Symbolist art: the material and its ideal realization

Here in what I hope is a clickable link is Loie Fuller in 1905, when she was smiting the sensibilities of such as Auguste Rodin and William Butler Yeats.

Loie Fuller (1905) [silent short film]

And here she is on her return tour in 2016. Marmoreal now as an image by Rodin, she has gone static at last, and her beauty no longer needs to scowl with the effort of becoming.

Source of the Lumière Brothers video clip: YouTube,

Hat: comparative immortality

1. Art

Early one April, Vaslav Nijinsky descended in New York. For his atterrisage he was costumed in a fuzzy coat and a furry hat.

A few days later, a New York Times reviewer wasn’t entirely pleased by Nijinsky’s appearance. However, he was prepared to make allowances for the deleterious influence of choreography.

2. On the other hand, real stuff

This judgment on Nijinsky’s suspect grace appeared in the newspaper just below another Russian item. That one began:

The list continued for several more inches. As it rolled down the page, it seemed to grow a voice and a music. The music was a song made of names, and it pulsed with their rhythm like a dancer.

3. Punchline

The year when Nijinsky danced one way and Princess Troubetzkoy danced another was 1916. Within a year from then, the choreography of the ballets russes was changed, onstage and off.

But this color picture from a century afterward depicts an exhibition of Nikolai Roerich’s costumes for a dance that Nijinsky choreographed in 1913: The Rite of Spring.

A girl in a leotard is looking. She is still young, as Nijinsky in his deteriorating photograph is still young. Some hats, it turns out, come from a boutique where moth and rust do not corrupt. Immortal fur, let’s name you the Nijinsky.


The photograph of Nijinsky is in the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

The New York Times articles are part of a single column published on April 16, 1916.

The photograph of the Roerich exhibit is at

Zero speed, illustrated

Illustration 1. The paddle wheels of the steamer Boadicea are turning in reverse, holding the boat steady alongside its wharf by countering the flow of the Thames past Lambeth Palace. In the vocabulary of navigation, this is called maintaining zero speed. The white water churning forward along the sides of the boat is a wake generated by imposing stillness on the river. This Photochrom postcard dates from the 1890s, but the natural history underlying its image of turbulent energy is timeless. It has nothing to do with the kind of history that gives itself names like “Boadicea” or “anno domini.”

Illustration 2. A recurring image in the films of Fellini is the procession of people moving in parallel at different speeds. In 1973 Fellini staged it for his memory treatise Amarcord as a ritual dance toward the sea. There, actors moving like meridians across a globe walked and drove across a stage toward imagined water to bring an imagined episode from 1933 back to the life of memory. Recorded then by a camera at Cinecittà, the movement through the space of Fellini’s Rimini became the dance of Nataraj against natural law: the dance that says to its dancer, “If you can become as beautiful in your motion as I am, if you can become nothing but a moving geometry, you won’t, during the second it takes you to step with me into the air, have to die. You will take on a name, and the name will endure as the shape of a wave endures.” To see the dance perform itself for 35 seconds and then end, click this link.


Illustration 3.

About fifty years after the episode of the current in the Thames and about eight years after the imagined transit of the Rex past Rimini, an image within Edwin Rosskam’s camera slipped and went crooked but recovered itself. The film advance mechanism’s sprockets took out a few inches of a street that once existed, and so those few inches are now gone. Everywhere else within the image, however, everything remains. Pictured in a surround of trash, a man’s sneakered foot and swinging arm have been translated into an idea in words that we could name something like “Stride.”

But Stride has other names. In 1941 he was given one of his other names by Arthur Rosskam himself, and then some time later that name was certificated in more words by the Library of Congress. “Untitled photo,” say the Library’s words-for-the-record, and then they make Rosskam’s name for Stride into a citation: “Possibly related to: Lunch wagon for Negroes, Chicago, Illinois.” After consultation with Rosskam’s contact sheet and notebook, the Library also wrote a birth certificate for Stride (“1941 Apr.”), and filed it in a bibliography named “Collection: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.”

But how the meanings of all that conservatorship have changed since 1941! “Lunch wagon” was wheelless in 1941, and it called its pieces of pie “Homade.” In a “home” in Chicago in 1941, says “Homade,” there worked a “Negro” with a “rolling pin.” Can you begin to visualize a lived meaning for that sentence? Or even for the single word “for,” as it exists in this record in relation to the word “Negroes”? The words have gone strange. Only the sprocket holes along the top and bottom of the conserved image still signify unambiguously, and all they ever have signified is the trace of a vanished action. Somewhere on the exterior of a camera, say the sprocket holes, Arthur Rosskam’s thumb and its musculature were once at work on a mechanism. The interior of the camera, which Rosskam once filled with the light of something he thought he had seen, is much darker now than it seemed in 1941.

But perhaps, if the promise once made to nature and its body of laws by the Lord of the Dance is to be kept, we may yet learn to read the wordlessness of the dance called Stride. For now, at any rate, it does survive: on a page, the trace of an arm and a leg moving through space and vanished time, in white and black.


The image of Lambeth Palace is in the Photochrom Print Collection at the Library of Congress,

The image related to “Lunch wagon for Negroes” is at

A Photoshopped print is available at