An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
All the most famous people for today’s feature come from the entertainment industry: Marcello Mastroianni, Brigitte Bardot, Ed Sullivan, and Naomi Watts. We also tip our collective hat to Prosper Mérimée, Florent Schmitt, visual artists from Germany and France, writers from Italy (a Nobel Prize laureate), Kazakhstan, and New Zealand, Li’l Abner creator Al Capp, and—a first on Arts on Stamps of the World—a brewer! In fact, we begin with him, as he was the earliest born.
It’s a bit of a stretch to include Arthur Guinness (28 September 1725 – 23 January 1803) among our artists, though I imagine certain Persons of Refinement such as Inspector Morse would not demur. Bring your pint along on the rest of our walking tour.
September 28 is the birthday of the dramatist Prosper Mérimée (1803 – September 23, 1870), best known as the author of the novella Carmen, on which Bizet’s opera is based. Mérimée also learned Russian so as to translate works of Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev. (He had learned English by the age of fifteen and would add classical Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Serbian to his portmanteau.) But besides his copious writing, Mérimée was very significant as an archaeologist and architectural preservationist. For thirty years (1830-60) he led the department of historical monuments and preserved many sites, intervening to prevent the government from demolishing the medieval fortifications of Carcassonne. Another achievement was the rediscovery of the gorgeous Renaissance tapestries known today as The Lady and the Unicorn, which were deteriorating. His preferred literary form was the novella, though he also wrote one full-length novel, La Chronique du temps de Charles IX (1829; this, too, served as the basis for an opera, Ferdinand Hérold’s Le pré aux clercs of 1832), plays, and a poetry collection of ballads purportedly translated from the “Illyrian” (Croatian), but actually original to Mérimée. In addition there are three or four volumes of surveys of French monuments, and books on Spanish and Russian history. Permit me to mention one last opera: César Cui’s Mateo Falcone (1907) is derived from an eponymous short story that Mérimée wrote in 1829.
Three consecutive visual artists are up next, beginning with German painter and etcher Ludwig Richter (September 28, 1803 – June 19, 1884), the most popular illustrator of his milieu (that is, mid-19th-century Germany) and perhaps the most characteristic. An example is seen on the stamp issued for the centenary of his death in 1984: In the Summer (Im Sommer). One of his more celebrated paintings is Bridal Procession in a Spring Landscape (Der Brautzug im Frühling, 1847). Born at Dresden, he taught at the Academy there, as well as working as a designer of Meissen porcelain. He lost his eyesight ten years before his death.
The next two are both French. The sculptor Aimé Millet (September 28, 1819 – January 14, 1891) was born and died in Paris. He, too, became a teacher and numbered Berthe Morisot among his students. His works include Apollo, Poetry, and Music, created for the roof of the Paris Opéra between 1860 and 1869 (you can see it in context here), and the massive statue of Vercingetorix commissioned by Napoleon III. The stamp, though, shows his piece South America, one of a set of six cast iron allegories of the continents built for the Universal Exposition of 1878.
The painter Alexandre Cabanel (28 September 1823 – 23 January 1889), from Montpellier, specialized in historical, mythological, and religious pictures, as well as portraits. Again we name Napoleon III, as Cabanel was the emperor’s favorite painter. He was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1845 and became a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1864. The stamps are all from souvenir sheets from Mali, Micronesia, and the Central African Republic and show, respectively, The Birth of Venus (1863), The Daughter of Jephtha (1879), and Echo (1874). Another work I found particularly striking is Albaydé (1848).
French composer Florent Schmitt (28 September 1870 – 17 August 1958) studied with Fauré and Massenet and won the Prix de Rome in 1900. In the 1890s he befriended Frederick Delius, who was living in Paris at the time, and went on to prepare vocal scores for four of Delius’s operas. As a music critic for Le Temps, he apparently had the disturbing habit of shouting out his opinions during performances. His Symphonie concertante was premièred by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky in the presence of the composer (1932).
Grazia Deledda (28 September 1871 – 15 August 1936), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, came from Sardinia and wrote about the island in her work, her very first novel bearing the title Flowers of Sardinia (Fiori di Sardegna, 1892). After marrying in 1900 she moved to Rome and continued produced a stream of books, about one each year. One of her novels, Cenere (Ashes, 1904), was made into a 1913 film with Eleonora Duse, the only time the actress appeared in a movie. (Her birthday is next week.) Deledda died of breast cancer at 64. Her last novel deals with the subject.
A friend to the family of Kazakh writer Mukhtar Auezov (sounded more or less like away-zof) was the national poet Abay Qunanbayuli, so it’s entirely natural that the child Mukhtar (September 28, 1897 — June 27, 1961) would absorb the master’s influence. Having been taught to read by his grandfather, Auezov completed his education in Kazakhstan, Leningrad, and Tashkent. He began his literary career with plays, ultimately writing some twenty dramas. The he turned to novels and translations (like Prosper Mérimée, he translated Gogol’s The Government Inspector, but, of course, into Kazakh rather than French). Toward the end of his life Auezov wrote two novels about his mentor Abay.
