Monday, July 27, 2009

A Girl's Diary (1898)

This hardbound German-language "Golden Jubilee Calendar" was issued in New York in 1898. An item in Publisher's Weekly (December 4, 1897) announced its publication:
Lemcke & Buechner in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the firm of B. Westermann & Co., to which they have succeeded, have issued in book form "Meyer's Historisch-Geographischer Kalender" for 1898. This calendar, which contains useful historical and geographical information, was formerly issued in the shape of a pad, and so had only ephemeral value. In book form it will no doubt be acceptable to a wider circle than heretofore.
Each day of the year is decorated with an engraving or other illustration, mostly of points of interest although there are vignettes of such worthies as Martin Luther and Walter Scott as well. The calendar's pages are extremely brittle and the binding is in a ruinous state, though enough of it remains intact to make it difficult to get undistorted scans of a few sample pages:

The versos and endpapers of this copy were used as a diary and scrapbook by an American girl in her teens who lived in New York City. She was not from a German-speaking family but was apparently learning German from a governess, as the entries occasionally mention someone referred to only as "Fräulein." I've been able to identify the diarist, who belonged to a fairly well-to-do Manhattan family with military and political connections. Though her diary has no great literary merit, it preserves interesting glimpses of her daily round of social and educational activities, including visits to West Point, Warwick (New York), and other locations.

Monday Dec 27 I packed my trunk and Tuesday I went to West Point & Mama and Papa went to Washington. I took an early train, arrived at twelve and found Bus (?) waiting for me. After lunch she & I went to see the yearlings drill. Capt. Parker had hurt himself the day before and another man drilled them. Later we met the Jackson kids Maud & Evelyn and we had a short talk with their brother. Wed. afternoon we had a tea at the Parkers & I met about 35 - 40 cadets....
On several pages she sketches and describes the designs of dresses she was making by hand:

Though the handwriting in the above pages is sometimes difficult to make out, it is often far worse elsewhere in the diary. Confined as she was to a single page per day, when she had a particularly busy day she simply wrote smaller. On a couple of occasions she filled the page, rotated the book 90 degrees, and wrote over what she had already written. It was as if she despaired of leaving anything out, as if she realized all too well that in time her words would be all that remained.

The young diarist later married, had children, and eventually died at an advanced age. I have no way of knowing whether she ever kept a diary again.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Water Street

Evening has come. I have lit my lamp and shut out the night. My Bible lies close at hand on the table by the bed, and in a few moments -- as soon as I finish these lines -- I will set down my pen and close my desk, turn down the covers and retire to bed. I will read a few chapters, beginning at the place I marked when I finished last evening, then I will extinguish the lamp and let my head fall back in the absolute darkness and stillness of my room. Sleep will come swiftly, as it always does, like a silent phantom.

Elsewhere in the city, well away from the harbor, the crowds move through restless streets. Along the broad promenades of the wealthy and in the tubercular quarters of the destitute they spill from houses and workplaces and fan out into cafés and dives, into theatres, brothels, gin mills and social halls. They laugh and they shout, they gorge themselves and drink themselves to stupefaction, they defile their bodies without shame or cosh each other for coin or sport. But not here. On the narrow street that winds below my window every last door is drawn tight and locked, every shutter secured. The shop windows are dark, the displays of haberdashery gloomy and crestfallen. And nothing moves, no hansom rattling through these alleys, no horse's hoof striking against the cobblestones -- not at this hour. A few blocks away, around the mission at the edge of the water district, a handful of stragglers -- inebriates and syphilitic sailors -- still skulk in the shadows, drawn outwards by the magnetic pull of madness or impossible cravings, but that is the limit, the border that nothing marks and that no one will cross once night falls.

As a young man I went to sea but I will never leave this city again. I was married once -- it was far from here -- but the woman died and the child with her. During the day I work quietly at my desk until I am summoned. There is much business to be done here, though you would not suspect it at this hour of the night. On Sundays I sit in a pew in the rear of the church and slip quietly out the door before the rest of the congregation has begun to rise.

My material needs are few and my means commensurate. As for the rest, I know that I am damned. I read my Bible faithfully, but I know that the mark is on me and on this district. One day I will no longer fear it and that is when I will be taken, as in time the city will be taken in its turn, all the gaudy palaces of sin, and there will be nothing left but smoke and darkness.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Not Fade Away

These images -- I believe they're chromolithographs, but don't quote me on it -- are souvenir or advertising cards commemorating the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. They've been enclosed in a scrapbook, probably for well over a century, and thus their paleness is not the result of exposure to the sun but is either due to the natural deterioration of the ink or to the fact that they simply were made to look as they now appear. (None of the other material in the album shows significant fading.) Scanning them hasn't really helped matters; the horizontal stripes, for example, in some of the scans are real but far less noticeable in the originals.

