Monday, December 28, 2009

The Flying Islands of the Night

A few weeks before Christmas, I was reading up online regarding Franklin Booth, one of my hero illustrators. Almost as an afterthought, I decided to check ebay to see if anything associated with Booth might be available. Boy, was I ever not disappointed! It turned out that there were a couple of copies of this rare gem about to go for what seemed to be really bargain prices. I immediately jumped into the bidding for one of them (the better of the two) and actually won it—and for considerably less than I was willing to offer as a final bid! So of course, what did I do? When it came in the mail, I gave the package to my wife unopened and told her that she could save herself any further trouble: just wrap this and put it under the tree for me, thank you very much. Christmas Day having come and gone, I’ve certainly been enjoying my newly acquired jewel of a book for the past few days, which indeed arrived in remarkable condition for its near one-hundred-year-old age. (It even has an intact dust jacket!)

The Flying Islands of the Night is a fantastical three-act play in verse by James Whitcomb Riley, an American writer and poet whose mostly humorous and sentimental verse received notable attention and acclaim in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Two or three editions of the book had already been published when, in 1913, The Bobbs-Merrill Company put out an exquisite new edition with illustrations by Franklin Booth, a rising luminary in what would prove to be illustration’s Golden Age, and a fellow native, along with Riley, of Indiana. This edition solidified Booth’s reputation as a first-rate illustrator and also, in all probability, rescued this work of Riley’s from complete obscurity. For as far as literary merits go, the work itself is perhaps only slightly better than mediocre. The story indeed contains some imaginative embellishments, but manages to be rather undramatic and predictable on the whole. Riley’s verse, for all to which it aspires, meanders in realms of obscure tediousness for much of the time, with lurching outbursts of real brilliance here and there. (The better portions achieve an almost Chestertonian caliber.)

But again, it is Booth’s illustrations which really make this book. Booth is known primarily for his richly detailed and masterfully composed pen and ink drawings. These were featured in some books, but even more notably as spot illustrations for stories and as full-page advertisements in magazines such as Scribner’s, Good Housekeeping and National Geographic in the early twentieth century. His pen is in evidence here (albeit in comparatively subdued presentation) on the end sheets and title pages, but The Flying Islands of the Night is the most celebrated example of his work in color, executed with what appears to be a combined technique of pen and watercolor. Sixteen such color plates, tipped in on heavier, off-color stock and covered with a sheet of vellum (onto which one or two lines of the appertaining verse are printed in brown ink), embellish the story throughout. Booth’s rich imagination, his penchant for soaring compositions, his sumptuous use of “negative” space, and his love of pattern—all typical features of his work in both black-and-white and color, are on full display in each of these. Just a few more representative examples:

Monday, December 21, 2009

What’d I Say?

Finally got around to watching Ray (2004) this weekend, thanks to Netflix. (I know, I am way behind.) Loved the music, of course. (My maternal grandmother had some Ray Charles LPs which I got turned onto sometime in my early teens. They’ve passed down to me and still get spun with regularity on my studio turntable.) And I really appreciated the nice graphic vignettes that are sprinkled throughout. (It’s so inspiring to see graphic design being employed in movies in the digital age in ways that just weren’t feasible or even possible in earlier days.) There are some great performances here, some interesting (sometimes painful) character development going on, and some really nice dramatic touches throughout. In particular, I thought the theme of blindness was handled with artfully balanced sensitivity—it was certainly prominent, but not played up to the point of becoming all-consuming, as it might have been. (Incidentally, I’ve always been struck by how often the lyrics in Ray’s songs employ the idea of seeing…see the girl with the red dress on?…I can see that far away look in your eyes…still in peaceful dreams I see…you are my sunshine, etc. Also, a somewhat random observation: isn’t it rather strange how many famous musicians—Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley—have been haunted by dead siblings?) On a more sobering note, without getting too raunchy or debased (PG-13), the film offers a straight-up portrayal of the uglier side of Mr. Charles’ sin-riddled double life—the kind of in-your-face negative example which is helpful for husbands and fathers to be confronted with from time to time.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Howard Pyle and the Battle of Nashville

Today and tomorrow mark the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville, a very significant event in the the history of my native city. The outcome of that battle was sealed a fortnight beforehand when Confederate commander John Bell Hood dashed his distinguished army like a porcelain pitcher against the well-entrenched Federal troops at Franklin. Following that disaster, the greatly diminished and demoralized remnants of the grey-clad army proceeded to “besiege” Nashville, which amounted merely to making a nuisance of themselves by camping out on the hills south of town and waiting to be driven back. This inevitable event was delayed by two weeks of miserably cold and icy weather (under which the Confederate troops again suffered much the worse), until a break in the wintry conditions allowed Union General George Thomas to begin the counter offensive on the 15th. The ensuing battle raged for two days—along the present-day route of Woodmont Blvd. and Thompson Lane on the first day, and along present-day Harding Place and Battery Lane on the second.

About forty years after the battle, Howard Pyle, the foremost illustrator of his day, was commissioned by Minnesota State Capitol architect Cass Gilbert to paint a large-scale depiction of the battle. (Minnesota lost a large number of her sons in the Battle of Nashville, particularly in the taking of Shy’s Hill on the second day.) The result became one of the most famous depictions of the Civil War, and it hangs in the Governor’s suite of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul to this day. I do not know if Pyle actually visited the site beforehand, or if he worked from photographs, or relied solely upon his own vast imagination. But if, on a cold, overcast day like that almost a century and a half ago, one visits the locale he depicted, where opulent houses dominate the once muddy cornfield where thousands of men fought and hundreds died, a renewed appreciation of a truly great artist’s ability to capture the essence of an event through his work is gained.