Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
Artistic Crossover in Polish Modernism. The Case of Bruno Schulz's Xięga Bałwochwalcza (The Idolatrous Booke)
Author: Kris Van Heuckelom
Abstract (E): This article seeks to reassess the artistic output of Polish Modernism by introducing and applying some ideas from the field of visual studies. More specifically, it focuses on a detailed discussion of Bruno Schulz’s well-known book of engravings Xięga Bałwochwalcza (The Idolatrous Booke, ca. 1920). Most often, it has been claimed that Schulz’s Idolatrous Booke is devoted to man-woman relations, and more specifically to the dominating position of the female sex. The present article argues that Schulz’s book may be seen as an autoreferential artifact which not only addresses the problem of intersexual relations, but also contains a sui generis artistic program defining the relation between the verbal and the visual. “The Booke” as the age-old medium of the sacred Word is pulled away by the artist from the domain of the textual and redirected to the sphere of the image. In this sense, the Schulzian concept of the “idolatrous book” might be seen as a literal incarnation of the idea of artistic crossover.
Abstract (F): Cet article cherche à réévaluer la production artistique du Modernisme polonais en présentant et en appliquant des idées relevant du champ des études visuelles. Plus spécifiquement, il se concentre sur une discussion détaillée du livre de gravures de Bruno Schulz Xięga Bałwochwalcza (Le livre idolâtre, ca. 1920). On a fréquemment déclaré que Le livre idolâtre de Schulz est consacré aux relations homme-femme, et en particulier à la position de domination du sexe féminin. Cet article cherche à montrer que le livre de Schulz peut être vu comme objet façonné autoréférentiel qui aborde non seulement le problème des relations intersexuelles, mais contient également un programme artistique caractéristique définissant la relation entre le verbal et le visuel. “Le livre” comme porteur traditionnel du Verbe sacré est écarté par l’artiste du domaine du textuel et réorienté vers la sphère de l’image. Dans ce sens, le concept schulzien “du livre idolâtre” pourrait être vu comme l’incarnation littérale de l’idée de croisement artistique.
keywords: Bruno Schulz, Modernism, idolatry, autoreferentiality
Over the past few decades, the literary works of Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) have received wide international acclaim. Nowadays, Schulz is generally acknowledged as one of the towering figures of Polish Modernism, along with authors such as Witold Gombrowicz and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. In the mean time, there seem to be several aspects about Schulz's artistic output that make his work highly relevant to a diachronic approach of text-image relations. First of all, just like his colleague Witkiewicz, Schulz had the remarkable double talent of being both a writer and a visual artist. He made his debut as a graphic designer in the beginning of the 1920s and became known as a prose writer only in the 1930s, when he published his two widely appraised story collections Cinnamon Shops and Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass. Moreover, as a modern artist of Jewish descent, Schulz seemed to hold a position quite similar to that occupied by other monuments of European Modernism such as Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and Marc Chagall. Each one of them stood at the crossroads between tradition and modernity and shaped his artistic ideas through a creative exploration of the Jewish heritage. In Schulz's case, this contamination of the age-old Judaic tradition and the artistic tendencies of the day becomes very obvious in the way his work thematizes the relationship between visual and verbal representation.
The Idolatrous Booke: Erotic Cliché-Verres
Particular attention needs to be paid to the work that marked Schulz's debut as a graphic artist (and as an artist tout court). In the beginning of the 1920s, Schulz started experimenting with the graphic technique of cliché-verre, i.e. a particular type of glass etching in which an image is being scratched (with a sharp pointed instrument) in a glass plate covered with a black substance. The result is a negative, which is later copied on photosensitive paper, developed, fixed, and washed (more or less like photographic film). At a certain point, Schulz had finished about twenty different "glass negatives" and decided to put the obtained images together in various portfolios, each of which carried the title Xiega Balwochwalcza (The Idolatrous Booke). These artistic portfolios, which were offered on sale in several Polish book shops at the time, existed in slightly varying configurations. Unfortunately, however, most of the copies did not survive the Second World War. A couple of years ago, the remaining versions of Schulz's juvenile portfolio have been brought together in a very handy book edition, which has also appeared in French (Le Livre idolâtre), English (The Booke of Idolatry), and German (Das Götzenbuch).