Main Exhibition Building

Machinery Hall

Art Gallery

German Government Building

Arkansa State Building (sic)

New York Tate Building (sic)

Agricultural Hall

I'm afraid the uncanniness of these cards -- especially the first three above -- doesn't quite come across in the scans (the delicate blue skies definitely don't). The aqua color in the windows of the Art Gallery produces an eerie, almost three-dimensional depth, which may have been the intent but also may just be due to the limitations of the process employed. The tiny figures in the foreground, and the vastness and isolation of the buildings, seem all out of scale for a crowded 19th-century metropolis -- in fact they don't seem to belong to our world at all. They're faint echoes of a time no one living now remembers, dwindling ghosts growing every more distant from their corporeal origins.

These pictures must have been endlessly reproduced and copied and either given away or sold cheaply. I've seen barely distinguishable versions online, and in The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exhibition published in the year of the fair there are numerous black-and-white engravings depicting similar or identical scenes. Because the cards are pasted onto the pages of the album I can't tell what if anything may be on the other side.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Truth in Advertising

The remarkable properties of everyday products, from 19th-century advertising cards.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kit Eastman / Annie Bissett

Two American artists who, working separately, have each adapted traditional Japanese techniques for use in their work.

First, Kit Eastman of Silver Minnow, who uses the stencil-printing method known as katazome, as in this splendid egret, who seems to be taking an avid interest in the minnows swimming in the margins:

Below is the original stencil:

As I understand it, the katazome technique (see my earlier post) makes use of a paste that resists pigment. As Eastman explains the process, "the open areas of the stencil allow the rice paste to flow through. The brown paper masks the fabric, so these areas will eventually be dyed with a variety of pigments."

The method can be applied to a variety of surfaces, usually cloth or paper. Of her adoption of katazome she writes:
I feel I have at last come home — this technique suits my sensibilities in so many ways. With textile art and craft, there are often periods of waiting due to the requirements of the materials. This rhythm draws me deeper into the work. I find myself contemplating the idea of time, as measured in natural cycles, including my own experience.
The woodblock print below, by Annie Bissett, depicts Dorothy Bradford, a Mayflower pilgrim who fell -- or leaped -- to her death in Provincetown Harbor in 1620, and is part of a group of works entitled We Are Pilgrims.

Click through to read the inscription, which seems to be based on the original account of the incident as recorded by Cotton Mather.

(I'm afraid the colors of this image are not coming through very faithfully here; try this link to the original.)

Bissett describes the technique she employs:
I use the traditional Japanese method, called moku hanga or ukiyo-e, where a block is carved for each color and then the blocks are printed successively with water-based pigments using a hand-held burnishing tool. This time-consuming and somewhat arduous process (a single print edition can take two to three months to complete) has become a welcome counterbalance to the fast-paced, deadline-driven digital work I've done for 20+ years as a commercial artist.
There is a fuller explanation of moku hanga on Bissett's blog, Woodblock Dreams.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Notes for a Commonplace Book (2)

Werner Herzog:

Our civilization doesn't have adequate images. And I think a civilization is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it does not develop an adequate language or adequate images. I see there's a very very dramatic situation. For example we have found out there are serious problems facing our civilization, like energy problems or environment problems or nuclear power or all this overpopulation of the world, but generally it is not understood yet that a problem of the same magnitude is that we do not have adequate images; and that's what I'm working on. A new grammar of images.

Quoted in Les Blank's Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The stream

The little brook collected somewhere in the hills just out of town. When it reached the state road it trickled in and out of culverts and catch basins, then meandered through woodland for a quarter of a mile. Channeled and bordered with plantings of yellow iris, it ran in orderly fashion through the center of town, but once past the heart of the business district, unable to flow uphill once more, it sank beneath the pavement and emerged on the other side, winding serpentine and forgotten into a patch of green and inaccessible wetlands. The railway lay just beyond, its smooth stone-bedded rails running straight and level in either direction as far as the eye could see. The stream would continue on its course, parallel to the tracks, sometimes on the right side, sometimes on the left, until it reached the great city and discharged into the bay.

Back in town, two men were descending the hill the stream could not climb, going downtown for a meal at the end of a day's work. They were short of stature, compact, their skin light brown. Just in front of the little streetside restaurant, where a middle-aged couple sat on the porch drinking ice tea and watching the traffic go by, they met a third man on the sidewalk, heading away from town. They smiled and exchanged greetings in the language of the place where they were born, then continued walking until they were out of sight.

They had come a long way.

Elsewhere (Otherness)

New work by Carla Rippey, at El uso de la memoria.

