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23 March 2017

From Cubism to concentration camp: the life and death of Josef Čapek

Many English speakers who claim that they do not know a word of Czech would be surprised to hear that at least one has found a firm place in their vocabulary: robot. Those who are aware of its origins might confidently state that it owed them to Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), first performed in 1920. However, he declared that he had merely given it currency, and the term had actually been coined by his elder brother Josef Čapek (1887-1945).

CapekSelf-portrait Self-portrait from Co má člověk z umění a jiné úvahy (Prague, 1946) 07812.m.41.

The two brothers had been born in the Bohemian town of Hronov as the sons of a doctor, and enjoyed a happy childhood there with their older sister Helena, who later remembered them affectionately in her memoir Moji milí bratři (‘My dear brothers’: Prague, 1962; 11880.r.19). All three siblings showed talent as writers from an early age, but Josef also displayed a gift for painting and drawing, and it was as an artist that he found his true vocation, studying at the Uměleckoprůmyslová škola in Prague and the Académie Colarossi in Paris. In later life he often illustrated the writings of Karel and Helena, but the paintings which initially made his name were in a very different style with a strong Cubist element, even in portrayals of Czech peasant life which recall the angular and bizarrely-coloured figures who people Chagall’s Vitebsk.

CapekHnedakrajinaJosef Čapek, Hnědá krajina (1936) from Josef Čapek, ed. Emil Filla and Bedřich Fučik  (Prague, 1937) X.0423/14.(63.)

Josef possessed considerable creative versatility, however, and developed not only a variety of idioms appropriate to the authors whose works he illustrated but a literary career of his own. He collaborated with Karel on the play Ze života hmyzu (‘The Insect Play’: Prague, 1921; Cup.408.z.53). Its satirical parallels between human society and that of various species of insects, from the bourgeois Crickets to the totalitarian world of the Ants, were universally applicable, and two years later it was translated by Paul Selver and ‘adapted for the English stage’ as The Life of the Insects (London, 1923; 11758.a.40.) Under his own name he published the utopian play Země mnoha jmen (‘The Land of Many Names’), which was also translated into English in 1923. However, one of his best-loved works was a charming collection of tales about a dog and cat who set up house together, Povídaní o pejskovi a kočičce (‘The Tale of Pup and Puss’), which is still a firm favourite with Czech children.

CAPEKPOVIDANINEWTitle-page from Povídaní o pejskovi a kočičce (Prague, 1929) X.992/1488)

He also had the capacity to provide humorous illustrations which matched the style of the comic authors such as Eduard Bass as well as Karel’s fairy tales and stories for young readers; though both brothers married, Josef had only one daughter, Alena, and Karel no children, but they were both adept at creating books for them whose wit and fantasy were in no way inferior to their works for adults.

However, as the 1930s progressed, political events provided sharper and bleaker matter for Josef to portray. He had had many years of experience as a journalist, initially as a critic and the editor of various art periodicals, including Umělecký měsíčník (Prague, 1911-14; ZA.9.b.1513), the journal of the Skupina výtvarných umělců (Group of Representational Artists), which he had co-founded in 1911. From 1918 to 1921 he acted as editor of Národní listy (MFM.MF641) which he left to spend 18 years as the editor and art critic of Lidové noviny (MFM.MF623). The caricatures which he provided for the newspaper became increasingly pointed and bitter in the period leading up to the annexation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1938, and on 1 September 1939 he was seized and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Eight days later he was transferred to Dachau, and thence to Buchenwald, where he spent two and a half years. His artistic gifts led him to be assigned to a calligraphic workshop where, along with other artists including Emil Filla, he was given the task of painting the family trees of SS officers.

CapekDiktatorskieBotyA drawing from the cycle Diktátorské boty (‘The Boots of the Dictator’: 1937), reproduced in Josef Čapek, ed. Emil Filla and Bedřich Fučik  (Prague, 1937) X.0423/14.(63).

His creative spirit remained undaunted even after his removal to Sachsenhausen on 26 June 1942, where he not only translated English, Spanish and Norwegian poetry but wrote and illustrated a long poem dedicated to his brother Karel and circulated further poems in manuscript. However, on 25 February 1945 he was moved yet again – this time to Bergen-Belsen, where typhus had broken out. In his weakened state after five years of incarceration Josef soon fell victim to the disease, and although some witnesses claimed that he was still alive in April, he died shortly before the camp was liberated, and as his body was never recovered he was officially declared in 1948 to have died on 30 April 1947. Karel had died at Christmas 1938, having contracted pneumonia after working in his beloved garden, and with his spirit crushed by the fate of his country; he is buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad cemetery, where a monument also commemorates the brother whose last resting-place remains unknown.

