The Age of Genius

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Finally back on track! So, I was going to make a hilarious joke about getting ready to ”embark and go’ on my journey to Bratislava. However, due to my slow typing I am now already in Bratislava drinking beer and eating pizza. But why am I in Bratislava? Myself and my 50 letters comrades are performing as part of the Istropolitana projekt 2012. “Oh, how interesting Jack!” I hear you cry, “Please tell me more.” Well….if you insist.

Earlier this year we devised a show called Pages from the book of… as part of our curriculum at Rose Bruford College. The show is based on the life and work of Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, and was created using the theatrical works of Tadeusz Kantor. But actually, I’m not going to talk about that right now. For now, I’m going to try to contextualize the whole thing for you a bit by giving you a very brief introduction to Bruno Schulz. Later in the week I’ll tell you a little more about our show and of course all about the Istropolitana festival. So keep checking back.

The ‘Age of genius’ is what Bruno Schulz describes as the period of youth in which people are at their most joyful and are full of artistic vision. For Bruno, his age of genius ended when he was 22 with the death of his father. But Bruno’s artistic vision didn’t falter at this point – It may have changed and took on a somewhat darker, more ironic tone, but then this should be expected seeing some of the things that defined his upbringing.

Bruno Schulz was a Polish-Jewish writer and artist. His work is known across Europe and he’s often cited as one of the greatest writers in recent history…or more accurately, he could (or should) have been one of the greatest writers in recent history were it not for his tragic death which cut his artistic career short. But we’ll get to the morbid bits later!

Bruno Schulz was born in 1892 in a Polish town called Drohovich, which is now part of Western Ukraine. According to records he was a very  sickly child. His bad health followed him throughout his entire life and later he developed serious problems with his heart and weak lungs. It is possible that these health issues were hereditary, as his father also suffered from serious health problems leading to the cancer that killed him. Their illnesses combined made life in the Schulz house quite a depressing affair. Unfortunately, things would only get worse for the Schulz family.

Often subjected to anti-Semitic attitudes Bruno grew up a very quiet and shy person and this didn’t seem to change throughout his life. If we look at some of his self-portraits we can see that he often paints himself in a rather negative or some say masochistic manner. I’ve read that another possible reason for this could be that he was subjected to ‘punishment’ from his nurse when left alone with her, but let’s not consider this is a sure fact.

A self portrait

In general, living was not especially easy for poor Bruno and his family. As well as these more domestic problems. The ever-present spectre of ill-health had terrible repercussions for the family (Bruno’s brother in law committed suicide rather gruesomely after being diagnosed with a terminal illness). Of course, there was also the issue of politics in turn of the century Poland. Many of this being due to discriminatory behavior aimed towards those of Jewish heritage. Apparently, in 1911 Bruno witnessed a political rally outside of his home in the square in Drohovich. In this rally Bruno saw one of his friends murdered. It’s possible that this scene made it into some of his stories in the form of the unidentified military squadron which make their way through the village square in Sanatorium under the sign of the hourglass.

Of course this wasn’t the last time Bruno would come into contact with violent military behavior. Now, actually that was me trying to avoid the morbid bits…and unfortunately there’s more to come, but again we’ll put this off for a bit shall we?

Photo time

Now lets talk a little bit about his writing. Of Bruno’s, two books survive. Cinnamon Shops (also known as The Street of Crocodiles) and The Sanatorium under the sign of the hourglass. Both books are collections of stories of various lengths. These stories are all linked closely to his real life and could be described as a series of dreams and memories in which he mixes fact with fiction in order to reminisce on his family and upbringing. Bruno’s world is a mythic one. A place where people may transform into different beings, be in two places at once, where objects may attain life, and, the absurd is a reality. For Bruno, Myth was the root of all creation – in an essay called The Mythicisation of Reality he wrote that “there is not one grain among our ideas that has not risen from mythology, that is not a mythology once transformed, mutilated and re-moulded.” To him, using words in any manner was like using fragments of mythology and stories to piece together something new, or as he writes; “we are building, like barbarians, our homes from fragments of the sculptures and statues of the gods.”

