Wednesday, June 21, 2006


In 1804 he engaged publicly in what we would now call "performance art". Before a crowd of gawking citizens, he strode over 350 sqaure meters of paper, painting with a bamboo broom dipped in a pail of ink. The result was erected, upright, in a bamboo frame and revealed to be a gigantic image of Daruma, patriarch of Zen Buddhism. The exploit won Hokusai the title kigin, "eccentric artist".

That is from the section on Hokusai Katsushika in "Creators" by Paul Johnson.

The book sometimes slips into Rah-Rah boosterism, saying things like "Geoffrey Chaucer (C.1342-1400) was perhaps the most creative spirit ever to write in English", "Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) was among the most creative individuals in history", "Shakespeare is the most creative personality in human history" (for God's sake, how does that square with the claim about Chaucer?), but is still good fun to read. Plenty of fun anecdotes.

He does a good job of describing what women in the arts had to put up with until quite recently.

I recall that, as recently as the 1960s, women Royal Academicians were not allowed to attend the annual Academy Banquet, but merely permitted, on sufferance, to join the men after the toast to the royal family.


Mrs. Gaskell used her own name from the start, though before the passage of the Married Women's property Act, her earnings were appropriated by the Rev. Mr. Gaskell ("'Look, my dear', she told him, 'see what Mr Dickens [then editing Household Words] has sent me for my little story, a cheque for a hundred pounds!"' 'So he has', her husband replied, taking the cheque and complacently putting it into his waistcoat pocket'")

I knew that TS Eliot once worked at Lloyds bank, but I had no idea just how successful he was at that work, or that while he could effortlessly write prose, he was always diffident when he turned his hand to poetry and could only compose poems when he had liquor in him. Nor had I heard of Pugin, but it appears he was responsible for the decline of neo-classicism, and the Gothic revival of the 19th century, which found expression in Mumbai in the Victoria Terminus. I had heard of Tiffany's jewellery, but I had no idea of the role played by Louis Tiffany in creating art nouveau.

My favorite section is the one on Mark Twain. You simply can't dislike a man who could write "The diary of Adam and Eve". This is Adam's diary on Eve and fish in the river:

This made her sorry for the creatures which live in there, which she calls fish, for she continues to fasten names on to things that don't need them and don't come when they are called by them, which is a matter of no consequence to her, she is such a numskull, anyway; so she got a lot of them out and brought them in last night and put them in my bed to keep warm, but I have noticed them now and then all day, and don't see that they are any happeir there than they were before, only quieter

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