Perhaps less well known in the English-speaking world than his brother, Josef Čapek deserves to be remembered on the 130th anniversary of his birth for the original and many-sided vitality of an artistic spirit which remained unquenched even in the grim circumstances of his final months.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Services

20 March 2017

Actaeon was not a voyeur

The current small exhibition about Ovid in art (primarily ceramics) at the Wallace Collection reminded me of an earlier one at the National Gallery. Here some artists of our time paid homage to Actaeon on the entirely bogus grounds that he was a voyeur, and regaled us with a mock-up of a peep-show and similar treats.

But let’s back to the text, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book III: Actaeon was out hunting and stumbled on Diana, goddess of chastity and the hunt, bathing with her nymphs.

Actaeon MS Harley 4431

Actaeon surprising Diana at her bath, miniature from Christine de Pizan, L’Épître Othéa, part of MS Harley 4431.

In Mary Innes’s translation for Penguin Classics (1955 and much reprinted):

The nymphs, discovered in their nakedness, beat their breasts at the sight of a man ... Crowding around Diana, they sheltered her with their bodies, but the goddess was taller than they, head and shoulders above them all

Vengefully, the goddess sprinkles Actaeon with water, turning him into a stag and causing him to be killed by his hounds.

Actaeon Emblemata 12305.bbb.37 Actaeon transformed, and pursued by his own hounds, from Andreas Alciatus, Emblemata (Lyons, 1551). 12305.bbb.37

Ovid gives the message right at the start:

Fortunae crimen in illo,
non scelus invenies; quod enim scelus error habebat?
(Destiny was to blame for Actaeon’s misfortunes, not any guilt on his part; for there is nothing sinful in losing one’s way.)

Ovid himself likens himself to Actaeon in Tristia II. Explaining why the Emperor Augustus exiled him to Romania, he says “Like Actaeon, I saw something”. What we don’t know, but Ovid obviously thought Actaeon was innocent, which meant that he was innocent too.

Actaeon 833.l.1

Diana and Actaeon from Ovid, Metamporphoses (Venice, 1513) 833.l.1.

But later authorities couldn’t help wanting to put the blame on Actaeon.

Fulgentius (5th century) said that Actaeon wasted all his time on money on leisure (hunting) and was therefore consumed by his hobby.

Actaeon IB.23185

 The story of Actaeon, from Ovidio methamorphoseos vulgare, translated and allegorised by Giovanni di Bonsignore (Venice, 1497) IB.23185.

Giovanni di Bonsignore (14th century) said he turned into a stag because his love of the solitary pursuit of hunting had made his proud and anti-social, like the stag.

Camões in the Lusiads (16th century) says much the same about Actaeon, but this is interpreted by Manuel de Faria e Sousa in the 17th century as something to be applied to the young King Sebastian.


Actaeon King Sebastian 10631.c.4
 The headstrong King Sebastian of Portugal from Fray Bernardo de Brito, Elogios dos reis de Portugal (Lisbon,
1603) 10631.c.4

Headstrong young Sebastian, like Actaeon, was too keen on sports and neglectful of the need to find a wife. And of course he died young, at the battle of Alcacer Quibir, because of his hot-headedness and left Portugal without an heir, leading to what the Portuguese call the “Philippine Domination” of 1580-1640.

So, be careful when you go down to the woods.

But whatever his mistakes Actaeon was not a voyeur.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References:

Barry Taylor, ‘O mito de Actéon: interpretação e poetização’, in Mythos: a tradição mitográfica portuguesa; representações e identidade séculos XVI-XVIII, ed. Abel N. Pena (Lisbon, 2008), pp. 55-66. YF.2012.a.29085

The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Translated and with an introduction by Mary M. Innes (Harmondsworth, 1955) W.P.513/58.

Gerlinde Huber-Rebenich, Sabine Lütkemeyer, Hermann Walter, Ikonographisches Repertorium zu den Metamorphosen des Ovid : die textbegleitende Druckgraphik (Berlin, 2004-), I.1, pp. 38-39. YF.2008.b.1354

 

17 March 2017

Poet of a pitiable time: Takis Sinopoulos

The German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, whose personal vision of Greece inspired much of his poetry and whose life spanned the years of the Greek struggle for independence, wrote in his elegy ‘Brod und Wein’ (c.1800) the famous words ‘Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?’ These words, pondering the purpose of poets in times of crisis and oppression, would be only too applicable to the career of the Greek poet Takis Sinopoulos ,born 100 years ago today.