One more writer before we turn to TV, the movies, and the comics, and that is New Zealand playwright Bruce Mason (28 September 1921 – 31 December 1982). Besides his 34 plays, the best known of them being The End of the Golden Weather (1959), he wrote fiction and criticism, served as editor for the Māori news magazine Te Ao Hou, and co-founded the first professional theater in New Zealand, Downstage Theatre, in 1964. His works often reflect Māori culture and concerns.
Next on our stage, a really big shoe—let’s really hear it for ‘im—Ed Sullivan (September 28, 1901 – October 13, 1974)! You, of course, are too young to remember that Sullivan was the host, or MC, as they used to say, of The Ed Sullivan Show, which aired for 23 years from 1948 to 1971. The program had originated as The Toast of the Town, but everyone was calling it The Ed Sullivan Show, so they called it The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan himself was not a performer but merely introduced each act, be it a singer, a trapeze act, a concert violinist, a standup comic, a family of jugglers, the Beatles, everything, in short, under the sun. I remember seeing a skit on TV many years ago in which two comics dressed as children, circa 1910, had the following exchange (as memory serves):
Kid I: I jus’ know I’m gonna be famous when I grow up. My name’ll be up in lights.
Kid II: Ya gonna be a movie stah?
Kid I: Nah.
Kid II: Ya gonna be a singa?
Kid I: Nope.
Kid II: Ya gonna be a dance-a?
Kid I: Uh-uh.
Kid II: Ya gonna tell jokes?
Kid I. No.
Kid II: Well, if ya not gonna act or sing or dance or tell jokes, howya gonna getcha name in lights?
Kid I (staring off into space): I dunno, I can just see it up there: (makes pass with hand across imaginary marquee) Ed…Sullivan!
Another generational thing was the long-running comic strip Li’l Abner, devised by cartoonist and canny social observer Alfred Gerald Caplin (September 28, 1909 – November 5, 1979), who went by the name Al Capp. The highly imaginative and beautifully drawn strip ran from 1934 to 1977. Caplin has a most interesting biography, from which I extract just a few bits. Born in New Haven to Jewish immigrants from Latvia, Caplin lost his left leg in a trolley accident when he was nine. In consequence in later life he devoted much time to visiting, encouraging, and entertaining amputees (notably during World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars), providing free artwork for polio research fundraisers, and so on. He went to school in Boston, lived for a time in Cambridge, and is buried in Amesbury. He popularized the expression “double whammy”. He was a close friend of both Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon) and Walt Kelly (Pogo) and had a bitter feud (enleavened with caustic humor) with Ham Fisher (Joe Palooka). Politically conservative and unabashedly outspoken, Capp nevertheless lampooned corporate greed, criticized Joe McCarthy, advocated for women’s entry into the National Cartoonists Society, and supported gay rights. One of his assistants in later years was Frank Frazetta. The stamp comes from a set remembering American comic strips.
Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni (28 September 1924 – 19 December 1996) appeared in his first film, uncredited, in a movie starring Beniamino Gigli (!) in 1939, aged 14. (On the classical music theme, he also played the composer Donizetti in 1954’s Casa Ricordi.) His career took off after the melodrama Atto d’accusa (The Accusation, 1951). Though he had met Fellini as early as 1948, the men did not work together until 1960’s La dolce vita, followed by 8½ (1963), City of Women (1980), Ginger e Fred (1986), and Intervista (1987). Mastroianni played opposite recent Arts on Stamps subject Sophia Loren, with whom he can be seen on the Guinea-Bissau stamp, in at least eight films. He had an affair (and a child) with Catherine Deneuve (whose birthday is next month) in the 1970s. And he acted in the Louis Malle film A Very Private Affair (Vie privée, 1962) with our next subject, Brigitte Bardot.
Born in Paris on this day in 1934, Brigitte Bardot studied to become a ballerina. She happened to do some modelling and ended up, at age 15, on the cover of Elle. Her first film, in 1952, featured the comic actor Bourvil. The one that made her an international star, And God Created Woman (1956), was directed by Roger Vadim, whom Bardot had married in 1952, and starred Jean-Louis Trintignant, with whom she had an affair. The marriage ended, but she and Vadim did work together on other projects. Her subsequent husbands and lovers were all somewhat less famous, though the current one, Bernard d’Ormale, used to be an advisor for Jean-Marie Le Pen. She has also been cited and fined multiple times for “inciting racial hatred” as a result of her reaction to Muslim immigration. On the other hand, she is an ardent animal rights activist (part of her objection to Islam being the ritual slaughter of sheep) and denounced Sarah Palin as “stupid” and a “disgrace to women”. Brigitte Bardot has been retired from film acting since 1973. She was the official face of Marianne, the national symbol of the French Republic, from 1969 to 1978 (but not on stamps). There are money-making Brigitte Bardot souvenir stamp sheets from all over. I proffer choice selections from Madagascar, Guinea, and Congo-Kinshasa.
The equally beautiful (in my book) Naomi Watts (born 28 September 1968), by contrast, appears only on a New Zealand stamp issued in connection with Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong. Born in England, she grew up in Wales and came to Australia at age 14, first acting on film four years later (in 1986). Her breakthrough role was in David Lynch’s bizarre and wonderful Mulholland Drive (2001). (The first time I saw it, I said to myself, “That’s it. I’ll never watch another David Lynch movie again.” But I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and soon watched it a second time, and then I concluded it’s a masterpiece.)
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.