Tuesday, June 30, 2009


This image of the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena was presumably taken sometime during the period from 1859 to 1875, which was the heyday of the popular commercial photographic format known as the carte de visite. The photographer may have been named Hayward, as that last name and a first initial I can't make out are handwritten on the reverse of the card.

The tomb apparently still stands much as it was, although the outer fence shown here has evidently been removed. But even at the time this photograph was executed the emperor was no longer in his tomb, his remains having been repatriated in 1840 at the request of the French government.

This image, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery. [See update at bottom.] It was issued by one "A. Hall, Photo-Artist" who operated a studio at 217 West Madison Street in Chicago, probably the photographer Albert K. Hall who is listed at that address in the 1876 Lakeside Annual Directory of the City of Chicago, but I haven't been able to pinpoint the scene it depicts. I don't know if the little pinnacle at right is a natural outcropping that's been adapted, or a wholly manmade structure. There's a cross on the roof, so it was presumably located either in a Christian country or in some colonial outpost, which in the second half of the 19th century could have meant almost anywhere. Perhaps a geologist could tell whether the arrangement of rocks on the shoreline is consistent with tidal activity, or just the shore of a large lake. There's no sign of vegetation anywhere, unless the dark stain at the far right is indicative of algae. It reminds me of nothing so much as the final scenes of Planet of the Apes.

Did the door open onto an anchorite's cell, a tomb, or even a tiny chapel? Was it some Crusoe's desolate hideaway at the end of the world? Does it still stand, or has it been long since battered apart by the waves?

Update (2021): The structure shown has been identified as the Capelinha do Calhau in the village of São Vicente in Madeira. Constructed in the late 17th century, it still stands. (Thanks KRW for the identification.)

Monday, June 29, 2009


He stands by the window and watches the woman leave. As she reaches the bottom of the landing she lifts her hand from the cast-iron railing, pulls on her gloves, and makes a turn to the right, moving without hurry, eyes on the crowd. A light wind ripples her dress -- a smart lapis print flecked with gold -- and the branches above her stir, but he can't hear the leaves rattle, only the buffeting of the window from the pressure wave of a passing bus. She's standing right in front of him now -- he can make out the individual strands of the curl of dark hair that circles behind her ear -- but she doesn't turn, doesn't seem to be aware of him watching her just above. She might hear him if he called or reached out a hand to tap the glass, but he remains still, his hands at his sides. A knot of pedestrians forms in front of her and then comes undone; she steps forward, shrugs up her collar, and inclines her head almost imperceptibly before the breeze as she begins to walk away. Once or twice he thinks he hears the muffled chock of her heels striking the sidewalk. He is looking over her shoulder now, and his eyes continue to follow her as she moves behind the white curtains and into the maple lattice-work that frames the window. Her head vanishes; he catches one last flair of her dress, the back of a bare calf, her raised heel, and she is gone.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Postcards from a war

These beautiful but somewhat unsettling images are from a set of postcards issued in commemoration of Japanese naval victories in the Russo-Japanese War. The artist is Saitō Shōshū.

The cards are part of the Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Japanese Postcards at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. At least some of the images are viewable on the MFA's own website -- I didn't manage to find all of them there -- but MIT's online exhibition Asia Rising: Japanese Postcards of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which draws from the Lauder Collection, has nine of the ten that were originally published (one has not been located), and presents them in a continuous horizontal strip as they were designed to be viewed.

The next two images, also by Saitō Shōshū, form a separate but kindred pair.

And finally there is this delicate collage, which combines depictions of warships with scenes of underwater life and bears the title Naval Boat Kolz, which seems somewhat mysterious given that "Kolz" sounds neither Japanese nor Russian.

All nations that go to war produce propaganda and glorify their heroes, though perhaps not often with such a sophisticated flair for graphic design. What gives these images a slightly sinister quality is not so much knowing that the events they portray were, in a sense, the opening salvos in what would be a forty-year conflict for supremacy with the Western powers, as it is the eerie presence of death that hovers over them, a presence all the more disturbing for its subtle aesthetic pleasures.

Most of these images are also reproduced in Art of The Japanese Postcard, MFA Publications, 2004.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The moth

Homage to Koizumi Yakumo

Many years ago, and very many miles from here, there lived a young woman, the daughter of a powerful daimyo. When she was old enough to marry, her father formed an alliance with another powerful lord; as part of their agreement the daimyo promised his daughter's hand to the youngest son of his newfound ally. Upon learning of the betrothal, however, the young woman burst into tears and declared that she was in love with a young man in her father's retinue, the son of one of his least distinguished swordsmen, and that she would marry no one but him.

