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The Elements of Style

By Marjorie Searl, Chief Curator

kalman2Easily identifiable by its Kalman-pink wall, MAG’s Lockhart Gallery currently features an exhibition of Maira Kalman’s 2005 illustrations for Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. The compact book that sits within reach of every English major has quite a history. In 1918, Professor William Strunk, Jr., printed a small handbook of writing rules for his classes at Cornell University, The Elements of Style. Since then, the hardy little volume has found a permanent place on the bookshelves of students, writers and scholars as a valuable resource for help with more effective writing.

kalman_rosesWhen E.B. White (Cornell ’21) – the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and a student of Professor Strunk – was commissioned by MacMillan and Company to revise The Elements of Style for the 1959 edition, he updated some of the rules and the language for modern users. Subsequent editions have included an essay by White’s stepson, Roger Angell. The handy guide became known familiarly as “Strunk & White,” although many who use the book are oblivious to the identities of the original authors. Over the years, “Strunk & White” has become virtually synonymous with rules for effective writing. There is no better tribute to its ubiquity than a recent publication affectionately entitled Spunk and Bite.

kalman3When Maira Kalman discovered The Elements of Style in a thrift shop on Cape Cod, the book charmed and delighted her to the point that she decided to illustrate it. Kalman’s whimsical, off beat and witty interpretation of this American classic has given The Elements of Style new life for new generations of readers, writers, and lovers of her work:

kalman81“I felt that adding paintings to the book added a sense of life to the work…so grammar comes to life, grammar is fun, grammar is a room in India, a basset hound… and your imagination is engaged in a way that perhaps it wouldn’t be if you were reading the text.”

The illustrated edition of The Elements of Style has generated other artworks as well. A song cycle by Nico Muhly as well as a video have brought Strunk’s original concept into the 21st century in ways that the Cornell professor would have been hard pressed to imagine (a DVD of these works runs continuously in the exhibition). Now, The Elements of Style is stylish indeed.

kalman6Maira Kalman herself is becoming quite an American icon. She often takes her inspiration from the overlooked and underappreciated and in her own words, says:

“The day is long and interesting.
I will wander about and look at people talking to each other.
Broken chairs on the street.
Dogs and babies.
I will stare at buildings, trees, shoes, hats.
And watch this hustle and bustle until I go home and
write impressions and paint visions.
I really do not need to think. Just look.”

kalman41In her blogs, books, and New Yorker covers, she shares the finds of daily – and not so daily – life. Take the map of New York City – with partner Rick Meyerowitz, she transformed the familiar cluster of New York boroughs into a brilliant new commentary on post-9/11 neighborhoods for the cover of the December 10, 2001 New Yorker.

Born in Israel, Kalman moved to the United States in 1954. She and her late husband Tibor Kalman created some of the design world’s most whimsical icons through their company, M&Co. – watches, the cloud umbrella, and paperweights.

kalman51With Stay Up Late in 1987, followed by Hey Willy, See the Pyramids in 1988, Kalman officially entered the world of childrens’ books, and introduced the beloved character of Max the Dog in 1990 with Max Makes a Million. New Yorker covers followed beginning in 1995, and in 2005, Kalman’s first adult book, The Elements of Style Illustrated, was published.

Kalman says about The Elements of Style that it is ‘full of passion, and humor, eccentricity, and leaps of imagination….’ Surely that is a perfect description of the artist herself. Most recently, her passion and humor have celebrated Presidents Lincoln and Obama as well as the venerable Supreme Court in New York Times blogs.

kalman7Kalman and her dealer, Julie Saul, have generously made these illustrations available to the Memorial Art Gallery through August 2. This exhibition is appropriate for all ages, and children will enjoy seeing the images and reading some old favorites.


Comment from Kate Alonzo
Time: May 28, 2009, 10:57 am

Marjorie- I loved the seeing Kalman at the MAG

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