On the same day she stood in a studio to be recorded as what she was, the economic engine that had powered printing press and camera published these instructions for interpreting her image with its text. At the heart of their grammar was a doom. One of its authorities was the New Testament and two of its kernel sentences were “She must possess if she hopes” and “None can achieve.”
And off the record, her throat was beginning to grow corded. If she had been able to take off the deathcap for an instant and let her readers see her hands begin to unclench and her hair flow and the studio’s light reverberate in her eyes, the text about her would have been unreadable then but knowable now. What we might have experienced was a general beauty, not fashioned to be read but created to be seen: Eve-naked, antipodal to the dark side of time.
But the lamps in the engine room had not been trimmed. In the studio log’s archival black and white, the foolish virgin’s face communicates nothing about the color that might have shone from her eyes. But it does confirm that the devils who fashioned her mode were blue.
This cover opens to reveal the dinner menu for Friday, March 1, 1901, on board the world’s first purpose-built cruise ship, the German yacht Prinzessin Victoria Luise. The generic lithograph on the cover doesn’t depict the princess, but she was a pretty boat indeed. Here is the way Michael Zeno Diemer, the Oberammergau portraitist of ships and zeppelins, imagined her as those who bought their passages in her must have felt she deserved to be imagined. When we are on board, of course, imagination is the only way we have of seeing the vessel that bears us.
But in the physical, outside the realm of imagination, we at least can see what is physical of ourselves, and try to make those images approximate themselves to the beautifully comprehended images that we imagine. Our dinner on March 1, 1901, would have included turtle ragout and strawberry ice cream, followed by music of Wagner, Bizet, and John Philip Sousa. So perhaps, after that experiment on the senses, we might have gone sightseeing on deck, in the dark.
You see how we have posed ourselves there. One of us is languidly reclined in spotless spats. Another has painted himself into an icon of energetic masculinity with cap and cape and mustache wax. A third has contracted to something feminine, hugging herself deep inside a shawl. Our bodies and their impelling forces differ, but when they’re on deck together they communicate in a mutually understood body language. Behind us, a huge machinery emitting smoke and green light propels its boatload of bodies, signaling to all destinations that we haven’t yet arrived. We won’t shut down at sunrise, because the sense of sunrise has been postponed. We’ll still be talking when the day dawns on March 2. Silently, without any need for words, our clothes and their bodies will have promised us, that night on deck, that we’ll never die.
Launched in 1900, Prinzessin Victoria Luise was wrecked in the Caribbean just six years afterward, a casualty of navigation error. Her captain saw all his passengers safely off, then killed himself.
But for these voyagers transported by the princess through 1901, 1901 is visibly forever. You see that in the remaining record before you. In their lithographer’s presence, the voyagers within the princess became a smiling history of confidence in the everlastingness of dark.
The fashion print dates from 1897 Chicago and is at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018695709/. I post-processed it to restore contrast and color, and (because I lack a chemical analysis of the pigments in the original and a knowledge of clothing design in the 1890s) that involved guesswork about what Photoshop’s hue and saturation controls were meant to show me. The fourth man from the right in the front row, especially: in Chicago in 1897, would his suit really have been that shade?
Well, under their clothes all of the men in this image really had to be uncolored. Twenty-two years after 1897, Chicago’s Henry Blake Fuller had to self-publish his novel Bertram Cope’s Year because it hinted at gaiety. Even so, I suppose it may be that once upon a time in 1897 Chicago a fabric artist could at least have dreamed of a purple suit.
You can still make out a large Formica-and-aluminum shape, identify its function, and bring back to memory its 1956 word: dinette. But because another of the picture’s compositional elements was transparent in 1956, the photochemistry of time has now reduced it almost to invisibility. To bring the word ashtray back into active memory from within the image will require an active search originating in something learned outside the context of the image itself. Before you can even pick up your magnifying glass and begin looking at the picture, you’ll have had to learn from an archive that dinettes were accessorized with glass or ceramic things called ashtrays.
But for the immediate present, a trace of the collective 1956 idea of dinette and ashtray survives within the image, and there it is still accessible for resuscitation. The process will involve a translation of its spectrum of life from the chemical to the logical, mediated by (among other things) a computer program named AI Clear, where the letters AI indicate that use is to be made of a computer concept called artificial intelligence. If you let me help you think of Aunt Ida’s parrot artificially, says the computer, it will become a bird out of Yeats’s Byzantium:
Miracle, bird or handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork
And see then:
The ashtray is replenished, Aunt Ida’s shining white cup is seen again to be charged with powdered coffee and condensed milk, the bird’s hard ceramic surface is again the green of soft feather, and Aunt Ida’s headcovering has been restored to its proper color for 1956, when pink was popular. Now time itself will be 1956 forever, and never again no longer pink.
The pinkness, we now see, mattered all along. It matters even more now than it did in 1956, because in 1956 it at least had an existence exterior to the image. Now the image is 1956 pink’s sole source. In the aftermath of 1956, to experience 1956 pink again is as if the color were one of the tints of God’s first rainbow, now being re-unfurled in revised final form.
Every summer between 1894 and 1914, with the exception of 1906, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II made a cruise to Norway on the imperial yacht Hohenzollern II. In this image from the collection of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, cruise passengers on (probably) the German liner Viktoria Luise view the yacht in the setting of a Nordic mountainscape.
And here, with Hohenzollern in the background, the emperor approaches to receive Viktoria Luise’s salute and manifest himself before his people. Precious image of the nation that he is, he comes lavishly gift-wrapped.
His Majesty favored wrap-around capes partly because they were military and partly because he was self-conscious about letting people see his paralyzed left arm, which was about 15 cm shorter than his right arm.
As I write this post on June 13, 2017, some media controversy is being generated by a New York production of Julius Caesar featuring a Caesar accessorized, like the United States’ current President, with a too-big suit, a too-big tie, an elaborate blond wig, and a Slavic-accented Calpurnia. One problem with that à clef association, as reviewers have pointed out, is that Shakespeare’s Caesar actually was a great man. Another problem is that the military couturiers of early Imperial Rome practiced their art under the guidance of a Stoic sense that there is such a thing as too much.
But perhaps the styles and etiquettes of Wilhelmine Germany have something more historically precise to contribute to a twenty-first-century allegory of the Caesarian.