The lad in question was immediately sent for and brought into the daimyo's hall There, in the presence of the young woman and the entire court, the daimyo asked him if it was true that he was in love with his daughter. Without trembling or hesitating for an instant the young man declared that it was so. The daimyo then turned to his daughter and ordered her to renounce the young man at once and agree to marry as he had arranged. He asked her if she would obey, and when she firmly responded that she would not he drew his sword and instantly struck off the young man's head with one quick stroke. His daughter screamed and fell to the floor, sobbing wildly and cursing her father and beating at him with her fists. At the daimyo's orders she was carried from the hall and shut inside her room. The body of the young man was taken away and thrown unceremoniously into a ditch.

All that night the young woman wept and raged in her room. Finally she took out a dagger that she always kept hidden in her room and secreted it within her robe, vowing to kill her father at the first opportunity, though she knew full well that it would mean her own death as well. Having thus resolved, she fell at last into a bitter and desolate sleep. Very soon thereafter, however, she was awakened by a strange fluttering at her window. She looked up and saw an enormous moth, bigger than her hand and decorated with the most dazzling and intricate patterns she had ever seen. As if entranced she stepped to the window and stretched out her hand. As the creature alighted on her fingers she felt herself being drawn in, strangely and irresistibly, by its gaze. Within an instant the moth had vanished and she found herself holding the hand of the beheaded man's ghost. His handsome head was restored to its proper place and all was as it had been before her father had so cruelly taken his life.

That night the couple consummated their love and lay nestled together until the first rays of dawn. Then the young man rose, kissed his love goodbye, and promised to return at nightfall. In a quick flutter he vanished through the window.

No sooner had he left than the young woman began to dress. She carefully made up her face and arranged her hair, and when she was ready she tugged at the handle of her door to her room. It was bolted on the outside, but an elderly woman servant who was keeping watch outside slid open the bolt and allowed her to pass. The young woman made her way into her father's presence, knelt before him, calmly begged his pardon, and said that she would henceforth obey him in all regards, including the matter of the marriage to the man her father had chosen for her. The daimyo was secretly greatly relieved at his daughter's change of heart, though he maintained a dignified bearing and accepted her submission with little more than a grunt.

The date set for the marriage was still some weeks off. In the intervening time the young man returned every night, and the couple gave full rein to their feverish passion for each other with little thought for the future. At last, however, the elderly servant awoke one night and heard noises from within which she could not explain. Alarmed, she awakened the daimyo, who tied on his sword and rushed to his daughter's room. Forcing the door open, he saw a horrifying sight: on the bed lay his daughter, in the arms of the gruesomely decomposed body of the young man whose life he had taken. When he perceived the intruder the young man sat up and turned his headless torso toward the daimyo, who lost all composure and screamed in terror; then he turned back to his lover, gave her a final embrace, and vanished through the flowing curtains.

The daimyo pulled his daughter from the bed, struck her several times across the face, and flung her violently down the hall. The girl winced in pain but said nothing, nor did she attempt to protect herself as her father drove her out of the house, kicking her and flailing at her with her fists as he advanced. Only when the door had been barred behind her and she stood naked to the elements did she begin desperately to sob.

She spent that night under a great spruce tree a little ways down the road from the daimyo's house. During the night the elderly servant stole from the house and without a word laid a coarse grey cloak over her as she slept. When the young woman rose she drew on the cloak and set out along the road, knowing that she would never again be safe within her father's domains.

For many years the woman travelled throughout the country, always keeping to the back roads, always dressed in the same gray cloak. She became a mendicant, beloved by children and the infirm to whom she administered what aid she could, never wanting anything for herself except a bowl of rice. She was never known to sleep indoors, or in fact, anyplace where she could be observed. It was believed that her ghostly lover continued to visit her each night, and that even when she passed away, at a very advanced age, and was buried near that little shrine you see just there across the road, she was herself transformed into a moth, of purest white, and flew off to live with her mate in the distant mountains.

As for the daimyo, as a result of the breaking of the agreement with his erstwhile ally the two barons came into conflict. On the field of battle the daimyo's armies suffered a crushing defeat. As they retreated a sudden downpour in the hills provoked a flash flood, which swept most of his remaining retinue away. When at last he straggled home, ruined and alone, he was slaughtered without mercy by the brothers of the young man he had beheaded.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wild Things on the town

An illustration by Maurice Sendak, specially commissioned in 1971 by the Brentanos bookstore chain (now long since defunct) for an invitation to its "Annual Costume Galla" (sic). The invitation was designed and printed, in an edition of 800 numbered copies, by George Laws & Dennis J. Grastorf at the Angelica Press, New York City.

