Before people were dropping GIFs into Gmail, letter writers were adding illustrations for that emotional or contextual punch. More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, out this month from Princeton Architectural Press, compiles over 90 letters from artists from the 19th century to 1980s.
This edition of More than Words (and apologies if the saccharine refrain of the 1990 Extreme ballad of the same name is now in your head) is a paperback version of a book originally released in 2005. Written and selected by Liza Kirwin, curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, it’s worth revisiting. While the reason these letters are collected by the Smithsonian is their connection to influential artists, such as Thomas Eakins, Man Ray, Andy Warhol, Winslow Homer, and Dorothea Tanning, the publication is more a tribute to the vanishing handwritten letter.
“Let this book celebrating the fine art of the illustrated letter serve as a reminder that a material treasure is all but disappearing from our culture, and as a call for more thoughtful and inspired communications in the future,” Kirwin writes in an introduction.
The letters are divided into six sections by theme, with love letters, missives from travels, and thank you notes included. Some offer intimate glimpses into the lives of the artists, like Frida Kahlo ending a note to Emmy Lou Packard in October 24, 1940, with three kisses: one for Emmy Lou for taking care of her former husband Diego Rivera after an eye ailment, another for Emmy Lou’s son, and a last for Rivera, whom she would remarry later that year. Others are evocative of the artists’ visual style, even in a mundane way, with Alexander Calder’s boldly colored and angled map to his home, sent to artist Ben Shahn in 1949. Still others play with the possibilities of paper correspondence: Alfred Joseph Freuh in 1913 handily made a letter that folds out into a miniature art gallery for his wife Giuliette to prepare for the “gallery marathon” of Paris.
Transcriptions of the letters are included in the back of the book, each just a few lines from what was most likely a longer communication, something that could have been elaborated upon in the mostly short captions for each letter. However, the letters stand alone as little time capsules of verbal and visual play, reinforcing connections between long distance friends, family, lovers, and colleagues. As a 1958 quote from John Graham affirms on the inside page of More than Words: “Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.”
More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art by Liza Kirwin is published by Princeton Architectural Press and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
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