Most often, it has been claimed that Schulz's Idolatrous Booke is devoted to man-woman relations, and more specifically to the dominating position of the female sex. The portfolio contains a series of about twenty engravings in which women are depicted as superior beings, while men take up the role of subordinate creatures, serving and venerating the female idol in all possible ways. First of all, Schulz critics and scholars have paid particular attention to the personal (or even autobiographical) undertone of the main theme of the book, and more specifically to the fact that it seems to reflect Schulz's problematic and disturbed relationship with women (a relationship which has often been called "masochistic"). It has been claimed, among others by Kitowska-Lysiak (1992: 134-138) and Sulikowski (1992: 185-188), that the book represents three female prototypes that seem to play a key role in Schulz's erotic imagination. With some modifications, t hese female characters also appear in Schulz's prose texts of the 1930s. The first prototype is that of a childish girl whose femininity has not developed yet, a kind of child androgyne. Its main features can be seen on the engravings The Infanta and Her Dwarfs and The Tribe of the Pariahs. The second prototype is represented by Undula, a self-confident and attractive young woman who is aware of her power over men but refrains from any form of physical violence. The third and last type appears in the final part of Schulz's portfolio, for instance on the engraving The Beasts. This particular prototype can be described as an aggressive and sadistic femme fatale who physically maltreats her male subordinates. Apart from this categorization into female prototypes, Schulz's depiction of the relation between the sexes and the peculiar artistic iconography of his portfolio have also been related to a more general artistic-ideological shift in modern art, viz. the evolution of women from being depicted as angelic beings to turning into powerful and cruel demonic creatures (Dijkstra 1986). From this point of view, Schulz's portfolio has been linked, among others by Kitowska-Lysiak (1992: 143-148) and Kasjaniuk (1993), to the work of predecessors such as Francisco Goya and Félicien Rops.
The Booke as an Autoreferential Artifact
There are, however, some aspects that seem to have been overlooked by Schulz critics and scholars. The interpretational approach I would like to propose focuses on Schulz's portfolio of engravings as an autoreferential artifact. This proclaimed autoreferential character of The Booke ensues directly from the fact that the title of the book seems to have a twofold application. It refers, firstly, to the material product created by the artist (a portfolio of engravings). Secondly, it designates a similar object (a book) being depicted on some of the engravings themselves (creating thus the effect of a mise-en-abîme). The double position of the book, both inside and outside of the depicted world, enables and urges the reader to reflect upon the function and the status of the artifact he is dealing with. The impetus for an autoreferential reading of Schulz's Idolatrous Booke is reinforced by the fact that not only the book itself, but also its creator reappears on many of the engravings.
Figure 1. Bruno Schulz. The Booke of Idolatry, version II.
Two aspects deserve particular attention when investigating the autoreferential features of Schulz's Idolatrous Booke. Firstly, one might say that the book shows to a certain extent the act of its own creation (using a popular expression from the domain of cinema, the book may be said to contain a part of its "making of"). The final stage of this process of book production is presented on the final engraving, which has the same title as the entire portfolio ("Xi ega Balwochwalcza"): the "idolatrous booke" is finished and is being presented to the female idol (Figure 1). The "idolatrous booke" as a work-in-progress is shown on the seventh engraving, entitled Undula and the Artists (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Bruno Schulz. Undula and the Artists.
It depicts the female idol Undula looking at a sheet of paper while being surrounded by a group of male artists, presumably sculptors and painters (in the upper left corner we can discern an artist holding a small statue of a nude woman in his hands; in the lower right corner stands a female bust). The separate sheets lying at Undula's feet may be regarded as drafts or even final versions of the engravings that will eventually constitute the "idolatrous booke". Secondly, one might say that The Idolatrous Booke as an autoreferential artifact arouses reflections about its own artistic genealogy, and more specifically about the relation between the verbal and the visual in the creational process of the book. The striking fact that the book itself is visually represented within the book, combined with the peculiar features of this representation, makes it possible to shed a new light on the various binary structures recurring throughout the entire series of engravings. The most obvious binary structure dominating Schulz's portfolio is undoubtedly the gender opposition, which goes along with various subordinate binary contrasts (small versus big, ugly versus beautiful, low versus high,...): men are depicted by Schulz as small, ugly creatures bowing or crawling around on the ground, whereas women are usually given the shape of tall, handsome beings taking up a superior position. To this primary opposition (between the masculine and the feminine) should be added a second binary structure that entails a juxtaposition of the verbal and the visual. It seems to be highly significant that this secondary opposition is enounced by Schulz both in a verbal and a visual way. Its verbal expression is to be found in the very title of the book. T he archaic Polish form "xiega" ("booke") suggests that we are dealing with a highly important religious book, a kind of sacred text. The adjective "balwochwalcza" ("idolatrous") in its turn comes from the substantive "balwochwalstwo", which is the commonly used Polish term for the Greek concept of " eido lolatreia", the "worship of a false deity". This relation of worship is, of course, strongly visually oriented, given the roots of the Greek word " eido lon". The binary structure ensuing from the title of the book is exemplified and amplified by the fact that both parts of the verbo-visual opposition, the Book and the Idol, appear together in various configurations in the "visual" part of the portfolio.