Rippey writes:
I have to make clear that I use cultural elements from “elsewhere” as an amateur or tourist and not as a student of cultures. The iconography doesn’t imply for me all that it would imply for the natives of these borrowed cultures; my constructions are inventions, perhaps metaphors, a sort of pastiche of elements that come to have, which must assume, a significance distinct from that which they carry in context of their own culture. But the existence of that original, implicit meaning can give the created image another layer of resonance.
The image below is from a separate project, The Figure in the Carpet.

See my earlier post, or, better yet, the artist's blog.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Linda Butler: Rural Japan

This splendid 1992 volume of photographs, sadly no longer in print, is the work of the American photographer Linda Butler, who has an uncanny eye for and command of visual texture, whether it is on the grand scale of a river landscape or just the meticulous detailing on the surface of a cast-iron kettle. In her introduction she relates a vivid -- if somewhat alarming -- anecdote of how she began the project and how the cover image, in particular, came to be taken.
At noon the Fujita's grandmother asked me to take a break from my photography to join her family for lunch. She was planning to serve a rural delicacy that is now rarely eaten by the Japanese. In the kitchen, she placed a two-inch cube of tofu (bean curd) and several small, live eels at the center of lacquer bowls. Just before the soup was served, she added five small eels and poured soup stock in the bowls. In order to escape the heat, the eels dove into the cool tofu and smothered.

In the formal dining room we knelt around a lacquer table. The fifty year-old Mr. Fujita sat at the head of the table. Outside the sliding screens was a carefully composed rock garden, but it was the fifteen-inch long white radishes drying in the cool fall air under the eaves that captured my attention. Just as the soup arrived, there was a break in the clouds and the sun came out. The radishes were transformed--looking almost translucent. I knew I had to act quickly to capture this image so I excused myself in the polite language customarily used by Japanese in formal situations. It took me ten minutes to set-up the camera and expose a negative. When I returned to lunch, my soup was lukewarm and the eels seemed particularly dead, but the image of the radishes would become the beginning of my photographic work in rural Japan.
Below are a representative sample of images chosen from the photographer's website.

Pagoda, Yamagata-ken

Seacoast Village, Yamagata-ken

Earthen Floor, Iwate-ken

Grape Vineyard, Yamagata-ken

The next image is here simply because I can never let anything having to do with cuttlefish or squid go by.

Drying Squid

But I think this last one is still my favorite:

Tea Ceremony Kettles, Iwate-ken

Butler explains the above image:
Cast iron kettles are used to hold hot water in the tea ceremony. Made in the Suzuki studio in Morioka, the pots were cast in a clay and plaster mold that is used once and then discarded. The tiny indentations in the mold (bottom left), made dot by dot with a pointed hand-tool, become textural protrusions in the metal container.
Second-hand copies of Rural Japan are not impossible to find if you poke around for them, and individual prints may be available as well through the galleries who represent Butler's work. She has three other books that remain in print, all of them well worth getting a hold of; they are Inner Light: The Shaker Legacy, Italy: In the Shadow of Time, and Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009


The weekend after the burial the relatives came with a van and carted off what they wanted, the things that still had some use in them. They took the china and the silverware, the chairs that didn't wobble or need caning, the dining room table they had to disassemble to get through the door, but left the sagging bed, the ironing board, and the leaking refrigerator, the plastic gas-station tumblers and the scant dust-rimmed books. They shut off the water, took the phones out of the jacks, and flung the electric fuses into the woods for sport.

Later that summer vandals jimmied the door-latch and broke or stole what little of value they found, stripped the pipes and shattered the windows with stones, leaving nothing but a few mildewed magazines, broken bottles, and shotgun casings. They lit a fire but it wouldn't catch and they gave up. Rain blew in and soaked the floors, and before long the faded wallpaper began to peel down in ruined curls. Mice nested in the insulation and swallows built under the porch eaves, and the house soon stank of their urine and droppings.

Within a few years a thicket of young maples grew up around the foundation, and a dark green stain of algae spread up the white clapboard walls. Shingles slid from the roof to the ground and were buried in the next fall's leaves. Finally not even the ghosts remained.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Tatsuro Kiuchi

Following up on my last post about Rafe Martin's Mysterious Tales of Japan, with pictures by Tatsuro Kiuchi, here are some samples of two of Kiuchi's other projects, both of which use a very different palette and approach from the more conventionally "painterly" (but very appealing) illustrations he created for that book.

The first group are from a series of 294 color illustrations Kiuchi created to accompany Hikaru Okuizumi's novel The New Journey to the Center of the Earth, which was serialized in the Asahi Shimbun in 2002-2003.

The whole set can be viewed as a Flicker slideshow online.

