An Arts Fuse regular feature: the arts on stamps of the world.
By Doug Briscoe
November 12 brings us two great artists whose names look alike but are pronounced entirely differently from each other, Auguste Rodin and Alexander Borodin. (Tom Lehrer could write a song about it.) We also salute Roland Barthes, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (a Mexican polymath of the 17th century), American architect Frank Furness, Russian chess player Mikhail Chigorin, German painter Wilhelm Lachnit, a second Russian composer and one from Greece, a Slovenian film director, and actresses Kim Hunter and Grace Kelly.
Given the many stamps connected with French sculptor Auguste Rodin (12 November 1840 – 17 November 1917), one would reasonably expect a fair proportion to show his most famous work, The Thinker (1879-89), but in fact I found only one, and that one, from French Polynesia, came out not in recognition of Rodin, but of International Education Year, and so relegates the statue to one side of the stamp. By contrast, The Kiss (1889) shows up on four stamps, from France, Great Britain, Monaco, and Romania. The Romanian issue is one of a pair, with the second stamp depicting Eternal Springtime (1884). In the next row, stamps (another from France, two from Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic, and one from Rhodesia) show the head of John the Baptist Preaching (1878), The Age of Bronze (1877), Man with the Broken Nose (1863-64), and a head from the group sculpture The Burghers of Calais (1889). Two separate issues from Wallis and Futuna, the first from 1990 and the second from two years later, give us Young Girl in a Flowered Hat (1865-70) and L’Idylle d’Ixelles (1876). Next to that is The Cathedral (1908), and we conclude with two examples of Rodin’s drawings, both made in 1906 when the Royal Ballet of Cambodia visited France. Note that the centenary of Rodin’s death is five days away.
Alexander Borodin (12 November 1833 – 27 February 1887) was born and died in Saint Petersburg. He was the illegitimate son of a Georgian nobleman named Gedevanishvili, who had the child registered as the son of one of his serfs, Porfiry Borodin. The boy was given a sound education and began composition lessons with Balakirev in 1862. It’s my belief that he would today be regarded as one of the Great Masters had he devoted more time to music, which remained an avocation relative to his brilliant and important work as a chemist. (I remember receiving a phone call at the radio station one day from a music-loving chemist who said he wished Borodin had spent less time on music and more on chemistry!) Borodin was also a strong advocate of women’s rights, establishing medical courses for women at the Saint Petersburg Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in 1872. We come at last to his music: his finest scores are his opera Prince Igor, his Second String Quartet with its famous Nocturne, his Second Symphony with its quintessentially “primitive” Russian first movement, and his lovely short tone poem “In the Steppes of Central Asia”. Given his work as chemist and physician, it often took Borodin several years to complete a score, Prince Igor and a third symphony remaining incomplete at his death. The opera contains his most well known music, the Polovtsian Dances, which, with other music from the opera and from his string quartets, was made into the hit musical Kismet, which won for Borodin a posthumous Tony Award in 1954! He died during a ball at the Academy, having already suffered a series of minor heart attacks.
Although he apparently does not have his own stamp (the postal card notwithstanding), he appears on a Soviet one issued in 1951 to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Bolshoi Theater; it depicts five Russian composers (not the “Mighty Five”), and one of them (at lower right) is Borodin (who was one of the “Mighty Five”). The others, in case you can’t recognize the portraits and do not read Cyrillic, are Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Borodin’s 2008 postal card also shows the set design for a scene from Prince Igor, which had its première on November 4, 1890.
