Saturday, April 25, 2009

ROSEBUD

John Updike, one of the world's greatest and most highly regarded writers, died in January at the age of 76. From the day he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, Updike worked tirelessly to produce (in the words of his New York Times obituary) "a body of fiction, verse, essays and criticism so vast, protean and lyrical as to place him in the first rank of American authors." It's hard to imagine a life more productive.

Here are just some of the international awards he received for his brilliant work:


1959 Guggenheim Fellow
1959 National Institute of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award
1964 National Book Award for Fiction
1965 Prix du Meilleur Livre √Čtranger
1966 O. Henry Prize
1981 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
1982 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
1982 National Book Award for Fiction
1982 Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award
1983 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism
1984 National Arts Club Medal of Honor
1987 St. Louis Literary Award
1987 Ambassador Book Award
1988 PEN/Malamud Award
1989 National Medal of Arts
1990 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
1991 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
1991 O. Henry Prize
1992 Honorary Doctor of Letters from Harvard University
1995 William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
1995 Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
1997 Ambassador Book Award
1998 National Book Award Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
2003 National Humanities Medal
2004 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
2006 Rea Award for the Short Story
2007 American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction
2008 Jefferson Lecture

Updike wrote over 60 books during his lifetime. In his last months, as he knew he was dying, he completed one last book, a final collection of poems entitled Endpoint. One reviewer wrote,

In their last years, many artists cast aside all their usual flourishes, dismiss the circus animals and simply set down, as directly as possible, the realities and inevitabilities of old age. So John Updike has done in this moving book of poems.
So putting aside all the wealth and fame and world travel, what lesson does Updike have for us about the true nature of happiness? Updike writes:

To copy comic strips, stretched prone upon the musty carpet--
Mickey's ears, the curl in Donald's bill,
The bulbous nose of Barney Google, Captain Easy's squint--
What bliss!

Seems like you can either start working on that first Guggenheim fellowship, or you can pull out your pencil.

Monday, April 20, 2009

ARTISTS AT WAR: GILBERT BUNDY

Gilbert Bundy (1911-1955) painted with a light and elegant brush.



Look at the graceful way he handles the bouquet of flowers on the table:



... or the foliage and chandelier in the background:



Bundy gained fame as a cartoonist in the pages of Esquire magazine in the 1930s. He painted delightful watercolors of the leisure class at play, specializing in millionaire sportsmen and glamorous show girls.









High society photos from this period show the handsome young illustrator out on the town, dressed in his tuxedo and escorting some beautiful young chanteuse to gala parties. Here we see Bundy in his studio with yet another gorgeous model:



Bundy fell in love with the right girl, married her and had a baby daughter. Life was sweet.

But when World War II came along, Bundy decided for some reason to leave it all behind and volunteer to work as an artist in the South Pacific for Hearst newspapers.





In 1944, Bundy was accompanying the Marine invasion of Tarawa when a Japanese shell exploded in his small landing craft. Bundy survived but was trapped beneath the bodies of four Marines. The wreckage of the craft lodged on a coral reef within range of enemy gunners. For most of the day, Bundy remained pinned beneath the corpses, drenched with blood, as enemy bullets and shells strafed the remnants of the craft. When it finally turned dark, Bundy freed himself and swam away from the wreck, taking his chances spending a night alone in shark infested waters rather than endure another day under fire. The Hearst newspaper reported, "He was believed dead for three days. His reappearance startled his Marine mates."



Bundy returned to the U.S. but never recaptured the joy in his pre-war art. On the anniversary of his ordeal Bundy committed suicide, thereby rejoining his fallen comrades.

Sometimes I think about how a sensitive, observant artist such as Bundy perceived such horrors. Of course, I also wonder what lured him to leave his loving wife and daughter in order to paint war to begin with.

Arthur Koestler wrote persuasively about why artists and writers chose to immolate themselves in the flames of World War II. They were not fearless patriots or fanatical believers. To the contrary, many believed that "to love one's country is vulgar, to love God is archaic and to love mankind is sentimental." Yet, some other force drew the artists toward their doom: "there is no escape, and he feels it; so he goes on trying at least to name the nameless force that destroys him."

In trying to "name that nameless force," Koestler wrote of his friend, the young writer Richard Hillary who became a fighter pilot and was shot down in the Battle of Britain. Hillary was burned beyond recognition. After months of painful reconstructive surgery, his face was horribly disfigured and his hands resembled bird claws. Still, some of the most beautiful young women in London pursued him. Rather than embrace whatever semblance of beauty that remained in life, Hillary pressured the air force into letting him fly again and the next mission ended him. Koestler wrote that Hillary
flies like a moth into the flame; and having burned his wings crawls back into it again.... Why then, in God's name, did he go back?.... [H]e was the only one left , and he had to go on paying the tribute [to his fallen comrades]. For the survivor is always a debtor. He thought he came back [to civilization] for the fellowship with the living , while he already belonged to the fraternity of the dead.
Hillary's motives, like Bundy's, were more psychologically complex than mere patriotism. He wrote that people who feel guilt for "imaginary debts" account for many of civilization's great accomplishments:
You could not expect healthy motives to lead to the morbid act of self-sacrifice. The prosperity of the race was based on those who paid imaginary debts. Tear out the roots of their guilt and nothing will remain but the drifting sand of the desert.
Art and war together in the same petrie dish can result in situations that are not always easy to understand, but which are worth investigating. I will offer a collection of such stories in the months ahead.

Monday, April 13, 2009

MAPS

Nothing is more solid and constant than the earth beneath our feet, right? It provides us with objective standards for measurement ("milestones" and "landmarks"). The physical location, dimensions and characteristics of mountains or streets or rivers can be quantified and recorded on maps that can be read and agreed upon by all.

Isn't it interesting, then, how various artists can view that same objective reality so differently?


A map of Florida from Walt Disney's Dumbo, with storks parachuting baby animals down on the circus.


The earth as a jester, with cautionary Latin maxims.


New York City as a huge penis


A map of London from the 1851 World's Fair

The earth may appear constant to a farmer or an engineer building a road. A map maker has tools and standards to depict the earth as objectively as possible. Artists look at the same object, but what a blaze of creativity in their responses!



The earth as perceived in 1940s romantic fiction, where the single most important thing on the planet is that rendezvous with your true love


A 15th century map of the earth


A 4th century map of the earth


A Hollywood map shows how California contains a microcosm of the rest of the world for purposes of filming movies.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

ONE LOVELY DRAWING, part 24

What is it?


A slashing tempest?


A rugged granite cliff?


A rolling river?


The tail plumage from a firebird?

Naw, it's just the way Robert Fawcett draws a face:



This intense little portrait (approximately 4 inches tall) is a virtuoso performance by a master draftsman. Look at the speed and facility with which Fawcett employs a dazzling array of marks on paper to channel the designs of nature. This is what I call drawing!

Fawcett took draftsmanship very seriously and was fiercely proud of his ability. As Roger Reed of Illustration House observed about some of the lines in this drawing, "he must have used a bamboo stick to draw with, like he searched for the most difficult-to-control tool in the box."



Do you prefer your drawings less intense? That's OK. Simplicity is another weapon in Fawcett's arsenal:



I am pleased to be working with Auad Publishing on a book about the life and work of Robert Fawcett. I hope you will keep an eye out for it.