The text reads as follows:
Brentanos invites you to attend its Annual Costume Galla dressed as a character from a novel you WISHED you had written ... and reveal your secret self! Toast of the town pianist Steve Ross entertains. Prizes for the most imaginative costumes.
I didn't go.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Posada for Children

Though the Mexican engraver José Guadalupe Posada is best known for his topical broadsides and ghoulishly whimsical depictions of skeletons at play, he produced thousands of engravings, spanning a wide range of subject matter, in his forty-year career. The images here spotlight his work as an illustrator of inexpensive books for children.

The dog in the above image has some of the same anthropomorphic expressiveness of the dogs in Maurice Sendak's early work. Since Sendak is a notorious magpie -- I mean that as a compliment, naturally -- it's possible that he was familiar with the image or others like it. The proper Mexican couple below are quite fetching.

All of these pictures are from a delightful book published in 2005 by Editorial RM in Mexico City, Posada: Illustrator of Chapbooks by Mercurio López Casillas. (There's also a Spanish-language version, entitled José Guadalupe Posada: Ilustrador de Cuadernos Populares.) The compact little hardbound volume contains hundreds of color images, including interior art as well as covers, organized into three categories: Songbooks, Children's Books, and "Divers Manuals" (a miscellany, not books on diving).

A good jumping-off place on the web for the whole of Posada's work is this post at Bibliodyssey.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


These images by the printmaker Kawase Hasui (1883 – 1957) are from the extensive online galleries of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In Modern Japanese Prints 1912-1989, Lawrence Smith writes of Kawase:
During his career he produced over 600 landscape prints, including seventeen series, covering most areas of Japan, which he constantly travelled. After a period of eclipse following his death, he has now become recognized as Japan's best print landscapist since Hiroshige.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Along the bay

She is, he thinks, as beautiful a girl as he has ever seen. She is studying the cello and he -- without great conviction -- environmental science, but even before they become friends he spies her one day making her way across campus, in subdued but easy conversation with a friend, her long hair loose and falling midway down her back. At first she reminds him, he thinks, of a painting he remembers seeing somewhere, a Rossetti or something like that, but when he gets a closer look he sees that he is mistaken. There is nothing remote or iconic about her face; her features are delicate, her expression open and unaffected. Eventually they meet and become friends but nothing more. He has a steady girlfriend through most of his junior and senior years and she, he believes, has a boyfriend who goes to some other school.

After college they lose touch, but by chance a year later they each spend the summer months in a resort town on the coast. When he runs into her unexpectedly, just as the tourist season is starting to hit, he is waiting on tables in a seafood place on the docks and renting a room by himself in a rickety backstreet walkup, his future plans unknown. She is living by herself in a tiny cottage on the bluffs outside of town, rehearsing for a festival with a local chamber orchestra and preparing to begin her MFA. He calls her up and stops by for dinner one evening and with what seems to him almost miraculously mutual avidity they wind up in bed together. Within a week he has moved in, carrying the few essential possessions he hasn't stowed at his mother's house or his father's place back home: a backpack with an aluminum frame, a sleeping bag, a sackful of CDs, and an outback hat.

On warm evenings, while she waits for him, she moves a chair onto the porch and plays to the distant bay, watching the shadows of the walnut tree that overhangs the building quiver and drift across the floor planks. Then he comes home with fish and chips and a bottle of wine purloined from the kitchen; he is tired but his eyes brighten when he sees her face. She lights a pair of candles and sets them on a table by the picture window. While they eat he tells her stories of his day to make her laugh, and before long they are once again entwined.

Late at night, when the embers of their desire are at last consumed, he likes to lie back in the dark with his eyes open and imagine his future with her, and she curls silently beside him and thinks about how to tell him that he has none.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


In a burst of blue flame the burner catches. She sets the kettle on the stove, yawns, and takes a glass from the drainer, fills it and slowly slakes her thirst. Her lover still sleeps in the bedroom, the shades down, the clock's red digits shifting like the even, unhurried pulse of some silent, cold creature in the deepest part of the sea.

She takes a photograph down from her shelf. Within a gilt and weathered frame a woman she has never met, wearing a stiff grey dress, is standing on a boathouse porch. She is smiling compliantly but her gaze is just perceptibly askew of the camera's lens, and the fingers of her left hand are tense and splayed out from the railing she leans on.

