Thursday, July 23, 2009

Two shapes, part 1


White ginger, mariposa blanca, awapuhi keokeo, Hedychium coronarium: Honolulu, the rainy morning of July 23, 2009. Click to enlarge. From language to language, the flower's lexicon is as sharp and precisely outlined as the water drop, but to learn the word "tropical" as it extends through stem and petal into the darkness abaft the drop, we need a blurrier dictionary.
On The Masculine one asserts and fires the guns.
But one lives to think of this growing, this pushing life,
The vine, at the roots, this vine of Key West, splurging,
Covered one morning with blue, one morning with white,
Coming from the East, forcing itself to the West,
The jungle of tropical part and tropical whole.

-- Wallace Stevens, "Life on a Battleship," III

(But the awapuhi isn't a vine.)

Bill Brandt, "Early morning on the river."
London in the Thirties (New York: Pantheon, 1984), image 38.


London in the Thirties was Brandt's last project, completed just before his death in 1983: a high-key, high-contrast reprinting of some photographs taken half a century earlier. Visually, the change is striking. Now all is coal dark, set off only by glaring flashes of white. But the images are organized ideologically, not visually, and their political tropism is the same in both of their historical states, early light and late dark.

For its title and its table of contents make London in the Thirties unambiguously a book about the British class system during the Great Depression, with its laughing cockney girls dancing their swanky satiric dance, the Lambeth Walk, and its starched and bonneted maid bending rigidly at the waist as she takes the temperature of her master's bath. As Mark Haworth-Booth says in his introduction to the book, Brandt takes a "portentous view of the Baldwinian era -- wooden faces, iron closures." So the river bearing its dark, angular freight below Brandt's round and soaring bird in this image is probably political as well: the same imperial roadstead as the one that opens Heart of Darkness.

(But the bird seems to be flying toward us, toward our own hearts, above and away from the dark cargoes.)

2 comments:

Susan M. Schultz said...

The bird is flying out of a Turner painting and into something else indeed!

Jonathan Morse said...

Turner, yes! No wonder one of Brandt's early editors rejected this picture. He accused Brandt of faking it with a collage, and I guess he was righter than he knew. You're saying the picture is a collage: a collage of a bird from the Great Depression flying above the fighting Temeraire, built of a thousand trees.