-14; see also this); and the Casa Milà of 1906-10 (called La Pedrera, “the open quarry”, because of its unconventional surfaces); on the same stamp is an armchair Gaudí designed in 1898. La Pedrera also features on the Spanish stamp showing the artist’s profile. The last stamp on the Sierra Leone sheet presents a view of the Artigas Gardens (1905-06). Surely it is safe to say that nothing before or since looks quite like the work of Antoni Gaudí.

Today’s other architect, Philadelphia born and bred Robert Venturi, Jr. (born June 25, 1925) was graduated summa from Princeton. He worked under both Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn and was at the American Academy in Rome in the mid-50s. His writing on architecture is perhaps more influential than his architecture itself. One of his storied buildings (get it?) is the Vanna Venturi House, as seen on the 2005 postage stamp, for which I show both the obverse and the reverse for its text. Happy 92nd birthday, Mr. Venturi!

Today is the 117th anniversary of the birth of Gustave Charpentier (1860 – 18 February 1956), another of the many composers whose reputation stands on a single work, in this instance, the opera Louise (premièred 1900). In Charpentier’s case, this is in part due to his having written very little other music: a few other works for the stage, a couple of orchestral pieces, and some songs. He is apparently no relation to the baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier.


Arseny Tarkovsky (June 25 [O.S. June 12] 1907 – May 27, 1989) would be well known even if he hadn’t been the father of the great director Andrei Tarkovsky, with whom he is paired on a Russian minisheet of 2007 (I’m showing each stamp separately). Arseny’s father had been an anti-tsarist revolutionary, imprisoned and exiled by the state. In 1921, Arseny himself was arrested with other students for writing and publishing an unflattering acrostic about Lenin. They were sentenced to death, but Arseny managed to escape from the train and spent the next couple of years wandering around Ukraine and Crimea until the heat died down. He found work (alongside Mikhail Bulgakov) at the newspaper Gudok and published his first poems (of the non-acrostic type) in 1926. Subsequent to that he wrote some radio plays and became intensively active as a translator, working from the Polish, Armenian, Georgian, Turkmen, and Arabic. With the Nazi invasion in 1941 Tarkovsky became a war correspondent at the front, where in 1943 he was wounded and had to have his leg amputated. His first collections of original poetry in book form, by his own wish, did not appear until 1962, followed by seven or eight more before his death at age 81. Among his friends were the poets Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova, whose birthday we noted the day before yesterday.

The case of Rose O’Neill (June 25, 1874 – April 6, 1944) is, I think, quite a fascinating one. She was not only the first woman cartoonist to be published in the U.S., but she was at one time the highest paid female illustrator in the world, thanks to her creation, Kewpies, which appeared for the first time in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1909 and went on to be made into—yes, you guessed it—Kewpie dolls. (These were manufactured by a German company starting in 1912.) Moreover, O’Neill wrote novels and poetry, sometimes providing her own illustrations for them. Having made a fortune, she studied sculpture with Rodin (!) and learned painting, exhibiting her work in Paris, where she lived from 1921 to 1926, as well as at home. O’Neill was also active in the women’s suffrage movement.

Another huge hit in the cartoon comic strip universe has been The Smurfs, created by the Belgian animator and cartoonist Pierre Culliford (25 June 1928 – 24 December 1992), who signed his work “Peyo”. Though the first Smurf first appeared as early as 1958, who would have thought that Smurfs have had their own stamp, a Belgian one, of course, since 1984? Orwellian, one might say. Switzerland came out with a pair in 2013, and just this year the United Nations issued two big sheets of Smurf stamps in recognition of International Happiness Day. These I do not display. Surely three Smurf stamps are enough.

This is also the 107th anniversary of the première of Stravinsky’s beloved ballet The Firebird (known in French as L’Oiseau de feu and in Russian as Zhar-ptitsa). It was one of the works written for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and featured choreography by Michel Fokine.

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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