Five stories down the last cars of a subway train rattle up to the platform. The doors open; a man peers out to see the name of the station, takes a step forward, then hesitates and retreats. New passengers fill the car, the stragglers shifting their bags and arching their backs to edge into the narrow spaces that are still unoccupied. At the far end of the car a cell phone chimes as the train lurches into motion.

The man squeezes forward to get off at the next station. In his hand, neatly folded, he holds a Chinese newspaper. His thumb partially obscures the photograph of a beaming figure in a business suit and hard hat. In the background, behind him, are the girders of a skyscraper under construction. As the rider steps from the train he drops the paper into the first bin he passes.

At street level an elderly couple are silently ambling uptown. The man, who strolls a step ahead of the woman, has a full beard and long grey hair, both streaked with day-glo dye. He is wearing a long dress, and a pigeon is resting comfortably atop his head. He smiles beatifically and nods to pedestrians as they go by.

Two teenaged girls from Germany stop in front of the man and ask, in barely accented English, if they can take his picture. The man agrees and poses happily, first with one girl and then the other, then acknowledges their thank yous and continues on. The woman behind him never once looks up.

One of the girls is wearing a thin oatmeal scarf. She stands still for a moment, wrapping its loose ends around her neck and tucking them into her jacket, until her companion touches her arm and says something in German. They pause for a moment, talking, then stride up to the nearest crosswalk. There is no traffic and they cross against the light. Once on the far sidewalk they turn to the left and move quickly away.

Two stories above, a woman in an office is eating a danish and holding the receiver of her telephone to her head as she types. The phone is ringing but no one picks up. On her wall there is a framed black-and-white photograph sent to her by a friend in Brazil. In the photo a little girl in a spotless white dress stands in the middle of an empty plaza. There is no expression on her face; her eyes, ever so slightly raised, are intently watching something off to the left of the picture, just out of sight.

Three miles north the phone rings in a narrow apartment with a view of the river over sycamores and playgrounds. Bookshelves cover every wall, and piles of foxed and jacketless books are stacked on the floor in every room except the loo. There is a broad desk, with a glass top, in front of the window, and on it, nestled between the phone and a stack of manila folders, an answering machine blinks, but the ringing dies away before it picks up.

A few blocks away, along one of the gray spines that twist from uptown to down, a man watches the traffic signals change from red to green and back again. As he sits by himself, nursing lukewarm coffee at a sidewalk table under an awning in the rain, he wonders if he inhabits the city that appears before him or one that he has imagined, though in the end he decides that it is both.

Friday, June 05, 2009

More Katazome Calendar Images

After closer inspection of the cache of loose calendar pages I referred to in my earlier post on this topic, I've decided that the katazome pages below probably belong to a single ensemble. They are apparently not by Keisuke Serizawa, the most prominent katazome calendar maker, who seems to have issued a different calendar in 1969. They could be by the less well-known artist named Takeshi Nishijima, who produced several calendars in the 1970s -- or they could be by another hand entirely.

To my eye, these are not quite up to the artistic level of the images in the 1959 set I posted (which George Baxley says is "reportedly" the work of Serizawa). They're a little flatter, with less subtlety and detail, but they're handsome nonetheless. My favorite is the August image, because I'm just a sucker for fish. But the July scene baffles me; just what is it exactly?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Goblin Snob

I don't really know what to make of this rather odd book, which was published in 1855 or thereabouts and which is, like its creator Henry Louis Stephens, now solidly obscure. I have reproduced below the opening pages plus a handful of engravings from the early part of the book. Click through the images for a clearer view.

The text of the poem alternates with the artwork, and the whole thing runs to 96 pages. The poem's hero is a boy who seems to be made of rubber, which is why he is called "Coo-chook" (from "caoutchouc," a now disused term that must be one of the very few Tupi-derived words in English).

The Mephistophelian fellow springing up from the coal-hole is the Goblin Snob himself, who turns up to provoke mayhem at various points in the boy's career.

In the end poor Coo-chook is given up for dead but revives, while the Goblin Snob becomes a Peer of the Realm. The whole thing is probably satirical, though satirical of exactly what no longer seems clear. I'm afraid these scans leave a bit to be desired but I hope they give a least a sense of Stephens's curious comic artistry.

Bud Bloom Poetry and 50 Watts have illustrations and text of another Stephens work, Death and Burial of Poor Cock Robin.

Update (August 2020): A tattered copy of the book has turned up on eBay including the pictorial cover below, which my copy lacks and which I've not seen before.