Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The black and white idea


William M. Van der Weyde,
Electric Chair at Sing Sing, ca. 1900
Great Photographs from Daguerre to the Great Depression
(Mineola, NY: Dover, 2008), image 091
Click to enlarge.


 Irving Penn,
Vogue, April 1, 1950


"A mask will enable me to substitute for the face of some commonplace player, or for that face repainted to suit his own vulgar fancy, the fine invention of a sculptor, and to bring the audience close enough to the play to hear every inflection of the voice. A mask never seems but a dirty face, and no matter how close you go is still a work of art; nor shall we lose by staying the movement of the features, for deep feeling is expressed by a movement of the whole body. In poetical painting and in sculpture the face seems the nobler for lacking curiosity, alert attention, all that we sum up under the famous words of the realists 'vitality.' It is even possible that being is only possessed completely by the dead. . . ."

-- William Butler Yeats, introduction to Certain Noble Plays of Japan, by Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa. 1916. Pound and Fenollosa, The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan (New York: New Directions, 1959), 155.


The black and white idea: straps and stripes and a black veil over a whitened face, retouched in the zone of transmission between the face and its image. Art as pyrotechnician of an explosion of high spirits: the April Fool's Day feeling that to put on the mask is never to die, let alone to experience curiosity or alert attention.

Bars of a portable prison. High-contrast loss of the middle ranges of emotion. Veil as barrier to whatever might be external to the self, a world that the veil has successfully excluded from notice by the masked face.

The black and white idea, at intervals before the death of Martin Luther King.