The Definitive Dwiggins no. 71—Metaphlap-Jerbiam

Metaphlap-Jerbiam "Celebration" (Fiddlestrummings) (1916). Illustration by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins); calligraphy by W.A. Dwiggins.

Metaphlap-Jerbiam “Celebration” (Fiddlestrummings) (1916). Illustration by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins); calligraphy by W.A. Dwiggins.

Another peculiar bit of Dwigginsiana is Metaphlap-Jerbiam “Celebration” (Fiddlestrummings) (1916), a satirical poem written out calligraphically and illustrated by Dwiggins (in the guise of Hermann Püterschein). It consists of a single sheet of coarse, irregularly-shaped tan paper printed in black. Jerbiam in the title indicates that the poem is the work of John J. Phillips, Jr., who used the pseudonym J.J. Jerbiam in Vague, the magazine that he created with Dwiggins and Glenn Palmer in 1915. (See The Definitive Dwiggins no. 69.) Vague and Metaphlap-Jerbiam are linked together, but exactly how is unclear. [1] And equally hazy is who or what the poem is specifically satirizing.

The absence of type in Metaphlap-Jerbiam indicates that it was probably printed by Dwiggins himself on the White Elephant, his “toy press” at his home in Hingham. The illustration and calligraphy were undoubtedly created as a single zinc plate.

The illustration is dated 1916, indicating that Metaphlap-Jerbiam was printed after Vague, but there are no additional clues as to exactly when it was done that year. [2] Was it before or after July 14, 1916, the date of Hugo Ball’s first Dadaist performance at the Cabaret Voltaire? The answer does not really matter as it is very unlikely that Metaphlap-Jerbiam was a response to Ball since he and Dadaism in general were not known in the United States until 1917 at the earliest. [3] But it is intriguing that the illustration—a jumble of faces, parts of stringed instruments, a horn, glasses, a man playing a bass fiddle, and a man smoking a cigar—suggests a musical performance in a nightclub; a celebration with “fiddlestrummings”.

The satirical object of the poem is unclear, though it elicits a swarm of suggestions. Its invented words “chimnous,” “blark,” and “plopous,” are reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, while the use of the Old Saxon “tanquards” and the French “joyant” hint at the exhibitionist erudition of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. “Fiddlestrummings” and the repetition of words undoubtedly reference Vachel Lindsay’s poem “General Booth Enters Into Heaven” (1913) and “Congo” (1914). The former includes a stanza accompanied by banjos. The corpses and nauseous souls in the poem are allusions to 19th-century Symbolist poetry. But, among all of these vague references, there may be a more concrete one—at least in the poem’s format.

The layout of Metaphlap echoes that of “Narcosis” by Katharine N. Rhoades (1885–1965) as it was printed in Alfred Steiglitz’s magazine 291 no. 12 (February 1916). [4] The timing of its publication reinforces the notion that Phillips had it in mind, but it is doubtful that his poem was a direct parody of it. Metaphlap, like Vague before it, is a broad and diffuse attack on the avant-garde.

"Narcosis" by Katharine N. Rhoades. From 291 no. 12 (February 1916).

“Narcosis” by Katharine N. Rhoades. From 291 no. 12 (February 1916).

Dwiggins’ pen-and-ink illustration has no direct counterpart in any of the issues of 291; nor in the work of any artist from the period 1890–1915 that I can identify. In its dreamlike state it predates the formation of the Surrealist movement by several years. Its mash-up of images in a single drawing also seems to be ahead of its time. It is not a true collage since no pre-existing material or images are involved. Although it may have been inspired by Cubist collage and papier collé, Metaphlap is vastly different from the work of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris. [5] Those artists added real items such as wallpaper, newspapers, and cardboard to their paintings; Dwiggins did nothing more than combine disparate images in his drawing. Metaphlap also has little in common with the post-World War I collages of Max Ernst (1891–1976).

The floating faces/heads at the left in Metaphlap are reminiscent of several paintings by James Ensor (1860–1949) such as Still Life in the Studio (1889), Pierrot Lunaire (1893), and Self-Portrait with Masks (1899), but it is unlikely that Dwiggins was aware of the Belgian artist. Furthermore, his drawing has none of Ensor’s sense of the macabre. One of the illustrations by Harry Clarke (1890–1931) for Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Poe (London: George G. Harrap & Co., 1919) also has a crowd of heads. Although Clarke’s meticulously detailed drawing has a late 19th-century feel, it was done three years after the more dramatic Metaphlap so it could not have been an influence on Dwiggins.

Still Life in the Studio by James Ensor (1889).

Still Life in the Studio by James Ensor (1889).

Illustration by Harry Clarke from Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe (London: George G. Harrap, 1919).

Illustration by Harry Clarke from Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe (London: George G. Harrap, 1919).

The Road to Hell by Francesco Goya (1818).

The Road to Hell by Francisco Goya (1818).

