An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
One great writer and two great painters top the list today. Marcel Proust, Camille Pissarro, and James McNeill Whistler are joined by such other luminaries as Henryk Wieniawski, Carl Orff, John Gilbert, and Alice Munro. And that’s not all. If you act now, you’ll also receive a Russian sculptor and painters from Finland and Italy. But wait! there’s more! poets from Cuba and Catalonia, the co-creator of Superman, and the inventor of the omnipresent smiley! Act now! Offer not available in stores.
As usual, the writer is swamped by the painter(s), postage stamp-wise. Marcel Proust (10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922) has but a single stamp, a French one, naturellement, and Pissarro and Whistler have a glut (each). But then, how not? If each volume of À la recherche du temps perdu had a stamp of its own, it would be necessary to hire artists to represent madeleines, Vintueil’s violin, and the Baron de Charlus. With painters, well (Gallic shrug), it is self-evident, is it not?
Will eleven canvases by Camille Pissarro (10 July 1830 – 13 November 1903) suffice? Of course, of course, monsieurs et mesdames, but all in good time. Did you know that Pissarro was born on St Thomas, then in the Danish West Indies, which made him a Danish citizen? He grew up there, except for his schooling in France between the ages of twelve and seventeen. Then when he was twenty-one he spent two years painting in Venezuela before settling in France. He lived in London during the Franco-Prussian War, and on returning home found that of the 1500 paintings he had been forced to leave behind only forty were left, the others having been trampled by the soldiers to keep their boots from the mud. Sauvages! Tiens, I see that I have tried your patience long enough. We open and close our Pissarro collage with recent stamps from France, the first, from 2006, is of La Bergère (The Shepherdess), also known as Jeune fille à la baguette or Paysanne assise (c1881). An older French issue from 1981 shows what my stamp catalogue calls The Footpath. (I can’t find it anywhere else.) Six years ago the Clark Art Institute held an exhibit called “Pissarro’s People” that included the portrait of his son (yes, it’s a boy), as seen on the stamp from Ghana at top row right: Félix Pissarro portant un béret rouge (1881). The second row begins with two stamps that again I can identify only from my catalogue: the first, from Togo, is simply called Gardening, and the Romanian stamp allegedly shows Portrait of Jeanne. The pair from Palau give us Woman Washing Her Feet in a Brook (1894) and Landscape with Big Trees (1875). At the end of the row is Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning (1897) on an issue from Sierra Leone. In the third and final row we have The Louvre and the Seine from the Pont Neuf (1902), Young Peasant at Her Toilette (1888), and The Pilots’ Jetty and the Outer Harbor at Le Havre (1903).
Now to the Whistler exhibit. The first stamp to show work by James McNeill Whistler (July 10, 1834 – July 17, 1903) was, as you might guess, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), issued in 1934 for Mother’s Day. The stamp was popular enough that a reissue came out the following year. In 1940, Whistler was among the artists chosen for the expansive set of Famous Americans. Palau released an attractive sheet of four of the full-length portraits of which Whistler was so fond, as well as a set of four locations: Blue and Silver: Trouville (1865), The Last of Old Westminster (1862), Wapping (1861), and Cremone Gardens no.2 (1872-77). To either side of that set, see Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Little Blue Girl (1894-1901) and a detail from La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine (The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, 1865). Another Japanese-influenced canvas is Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen (1864), as proffered on a stamp from Fujeira, and finally, another Whistler’s Mother, issued by Jordan as part of a group of famous paintings in 1974. I think this is the first stamp from Jordan we’ve had occasion to show here. Whistler also made a portrait of the young Sarasate in 1884.
On the subject of violinists, Poland has issued only one stamp in honor of violinist/composer Henryk Wieniawski himself (for the centennial of his death), but there are several stamps for various of the Wieniawski Violin Competitions held over the years. Wieniawski was born on this day in 1835 in Lublin, the child of Jewish parents, though his father had converted to Catholicism before Henryk’s birth. He was admitted with special dispensations to the Paris Conservatory at the age of nine. On graduation he toured extensively, often with his brother Józef as accompanist, until he was invited by Anton Rubinstein to move to St. Petersburg, where he lived from 1860 to 1872. The two men toured the United States over the next two years. Then, in 1875, Wieniawski took over as violin professor at the Brussels Royal Conservatory, where his predecessor had been Henri Vieuxtemps, but his health declined rapidly thereafter, and he died of a heart attack at Moscow on 31 March 1880. His 24 published works comprise mostly pieces for violin and piano, along with two Concertos, of which the Second has long been in the standard repertoire. The Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition was inaugurated in 1935 (the centenary of his birth) in Warsaw. The war prevented further competitions until 1952, since which time it has taken place every five years in Poznań. The winner of the first competition was the magnificent French player Ginette Neveu, with second prize going to no less a figure than David Oistrakh. I show three of the stamps issued for the competitions, the 2nd of 1952, the 3rd of 1957, and the 7th of 1977. Later competition winners have included Vadim Repin (1982) and Maxim Vengerov (1985).
Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck (July 10, 1862 – January 23, 1946) is represented on a pair of Finnish stamps by her earlier work, specifically Green Still Life and The Little Convalescent, but her style changed significantly over the course of her life. Contrast her most famous work, Dancing Shoes (1882), with the Modernist Girl with Blonde Hair of 1916. The Little Convalescent was painted while Schjerfbeck was visiting Cornwall, and it took the bronze medal at the 1889 Paris World Fair. Her image appears on a commemorative two-Euro coin.
