Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rudolf Arnheim Remembers His School Days

Gestalt psychologist and art theorist Rudolf Arnheim, author of Art and Visual Perception (and numerous other books), recalling his days as a student in Berlin, in a letter to the author of this blog on December 7, 1997—

It must be quite an experience to meet again with one's old teachers. My own are stored in my memory, where they stay unresponsive to what I do today, but sharply remembered. With the college teacher in literature I had a covenant: you let me read under the table on my lap whatever I want, and I will leave you without my barbs. I got through college mostly through the generosity of my teachers. I had never attended gymnastics, for example, but when we had a graduation party with the teachers, the gym teacher remained after the others had gone, had some more to drink and accompanied himself on the guitar, singing some off-color songs. Then sitting on the couch with a few of us in an by then advanced stage of drink, he looked at me in sudden recognition, put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Arnheim, you black pig [Arnheim, du schwarzes Schwein], you never came to class, but you are a good boy anyway!" I got through the final year's exam mostly because I had directed and played the main part in two performances at the school auditorium, Aristophanes's The Frogs where I played, if I remember correctly, Socrates, and a German comedy by Grabbe, where I played the devil.

On Air Romance

Former PBS news anchor Robert MacNeil, recalling his early days on radio, in Wordstruck: A Memoir (NY: Viking, 1989), p. 153—

In one [an adult radio drama in 1950] I had to play a series of love scenes with a pretty actress called Miriam Newman, who was enough older, say twenty-nine to my nineteen, to make me feel a very raw youth. The sound of kissing was achieved by kissing one's own hand. We stood, man and woman, facing each other, a few inches apart, with a large microphone between us, each holding the script to one side of the mike, in order to get our mouths very close for the intimate, breathy parts. Miriam was extremely realistic, sighing and kissing the soft part of her right hand above the thumb until it was smeared with lipstick and, I thought, as a mere thumb, getting far too much attention.

Guy Davenport: Take Back Your Life

From "What Are Revolutions?" in Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 1997), pp. 247-248—

Take back your body from its possession by the automobile; take back your imagination from the TV set; take back your wealth from Congress's bottomless pit and maniac spending; take back your skills as homemakers from the manufacturers; take back your minds from the arguments from necessity and the merchants of fear and prejudice. Take back peace from perpetual war. Take back your lives; they are yours.

Sort-Crossing at Summerhill

Greta Sergeant on A.S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill school in the UK, as quoted in Jonathan Croall, Neill of Summerhill: The Permanent Rebel (NY: Pantheon Books, 1983), p. 229—

Once he [Neill] visited a school in Stockholm, and was taken in to a geography lesson. He went up to the map on the wall, pointed to Italy, and said: "This is London." The pupils stared at him in surprise. At Summerhill when he did things like that, they laughed and told him he was a silly fool.

No Poems in the Hopper

From Lyman Gilmore's biography of poet Joel Oppenheimer, Don't Touch the Poet: The Life and Times of Joel Oppenheimer (Jersey City NJ: Talisman Press, 1998), p. 58—

[At Black Mountain College in the early 1950s, American poet Charles] Olson's methods of teaching were unique…He would lecture passionately and endlessly about a great variety of seemingly disconnected techniques—Mayan glyphs, the American Federalist period, Leo Frobenius, Homer's Odyssey—while his students struggled to keep pace and make sense of the performance. Olson had a basket on his desk into which students were supposed to deposit their poetry for criticism and class discussion, but sometimes he would ignore the basket for weeks "while class after class went on about physics or mathematics or anthropology or whatever Charles was interested in at the time." Then one day he would notice that nobody was submitting any writing he he'd say, "There are no poems in the hopper, and there better be some before the next morning."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ballast Reviews | Shadows of a Hand

Florian Rodari, ed al., Shadows of a Hand: The Drawings of Victor Hugo. London: Merrell Holbertson / distributed by University of Washington Press, 1998. ISBN 1-85894-050-8.