MariaStephanopoulouCoverYa1994a10059 Cover of Maria Stephanopoulou, Takēs Sinopoulos: Hē poiēsē kai hē ousiastikē monaxia (Athens, 1992) YA.1994.a.10059.

Sinopoulos was a 22-year-old medical student at the University of Athens when, in 1940, the Greco-Italian War  broke out. During this and the two conflicts that followed – the German-Italian occupation (1941-44) and the Civil War (1945-49) – he served as a doctor in the Sixth Army hospital at Loutráki on the Corinthian Gulf, and then with fighting units during the guerrilla fighting of the Civil War. Despite the professional control and objectivity which he was forced to exercise in carrying out his medical duties, he was deeply affected by the horrors which he observed, and throughout the rest of his life he sought to process and purge them in his paintings and poetry.

Sinopoulos had come of age under the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas, whose coup of 4 August 1936 led to a system modelled on Italian fascism where censorship was brutally enforced. It was not until 1951 that he wrote his first collection of poems, introducing images and themes which would recur throughout all his later works as he attempted to expunge the hallucinations which haunted him throughout his creative life. The first poem of all, ‘Elpenor’, recalls the fate of the first Greek hero to fall in the Trojan War, but also a terrifying vision which Sinopoulos experienced one blazing summer day in 1944 when he distinctly saw a childhood friend who had been killed in battle two years earlier.

The poems echo with the existential loneliness of humans even within friendship or erotic relationships, making true communication eternally impossible, and with the conviction that true happiness is unattainable, even when the figure of Helen of Troy, and all that she symbolizes, flickers through the pages of the Cantos (1953). The temptations of death and oblivion which they proclaim haunted him for several years afterwards, plunging him into a psychosomatic crisis in which he believed himself to be gravely ill. This suddenly resolved itself in 1956 with the publication of Hē gnōrimia me ton Max (‘Acquaintance with Max’), the only poem which he ever completed with such rapidity. Max is at once an alter ago, a builder of houses, and an elder brother with Christ-like qualities, but ultimately a figure who vanishes amid the images of burning and destruction, terror and death in life which reappear in Sinopoulos's later writings.

The earliest of Sinopoulos’s poems in the British Library’s holdings is To hasma tēs Iōannas kai tou Kōnstantinou (‘The song of Joanna and Constantine’). This took him seven years to write as he experimented with the imagery of the Song of Songs and the mingling of Eros and Thanatos in the disjointed narrative of a couple living in a farmhouse near his native village of Agoulinitsa, the shadowy figures of a mother-in-law, neighbour and dead child, and, once again, the futility of any attempt to build communications between them.

SinopoulosTitlePageTitle-page of To hasma tēs Iōannas kai tou Kōnstantinou (Athens, 1961) X.900/506.

Although he continued to experiment with automatic writing to break his writer’s block, political events once again conspired to delay the publication of his next and perhaps greatest work until 1972. The military coup of April 1967 inevitably hampered freedom of expression, but provided an apt context in which to revisit Sinopoulous’s experiences as a doctor in the army with which he had served for almost five years. In Thessaly and Macedonia he had seen captured guerrillas shot without mercy and his own friends and comrades blown apart by mines and grenades, and had had to gather fragments of their bodies from the blasted trees and bushes where they had landed. The result was Nekrodeipnos (‘Deathfeast’, 1972). In an equally fractured landscape recalling Eliot’s Waste Land, the shades of the dead mingle with the banalities of contemporary life and nostalgic images of June evenings in Athens many years before. There are reminiscences of Homer’s catalogue of the ships in the litany of names of the dead who crowd around the poet, and even a direct encounter with God does little to relieve the overall bleakness of a climax in which the poet is certified as an ‘inhabitant of the eternal’.

NekrodeipnosSinopoulosCover of Takis Sinopoulos, Nekrodeipnos: 1981, X.950.23290.

Unlike the poets of the First World War, those of Greece’s decade of agony are less well known to English-speaking readers, although Kimon Friar produced a fine translation of a broad selection of Sinopoulos’s work in Landscape of Death: the selected poems of Takis Sinopoulos (Columbus, Ohio, 1979: X.950/6323). Through his evocation of scenes as poignant and horrifying as those of Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra, Sinopoulos, though unable to save the men whose tragedies he witnessed, could at least ensure that they would not be forgotten.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences), Research Services