The enigmatic picture above by the Japanese artist Yoshimori, is something of a favourite. It belongs to a long series of prints by various artists celebrating the many post stations along the long Tokaido Highway that connects the administrative capital at Edo with the Imperial capital at Kyoto. The print comes from a series that that is a contemporary account of the great modernisation programme of the Meiji government and is also perhaps a necessary piece of propaganda intended to counter rural superstitions about the unfamiliar course of progress. It was reported that after the introduction of the telegraph into the country, many people complained of foxes knocking on their doors at night delivering false and misleading telegrams.
There’s a lot going on in this print, stylistically and factually, that deserves some attention. Perhaps the most anachronistic image of the piece is the very visible telegraph pole that runs the entire length of the right hand side of the print. This must be one of the earliest renditions of the telegraph in art. The first telegraphic communication wire was installed in 1869 for a distance of about 800m between Yokohama Electric Light Office and Yokohama Courthouse. Telegraphic wire was then installed between Tokyo and Yokohama in December of the same year. In February of 1873, the wire was extended from Tokyo to Nagasaki. This makes this image exactly contemporaneous with that event. The box like object beneath is the way marker for the post station and in the background of the main image there is a view of the harbour at the free trade port of Yokohama containing foreign masted sailing ships. As if to emphasise the modernity, Yoshimori has drawn the figure of the woman in the style of western Renaissance art, making a good comparison with a similar print of Kintaro by Yoshitoshi. The calligraphy (in Chinese) reads:
The wind sends flags and sails in brocade waves/ revealing copper masts and iron hawsers/ It stops in the distance, in the inlet of the bay/ We hear news of its name and its signal fires/ and know that a steamship approaches the harbor.
The next image is intriguingly similar… this is from a mural of 1895 by the French Symbolist artist, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824 – 1898). The subject is Physics and it is a painting on canvas commissioned by the Boston Public Library to be part of a huge cycle of murals intended to cover the walls of the foyer and designed to illustrate the achievements of learning. This scene shows two symbolic messengers travelling along parallel wires, the upper one bearing good news and an olive branch in her right hand, the lower one carrying grave news, her face covered by her left hand in grief. In the lower left of the picture there is a painted representation of a telegraph pole, in the upper section there is a bolt of lightning, signifying electricity and perhaps the mysteries of the natural world against the man-made technology of telegraphic communication.
The third image is a little known drawing by the giant of twentieth century art, Marcel Duchamp…. Duchamp of course was the ‘Father of Conceptualism‘, a Dadaist, Surrealist and a person responsible to some extent for the move from retinal, representational world to the philosophical territory in the visual arts. The drawing represents an outline of his most famous work, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even, but with the mysterious addition of the outline of distant hills and the imposition of a telegraph pole on the right. The drawing is important since Duchamp had all but retired from art after making the The Bride etc (known as The Large Glass) in 1923. It later transpired that he had spent decades working in relative anonymity on a final, complex sculpture not unveiled until after his death and now housed in the Philadelphia Museum – Given: 1. The Illuminating Gas and 2. The Waterfall, 1946 – 1966. That piece is in many ways a hyper-real three-dimensional realisation of the abstraction of the Large Glass and consists of a diorama of a life sized nude women reclining on a bed of twigs, holding up a gas lamp in front of a brightly lit landscape of trees and hills, all of it viewed through two spy holes drilled in a pair of ancient wooden doors let into the gallery wall. The drawing links the two works and makes the connection between them explicit.
What do these three pieces of art have in common? Well, obviously they have all been chosen because they contain images of telegraph poles… in addition, each of the three images contains an image of a woman… and a landscape. The telegraph wires, powered by electricity remained until the mid twentieth century, potent images of technology… of physics and of PROGRESS. In each of the works, progress is not entirely welcome I think.
In the first image by Yoshimori, the telegraph pole (which appears consistently on the other 52 prints in the series), represents the dawn of the modern age for Japan… something that was feared and sometimes violently opposed by many Japanese and especially by artists. We’ve seen that the populace didn’t trust the messages that were sent along the telegraph wires, and in this print Yoshimori shows the instruments of forced trade in the background… iron boats, western buildings etc and in the foreground, a madonna… borrowed from Raphael or someone similar. This modern vision excludes the pragmatism and spontaneity of traditional male agency. There is no place for the samurai in this confident capitalist world.
In the Puvis de Chavannes mural, likewise the male is absent. The female symbols transmit their tidings through the metaphysical medium of the ether and in the Duchamp drawing as in the Large Glass, the males are encased in solid straightjackets, condemned to a life of onanism in the lower pane (or later, behind the great oak doors) whilst the female spirit – the bride – floats cloud like in the upper metaphysical realm of the top pane of glass. Although through the lens of modern gender-focussed art criticism, all three images display women in an ideal form to our gaze, they nevertheless also abandon men to the past, to the ancien regime. The message seems to me to very clearly suggest a female apotheosis through the metaphysical possibility of technology. In this symbolist world, male energy can be directed primarily through the wires and through the power of electrical energy… a mysterious and ultimately bleak vision of a future, digital age.
In the catalogue ‘First Papers of Surrealism’ 1942, Duchamp used the Puvis De Chavannes image of Physics alongside a quote from the proto-dadaist writer Alfred Jarry. Jarry was the satirist responsible for the fictional grotesque comic dictator, Ubu Roi and the inventor of of the mysterious and subversive critique of the science age: Pataphysics… a sort of persuasive nonsense-science. Jarry published a novel – The Supermale – whose climax sees the sexually incontinent hero strapped into an electric love chair and hit with 11,000 volts. He breaks free in the form of a half male, half supermale, expiring on the iron gates of his estate, the enamel decoration melted to his corpse like glass tears.
Clearly in early modernism and revolutionary Japan there was considerable anxiety among creatives that their virility would be supplanted by technology, that their creativity would be overtaken by the miracles of electricity and mechanisation. Curiously these male avante-gardists imagined that females would become liberated, transformed into creatures beyond mortality… symbols of the new age, free of the shackles of the patriarchal past. These forays into the symbolism of sexual liberation and the age of the new physics find expression also in the Art Nouveau posters and advertisements for gadgets and innovation. These commercial manifestations inspired Duchamp and others to see the twentieth century optimistically but there remains does there not, the lingering anxiety that the time of the supermale was coming to an end!
Toshidama Japanese Prints is an online gallery specialising in the woodblock prints of nineteenth century Japan.