Leonardo da Vinci anticipated the Rorschach inkblot test when he advised that artists in need of ideas "should look at certain walls stained with damp."…In this fascinating, beautifully-produced catalog for an exhibition held in 1998 at the Drawing Center in New York, we learn of comparable practices by the celebrated French novelist Victor Hugo… More

Art as Brain Surgery

From an interview with film theorist Ray Carney in Rick Schmidt, Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices (NY: Penguin, 1995)—

The greatest works [of art] do brain surgery on their viewers. They subtly reprogram our nervous systems. They make us notice and feel things we wouldn't otherwise. One of the principal ways they do this is through the strangeness of their styles. Style creates special ways of knowing. Henry James and John Milton do it with sentences. Chantal Ackerman and Roberto Rossellini do it with pictures and sounds. Artistic style induces unconventional states of awareness and sensitivity. It freshens and quickens our responses. It limbers up our perceptions and teaches us new possibilities of feeling and understanding. In this view of it, art is not a luxury, a frill, a pastime, a form of entertainment or pleasure (although it can be supremely entertaining and pleasurable). The greatest works of art are not alternatives to or escapes from life, but enactments of what it feels like to live at the highest pitch of awareness—at a level of awareness most people seldom reach in their ordinary lives. The greatest works are inspired examples of some of the most exciting, demanding routes that can be taken through experience. They bring us back to life.

Grosz Italian Topping

From George Grosz, George Grosz: An Autobiography. Nora Hodges, trans. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 79—

He [a fellow art student named Kittelson] was teasing me one day at lunch about my "dandyism" and kept on undoing my brand new bow tie. I let him have fun for quite a while, kept my temper, and patiently retied the bow. Finally it was too much—my pride was wounded, the more so especially as other art students at a nearby table also started to make fun of me. With a devil-may-care smile, I asked him to stop, but encouraged by the laughing approval of the others, he continued. I was seized with a veritable Old Testament fury. I took my plate of Italian salad and emptied the entire contents on his head. Hands shaking with rage, I gave his head a powerful massage. It was a real Fratellini clown scene, and now the laughter and approval was on my side. My roguish friend, quite disconcerted by this unexpected shampoo, stepped lively to the men's room.

Here's the Butter But Where's the Cat?

A great story told by Paul Weiss in Arthur Koestler and J.R. Smythies, eds., Beyond Reductionism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), p. 403—

There were two neighbors; one of them contended that the other's cat had stolen and eaten five pounds of his butter; there was a bitter argument and finally they agreed to seek the advice of the rabbi. They went to the rabbi and the owner of the cat said: "It cannot be, my cat doesn't care for butter at all"; but the other insisted that it was his cat and so the rabbi decided: "Bring me the cat." They brought him the cat and the rabbi said: "Bring me the scales." And they brought the scales and he asked: "How many pounds of butter?" "Five pounds." And believe it or not, the weight of the cat was exactly five pounds. So the rabbi said: "Now I have the butter, but where is the cat?"

Saturday, January 16, 2010


From Peter Quennel, The Sign of the Fish (NY: Viking Press, 1960), pp. 141-142—

Dylan Thomas [the hard drinking Welsh poet] made no attempt to conceal or excuse the crapulous disorder of his daily life; and I remember that he once advised me to use a barbershop in Soho, adding that the barber was a sensible sort of person who did not at all object should a client succumb to morning nausea while in the midst of being shaved.

Last Straw

From Woody Allen, Getting Even (NY: Vintage, 1978)—

In 1921, Thomas (The Butcher) Covello and Ciro (The Tailor) Santucci attempted to organize disparate ethnic groups of the underworld and thus take over Chicago. This was foiled when Albert (The Logical Positivist) Corillo assassinated Kid Lipsky by locking him in a closet and sucking all the air out through a soda straw.

Du Strubbel

From Carl (Charles) Sandburg [his autobiography], Always the Young Strangers (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1953), pp. 92-93, recalling his Swedish immigrant parents—

Early the mother pronounced it "Sholly," which later become "Sharlie" and still later the correct "Charlie," while the Old Man stuck to "Sholly, do dat." She learned to pronounce "is" as "iz" and "has" as "haz" while with him it stayed "iss" and "hass." He said "de" for "the," "wenlup" for "envelope," "Hotty do" for "How do you do?," "yelly clay" for "yellow clay," "rellroad" for "railroad," "Gilsburg" for "Galesburg," "Sveden" for "Sweden," "helty" for "healthy." …Anyone who couldn't get what he was saying was either dumb or not listening. He invented a phrase of his own for scolding Mart and me. When he said, "Du strubbel," we knew he meant "You stupid" and he was probably correct. He would impress us about a scheme he believed impossible to work out, "You could not do dat if you wass de Czar of all de Russias."

Marvin Bell Rocks

From Iowa-based poet Marvin Bell (the state's first "poet lariat"), two verses from a song parody recalled from a class in geology at Alfred University, c1954, written by Eric Heistack and Daniel Sass— 

When a glacier gets shocks
And drops boulders and rocks,
That's a moraine!