As insets placed over the lower half of the postal card I offer three stamps honoring the remarkable Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (12 November 1651 – 17 April 1695), an autodidact whose learning encompassed science, philosophy, poetry, and music and whose erudition led her contemporaries to call her “The Tenth Muse”, “The Phoenix of America”, or the “Mexican Phoenix”. Her unwed parents were a Spanish captain and a Criolla woman, and Juana was born near Mexico City. She urged her mother to allow her to dress as a boy so she could attend the university but was denied that subterfuge, and so was left to her own devices and made extensive use of her grandfather’s substantial library. She knew Latin from an early age and also wrote in Nahuatl. By the time she was in her teens, she was already known for her philosophical musings. While she was a lady-in-waiting at the colonial viceroy’s court, her acumen on a variety of subjects was tested by a body of learned men, who put abstruse questions to her and were astonished at her responses. Juana joined a nunnery in 1667 and began writing poetry and prose that dared to criticize the suppression of women and the hypocrisy of men. For these writings she was eventually condemned by the Bishop of Puebla and compelled to sell her collection of books. Unfortunately, few of her writings survive, despite the fact that she was supported by the Viceroy and Vicereine, who had some of her works published in Spain. There are two plays, Pawns of a House (Los empeños de una casa, 1683) and Love is More a Labyrinth (Amor es mas laberinto, 1689). A single musical composition, a 4-part villancico, is also extant. Sor Juana died of the plague while treating her fellow nuns. Her compelling story has inspired a biography by Octavio Paz (1989), a verse play by Diane Ackerman (Reverse Thunder, 1992), a massive novel by Canadian author Paul Anderson (Hunger’s Brides, pub. 2004), an opera by Daniel Crozier (With Blood, With Ink, composed in 1993, premièred by the Fort Worth Opera in 2014, and recorded for Albany Records), and a Spanish-language TV mini-series called Juana Inés (2016). The portrait used on the earlier two Mexican stamps is by a painter of a later generation, Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768). Sor Juana’s image has also appeared on Mexican currency, a 1000 peso coin (minted 1988-92), a 1000 peso banknote, and a few varieties of a 200 peso bill; see also the newer issue.
Another creative talent much of whose work has been lost is the Philadelphia-born architect Frank Furness (November 12, 1839 – June 27, 1912). As tastes changed, many of his buildings were demolished until there was a reassessment in the 1970s. Unlike most other successful architects, Furness, it seems, never went to a university and never visited Europe. He began studies in the studio of Richard Morris Hunt in New York in 1859, leaving to fight in the Civil War as a captain and company commander (he was at Gettysburg and received the Medal of Honor for gallantry at the Battle of Trevilian Station). He returned to Hunt at war’s end and formed a partnership with George Hewitt. They were awarded the contract for the building shown on the stamp, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871-76). As chief architect, with or without partners, Furness designed more than 600 buildings, of which about a third were commissions from railroad companies. There were some 130 railroad stations and other buildings for Reading Railroad, more than twenty for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and forty for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, notably the 24th Street Station (demolished in 1963). Other structures included banks, office buildings, churches, and synagogues. Furness very much went his own way in his designs, combining styles in broad, bold strokes and mixing materials in ways that hadn’t been undertaken before. He was also a designer of interiors and furniture. His brother, Horace Howard Furness, was a leading Shakespeare scholar.
Four days ago we celebrated the birthday of chess master Mikhail Tal, and today we have his namesake and predecessor Mikhail Chigorin (12 November [O.S. 31 October] 1850 – 25 January [O.S. 12 January] 1908). Orphaned at age 10, Chigorin was institutionalized and picked up the rudiments of chess only when he was 16. But he did not take up the game seriously until he was 24, rather late relative to other great players. Once he realized his own abilities, he resigned his government job and determined to make a living playing chess. He started a chess magazine that lasted five years despite having only 250 subscribers in all of Russia. Chigorin’s first international tournament was in Berlin in 1881, where he finished in a tie for third place. In New York in 1889 he was equal first. He had an excellent record against the great master William Steinitz (24 wins, 27 losses, 8 draws). (In 1965, science fiction writer John Brunner wrote a novel, The Squares of the City, based on one of their games.) Although he never won the World Championship, he came close and was the winner of all three of the first All-Russia Tournaments of 1899, 1900/01, and 1903.
German painter Wilhelm Lachnit (12 November 1899 – 14 November 1962) was born near Dresden, was primarily active in that city, and died there. He had successful shows there as well as in Paris, Düsseldorf, and Amsterdam, but as a Communist since 1924 (and a producer of various kinds of Agitprop), he was declared “degenerate” by the Nazis, his works confiscated, and he was prohibited from working as an artist, although he did design exhibitions. Ironically, it was not the Nazis who destroyed a lot of his work but rather the Allied firebombing of Dresden in February 1945. Two watercolors he painted in 1923, Man and Woman in the Window and Girl at Table, were rediscovered in 2012 as part of the widely reported cache unearthed in Schwabing, Munich. The stamp from the DDR 1974 shows his Meditating Girl.
The Soviet-era Russian composer Yevgeny Brusilovsky (12 November [O.S. 30 October] 1905 – 9 May 1981) settled as a young man in Kazakhstan. He is credited with having written the first Kazakh opera, along with eight others, four ballets (including the first Uzbek national ballet, Gulyandom, of 1940), three concertos, and some 500 songs and ballads. In 1934 he founded the Abay Opera House. With his student Mukan Tulebayev and Latif Khamidi, he co-wrote the music for the Anthem of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, still used, with new lyrics, as the Kazakhstan national anthem today.
