The Arts on Stamps of the World —October 19

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


By Doug Briscoe

Painters from Italy (x2), Greece, and the United States join a Nobel Prize-winner from Guatemala, a film composer from India, a Brazilian writer of poems, plays, and songs, a Swedish composer, and actors from Greece and the UK in today’s lineup on The Arts on Stamps of the World. All but one have their birthdays today, and there’s a centenary in the offing.

The non-birthday person is Italian painter Perino del Vaga, who died on this date in 1547. Born Piero Bonaccorsi near Florence in 1501, he went into apprenticeship with a druggist before finding a place with a series of painters, the worthiest of whom was Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, son of the more famous Domenico Ghirlandaio. On going to Rome, he was eventually taken under the wing of Raphael as his assistant. Del Vaga got by on piece work both in Rome and Florence until granted a regular salary by Pope Paul III, after which he was assigned some more substantial projects, frescoes and such. One of his more celebrated works is the Madonna and Child now at the Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome, but the Australian Christmas stamp provides The Holy Family (c1545-46).

A Greek painter from three centuries later, Theodoros Vryzakis, was born on this date in 1819. He specialized in historical scenes like The Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi (1861, not seen on a stamp). When he was a baby his father was executed by the Ottoman Army during the Greek War of Independence. He fled with his mother but by 1832 was in an orphanage. There his talent was recognized, and he was taken to Munich and to a school, the Panhellenion, which had been founded expressly for orphans of the war by Bavarian King Ludwig I. He continued his studies in Athens, but chose to return to Munich School on a scholarship in 1844. After ten years of travel he found himself in Manchester, England in the early 1860s, painting murals at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in that city. He was forced to give up painting in his final decade on account of an eye ailment. Sad, too, was the loss of much of his work in a fire in 1929. But Vryzakis had died many years before that, on 6 December 1878. The Greek stamp from 1966 is one of a set honoring painters of that nation.

On his brother and partner Louis’ birthday earlier this month, we mentioned inventor Auguste Lumière (19 October 1862 – 10 April 1954). I refer you to that article for details, but offer today two stamps specifically saluting Auguste, one from Togo, the other from Monaco, that we did not see at that time.

Two works of painter/sculptor Umberto Boccioni (19 October 1882 – 17 August 1916) have been reproduced on stamps of Italy: Woman at Table (or, to give it its full, odd title, Decomposition with a Female Figure at a Table, 1912) and Dynamism of a Man’s Head (1913). As a child he lived in various parts of Italy, growing up mostly in Forlì and finishing school in Catania. Art studies began in Rome at the turn of the century. Visits to Paris and Russia followed, and he embraced the new Futurist movement, becoming one of its foremost spokesmen and adding sculpture to his repertoire. He served in World War I, and while temporarily decommissioned, painted a portrait of composer Ferruccio Busoni in 1916. Drafted again that year, he was killed in a riding accident during a cavalry training exercise, aged 33. Another of Boccioni’s paintings that struck my fancy is Elasticity (1912), and I thought we should have a look at at least one example of his sculpture, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a bronze from 1913.


Today’s Nobel Prize winner is the remarkable Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias (October 19, 1899 – June 9, 1974), whose childhood experiences deeply informed his later life and writing. His father was persecuted, relatively mildly, by the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera (Asturias used this in a story that much later developed into his important novel El Señor Presidente, completed in 1933), and the family was forced to live in the country, where the child Asturias had his first exposure to indigenous peoples, another thematic element in his later work. His later childhood was spent in the suburbs of Guatemala City. As quite a young man he formed an educational project whereby members of the middle class would volunteer to teach the poor, and he later founded two student associations that were of importance politically. He participated in activities and organizations that eventually did overthrow Cabrera’s government. Along the way he was first in his law class. But after writing his thesis on “The Social Problem of the Indian” (1923), he went to Paris, where he remained for ten years, studying at the Sorbonne, writing poetry and fiction, embracing surrealism under the influence of André Breton, founding a magazine, and beginning work on his forty-year project to translate the Popol Vuh, a sacred text of the Mayans. He published his first book, a collection of stories on Mayan myths, in 1930 and, on his return to Guatemala, worked as a journalist, founded another magazine, and eventually joined the diplomatic corps. Just as his father had locked horns with a dictator, so, too, Asturias himself earned the enmity of dictator Jorge Ubico, who closed down Asturias’s old Popular University of 1922. It was around this time that El Señor Presidente was completed, though it couldn’t be published (1946) until after Unico’s ouster in 1944. Asturias served as an ambassador until yet another authoritarian leader, right-wing military man Carlos Castillo Armas, exiled him in 1954. Twelve years in Argentina, Chile, and Europe were succeeded by a return to his homeland in 1966. Named ambassador to France, he lived there and in Madrid in his later years. He had the satisfaction of reestablishing the Popular University. His novel Men of Maize (Hombres de maíz, 1949) is considered by some to be his masterpiece. He was the second person from Latin America, after Gabriela Mistral, to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1967). His stamp is from Sweden, as many Nobel laureates are thus recognized.