Another drawing that has a jumble of heads and faces that I have unearthed is The Road to Hell by Francisco Goya (1818). It is an image that would have caught Dwiggins’ attention, but where would he have seen it? It is not included in contemporary books on Goya. [6]

There is a contemporary woodcut in a Cubist manner entitled Musique by Henri Hayden (1882–1970) which bears some similarities to the right side of Metaphlap, but they are surely coincidental as the Paris-based Hayden was not a well-known artist.

Musique by Henri Hayden (1916).

Musique by Henri Hayden (1916).

It is difficult to know how aware Dwiggins was of contemporary trends in literature and art since he did not comment on such things in the letters of his that survive. The only clue there is, besides Vague no. 7, Metaphlap and a scrap of paper titled “Maxims and Axioms,” is a comment in a letter Phillips wrote about his association with Dwiggins:

We [Phillips, Palmer and Dwiggins] went to the first Armoury Show [sic] in 1913 in Boston shown on Boylston Street in Copley Hall red brick building in rooms that were totally unsuited for the showing of paintings. they [sic] were badley [sic] hung and the lighting was terrible, anyway we saw the exhibition that was to shape the future of art in our time. We enjoyed the show, had some misgivings on some of the stuff but it was down our alley and a breakaway for the conventional. [7]

The official title of the famous Armory Show was the International Exhibition of Modern Art. Boston was its third and final venue following New York and Chicago. The show, sponsored by the Copley Society of Art, was up for barely more than two weeks (from April 28 to May 14, 1913). Kim Orcutt says of it:

By the time the exhibition reached Boston it was not the same sprawling and dizzyingly diverse show that confronted audiences in New York. It was whittled down from upwards of fourteen hundred to less than three hundred objects, and American works were eliminated, so Bostonians saw only the avant-garde European paintings, sculpture, and works on paper that had startled visitors in New York and Chicago.

The reaction in Boston couldn’t have been more different from that in Chicago. Instead of huge crowds thronging the galleries, a media frenzy, and paintings burned in effigy, Bostonians stayed away in droves. After a few bad reviews, the newspapers fell silent. [8]

Unfortunately, Phillips was silent as to exactly which items in the Armory Show he, Palmer and Dwiggins had misgivings about, and which ones were down their alley. So, it is hard to know how the exhibition may have influenced their satirical efforts. However they did, both Vague no. 7 and Metaphlap seem to have met with the same lethargic reaction in Boston as did the Armory Show.

Metaphlap remains a mystery, one of the strangest things Dwiggins designed. [9]

1. The pseudonyms, tone, and paper link the two items. The paper for Metaphlap-Jerbiam closely matches the paper used as the wrapper for Vague.
2. Even though they were not paying jobs, there are entries for Vague and The Fabulist in Dwiggins’ account books. But there is none for Metaphlap-Jerbiam, except possibly “White Elephant Reconstructed” on January 29, 1916. The White Elephant was the name of his press at his home in Hingham.
3. Online sources are extremely vague about when Dadaism first reached the United States. For example, see The International Dada Archive. A search of the New York Times (via its Time Machine) indicates that Dadaism did not reach the general American public until 1919. In that year, the newspaper had several articles about the art movement: March 30, 1919; June 18, 1919; and August 10, 1919 when Hugo Ball was mentioned for the first time.
4. Rhoades was part of Steiglitz’s artistic circle in New York. She was a painter and illustrator as well as a poet. One of her oil paintings was included in the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (the “Armory Show”), but it was not part of the Boston version.
5. Still Life with Chair-Caning by Pablo Picasso (1912) is considered to be the first Cubist collage.
6. See both Great Engravers: Francisco Goya by Arthur Hind (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911) and Francisco Goya: A Study of the Work and Personality of the Eighteenth Century Spanish Painter and Satirist by Hugh Stokes (London: Herbert Jenkins Limited Publishers, 1914). The former does include The Rope Breaks (plate LIII), an etching from Goya’s series  “Los Desastres de la Guerra,” in which a sea of faces looks up at man on a tightrope.
7. John J. Phillips, Jr. to Dorothy Abbe 16 December 1959, Folder 19–755, Box 19, Dorothy Abbe Collection, Boston Public Library.
8. See The Armory Show at 100 website. Among the works by American artists not on display in Boston were works by Carl Gordon Cutler, Charles Hovey Pepper, and E. Ambrose Webster, three artists who had became colleagues of Dwiggins by 1916.
9. Another aspect of the strangeness of Metaphlap is the irregular shape of the drawing. The only pre-1916 oddly-shaped illustrations that I have located so far are the initial vignette and tailpiece that Charles Ricketts drew for “The Great Worm” by John Gray in The Dial (1889). This was not the same as The Dial published in Chicago that Dwiggins would have known from his school days. The British magazine ceased publication in 1897 and thus it is unlikely Dwiggins was aware of it and Ricketts’ drawings.