By the sand in my sock,
That's not igneous rock,
That's a moraine!

Electrifying Modernism

In Mark Leyner, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (NY: Harmony Books, 1990), a fictional death row inmate, condemned to die in the electric chair, utters the following frolicsome note about Bauhaus-era furniture—

Luckily, I'd developed an unusually close relationship with the warden. Knowing how much I loved [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe, he had an electric Barcelona chair custom-built for my execution. And when the date finally came and I was led into the death chamber, I couldn't help but marvel at the delicate curvature of the X-shaped legs, the perfect finish of the plated steel and the leather upholstery, and the magnificent, almost monumental proportions that have made the Barcelona chair timeless.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Grosz Gross

From Hans Richter, Dada: Art and Anti-Art (NY: McGraw-Hill), p. 145—

One day [Dadaist Kurt] Schwitters decided he wanted to meet [German artist] George Grosz. George Grosz was decidedly surly; the hatred in his pictures often overflowed into his private life. But Schwitters was not one to be put off. He wanted to meet Grosz, so [Walter] Mehring took him up to Grosz's flat. Schwitters rang the bell and Grosz opened the door.

"Good morning, Herr Grosz. My name is Schwitters."

"I am not Grosz," answered the other and slammed the door. There was nothing to be done.

Halfway down the stairs, Schwitters stopped suddenly and said, "Just a moment." 

Up the stairs he went, and once more range Grosz's bell. Grosz, enraged by this continual jangling, opened the door, but before he could say a word, Schwitters said "I am not Schwitters, either." And went downstairs again. Finis. They never met again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pet Food

From the autobiography of a British woman named Edith Hall, as quoted in John Burnett, ed., Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Middlesex UK: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 123—

For one [family] project we kept chickens and I found it distressing when brown Betty, who all the year had kept us supplied with eggs, had her neck wrung for us by a next door neighbor so that we could have a good Christmas dinner. When mother started to clean and pluck the bird, she felt too sentimental to carry on. The neighbors decided with us, to change the birds round and this became the practice every Christmas. As Mrs. Hardman from next door said, "After you have fed and talked to them for so long, it would be like eating one of your own children."

Death of James Dean

British actor Alec Guinness, recalling a meeting in 1955 with actor James Dean, shortly after Guinness' arrival in California to make his first Hollywood film. From Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise (Pleasantville NY: Akadine Press, 2001), pp. 14-15—

[Unable to find a table at a Los Angeles restaurant with his friend and scriptwriter (and later, psychologist and parapsychologist) Thelma Moss, Guinness and she were walking off when a young man came running after them.] "You want a table?," he asked. "Join me. My name is James Dean." We followed him gratefully, but on the way back to the restaurant he turned into a car-park, saying, "I'd like to show you something." Among the other cars there was what looked like a large, shiny, silver parcel wrapped in cellophane. "It's just been delivered," he said, with bursting pride. "I haven't even driven it yet."…"How fast is it?" I asked. "She'll do a hundred and fifty," he replied. Exhausted, hungry, feeling ill-tempered in spite of Dean's kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, "Please, never get in it." I looked at my watch. "It is now ten o'clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week." He laughed. "Oh, shucks! Don't be so mean!" I apologized for what I had said, explaining it was lack of sleep and food…At four o'clock in the afternoon of the following Friday James Dean was dead, killed while driving the car.

Chart in Heaven

John Burnett, ed., Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Middlesex UK: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 41—

[In Victorian England] Many children misunderstood the words of prayers and hymns, and received either no explanation or explanations which further confused. "Our Father Chart in Heaven," intoned Winifred Relph at her infants' school, where much of the teaching was done by charts thrown over the blackboard.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Shaw's Funeral

George Bernard Shaw's funeral plans, as quoted in Louis Kronenberger, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Commonplace Book (NY: Viking, 1972), p. 267—

My Will contains directions for my funeral, which will not be followed by mourning coaches but by herds of oxen, sheep, swine, flocks of poultry, and a small traveling aquarium of live fish, all wearing white scarves in honor of the man who perished rather than eat his fellow creatures. It will be, with the exception of the procession into Noah's Ark, the most remarkable thing of the kind ever seen.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Not Truss Worthy

From Edward Marsh, ed., Ambrosia and Small Beer: The Record of a Correspondence Between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall (London: Longmans, 1964)—

A soldier up for medical exam proved to have been wearing a truss for the past six years, and was classified as P.E. or Permanently Exempt. On his way out he gave this news to his pal, who immediately asked for the loan of the truss, which was granted. The examiner asked how long he had been wearing it, and he said "Six years," whereupon he was classified as M.E. "What's that?" he asked. "Middle East." "How can I go to the Middle East when I've been wearing a truss for six years?" "If you can wear a truss for six years upsidedown, you can jolly well ride a camel for six months."