Iconoclasm and Idolatry
In order to get a better understanding of Schulz's treatment of the relation between the verbal and the visual in The Idolatrous Booke, we need to go back, first of all, to what is undoubtedly one of the best known accounts of idolatrous behavior, the episode of the adoration of the golden calf in the Old Testament (Exodus 32: 1-35). T he idolatrous behavior of the people of Israel means a serious violation of the second of God's Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 3-4, quoted from the King James Bible):
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
The very concept of idolatry as it is described in the biblical account of God's prohibition appears to have a double aspect. First of all, as the first part of the Second Commandment suggests, idolatry involves a creative act on behalf of the idolater, more specifically an act of image creation. The second part of the idolatrous act can be described as an act of subordination or submission, symbolized by the physical movement of bowing.
Both aspects of idolatrous behavior are in different ways at work in Schulz's Idolatrous Booke. Within the depicted world of the engravings, the most obvious manifestation of idolatrous behavior is undoubtedly the act of subordination. The physical act of bowing returns on almost every page of the book, for instance on the engraving Undula the Eternal Ideal. The idolatrous act of creation, on the other hand, seems to be represented in the portfolio in a less evident way. Nonetheless, its essential features can be discerned in the aforementioned engraving Undula and the Artists showing a group of artists offering their work to the female idol. Apart from that, it should be noted that Schulz himself as the author of the book performs both acts of idolatry as well. The creative act, on the one hand, is realized by the mere fact of putting together a portfolio of images. By using the particular technique of cliché-verre, Schulz seems to have realized the very idea of making "graven images" in an utmost literal way. Moreover, the act of scratching scenes of idolatrous behavior on a glass surface entailed a highly meaningful modification of the folk tradition of Hinterglasmalerei (which was a cheap and naïve kind of religious art). The idolatrous act of subordination, on the other hand, is implemented by the author in a variety of ways. The most significant example is undoubtedly the introductory engraving Dedication on which we see the author bowing while holding a plate with a crown. On several other engravings, we can recognize among the crowd of male idolaters a Schulz-like figure bowing in front of the female idol.
But, of course, the biblical prohibition of idolatry entails a lot more than a mere ban of image production and worshipping. As a matter of fact, the Old Testament prohibition of images seems to reflect a fundamental valuation of the verbal over the visual form. On the one hand, we have a God who wants to remain hidden from view. His preferred medium is the word, both in its spoken dimension (God's conversation with Moses on Mount Sinai) and its written dimension (the tablets of the Ten Commandments). The medium of the idol, the false deity, on the other hand, is the visual. The "eidolon" is visible in the most literal way and allows its adherents to represent and reproduce it in a visual form.
Over the centuries, various explanations have been given for the Old Testament privileging the verbal over the visual and banning divine (and other) images. A significant argument that is clearly exemplified in the biblical text itself has to do with the fact that the Hebrew God calls Himself a jealous God, i.e. a God who does not bear any other gods besides or even beneath Him. In this respect, one should keep in mind the literal meaning of the biblical expression "avodah zarah", which is the Hebrew term for idolatry. As Halbertal and Margalit (1992) have pointed out already, its meaning of "strange service" indicates that the Jewish understanding of idolatry is very closely related to the concept of adultery. Committing idolatry means betraying the one and only God by serving someone or something else. The fact that this fear of religious adultery goes along with a prohibition of images implies that the sphere of the visual is considered to be very likely to cause adulterous fancies: mankind may easily fall into idolatry through sight. If we take all these elements into consideration, it becomes obvious that the intrinsically religious problem of idolatry and iconoclasm (the worshipping of the true God) involves an entire complex of problems in the sphere of word-image relations and sexual relations. The visual belongs and refers to the sensible, while the verbal belongs and refers to the intelligible, therefore the spiritual. Images are dangerous because they get human beings trapped in their "body" (or what is assimilated to their body), while the words are, supposedly, "transparent" and lead directly to the meaning of things (and not to the things themselves). The following binary scheme represents its different aspects in a simplified manner:
Schulz's Idolatrous Booke seems to deal with all these problems and underlying meanings in a highly sophisticated way. The most important element that is added by Schulz to the Old Testament opposition between a verbocentric iconoclasm and an ocularcentric idolatry is the gender opposition. The book as a medium of verbal expression is represented throughout Schulz's portfolio as a typical male attribute, whereas the idol is given an obvious female shape. Explicit examples of such a gender-biased discourse of iconoclasm and idolatry can be found on a significant scale throughout the history of Western culture. As David Freedberg (1989) has pointed out already, a recurring topos in iconoclastic discourses is the comparison of the dangerous attractiveness of paintings and images with the seductive beauty of the female sex. Just like women, pictures and sculptures are capable of arousing the flesh and therefore need to be censored.
