An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
Lest there be any confusion, Alexandre Dumas père, whose birthday it is today, is the one who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, and Alexandre Dumas fils wrote The Lady of the Camellias, which was the basis for Verdi’s La traviata. The son’s birthday is just three days away. The Dumas were descended from Thomas-Alexandre de la Pailleterie, the natural son of a marquis, and Marie-Cessette Dumas, an Afro-Caribbean slave. The writers ended up with the name Dumas because their father/grandfather broke with the marquis and took the name of his mother. Thomas-Alexandre went on to a very distinguished career as the first Afro-Antillean to reach the rank of general in the French army. Thus our subject, born Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie (24 July 1802 – 5 December 1870), was the scion of a family of distinction, and despite lack of means was employed in the office of the Duke of Orléans. During this time Dumas began writing plays. The success of his first two efforts in the form allowed him to devote himself to writing, and he soon turned to the novel. Dumas was a clever marketer who created a sort of mass production studio for short stories by multiple writers, editing all the work himself. His collaborator of choice was one Auguste Maquet, who is now credited with having come up with the plot for The Count of Monte Cristo and to have added much material to The Three Musketeers and Dumas’ other novels. Despite this pre-Fordian assembly line, Dumas, who is said to have had forty mistresses, lived extravagantly and frittered away all his earnings, eventually fleeing to Brussels to avoid paying his debts. That was in 1851. Eight years later he was in Russia and two years after that Italy, where he took part in the unification movement, even founding a newspaper there called the Indipendente. Never one to miss a chance to make a buck, he wrote travel books about both countries. He returned to France in 1864. His remains were transferred to the Paris Pantheon in 2002. (Just two days ago we marked the birthday of the Pantheon’s designer Jacques-Germain Soufflot). Dumas’ work has been translated into a hundred languages and has served as the basis for two hundred movies.
I suspect most of us tend to assume that the enormously popular Alphonse Mucha was French, but in fact he was Czech, born Alfons Maria Mucha on this date in 1860. (So properly it’s MOO-kha rather than mü-SHAH.) Thus the numerous Czech stamps, with not one (that I know of) from France. Austria made one, and the rest here are taken from a couple of the lovely African souvenir sheets. Mucha’s Art Nouveau posters, advertisements, and other designs have achieved rather more attention than his paintings, and so it is on the stamps. Only one, the Togo stamp, at center right, offers a detail from his 1920 oil painting Fate. One of Mucha’s schoolboy chums was the future composer Leoš Janáček. Mucha worked for a while in Vienna doing theatrical design and moved to Paris in 1887. One of his first jobs there was to create an advertising poster for Sarah Bernhardt, who was so pleased with the result that she entered into a contract with the artist. His career took off, helped along by the 1900 Universal Exhibition, for which Mucha provided work on the Austrian and Bosnian pavilions. He was in the U.S. from 1906 to 1910, and his daughter was born in New York. With Czech independence after World War I, Mucha, always a passionate Slavic nationalist, designed the new nation’s first stamps (one of these is shown at bottom left) and banknotes. The Smithsonian has a very interesting article on this (written, believe it or not, by a contributor named Jimmy Stamp), on their Webpage (loads slowly). Mucha undertook a massive series of twenty canvases collectively called The Slav Epic between 1910 and 1928. The entire set can be seen on Mucha’s English language Wikipedia page. Tragically, Mucha’s life was shortened by the Gestapo, who arrested him shortly after the occupation for his nationalism and Jewish background. He developed pneumonia while incarcerated and died of a lung infection on 14 July 1939.
Pronounce Adolphe Adam’s (1803 – 3 May 1856) name nasally so that it rhymes with French “enfant” (IPA: adã). Although no stamp honors Adam himself, his ballet Giselle (1841) has been thus represented a number of times, perhaps most attractively in this pair of stamps from the Seychelles Islands, issued in recognition of the fact that Giselle was the first ballet ever performed there. (This gave me the idea for an augmentation of the old tongue-twister: She sells Giselle’s sea shells by the Seychelles sea shore.) The Cuban stamp is one of many paying tribute to Cuba’s vigorous devotion to ballet. The Cuban National Ballet, founded in 1948, was staunchly supported by Castro and has for years been considered one of the world’s leading companies. In consequence Cuba has issued many stamps on the subject, including this one for the 5th International Ballet Festival of 1976. Next to that is a Finnish stamp from a block commemorating the New Opera House, Helsinki. I know of five (!) other Giselle stamps—two more from Cuba and one each from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Tanzania—not shown here. Mention should also be made of Adam’s “Cantique de Noël“, known to English speakers as the Christmas carol “O Holy Night”.