We just saw the stamp for Russian sculptor Sergey Konenkov (kon-YOHN-kov; 10 July [O.S. 28 June] 1874 – 9 December 1971) the day before yesterday, as it is a portrait of the sculptor made by Pavel Korin, whose birthday was the 8th. After study in Moscow and St. Petersburg, he traveled through Europe but was back in Russia in support of the 1905 Revolution, as well as the one of 1917. From 1922 to 1945, however, Konenkov lived with his wife in the United States, where he focused on biblical works, until he was called back to Russia by Stalin himself. Konenkov made sculptures of many of the great figures from Russian literature, Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Mayakovsky, as well as busts of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Johann Sebastian Bach (1910), Paganini, and others. He was often called “the Russian Rodin”. Since no stamps feature his work, I provide links to a couple of examples, a self-portrait of 1912, and The Bather of 1917.
Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico (10 July 1888 – 20 November 1978) was born and grew up in Greece. After study there and in Florence he lived in Munich for a few years (1906-09). During World War I he served in a hospital behind the lines and there met Carlo Carrà, with whom he founded the pittura metafisica movement. It is from this period that most of de Chirico’s best known work stems. Next to the portrait of Konenkov is a painting of a rather sparse landscape with a few trees and hills and a comet, and, I guess, a couple of angels at upper right. It’s called Nativity. The bottom row of this collage shows de Chirico’s Nude Woman (1922), a set of three stamps from San Marino with his 1947 replica of The Disquieting Muses (original 1916), one of a series of pictures de Chirico painted of horses on a beach amid ruins of classical columns (can’t find this one online, though there are many similar, and my stamp catalogue is mute on the subject), and one of his numerous self-portraits, this one from 1950. The Italian stamp at right features The Archaeologists (1927).
Also born July 10 was German composer and pedagogue Carl Orff (1895 – 29 March 1982), most famous for his pièce de résistance Carmina Burana (1936), the opening bars of which (“O fortuna!”) are shown in the stamp design (offering a wheel of fortune instead of a portrait of the composer). His Wikipedia article says: “Orff’s relationship with German fascism and the Nazi Party has been a matter of considerable debate.” My own opinion, for what it’s worth (= nothing), tends to fall on the less condemnatory side, but I leave it to you to decide to your own satisfaction. In music Orff was largely self-taught. He was severely wounded—almost killed—in World War I. “In the mid-1920s”, Wikipedia goes on, “Orff began to formulate a concept he called elemental music, which was based on the unity of the arts symbolized by the ancient Greek Muses.” These elements, along with the influence of Stravinsky’s Les noces (also inspired by ancient rites), later found their way into Carmina Burana and his numerous stage works. “In 1924 Dorothee Günther and Orff founded the Günther School for gymnastics, music, and dance in Munich. Orff was there as the head of a department from 1925 until the end of his life, and…there he developed his theories of music education.”
American actor John Gilbert (born John Cecil Pringle; July 10, 1899 – January 9, 1936) is perhaps the most famous of those who failed to make the transition from silent movies to talkies, but that had more to do with his feud with Louis B. Mayer than anything else. Gilbert was a top-ranked leading man in many features of the teens and twenties. His fate reminds me of a well-traveled joke. What are the five stages of fame in Hollywood? 1. “Who’s John Gilbert?” 2. “Let’s get John Gilbert.” 3. “Let’s see if we can get John Gilbert.” 4. “Let’s get a John Gilbert type.” 5. “Who’s John Gilbert?” He is one of those honored in 1994’s Silent Screen Stars set of US postage stamps with caricatures by Al Hirschfeld.
Two Hispanic poets come next in today’s lineup, Nicolás Guillén (10 July 1902 – 16 July 1989), held by many to be the national poet of Cuba, and Salvador Espriu, who wrote most of his works in Catalan. Guillén, partly of African descent, was very active politically. Sympathizing with the poor, he turned as a young journalist to Communism, was banished by Batista, and returned after Castro’s victory. His poetry was much influenced by Langston Hughes, whom he had met in the 30s, and by Afro-Cuban music, as exemplified in his 1930 collection Motivos del son, a reference to the son cubano genre of music and dance.
In the year that Guillén’s first book was published, 1930, Salvador Espriu (July 10, 1913 – February 22, 1985) entered the University of Barcelona, but he had already, at the age of sixteen, seen his own first book, Israel, a prose work written in Spanish, into publication. (His strongest early influences would come from the ancient world following his travels in 1933 to Greece, Egypt, and Palestine.) It was only in 1946, though, that his first volume of poems, Cementeri de Sinera (Sinera Cemetery), a reflection on the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, appeared in print. Harold Bloom (whose birthday happens to be tomorrow) has called him “an extraordinary poet by any international standard.”
Canadian-American comic book artist Joe Shuster (July 10, 1914 – July 30, 1992) created the drawings to accompany Jerry Siegel’s stories of Superman, which first appeared in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938. It’s his work that is shown on the 32-cent U.S. stamp. (I’m not sure about the 39-cent pair.)
The American commercial artist Harvey Ball (July 10, 1921 – April 12, 2001), born and raised in Worcester, is the man who gave us the inescapable smiley, the popularity of which is such that it got its own stamp in 1999 in a sheet that looked back to trends of the 1970s. (The first Superman stamp above comes from the 1930s retrospective sheet.)
Surely one of the finest writers on the scene today is Canadian short story author Alice Munro (born 10 July 1931). She is the first Canadian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she won four years ago. Since 1968 she has published fourteen collections of stories. She has a tendency to rewrite previously published material. Canada issued a stamp in her honor in 2015.
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.