In Gawd We Truss

From Robert Craft's (often hilarious) journals about the aging Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky, in Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship (Nashville TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1994), p. 188—

I.S., telephoning the G. Wittenberg Surgical Appliances Company: "This is Mr. Stravinsky, S-T-R-A-…" He spells it loudly and deliberately, as he does when dictating a telegram. "Two years ago you fitted me with a truss. I want an appointment to have it repaired." He has dialed a wrong number, however, and the other party has apparently had to hear the entire speech without finding an opportunity to interrupt. I.S., ill-humoredly cradles the receiver, then carefully dials again. "This is Mr. Stravinsky, S-T-… You made a…" The same party answers, very annoyed. Annoyed now himself, I.S. double-checks the number in his address book, finds it correct, still believes he has misdialed, tries again. "This is Mr…" This time the man on the other end,no doubt believing himself the victim of a raving lunatic, slams down the receiver. At this point V. [Vera, Stravinsky's wife] discovers from the telephone directory that I.S. has miscopied the number.

Prisoner of War

An American soldier named Anton Bilek, as interviewed in Studs Terkel, ed., The Good War: An Oral History of World War II (NY: Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 93—

One time [during World War II, in Japan, while held as a prisoner of war in a coal mine], at the end of the day, while I was waitin' for the little train to take our shift out, I laid back against the rock wall, put my cap over my eyes, and tried to get some rest. The guy next to me says, "God damn, I wish I was back in Seattle." I paid no attention. Guys were always talking about being back home. He said, "I had a nice restaurant there and I lost it all." I turned around and looked and it's a Japanese. He was one of our overseers. I was flabbergasted.

He said, "Now just don't talk to me. I'll do all the talkin'." He's talkin' out of the side of his mouth. He says, "I was born and raised in Seattle, had a nice restaurant there. I brought my mother back to Japan. She's real old and knew she was gonna die and she wanted to come home. The war broke out and I couldn't get back to the States. They made me come down here and work in the coal mines." I didn't know what the hell to say to this guy. Finally the car came down and I says, "Well, see you in Seattle someday." And I left. I never saw him after that.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Koestler on Creativity

In addition to his own vivid autobiographies, there are three major biographies of the Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler (1905-1983): Iain Hamilton, Koestler: A Biography (1982). David Cesarani, Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998). And now, just recently published, Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic (2009). I have the last one on order so I haven't yet read it, but I have read a few of the early reviews. The book sounds  fine, but Koestler himself is in trouble—again. Nearly twenty years ago, when life seemed so much simpler, I wrote about what I had learned from his writings about the creative process. More

Friday, January 1, 2010

Hoyt Sherman and Oskar Kokoschka

While reading "Oskar Kokoschka as Teacher" by James Toub in Journal of Aesthetic Education (Vol 28 No 2, Summer 1994, pp. 35-49), I ran across a passage that reminded me of the drawing in the dark (or flash lab) methodology of Ohio State University art professor Hoyt L. Sherman. Compare, for example, this excerpt (p. 43)—

Kokoschka believed that in the initial moment when the eyes are shocked by a stimulus, one sees the figure and space around it as a unity. The veil of theoretical or technical artifice is transcended, and the artist sees nature in a purer, more spontaneous and uninhibited manner. When one covers a student's eyes and suddenly removes ones hands [as Kokoschka sometimes did] the sudden transition from darkness to light forces the eye to see the whole in an instant. Only later does the eye break an object down into its component parts. This dramatic visual shock, Kokoschka believed, heightened the student's awareness and forced him to experience the image visually, not interpret it intellectually. Capturing the instantaneous vision forced students to select and eliminate superfluous details that might obscure or fragment the larger relationships.

Ballast Reviews | Avant-Garde Page Design 1900-1950

Jaroslav Andel, Avant-Garde Page Design 1900-1950. NY: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002. ISBN 0929445090.

Since first seeing this large format, 400-page "museum [of graphic design] without walls," I have persuaded several friends to buy copies for their libraries. It was hardly a challenge to do so, since even the briefest exposure to this rich and wide-ranging selection of more than 460 historic layouts make it an irresistible find. More