Figure 3. Bruno Schulz. Cover of The Booke of Idolatry I.
Figure 4. Bruno Schulz. Cover of The Booke of Idolatry III.
Figure 5. Bruno Schulz. Frontispiece III.
Figure 6. Bruno Schulz. Cover of The Booke of Idolatry V.
Figure 7. Bruno Schulz. Frontispiece V.
Let us now have a closer look at some of Schulz's engravings, in order to come to terms with the link between gender and artistic genre in his Idolatrous Booke. Particular attention should be paid in the first place to the different versions of book covers and frontispieces Schulz made for his artistic portfolio. On a first pair of cover and frontispiece illustrations, we see a young male figure holding a lyre or a lute in his hands (Figure 3). On a second set of illustrations, the cover represents a group of male figures in clergy clothes (one of them holding a book) (Figure 4), whereas the accompanying frontispiece shows a nude female figure in an arousing position (Figure 5). A final set of illustrations shows, on the one hand, the female idol having a mirror next to her bed (Figure 6) and, on the other hand, a group of elderly man looking intensively into a book (Figure 7). The imagery used by Schulz allows us to draw an initial set of binary oppositions:
However, already when taking a look at the different versions of the introductory illustrations, we see that it is Schulz's obvious intention to blur these conventionalized oppositions. The clergy-men who are standing on the threshold of what might be a religious sanctuary actually are at the point of entering the room where the female idol is lying. The book the old wise men are looking at is obviously not a religious "Xiega" in the traditional sense of the word, but a book with explicit visual, "radiating" content (most likely The Idolatrous Booke itself). Moreover, most of the engravings in the book are characterized by the dual pattern of looking and being looked upon. The female figure is always the object of looking, be it as the object of the male gaze, be it as the object of her own gaze (looking at herself in a mirror or looking at visual representations of herself). Finally, throughout the entire cycle, one can discern a significant transition from a culture-oriented to a nature-oriented depiction of the relationship between the sexes.
As David Freedberg (1989: 398) has pointed out, a significant feature of iconoclastic discourses is the fact that the ban of the visual is usually designed by an elite of critical intellectuals for the need of the broad masses of ignorant people. In this respect, it is highly significant that several of Schulz's engravings show how the Law on idolatry is broken by apparent representatives of this very intellectual elite: religious dignitaries, artists, old wise Jews,... What is depicted on Schulz's engravings, may be, therefore, regarded as a post-iconoclastic implementation of idolatrous behavior. The party that was previously expected to hold an iconoclastic stand (worshipping a transcendent God, relying on verbal experience, respecting the exclusive bond with God) falls into an idolatrous (adulterous) relationship with a worldly idol. This relationship is strongly visually and physically oriented and goes along with the making of an ultimate sacrifice: the subordination of the Book as the ultimate symbol of the higher sphere (the intellectual, the transcendent, the spiritual, the cultural, .) to the realm of the visual (and everything that goes along with it). Simultaneously, the creative forces of masculinity are pulled away from the domain of the sacred text and redirected to the female sphere of images and image production. Using a term coined by W.J.T. Mitchell (1994: 11-34), this transition from the domain of the text to the domain of images might be aptly called a "pictorial turn".
