January 31, 2007
It’s probably fair to say that Bruno Schulz’s writings are much better known than are his drawings and prints. Yet Schulz had trained as an artist: he had studied architecture in Lwów, and the fine arts at Vienna; and his day-job was as the drawing-master at a boys’s school in his home town of Drohobycz. The first editions of his story-collections Sklepy cynamonowe (‘Cinnamon Shops,’ aka ‘The Street of Crocodiles’) and Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą (‘The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass’) were illustrated with Schulz’s own drawings.
Years before his first literary success, between 1920-22, Schulz had issued several variants of a portfolio of twenty or so prints entitled Xięga bałwochwalcza (‘The Booke of Idolatry’). These were executed in the seldom-used cliché-verre technique, which requires that a design be scratched into a glass plate covered with an opaque ground (such as black gelatin), the artist leaving the glass transparent where the lines were to print black. The glass plate was then used as a photographic negative, and a print produced by exposing light through it onto sensitised photographic paper.
These prints all revolve around a single subject: ‘the voluntary humiliation of a man before a woman’. Such scandalous, near-fetishistic subject matter meant that Schulz only ever showed them to a select audience of close friends and understanding connoisseurs. The first half-dozen images here are details of scans taken from a selection of the prints reproduced in Michael Gibson’s book Symbolism. Gibson, unsurprisingly, sees them as a late appearance of the stereotypical Symbolist femme fatale.
I was struck by the following reminiscences of Schulz related
by a former pupil of his, one Alfred Schreyer:
“I used to regularly meet [him] when I was on my way to school. Though I had not been introduced to him, I felt obliged to take off my cap in greeting and nod my head politely. Physically, there was hardly anything in him that would attract immediate attention, there was something birdlike in the manner he walked, but one felt spiritual energy emanating from him… [He] was said to be slightly gaga, but at school, where all the teachers are usually given nicknames, he had none that would stick to him…
He could handle well the tools of a carpenter with a consummate skill. He taught us in class how to use planes, files and other tools. I learnt these skills so well that years later when I found myself in a concentration camp, [they] helped me survive.
We often asked him in class to tell us fairy tales. He would clear his workbench off wood shavings, sit down on it and begin telling his stories. They were actually fairy tales, all of them improvised as he went along, and we were so reluctant to leave the classroom if the bell announcing the end of the lesson would catch us in the middle of his stories.”
I had hoped to write something about Schulz’s stories, too, but have been unable to reduce my thoughts about them to a pithy paragraph or two, and will simply conclude instead with some extracts (in Celia Wieniewska’s translation) from The Street of Crocodiles:
If one entered for example a tailor’s shop to order a suit—a suit of cheap elegance characteristic of the district—one found that the premises were large and empty. […] Soon, a slender young man appeared, astonishingly servile, agile, and compliant, to satisfy one’s requirements and to drown one in the smooth flow of his cheap sales talk. But when, talking all the time, he unrolled an enormous piece of cloth, fitting, folding, and draping the stream of material, forming it into imaginary jackets and trousers, that whole manipulation seemed suddenly unreal, a sham comedy, a screen ironically placed to hide the true meaning of things.
The tall dark salesgirls, each with a flaw in her beauty (appropriately for that district of remaindered goods), came and went, stood in the doorways watching to see whether the business entrusted to the experienced care of the salesman had reached a suitable point. [...]
Slowly the selection of the suit gave place to the second stage of the plan. The effeminate and corrupted youth, receptive to the client’s most intimate stirrings, now put him before a selection of the most peculiar trademarks, a whole library of labels, a cabinet displaying the collection of a sophisticated connoisseur. It then appeared that the outfitter’s shop was only a facade behind which there was an antique shop with a collection of highly questionable books and private editions. The servile salesman opened further storerooms, filled to the ceiling with books, drawings, and photographs. These engravings and etchings were beyond our boldest expectations: not even in our dreams had we anticipated such depths of corruption, such varieties of licentiousness.
We shall always regret that, at a given moment, we had left the slightly dubious tailor’s shop. We shall never be able to find it again. We shall wander from shop sign to shop sign and make a thousand mistakes. We shall enter scores of shops, see many which are similar. We shall wander along shelves upon shelves of books, look through magazines and prints, confer initimately and at length with young women of imperfect beauty, with an excessive pigmentation who yet would not be able to understand our requirements.
Our hopes were a fallacy, the suspicious appearance of the premises and the staff were a sham, the clothes were real clothes, and the salesman had no ulterior motives…
Posted by misteraitch at January 31, 2007 01:45 PM
Apologies, by the way, for it having been so quiet around here lately—I’ve had the flu…
I, too, was struck by Schulz's work when I got the 'Symbolism' book years ago, I think the volume contains a lot of leads to lesser appreciated -- but sometimes quite interesting -- artists.
