Once, at a moment in history when ships’ bridges were so new to language that they literally and non-metaphorically were bridges, light broke through clouds above a bridge and people were saved. For that we have the testimony of a picture with words.
From left to right, the fine-print captions under the image read Lockwoods, Pensylvania [sic], Life Boat, St. Andrew, Victoria, and Day & Haghe, Lithrs. to the Queen. Then, larger, comes this confident explication.
The barely legible words at the end appear to be “The Publishers,” perhaps originally in a different color.
But it’s the caption’s other words that are the hard ones to read. The reason is that their key verb, “rescuing,” belongs to a genre that is now extinct: the genre of religious adoration of the present time. In the moment of that genre, the Transcendentalist painter and poet Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892) could write a text called “The Spirit of the Age” which ended:
The mute machine is moved by a law
That knows no accident or flaw,
And the iron thrills to a different chime
Than that which rang in the dead old time.
For Heaven is taking the matter in hand,
And baffling the tricks of the tyrant band.
[. . .]
And some who from their windows mark
The unwonted lights that flood the dark,
Little by little, in slow surprise,
Lift into space their sleepy eyes;
Little by little are made aware
That a spirit of power is passing there,–
That a spirit is passing, strong and free,–
The soul of the nineteenth century.
But because one of your first emotional reactions to the lithograph probably included a distancing term like “museum piece,” you have a historiographic problem with seeing. A century and a half before your time, the soul of the nineteenth century passed into the scene of rescue, but then it continued on through and out, taking with it much of the word rescue’s emotional context. Now this image of rescue is just an item in a museum, but in its own time it was readable in the home as an allegory of salvation. Some happiness then followed. But the picture isn’t making you happy now. Its caption no longer teaches you to adore.
Because (for one reason among many) in the twentieth century, Cranch’s grandnephew T. S. Eliot was to turn the soul away from his ancestor’s poem’s olfactory regime of coal smoke in favor of French cigarettes and then of Anglo-Catholic incense. Before Eliot’s disdainful gaze the unwonted coal-gas light ebbed as well. Under redarkened heavens there no longer remained enough energy to read hope by.
Year by year during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, organic chemists fashioned transformations upon the unassuming body of a smelly liquid called aniline. Under their godmothering guidance, aniline submitted to change after brilliant change from her transparent pale yellow to a whole wardrobe of dyes, color after lovable color. Every season Cinderella would re-emerge from the laboratory to be seen anew, and the chemistry of progress made sure that she was seen with ever more excitement as the century went on.
So when the long nineteenth century ended with excitement in 1914, the Russian artist I. D. Sytin was equipped to showcase the change. For effects of the lurid he had tube after tube of bright new primary colors, but for ironic contrast he also had something delicate. Sytin’s lithograph “War in the Air,” its flame yellows and flame reds set off by midnight blue, is printed on paper tinted pink.
Thanks to the pink, the whole lithograph, in both its primary image and its explanatory text, has a ground of rosy conflagration-color. That doesn’t just make the flames in the figure seem to burn hotter; it also desaturates the no longer bright blue of the river shining innocently under starlight and consolidates the fine-print nuances of the text into a single hysterical scream in rubric red. The catalog of the Hoover Institution Poster Collection stubbornly insists that the two elements unified by pink within the image frame are still separate, and it formats its insistence as an equivalent pair of sentences in archival black-and-white: “Painting depicts aerial battle with airplanes and airships. Text underneath describes modern aerial warfare.” But what Sytin’s stones impressed on his picture wasn’t a separable pair of stimulants to sense-impression; it was an ensemble. In its presence a century later, the excitement we have been roused to isn’t archival, it’s historical.
Perhaps the distinction is that the historical sense at least hints at an idea of ensemble: a single consciousness sharable between a record and its reader. A historical record, perhaps, is a text that can be experienced as immediately as the color pink. At any rate, in the presence of this particular array of colors, the historical sense may remind us that it and we now subsist in a world no longer conceivable in black and white. Three quarters of a century before I. D. Sytin set to work, chemists began excitedly coloring in the world’s blank spaces, and it is no longer possible to see what the world was like before that moment. By 1914, says a Russian chronology written in aniline pink, the synthesized product was even filling in the sky.
Source: Hoover Institution Poster Collection (http://www.lunacommons.org/luna/servlet/HOOVER~1~1), item no. RU/SU 365. Photoshopped.
St. Julien’s face is all animated agony. As an image, it could have been conceived by Cowper or Blake, passionately tender men of the late eighteenth century whose ways of thinking about animals were contemporary with Beethoven’s first analyses of the bonds between chord structure and emotion. As St. Julien runs the track of this 1880 Currier & Ives lithograph, his tail spills like an arpeggio into the lap of Orrin A. Hikok, and if Orrin A. Hikok hadn’t been signing his name in 1880 with a late-nineteenth-century middle initial he might have noticed the many fingerings of the blowing hair.
But by the time Currier & Ives got around to portraying St. Julien, the late nineteenth century had arrived and chord progressions had been scaled up into industrial sentimentality. For P. I. Tchaikovsky, 1880 was the year for both the sobbing strings of the Romeo and Juliet fantasy and the cannons-and-all practicalities of the 1812 overture, and Currier & Ives’s 1880 lithograph is another example of that rationalized division of labor. On the right of the image is the horse: naked yet bound by his harness, with open agonized mouth and desperate eyes. On the left is Orrin A. Hikok: not merely dressed but bound by his dress in way that seems focused on keeping passion under rein. Mr. Hickok’s legs are open as if to embrace St. Julien, but they remain covered, with every ankle-button buttoned. His jacket is buttoned too, and behind its buttons are enclosed a vest and then a hard-starched shirt and then a knotted necktie. Lip is shut tight within lip within lip. At Mr. Hikok’s breast there will be no opening.
And Mr. Hikok’s cap is on, and in his mustache not a hair is out of place, and the grandeur of his grand horse has been rigorously quantified by his century’s progress in chronometry. “Record,” Currier & Ives told themselves as they sat down in 1880 before a lithographer’s stone, and the record that they set down in response to that imperative translated an artist’s word into a technologist’s number. After translation, it had become both precise and (in physics’ strict sense of the term) undimensioned. With words no longer attached, it had ceased to be even a number. It was now number as such, pure and absolute and as completely unified into a general idea as the multiple lines on a lithographer’s stone which coalesced into a single picture of St. Julien.
As of 1880, Currier & Ives hadn’t yet understood this process all the way to its completion, and that innocence on the brink of knowing is a part of what now gives their work its antique charm. What they didn’t understand in 1880 was that at the moment of St. Julien’s transit across their visual field, their chronometric word “2:11¼” was becoming idiomatic in a language changing under the technological influence of Eadweard Muybridge. As Muybridge’s multiple-camera array began showing the world for the first time the fine details of what the word “run” can mean, the world began learning, in flashes of revelation experienced one by one but only fractions of a second apart, that both verbs like “run” and nouns like “St. Julien” are meanings running along a continuum. Currier & Ives’s artist John Cameron may have intuited this, but only a Muybridgian understanding of the term “2:11¼” can articulate it. Articulated for now in a post-1880 vocabulary, it says: because the grand horses of words running at the rate of 2:11¼ never stop changing in every pulse-charged muscle, they never come to rest in the known.
Source: Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001702108/. Photoshopped.
of 1910, which is less a time than a world which fully contains her life, giving it a body and clothes to shape and color it.
Source: E. S. Yates, lithograph “Twentieth Century Transportation,” 1910. Popular Graphic Arts Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97514565/. Photoshopped.