Greek composer Solon Michaelides (12 November 1905 – 10 September 1979) taught himself guitar while still a schoolboy and did a good enough job of it to be named guitar teacher in the Cypriot Conservatory. He created two musical bodies that are still in existence today: a choir (today the Aris Choir) of Limassol (1938) and a symphony orchestra in Salonika (1959) that has been known since the 60s as the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra. He also composed and wrote extensively, authoring books on Cypriot and modern Greek music and an Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Music.
Fearless Leader William Marx will no doubt jump for joy on learning that fellow critic Roland Barthes (12 November 1915 – 26 March 1980) has a stamp. Born in Cherbourg, he lost his father in World War I before his first birthday and was brought up by his aunt and grandmother. A brilliant student, Barthes attended the Sorbonne, studying classics, but suffered recurring, debilitating bouts of tuberculosis. This had the benefit of keeping him out of the war, at least. His first book, Writing Degree Zero (1953), was one of literary criticism. Other volumes by this profound theorist, philosopher, and semiotician include The Pleasure of the Text (1973) and Camera Lucida (1980), an inquiry into photography and a eulogy to his late mother.
The Slovenian film director and screenwriter France Štiglic (12 November 1919 – 4 May 1993), unimpeded by illness, was a partisan during World War II. After the war, he wrote screenplays and directed documentaries, though always the theme of war pervades his work. He directed his first feature film in 1948. The Ninth Circle (1960) was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. Don’t Cry, Peter (Ne joči, Peter, 1964), also set during the war but in the form of a comedy, was remembered on a postage stamp in 2014.
Two great beauties of American film share this November 12 birthday. Kim Hunter (1922 – September 11, 2002) was seven years younger. She came from Detroit and had her first film role in 1943 in The Seventh Victim, her first lead in a British film, A Matter of Life and Death, in 1946 (featured on a stamp with David Niven). The next year she was on Broadway for the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and for her recreation of that role (Stella) in the 1951 movie, Hunter won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Soon afterward she found herself blacklisted, but was able to resume her career in 1956. She was hidden under chimp makeup for the first three Planet of the Apes movies, and in later years she was a regular on The Edge of Night, for which she won a Daytime Emmy. Her final role was in the Clint Eastwood film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). Hunter was one of the first members of the Actors Studio.
Grace Kelly (November 12, 1929 – September 14, 1982) was from a distinguished Philadelphia family. Her father, John B. Kelly Sr. (1889-1960), was a three-time Olympic gold medalist in sculling who had run for mayor and lost by the narrowest margin in the city’s history. FDR named him National Director of Physical Fitness during World War II, while Grace’s mother, Margaret Katherine Majer (1898-1990) was the first woman to coach women’s athletics at UPenn. Her father’s brother George Kelly (1887-1974) won a Pulitzer for drama. Grace started acting while still in her teens and appeared in productions in New York City (including a Broadway debut in Strindberg with Raymond Massey), moving on to many acting gigs in live television. She had a small role in a 1951 picture and was noticed by Gary Cooper, with whom she appeared in High Noon (1952). Her breakthrough role was in the next year’s Mogambo, for which she won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Oscar. She won the latter award in the next year, 1954, for an uncharacteristic role in The Country Girl. In the same year she was in Dial M for Murder with Ray Milland and Rear Window with James Stewart. In 1955 she was head of the U.S. delegation at the Cannes Film Festival, and there she met Prince Rainier of Monaco. At the age of 26 she retired from acting and married him. She died one day after crashing her car as the result of a stroke. Prince Rainier never married again and was buried alongside her 33 years later. As reigning monarch of a principality, Kelly appears on numerous stamps of Monaco, but we find her also remembered as as actress. We begin with a dual US-Monegasque issue of 1993. Next to that pair we see a stamp from Ireland honoring Kelly’s ethnic origins, then a stamp from Senegal. In the next row are “movie star” stamps from Burundi and Sierra Leone, then we have the first of a set issued by Monaco in 1956 to mark the wedding of the Prince and Princess. The stamps in the bottom row are all from her adopted homeland (she always retained dual citizenship, though)—one of Grace Kelly with her Oscar, one with her children, and one, at bottom right, just issued this year.
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.