High Art for 41 Cents

Public Domain

I've been meaning to make it to "Trailblazers and Trendsetters: Art of the Stamp" at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. for some time now. Though stamps arrive in the mail every day, they are anything but pedestrian. Sadly, the art and intimacy of letter-writing seems to be disappearing along with the thoughtfully affixed stamp; say, the 37-cent candy hearts on Valentine's Day or the kitschy angel on the classic 32-cent "Love" stamps.

Some might picture stamp lovers as those over-eager, quirky kids from middle school—the gangly, the knobby-kneed, the Dungeons & Dragons devotees. But stamp lovers have a rather elegant name for their deckle-edged passion--philatelic--and they also abide by an entire society devoted to stamp collecting. Stamps, in fact, speak volumes about high art, even beyond the enveloping walls of the Postal Museum. 

Those 32-cent "Love" stamps, for instance, sport an angel painted by Raphael, a pensive cherub cropped from the bottom of a larger oil painting. In Raphael's original painting, the baby angel rests his arms on the lid of a coffin, mourning the death of a pope—proving once again that in an age of mass-produced imagery, art can often lose its original mood and meaning.

Yet some stamps maintain their aesthetic and cultural integrity, such as last year's "Quilts from Gee's Bend" series. These stamps miniaturize quilts sewn by a collective of African-American women from rural Gee's Bend, Alabama, who used everyday materials such as blue jeans to create syncopated, vibrant compositions. I've seen these quilts at the Whitney Museum in New York City; each one could blanket a queen-size bed. And yet these quilts testify to their makers' sense of design: they still look good on a postage stamp.

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