At least one of Hikaru Okuizumi's other novels, The Stones Cry Out, has appeared in translation in the US, but this one apparently hasn't; in fact I'm not even sure it's been released in bound format in Japan. [Update: according to Tatsuro Kiuchi, the book has been published, but sadly without his illustrations.] The little information I've been able to turn up, from the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, seems promising, though:
Okuizumi is known for his parodies of the Meiji-period literary giant Natsume Soseki, but the model he chose for his full-length novel Shin chitei ryoko (New Journey to the Center of the Earth) is the Jules Verne classic. Always full of literary schemes, Okuizumi here recasts the original story as the historical record of an actual journey which he retells in a pseudoclassical style reminiscent of Soseki, transposing the action to early twentieth-century Japan. In late Meiji, a scientist who believes the Earth is hollow disappears, along with his beautiful daughter. He has apparently traveled to the center of Mt. Fuji to prove his theory, but there is another possibility: some say he is really after a secret cache of gold hidden by a feudal warlord. Hooked by his friend's promise to let him use a highly advanced camera, the main character, a painter named Roshu Nonomura, accompanies his friend and two other amateur explorers on an adventurous expedition deep within Mt. Fuji. Along the way, they encounter a cat that glows in the dark, a monster that seems to be a living relic of the dinosaur age, and a race of underground humans. This amply realized work of fantasy, laced with delicious humor, is written on a scale surpassing the original in grandeur.
This could make a hell of a nice volume if it were published here with the original illustrations, but I have a feeling it's not going to happen anytime soon. I'd settle for a Japanese edition -- if one exists -- just to be able to thumb through the pictures at leisure.

The remaining images are from a set of illustrations Kiuchi executed for a Folio Society edition of Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea.

Kiuchi's website, which has both Japanese and English versions, has a biography and a generous selection of his other work, including some animated spots he created for Starbucks.

Late note: a post on the blog of the Heflinreps Illustration Agency has several Kiuchi illustrations for a Japanese children's book called Let's Go Out for a Ride!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Mysterious Tales of Japan

There are countless illustrated versions of Lafcadio Hearn's Japanese ghost stories, but I have a fondness for this one, which was published in 1996 by Putnam and is apparently already out-of-print, though secondhand copies are readily available. A couple of the tales are from sources other than Hearn, but the volume includes three of the four stories on which Masaki Kobayashi's magnificent film Kwaidan was based, lacking only "In a Cup of Tea."

The retelling is by storyteller and author Rafe Martin, the illustrations by Tatsuro Kiuchi, a prolific artist who has worked in a variety of styles both here and in his native Japan. Among his other projects is a series of nearly 300 images to accompany a serialized novel by Hikaru Okuizumi, The New Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Notes for a Commonplace Book (1)

Lafcadio Hearn:

By the use of a few chosen words the composer of a short poem endeavors to do exactly what the painter endeavors to do with a few strokes of the brush, --- to evoke an image or a mood, --- to revive a sensation or an emotion. And the accomplishment of this purpose, --- by poet or by picture-maker, --- depends altogether upon capacity to suggest, and only to suggest. A Japanese artist would be condemned for attempting elaboration of detail in a sketch intended to recreate the memory of some landscape seen through the blue haze of a spring morning, or under the great blond light of an autumn afternoon. Not only would he be false to the traditions of his art : he would necessarily defeat his own end thereby. In the same way a poet would be condemned for attempting any completeness of utterance in a very short poem : his object should be only to stir imagination without satisfying it. So the term ittakkiri --- meaning "all gone," or "entirely vanished," in the sense of "all told," --- is contemptuously applied to verses in which the verse-maker has uttered his whole thought; --- praise being reserved for compositions that leave in the mind the thrilling of a something unsaid. Like the single stroke of a temple-bell, the perfect short poem should set murmuring and undulating, in the mind of the hearer, many a ghostly aftertone of long duration.

"Bits of Poetry," from In Ghostly Japan

Michael Jarrett:

Why didn't the Boatmen's music attract a theory? Why didn't it draw analysis into its orbit? The music was "easy to say." In short, it seemed ordinary. And when music seems ordinary -- self-evident, natural, and familiar -- explanations come off as either forced (arcane) or obvious (banal). Analytical discourse fails not in the face of complexity but when it perceives simplicity.

What remains are associations, impressions, the very sort of observations that analysis derides. [...] The Boatmen find their subject matter in ordinary life and, very often, create a distinctive kind of rhythm and blues, however disguised. They're more Stax/Volt than pop-art avant-garde. [...]

We can talk all day about rock. Making sense of rock 'n' roll is vastly more challenging. For example, why are there so many books on Bob Dylan and so few on the musical significance and contributions of Little Richard and James Brown? Why is Elvis Presley a sociologist's dream and a musicologist's nightmare? What lends itself more readily to detailed description, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or "Tomorrow Never Knows"? Why is Pink Floyd easy to write about but impossible to enjoy? Why is Led Zeppelin more academically defensible than the Shirelles? Why does Jimi Hendrix matter more than Bo Diddley? Why is self-indulgence easier to theorize than self-effacement?

Liner notes to Wide Awake by The Vulgar Boatmen