Advice to visual artists concerning the fate of their works in the coming wars – Bertolt Brecht

 

 

 

 

A word of introduction: once again I turn to the public word, seeking voice and balance while trying to negotiate this unspeakably difficult time.

It begins small – what do we know? Travel plans to Budapest come to a sudden, screeching halt in mid-March, when borders are closed and flights cancelled. The Small Book of Chaos exhibition at the Nyitott Műhely is called off for the third time. Suitcases are unpacked. Then the unimaginables begin to accelerate and amass.

Spring, cold and clinging tenaciously to winter, seeps belatedly into summer. Suddenly it’s hot, in every sense. Slowly attempting to reconstruct life since then, one step at a time. Overcoming a string of unidentified illnesses, starting the vegetable garden which hadn’t been in the game plan this year, returning to work on the Spots and Holes, writing poems, reading poems, reading news ceaselessly while trying to breathe in this stultifying air of chaos.

What is before us is unbelievable. Pestilence, war, fascism, racism, the roiling of the natural world – all linked, all descending upon us at once, so it seems, although it’s been building up or down to this for years, decades, generations, aeons. This moment is marked by challenges on a scale never experienced in my lifetime.

In one piece or another, one sordid variant or another it’s happened before. Turning to poets of other times, there are voices which validate the dark viewpoints and enormous pictures before me and give courage. Writer and friend Jack Pulaski suggested Brecht’s poems. So I bought the Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht, translated and edited by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine. There I found what I was looking for – a poet’s voice which speaks to what is happening now. I’ll share observations and discoveries in this ongoing search for guidance. 

 

–  Diane Sophrin
   Vermont.  6.21.20

 

 

Advice to visual artists concerning the fate of their works in the coming wars

By Bertolt Brecht

Today I thought
How you friends too, who paint and draw
And you who wield the chisel will have
In the times of the great wars that are surely coming
Nothing to laugh about.

For you ground your hopes
Which are necessary for the construction of works of art
Above all on generations yet to come!
It follows, you will need for your paintings, drawings and stones
Created under such privation
Good hiding places.

Consider, for example, that the artistic treasures of the British Museum
Plundered from all corners of the globe
At some sacrifice of lives and money, the labors
Of long-lost peoples, now reposited at a street corner
Can be, with a few explosive bombs, reduced to dust
One fine morning between nine and ten past.

So where to put your works of art? The holds of ships
Are not safe, the sanatoria in the woods
The steel vaults of the banks are not safe enough.

You ought perhaps to try and get permission
To execute your paintings in the tunnels of the underground railway
Or, better still, in aircraft hangars
Buried in concrete seven floors under.
Paintings painted straight onto the walls
Take up no room.
And a few still lifes and landscapes
Will not trouble the bomber crews.

That said, you would then have to erect signs
In prominent places with easily legible directions
That at such and such a depth beneath such and such a building (or pile of rubble)
There lies a small canvas of yours, a representation of
The face of your wife.

So that future generations, your unborn comforters
May discover that in our times there was art
And pursue enquires, shovelling away the debris.
All the while the watchman in his bearskin
High on the skyscraper roof, rifle in hs lap
(Or bow and arrow), keeps watch for the enemy, or the kite
He craves to fill his hungry stomach

The Svendborg Poems. 1939.
Translated by Tom Kuhn and David Constantine

 

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