Maltese composer Paolino Vassallo (1856 – 30 Jan. 1923) was born a British subject, as the island was then under British rule. He studied in his homeland before leaving for Paris for study under Ernest Guiraud and Jules Massenet. Over the next decade he played first violin with and also conducted the Opéra Comique and developed close friendships with Ambroise Thomas and Charles Gounod. In 1888 Vassallo returned to Malta for what was planned as a short visit to his parents, but he ended up staying for the rest of his life. He founded a music institute and in 1902 became Maestro di Cappella of Mdina Cathedral and the Co-Cathedral of St. John in Valletta. Thus much of his compositional effort went into sacred music, but he also wrote three operas, in which he strove to liberate his idiom from the dominant Italian influence of the day. Amor Fatale (starring Glenn Close and Michael Douglas) was premièred in 1898; Frazir appeared in 1905; and his last opera, which had its first performance after his death, was on the subject of the heroic British nurse Edith Cavell, who had to international outrage been executed as a spy by the Germans in World War I. The première of Edith Cavell was given at the Royal Opera House on the 21st of March 1927. Other works by Vassallo include a patriotic concert overture, “Malta” (1889, fp 1893), songs, and lighter chamber music (such as his Gavotte for three mandolins, two guitars, and string quartet!).
Henrik Pontoppidan (24 July 1857 – 21 August 1943) is unequivocally hailed by Martin Seymour-Smith as “the greatest Danish writer of fiction.” Like so many others in the field, Pontoppidan began as a teacher and journalist before becoming a full-time writer. A child of privilege, he became a vociferous advocate for the poor and for social justice. (The very name Pontoppidan, by the way, was a pretentious Latinization that he himself deplored.) In his 1890 story collection Skyer (Clouds) he attacks authoritarianism as well as the humility of those who suffer under it. The first of his three novel cycles, The Promised Land (Det forjættede Land, 1891-95), is perhaps his finest work. Pontoppidan shared the 1917 Nobel Prize for Literature with Karl Gjellerup, dismissed by Seymour-Smith as “the dullest writer of the century,” so he’d likely be quite irritated by the stamps, both of which show the two men together.
Ernest Bloch (1880 – July 15, 1959) was a Swiss-born Jewish composer who emigrated to the US in 1916, became a citizen in 1924, and signalled his appreciation with his hour-long “America: An Epic Rhapsody for Orchestra” in 1926. Bloch was perhaps best known, though, for his devotion to Jewish themes, his most famous work being Schelomo, Rhapsodie Hébraïque for cello and orchestra (written in Europe but premièred right after his arrival in the US). The music is quoted on the stamp, which is another from the Israeli series I cited on Mahler’s birthday. Bloch began playing the violin when he was nine and studied with Eugène Ysaÿe (whose birthday we celebrated just last week). His own students included some significant names in American music: George Antheil, Roger Sessions, and Quincy Porter among them. He was the first musical director of the newly formed Cleveland Institute of Music in 1920. He lived in Oregon from 1941 to the end of his life.
There is no stamp for the wonderful English poet and novelist Robert Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985), but I thought we’d remember him today with a couple of stamps that deal with the subject of the Emperor Claudius, whose memory Graves did so much to promote. But Graves accomplished a great deal more than I, Claudius (1934), with dozens of poetry collections, numerous other novels, mostly historical, translations of Suetonius and Apuleius, among others, and many nonfiction titles. Much of this body of work lies in the area of criticism, but strongly recommended is his autobiographical volume Goodbye to All That (1929). Further, I must cite one novel in particular (though I haven’t read it): Antigua, Penny, Puce (aka Antigua Stamp, 1936), only because its subject is a fictional rare stamp! Which brings me to my two Claudius stamps: the British one comes from a set showing Roman artifacts discovered in the U.K., and the Italian issue illustrates the Aqua Claudia, the aqueduct of Claudius, begun by Caligula in AD38 and completed by Claudius in 52.
The native American actor Chief Dan George (July 24, 1899 – September 23, 1981) was genuinely a chief (of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation) as well as a writer. He didn’t turn to acting until he was 60. For his performance in Little Big Man (1970), opposite Dustin Hoffman, he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award and won three others, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award. Canada issued a stamp for him as one of its “Canadians in Hollywood” series in 2008.
Perhaps I should have started today’s piece with Filipino dancer Leonor Orosa-Goquingco, as this, after all, is her centenary. Born one hundred years ago today, she received a superior education (class valedictorian in high school and a summa cum laude university graduate) and became the first Filipino to choreograph a ballet, The Elements, in 1940. She founded the Filipinescas Dance Company in 1957 and toured with it around the world throughout the 1960s. Goquingco also wrote extensively under the pen name Cristina Luna, criticism, poetry, articles, including at least one for Grove’s Dictionary, and a play, Her Son, José Rizal, about the brilliant hero of the Filipino independence movement. Moreover, she designed scenery and costumes and tried her hand at acting and sculpture. She died on July 15, 2005, nine days shy of her 88th birthday.
One of the popular entertainers to be featured on unofficial stamp sheets is Jennifer Lopez (born July 24, 1969). She began her stage career as a dancer and has since moved on to acting, singing, fashion design, and more. Many people see her as the most influential Hispanic performer in the U.S. She is certainly currently the highest paid and is deeply involved in philanthropic causes of various kinds.
I find it very surprising that no stamp appears to have been issued by any country in honor of the major Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (24 July 1886 – 30 July 1965), and I feel I can’t let the birthday of Mapp and Lucia author E. F. Benson (24 July 1867 – 29 February 1940) go by without a nod and a smile.
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.