Idolatry and Artistic Crossover
Once again, however, particular attention should be paid to the title of the book. By using a substantive-adjective construction in the main title of the book (and by putting an engraving with the same title at the very end of the cycle), Schulz seems to suggest that there is something else at stake as well. The idolatrous character of the book does not only ensue from the fact that it is entirely devoted to the cult of a worldly idol (instead of a transcendent God), but is also closely bound up with the issue of artistic expression. Being idolatrous turns out to be an essential feature of the book itself. The book crosses the traditional boundaries that are set upon it by the Law and offers its services to the opposing realm of the visual. Within this context, the Law might be understood both in a religious and a secular-artistic way. Its religious version is the iconoclastic ban of images that is enounced in the second of the biblical Ten Commandments. Its secularized version might be, for instance, the seemingly objective and natural distinction between literature and painting formulated by Lessing in his well-known Laocoon (suggestively ascribing - as Mitchell (1986: 95-115) has stated - to the realm of the verbal "the wider sphere"). From this perspective, the Schulzian concept of the "idolatrous book" appears to be the radical opposite of Lessing's (but also Clement Greenberg's) ideas about the purity of artistic expression. Both the Lessingian verbocentric (iconoclastic) position and the Greenbergian anti-verbal (ocularcentric) paradigm seem to be dominated by the idea of exclusion: the arts should concentrate on their own media of expression and certainly not get involved into any form of interartistic contamination. Schulz's understanding of art, on the other hand, is all about crossing boundaries and including the Other. Moreover, the overt sexual motifs recurring throughout the cycle of engravings allow to describe this idea of artistic crossover in a sexually connotated way as well. The Booke breaks its exclusive bond (marriage) with its age-old spouse, the Word, and commits adultery with the Idol (and its various visual representations). In this sense, the title The Idolatrous Booke might be aptly reformulated into The Adulterous Booke. This idea of a conjunction between the sphere of the verbal and the visual is clearly exposed in both versions of the final engraving "Xiega Balwochwalcza" (where the Book and the Idol get united) (Figure 1). The same idea also appears on one of the cover illustrations Schulz made for his portfolio: it shows the female idol sitting on a throne, while this throne looks pretty much like a book (Figure 8).
Figure 8 Bruno Schulz. Cover of The Booke of Idolatry II.
Reformulating the main theme of the book, one might say that Schulz's portfolio is not simply about sexual domination, but about domination as such. The main issue of domination can be also applied to the realm of ideology and to the domain of artistic expression: the sphere of transcendency is subordinated to the sphere of the worldly, and the sphere of the verbal is subordinated to the sphere of the visual. One might ask, however, whether this proclaimed domination of the visual over the verbal in Schulz's understanding is absolute. His cycle of engravings is, of course, dominated by the visual element, but the verbal element undoubtedly has a lot to say too. The main title of the Booke and the titles that have been given to the separate engravings constitute a fundamental aspect of the book's form and content and contribute in a substantial way to its interpretation (e.g. by evoking various intertextual allusions). Moreover, it should be noted that the book in its being a cycle of different scenes appears to sustain an element that was considered by Lessing to be one of the main aspects of the realm of the verbal: the idea of a narrative. In this sense as well, Schulz's book may be said to cross artificially set up boundaries between artistic genres. So, either from an iconoclastic or an anti-verbal position, the accusation of adultery will remain valid. On the one hand, the book lets itself be used for the purpose of image reproduction, on the other hand, the images let themselves be put in the narrative cycle of a book (containing different chapters and stages).
So, to conclude, one might say that Schulz's "visual narrative" provides a very interesting autoreferential account of artistic crossover, incarnated by the concept of the "idolatrous booke". First of all, Schulz uses the ancient biblical rejection of idolatrous behavior - and the sexual and anti-ocular connotations that seem to underly it - in order to give expression to a highly modernist paradigm: the cult of artistic expression, and the artist's freedom to cross boundaries and to break the Law. Moreover, the Idolatrous Booke in its quality of an autoreferential artifact not only formulates its own artistic program, but also implements it by means of its material existence.
Dijkstra, Bram. 1986. Idols of Perversity. Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de Siècle Culture. New York - Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Halbertal, M. & Margalit, A. 1992 Idolatry. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press.
Kasjaniuk, Halina. 1993. "Rodowody i symbole w grafikach Brunona Schulza". Teatr pamieci Brunona Schulza. Ed. Jan Ciechowicz & Halina Kasjaniuk. Gdynia: Teatr Miejski, 10-25.
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Sulikowski, Andrzej. 1992. "Bruno Schulz i kobiety. O motywach nie tylko z "Xiegi Balwochwalczej" ". Bruno Schulz. In memoriam 1892 - 1992. Ed. M. Kitowska-Lysiak. Lublin: FIS, 179-196.
Kris Van Heuckelom is Assistant Professor of Polish Language and Literature at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The present article was written during the academic year 2005-2006, while the author was a H. Van Waeyenbergh of the Hoover Foundation Fellow to the University of Chicago (supervisor: prof. Bozena Shallcross).
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