Myth then becomes an important part of Bruno’s writing, and one could see his stories as the myth of his family; twisted, transformed, re-evaluated and reinvented by the ancient words that Bruno used to sculpt his masterpiece. This becomes especially noticeable when we consider the treatment of Bruno’s father in his fiction. One can clearly see that Bruno was deeply affected by the death of his father when reading his work. Often in his stories, his father will die or transform into creatures and yet reappear later in another story. Many people have stated that throughout his writing Bruno wished to revive the spirit of his father, so that his existence would continue on in some way. Interestingly, his mother didn’t gain the same treatment, and does not have a fictional counterpart in Bruno’s stories. I don’t know why. This idea of reviving and reliving is very important in the work and reading Schulz is like journeying into his (and by extension our own) ‘age of genius’. As the closing lines of The Book from Sanitarium state;

“Have we prepared are reader to some extent for the things that are to follow? Might we now hazard a journey into our age of genius?…Then, in God’s name, Let’s embark and go!”

Cover art for Sanitarium under the sign of the hourglass

Bruno’s writing is without a doubt wonderful. It’s poetic, touching, humorous and chilling all at once. If his writing was the only thing we had left of Schulz it would be more than enough to be thankful for. However, Bruno also left a large number of etchings and sketches behind.

His method of drawing was quite complicated: Firstly he would cover a sheet of glass in black gum or pigment and scratch his images into the surface with a nail. After this, he would place photosensitive paper on them and develop them in the sun. The method is called cliche verre and I think you can emulate it with OHP paper and a computer scanner nowadays, if you wanted to give it a go!

The art of Bruno Schulz is very bleak and quite morbid at times. His art is full of erotic and sadomasochistic images with a focus on the concept of ‘Woman as Goddess’. In his images men gather on all fours, gawking and panting as they look up at woman, the object of their admiration and lust.

Do you understand the terrible cynicism of this symbol on a woman’s foot?

Another common thing, found in a lot of Schulz’s drawings, is the imagery of fellow Jews. In 1941 after Drohovich was occupied by Nazi forces. Bruno was put under protection by a Gestapo sergeant called Felix Landau, who was in charge of organising labour for the Jewish population of Drohovich. Landau, admiring his work, put Bruno to work decorating his child’s nursery walls with drawings, and later the walls of a riding school. Into these images, Bruno inserted images of himself, his father and other Jews. For example, in a piece depicting Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs he painted many of the characters with the faces of his Jewish companions, and he lent his own face to the witch (a possible comment about the witch hunts that were being conducted against the Jews).

Apparently, Landau was a madman. He used to enjoy tormenting and killing Jews and apparently walked around with his weapons drawn ready to inflict random acts of violence. I read somewhere that he used to sit on his balcony and randomly shoot Jews as they passed. In 1942 he murdered a Jewish Dentist who happened to be under the protection of another Gestapo officer called Karl Günter. According to legend, Günter then personally sought out Bruno and put two bullets in his head saying to Landau afterwards; “You killed my Jew, so I have killed yours”. This shocking and tragic story may or may not be factual, and it is possible this did not happen at all. However, what is fact, is that Schulz was shot dead in the ghetto in Drohovich. And just like that, Bruno’s life and art ended.

Even though the exact details of his death are questionable, I think it is quite fitting that such a story has arisen, giving his demise a certain legendary or mythic quality.


Portrait by Drew Christie.

Well, this concludes my short and by no means exhaustive introduction to Schulz. Obviously, I urge you to buy and read his books, but if you’re a cheapskate you can read a translation of his fiction for free on Schulzian.net. Also, much of Bruno’s art is available on the website The Art of Bruno Schulz.

You should also check out the wonderful stop-motion film about Schulz, made by the Quay Brothers, available here and here.

Check back later in the week for info about our show, and about my experience in the Istropolitana festival.

Jack.

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