“Uprear,” mused a lithographer in about 1898, and then he sat down before his stone and heaved a great black-and-yellow ship out of the water. You can still almost hear the image he pulled up from the rock as it glided through a ninety-degree arc and moved into juxtaposition with four exhibits from the older strata of the New World. As people liked to say at the time, the engineer was the new builder of cathedrals.
They meant the metaphor as unironic, unmetaphoric praise. To buyers of chromolithographs like this one, if perhaps not to readers of texts like The Education of Henry Adams or Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner,” it was only natural that a ship should be seen to stand upright like the man representing the outcome of history in a Darwinian tableau.
For yes: after eighty years of evolution in marine architecture, it was accepted as a matter of course that this ship – Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse of the North German Lloyd, the first of the great four-funnel liners – would be the biggest, fastest, and safest vessel afloat when it entered service in 1897. So rapid had been the change that when a New York Times writer tried to explain it he found himself trying to speak a language for which there weren’t yet even words. A very short time earlier, he and his readers had been taught a technical vocabulary of jack-tar monosyllables like “sprit” and “main truck,” but for whatever it was that was up on the truck now the only term at hand was a sixteen-syllable improvisation found in the mud at the shoreline. “The Marconi system of wireless telegraphic signaling,” gasped the improvisation through its brand new lungs.
Obviously, though, that lungfish periphrasis was soon to make way for something more efficient. So on Good Friday, April 13, 1900, the genius of the ship’s home port, Bremen, was comfortable with the idea of settling with her coat of arms into the potted palms and Art Nouveau curves of an up-to-date salon and raising her torch in Germanic salute to the genius of the ship itself, its eponymic Kaiser. The demigoddess had paired herself with the emperor for adoration, and their coupled icon opened like a tabernacle to reveal a dinner menu featuring turtle soup, sautéed pigeon, apricots, and pistachio and lemon ice cream.
Of course it isn’t even worth the effort to skip ahead and read what happened next. On August 27, 1914, only days into the Great War, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, now an armed commerce raider, was sunk in battle off northwest Africa by the British cruiser Highflyer. You saw that coming. Irony was laid down with the keel of the story. But perhaps it was also made part of the story’s structure by your own post-Highflyer visual education – a visual education that has had the effect of making the two lithographs, the lithograph of the upended ship and the lithograph of its traveling pantheon, look oversimplified now. Hoch! cried Fräulein Bremen in 1900, and up rose Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse to overtower Wall Street’s own temple, Trinity Church. For 1900, the ceremony of abdication and succession was impressive. But at about the time Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was being repainted gray and fitted with guns, ceremony was being forced into an evolutionary change of its own. That change worked itself out not on the materials of ape bone or marine iron but on surface and couture, and it when it was ready it strolled into history fetchingly attired as a second girl who was arriving to spell Fräulein Bremen in the bar.
Pablo Picasso had gotten acquainted with her in 1912. Her nickname that year was “La bouteille de Suze,” but to Pablo and her other friends ever since she’s just Suze. It’s always fun to be with her, too, because she’s the girl that dresses all crinkly in newspaper. She’s one of the first collages ever created, and she’s so excited about what she’s wearing that she doesn’t need Thomas Henry Huxley or Norddeutscher Lloyd. She already has all the admirers anyone could need. With them, with us, she always begins the fun by giggling, “I’ve got glue all over myself!”
And then she asks, “How do I look?”
And she looks fine.
And then she asks, “Is that thing way out there, going away, a boat?”
Gray Lith. Co., untitled scale lithograph of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, between 1898 and 1900. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016649824/.
Thomas Henry Huxley, illustration from Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, 1863.
The Buttolph Collection of Menus, New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-48a3-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.
“Pablo Picasso’s Bottle of Suze, 1912.” Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, https://mlkemperartmuseum.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/pablo-picassos-bottle-of-suze-1912/.
The images of the ship, the evolutionary diagram and the menu have been adjusted in Photoshop to restore detail and color.