“How to live and how to die…and have some snacks”: an appreciation of Maira Kalman

Though I’d seen Maira Kalman’s work here and there for years (the famous “New Yorkistan” cover for the New Yorker, for example), I really became aware of her through her illustrated blog for the New York Times (her take on Obama’s inauguration is one of my favorites) as well as through her whimsical images for Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Recently, as I mentioned, I had gone to see “Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” an exhibition of her work at the Jewish Museum, and… Look, I’m just going to have to put up some images here, because they’re wonderful.

Here are a couple of illustrations from The Elements of Style, visual companions to Strunk and White’s verbal examples. The first accompanies the sentence “Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in”:

It could have been an overbearing man scolding a woman, or a parent berating a child; how absolutely brilliant to avoid such sexist or paternalist connotations by imagining a dog instead! How anyone can stay mad at this Susan is beyond me. And without fail it sets me to humming Paul McCartney’s “Martha My Dear” (“Hold your head up, you silly girl / Look what you’ve done”) — written, of course, for his dog.

Here’s the second:

Here is the map of “New Yorkistan” (a collaboration with Rick Meyerowitz) that famously graced the cover of the New Yorker magazine, and allowed us to laugh again after the horrors of September:

In the grayness of February, Kalman pokes gentle fun at our (self-inflicted) misery…

…pointedly reminds us that all our presidents have been men (Why? Discuss.)…

…dives sincerely and unironically — in a series called Goethe: An Embroidery in 4 Parts — into an exploration of the disorienting and devastating force of grief…

…and paints dogs reading books, because why not.

At the exhibit there were talismanic quotes on the walls, from Flaubert, Proust, and Freud — who called America “a gigantic mistake” (meant sincerely by Freud and ironically by Kalman, I’m sure). There were displays of objects selected by Kalman, apparently for no other reason than that she delights in them (and that’s reason enough). There was, most charmingly to me, a display of folded and color-splashed fabrics which — a typewritten label explains — are “paint rags on linens taken quietly from hotels.”

And there was a monitor running this video, in which Kalman talks about her life, philosophy, and art:

“I happen to be alive, end of discussion.” In an interview, she elaborates:

Sadly, whatever the consciousness people have about how they’re living their life, the counterpoint is that things are finite, life is fragile, we’re very vulnerable, and ultimately, we don’t exist anymore. So everything that you do is in reaction to the notion of how much time you have, ultimately. Time’s the most precious thing. I actually don’t know how to die, and I don’t think anyone can learn how to do that — that might be a futile and crazy desire. I do want to learn how to live without feeling that time has been wasted.

Which sometimes it is anyway.

When it comes right down to it, that’s all there is to say, really.

But I love how Kalman says it, in her art: the whimsy, the observant gaze, the gentle humor, the eye for the absurd, the sense that life is fleeting and fragile and often nonsensical — and is worth celebrating anyway, down to its last detail. Here is a dog reading a book. Here are women with outrageous hats. Here is a black box with white stripes. Here are clocks with the numbers out of order. Here is a parade of ennui and misery — and how silly and laughable it can be. Here is a cherished quote that both rails against the futility of language and yet demonstrates the astonishing beauty of that futile pursuit. Here is a phrase, from a style guide, that can be cracked wide open by an unexpected illustration. Here is a celebration of democracy, and a wry admission of its shortcomings. Here are, of all things, preserved onion rings. Here is life, to be lived with laughter and curiosity, with irony and deep sincerity, with passion and a noncommittal shrug. Here we are, just because.

__________
For a more thorough review of the Kalman exhibit, try this one, by Cathleen Schine.

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