Read the Hand

NEW YORK, NY -- Handwriting is connective: like contact relics, letters provide both physical and emotional links between past and present. A new exhibition at The Morgan Library and Museum, The Magic of Handwriting, showcases examples from Pedro Corrêa do Lago's head-spinning collection of over 100,000 autograph works from across nine hundred years of history. Since the age of eleven, the Brazilian author and art historian Corrêa do Lago has actively hunted these works, creating a list of more than 5,000 targets to chase, including luminaries of art, science, literature, music, entertainment, and history. On display throughout the gallery is the hand in all its forms, and each example offers a distinct, peephole-like window to a different moment, large or small, in history.

There's an exquisite corpse drawn by Salvador and Gala Dali, Andre Breton, and Valentine Hugo; Napoleon's idle doodles over a list of Italian bishops he plans to remove; the deed, dated December 12, 1670, to a parcel of land by today's Wall Street, signed by both Johannes De Peyster and Nicholas Bayard; and Stephen Hawking's signature, his fingerprint. A letter from a young Mozart on his first trip away from home to his father is particularly accessible. Written on the back of a fold-up envelope, the letter tightly fills the upper flap of the card, then spreads out and ends halfway down. It reminded me of my own letters home from summer camp, which I'd begin to write in tiny letters, thinking I'd have too much to say. In his letter, twenty-two-year-old Mozart asserts his desire to follow his own path, and shyly hints at a love interest.

Some examples contain their own built-in histories. Charlie Chaplin's signature, decorated by a drawing of his iconic hat, cane, and boots, is inscribed to Oliver R. Barrett, who like Corrêa do Lago set out as a teenager to collect signatures. (Corrêa do Lago's earliest acquisitions came by way of his proactive letter-writing campaign, beginning with a letter to François Truffaut, while Barrett sold enough magazine subscriptions to enable him to print “Wanted” flyers soliciting “Letters of Famous Men”). It was through a famous poet that Barrett acquired this example, and penciled in blocky letters below Chaplin’s drawing is "Gotten by Carl Sandburg."

A letter written by Vincent Van Gogh to his innkeepers in Arles just months before his death dispenses the contents of his bedroom, making real those items so familiar to us from his painting, Bedroom in Arles. Near the back of the gallery is an enchanting New Year's card made from a drawing by Jackson Pollock affixed to red paper. It is inscribed "Greetings" and signed "Lee and Jackson" in Pollock's hand. An elaborate scissor-cut made by Hans Christian Andersen narrates a story through shapes. It is inscribed to Mary Grant Cramer, wife of Michael Cramer, the ambassador to Denmark, and sister of Ulysses S. Grant.

Like Corrêa do Lago's tireless, obsessive pursuit, the exhibit is full of energy and feels very much at home in the museum. J. Pierpont Morgan shared Corrêa do Lago's passion for collecting autographs and the hand-made mark, and the 140 selections on view especially complement the Morgan's holdings. There is no digital analog here, no archived-DMs could replicate the thrill of these pages. The opportunity to appreciate them, along with Corrêa do Lago's life work, is both intimate and illuminating.

The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection

On view through September 16, 2018

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Concluding portion of an autograph letter signed, to his father, Leopold Mozart, [Mannheim], 7 February 1778.
Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) and Lee Krasner (1908–1984)
Pen and ink, crayon, and pencil drawing by Pollock, mounted on paper, signed by Pollock on behalf of Krasner and himself, [1946], given to Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Langdon.
Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.
© 2018 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Stephen Hawking (1942–2018)
Signed title page from A Brief History of Time (1993), with thumbprint signature witnessed by Hawking’s personal assistant, Judith Croasdell, inscribed by Croasdell to Philip Dynes, 9 October 2006.
Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.