It so happens that another South American author/diplomat was born on October 19. This was the Brazilian poet and playwright Vinícius de Moraes (1913 – July 9, 1980), who also had a major career as a song lyricist. Although this aspect of his life did not become a focus until middle age, de Moraes had written music for friends’ parties as a youngster. Another parallel with Asturias is that Moraes studied law. Upon graduation he published his first two poetry collections (1933). He worked as a film censor and a film critic. In 1956 he had a hit with his musical Orfeu da Conceicao (Black Orpheus), later made into a film that took the 1959 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film along with the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Moraes entered into a musical partnership with the pianist Tom Jobim and helped usher in the bossa nova, recording several albums. He was affectionately known as O Poetinha (“the little poet”) and wrote the lyrics for hundreds of songs.

Indian film composer Raichand Boral (19 October 1903 – 25 November 1981) has earned the reputation of being the father of Bollywood film music. He was apparently the first to use the technique of playback singing in Hindi features (beginning with Dhoop Chhaon of 1935). Born in Calcutta to a prominent musician of Indian classical music, Boral joined the Indian Broadcasting Company in 1927, its first year. His style and standards seem to have established the norm for the first few decades of music in Hindi films. In later years he also did much work in the Bengali film industry. He was a recipient of India’s highest cinema award, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, in 1978.


Today is the 101st anniversary of the birth of Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916 – 14 June 1968). Blomdahl’s space opera Aniara (premièred 1959) has twice (!) featured on stamps of Sweden: first as part of a small souvenir sheet from 1983; then a page from the score was used as the background in the design of a stamp commemorating the opening of the Gothenburg Opera House in 1994.

Our centenarian is Greek actress and dancer Aleka Katselli (Αλέκα Κατσέλη; 1917 – 11 September 1994), who made her professional debut during the war. She worked at the National Theater from 1945, appearing in what the robot translator amusingly called Shakespeare’s Salesman of Venice. Married to the director Pelou Katseli, she also had a strong presence on Greek television and radio. On the stamp celebrating Michael Cacoyannis’s 1962 film of Elektra, Aleka Katselli can be seen (at right) as Klytaemnistra opposite Irene Papas in the title role.

American Pop Art purveyor Peter Max turns 80 today. Born Peter Max Finkelstein on October 19, 1937, he was taken as a baby from hostile Berlin to Shanghai, where he grew up until the family’s move to Haifa in 1948. After a brief period in Paris, they moved on to Brooklyn in 1956, and there Max began high school—one of his classmates was Paul Sorvino—and his art studies. He opened his own studio in 1962 and flourished amidst what he called the “Cosmic ’60s”. Max is credited with having been instrumental in introducing yoga to the United States as a result of his invitation to Satchidananda Saraswati. Famous for his posters and advertisements, Max was asked to design a postage stamp for the Expo ’74 World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington. Much more recently he has designed several four-stamp blocks for the various offices (New York, Geneva, Vienna) of the United Nations, and I include a few of these along with the old 10-cent stamp from 1974.

It’s also the birthday, the 77th, of English actor Sir Michael Gambon (born 19 October 1940). He’s on one of the Harry Potter stamps that came out a few years ago in his characterization of Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. Gambon was born in Dublin but lived in London from the age of 5. His 1963 audition before Laurence Olivier earned him a spot with the National Theatre Company and, two years later, a minor role in Olivier’s film of Othello in 1965. Gambon was up to play James Bond in the first post-Connery 007 picture, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but the part went to George Lazenby. Ironically, it was another “Potter” connection that made Gambon’s name familiar: Dennis Potter was the author of the six-part BBC television series The Singing Detective (1986).

October 19 is also the anniversary of the first performance of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” at Dresden in 1845. Two Tannhäuser stamps, both from sets, exist from Nazi Germany, 1933 (a Wagner set), and from Hungary, 1967 (scenes from various operas).

The great Ukrainian-Russian pianist Emil Gilels (GEEL-yelss, though everybody in America says “gi-LELZ”) was born on this day 101 years ago. Ukraine did issue a stamp for the centenary of Sviatoslav Richter in 2015, so I’m disappointed there wasn’t one for Gilels (1916 – 14 October 1985) last year. We should also wish a very happy birthday to French-born soprano Anne Azéma, who has been artistic director of the Boston Camerata since 2008. The Camerata’s next program will be given on the 29th of this month.

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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