Mask mandate

Circa 1500, the arms of Nürnberg’s patrician Kress von Kressenstein family push to the front of this wood engraving by Dürer. They are silent, but visual swagger utters on their behalf. What they mean is to be understood armigerously, as a supplemented graphic of a sword in the grip of fangs.

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,

But not all the scions of the Kress von Kressenstein family have had the fortitude to remain in that picture. We know cousin Clara Kress von Kressenstein’s date of death, for instance (it is 1476), but her date of birth seems to have missed inclusion. Likewise, her date of death came too soon for Dürer (b. 1471). The surviving remnant of Clara’s poor premature image isn’t an approach to the Platonic, as it might have become in Dürer’s studio; it’s only somebody else’s amateur try at drawing a picture of some Clara or other. At that, we have to hope it isn’t accurate.

Its failure isn’t that in this depiction Clara’s face doesn’t look like a face; it’s that it looks like nothing but a face, in isolation. It seems disconnected from the rest of Clara’s body: a candidate for transplant not yet connected to a circulatory system but strapped onto a calvarium like a Noh actor’s mask. At that, a Noh mask’s disconnection from individuality is part of a harmonized ensemble of uncoupling which represents something like Platonic generalization from the real into the super-real, while the Clara mask doesn’t represent, at all. The Noh actor’s masked body moves in rule-bound play — it enters the performing space from a runway, functions dramatically there for a set time, and then departs — but the Clara body seems only to be: static, unplayful, merely forever. Solitary within its black block, it neither acts nor is acted upon. Its integuments, too, are only a layer, paper doll style. Just behind Clara’s round face is her entirely flat body. It hasn’t filled even the little space allotted to it by the optical illusion of 3D. It is only a masked nakedness.

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Contrast and detail restored.

In his introduction to Certain Noble Plays of Japan, Yeats commits a theoretical generalization on behalf of masking. “A mask,” he declares, “never seems but a dirty face, and no matter how close you go is still a work of art.” But Clara’s personal mask seems inadequately theorized, for it has been processed by art without having been made clean. A Noh mask is a drama in itself, a representation of a mind forever becoming an idea,
Photograph by Toshiro Morita,

but what we see of the Clara mask is only a current event. It conceals no past which might give its present a meaning. Whatever it is can’t be entered into. It has no idea of that because it has no idea.

Nevertheless, within its black block it continues floating above jewels and a gown and, below the block, a separate stratum of words that speak of Clara — or rather, not of Clara but, grudgingly ill-justified, of Clara’s father and Clara’s consort. Of course they didn’t directly communicate with Clara in the black, because they couldn’t. Black on black in the flatness of inner space, words won’t form. If they could, they might record Clara’s story. Then and only then, if writing could cut itself free from its black matrix on the page and crawl upward toward the light, we might finally begin reading the story of what went on until then, behind the mask, in the dark. But after 550 years, Clara’s black mandate is still in effect.


Yeats with Blake, remade


Hell’s Printing Press, the blog of the Blake Archive and Blake Quarterly, carries a portrait of William Butler Yeats holding a copy of his edition of Blake, the book that established Blake’s prophetic works in the canon of English poetry. Following the link will take you to views of the portrait in two states: the original photograph, taken in a New York hotel room in 1920 for the Bain News Service, and a reconstruction processed by me in 2017.

But Photoshop is more powerful now than it was in 2017, and Yeats was the poet who sang, “It is myself that I remake.” So here is a second attempt at seeing him in the same image with Blake.



In New York on April 30, 1921, as the liner Aquitania sailed up the bay from quarantine, the tenor John McCormack, one of the most celebrated singers of the time, showed himself before the recording instruments of the media. The role he was performing approximated what his fellow Irishman William Butler Yeats was to call (in “Among School Children”) “a smiling public man.” A space of foggy air and wooden decking separated him from the battery of cameras.


Then, though, the cameras moved in closer and the singer began to speak.


The reporters took down his words. They turned out to be Irish words.

New York Tribune, 1 May 1921, page 12

Along with the celebrated singer, a celebrated newspaper publisher was on board the ship, and so was a celebrated Hollywood producer. We’re willing to believe they were because the story tells us so in indirect discourse. We don’t need the publisher’s or the producer’s actual words to bear witness. And as to the singer, in 1921 all the cameras had to be silent.

But perhaps we can see words forming on his face.


Sources: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, and Post-processed to restore detail and contrast.

Correction: Woolf’s caption, my blogpost

In my post of September 9, 2018, I reproduce an image from Virginia Woolf’s photo album captioned, in writing that looks like Woolf’s, “Lytton Strachey & Yeats at Ottoline Morrell’s.” However, the man identified as Yeats doesn’t much resemble Yeats in other images.

And he isn’t. The photograph, taken by Lady Ottoline in June 1923, shows Woolf between Strachey and the Cambridge historian Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, another member of the Bloomsbury Group.

A double portrait of Virginia Woolf and William Butler Yeats

The Open Culture blogpost “Virginia Woolf’s Personal Photo Album Digitized & Put Online by Harvard,”

links to Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Monk’s House album 4, dated 1939 but containing items from earlier and later. Online, one undated page from the album looks like this.


Here’s a Photoshopped detail.


“Lapis Lazuli”: the short view and the long

1. The short view:

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and the fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.


2. Wyndham Lewis, a contemporary of Mr. Yeats who views himself as a destructive mechanism, charges his palette.


3. Ascending in the mechanism, Mr. Yeats takes the long view. 

Zeno Diemer, “German Airships over the Thames.” Postcard, ca. 1915. Photoshopped.

There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.