Thanks, Mr H. I've been fond of Schulz's work since reading The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass in an old Penguin paperback edition, but I didn't know there were more of his drawings on the web. --J.
I absolutely love the work of Bruno Schulz. Last year I discovered a little spanish publishing company, "Maldoror Ediciones", that has published several books by (and about) Schulz, including "The Booke of Idolatry". I bought "Cinnamon Shops" and "The Sanatorium...", and now I'm planning to purchase "The booke" and "The Republic of Dreams". It's a pity he's not very well known in Spain, his short tales are simply amazing.
I have also tried to write a post about Schulz`s literary work, but I find it almost impossible :-D
I resent that flu...
And what a good idea! I first read Schulz a great many moons ago in Daniel Halpern's Antaeus. I've read descriptions of his pictures and the 'Landau' murals, but I never thought to look for the art on the web. Now I'm going to go see what else is there...
Two tangential comments about Schulz:
The Brothers Quay have created a stop-action film based on The Street of Crocodiles. (There is a related article at http://www.kinoeye.org/04/05/fiumara05.php .) The film is well worth seeing, even it it hews more to the spirit than the letter of the books.
And Cynthia Ozick's novel, The Messiah of Stockholm, is in part about the supposed rediscovery of Schulz's lost novel The Messiah.
Marly—not as much as I resent it; I’ve had the thing for three & a half weeks now and still haven’t quite shaken it off.
Chris—I’d heard of the Quays’ movie and Ozick’s book, but have not seen the one or read the other: have you read The Messiah of Stockholm?—would you recommend it?
And, as I should have already mentioned, I owe thanks to Michelangelo for suggesting Schulz as a subject in the first place…
With three children, I am a devotee of hand-washing and flu shots. Not that they save me, but I am always so innocent and hopeful until slain...
Poor you, that does sound like a rotten one. I got my worst one ever in Ottawa during winter carnival. They grow them big in dark, northern places!
Last night I took out a book that I haven't touched in at least 20 years out the shelf, 1953 Hebrew edition of Ernest Claes's "De Witte", and inside were some newspaper clippings with the same illustrations by Bruno Schulz. They were from the Haaretz literary suplement of April 3, 1977...
This is so strange...
He taught us in class how to use planes, files and other tools. I learnt these skills so well that years later when I found myself in a concentration camp, [they] helped me survive.
When we talk about Schulz, tragedy is never very far away.
Thank you for posting this, misteraitch. I was lucky enough to see his cliché verres at the Paris show Présences Polonaises in 1983 (where I also discovered Bruno’s friend and champion, the crazy and Giornale-worthy Witkiewicz). Seeing the work live, one can really appreciate its outstanding quality.
I read his fiction much later. It is as powerfully visual as you would expect from a painter / writer. At the time I felt that his fiction and his drawings came from two different worlds—dazzlingly colourful and ever-changing the former; narrow and darkly fetishistic the latter. Now that I’ve read the passage you quoted, I am not so sure…
Ah, the extraordinary Bruno... There's a great collection of his drawings in a large format softcover book that Northwestern University Press brought out in 1990. I was lucky to find a copy in a remainder shop in London; I guess there may be some knocking around Abe.
The BFI have recently produced a collection of the Quay's incredible films, I urge you to see them with all haste. There's also "Sanatorium pod klepsydra", a film by Wojciech Has from 1973 but I've yet to see that. Amazon has a listing for a DVD but with no detail. Has made an earlier film of the Saragosa Manuscript which is a real oddity worth looking out for.
Excellent post ... been fascinated by Bruno for about twenty years since moving to Poland. I was fortunate to see his amazing art at first hand at an excellent touring exhibition here in Wroclaw about four years ago. I also have the Has film of 'Sanatorium pod Klepsydra' taped from Polish television ... a decent attempt at filming the unfilmable.
A couple of years ago Bruno's last images were discovered - a series of small delicate murals painted on the walls of a Gestapo officer's house in his home town of Drohobycz, now in the Ukraine.
Unfortunately, they were almost immediately removed [after being photographed], but my memory is hazy - I think they were taken by some Jewish organization and ended up either in Lwow or Israel. Caused quite a scandal over here ...
Yes, I would definitely recommend The Messiah of Stockholm.
Dear Misteraitch please look at this string now!! http://www.spamula.net/blog/archives/000445.html
I was browsing around the net and I am pretty sure that I have informations about this particular painting : The Slaughter of Babies by King Herod’s Soldiers. What and where was the last known data on this item? Do you still have the Romanian e-mail?? Do not hesitate to write me directly on my email.
i love, i love, i love bruno schulz