Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942)

Bruno Schulz

Bruno Schulz


Writer painter, illustrator and graphic artist known for short story collections that bring back the magical reality of Poland's pre-war shtetl's.

Born 12.07.1892 in Drohobych (present Ukraine), died there 19.11.1942 in tragic circumstances.

Bruno Schulz was born in Drohobych, a town of modest size located in western Ukraine, not far from the city of Lvov. He spent nearly his entire life there and was generally unwilling to travel. His voyages outside of his native city were sporadic and brief. He viewed Drohobych to be the center of the world and was a acute observer of life there, proving himself an excellent "chronicler." His writings and his art are both saturated with the realities of Drohobych. His stories are replete with descriptions of the town's main streets and landmarks, as well as with portraits of its inhabitants.

The Street of Crocodiles

Schulz's output as a writer was relatively modest in terms of quantity, but exceptionally rich in quality and subject matter. It consists of two volumes of short stories - The Street of Crocodiles and The Hourglass Sanatorium - and a handful of texts the writer did not include in the first editions of these two collections. Apart from the stories, there is an unusually interesting set of letters, published in the so-called Księga listów / Book of Letters, as well as "critical essays" (primarily press reviews of literary works) that were only recently collected and published in a separate volume.

The Street of Crocodiles, which inspired the much-applauded 1986 puppet animation short by the Quay Brothers, tells of various episodes in the life of a merchant family in a small Galician town. The stories are said to be inspired by Schulz's own childhood and upbringing, however the flourish of the pen brings about a dreamlike vision of reality, using metaphor and colourful language to blur the line between life and death, the real and the imaginary. The short film by the Quay Brothers was selected by director and animator Terry Gilliam as one of the ten best animated films of all time. 

The Hourglass Sanatorium was also brought to the screen as a1973 film by Wojciech Jerzy Has. The protagonist arrives at the Hourglass Sanatorium run by Doctor Gotard, where his father, deceased but restored to life in a different dimension of time, is staying. Józef travels to "various loops of past time" - the years of his childhood and fantastic dreams - and his family house, father's shop, Jewish town come to life. Stamp collections and stories from newspaper-printed novels in installments bring back uncanny, nostalgic images. A repeated time loop attempt reveals, however, the world of the Jewish shtetl and culture destroyed and depopulated by the Holocaust.

Literary Art

It was from Schulz the writer of letters to friends and acquaintances that Schulz the prose writer was born. Writer Zofia Nałkowska, a close friend (the artist visited her many times in Warsaw), played a fundamental role in this transformation of Schulz from humble art teacher to artist. More fully to express his vision of the world and his imagination, the author consciously enlivened his narrations and descriptions, introduced quirky characters, used colorful language replete with anachronisms, regionalisms and metaphors. As a result, one reads his many-themed, multi-layered prose with growing interest. Recent years have brought the growth of a worldwide fascination with Schulz's literary works, confirmed in growing numbers of translations, commentaries and critical studies. Admirers of Schulz's prose have included such notable writers as Bohumil Hrabal, Danilo Kis and John Updike.

The protagonist of a large number of Schulz's stories is Józef, the author's alter ego of sorts. There is also Jakub - the protagonist's father and a counterpart of the writer's own father. Jakub is an unusually picturesque character, a teller of tales and demiurge, a creator of the material world who has the wonderful power to transform into various beings. Though at times he might seem to be a minor deity, it is enough for a young woman to appear in his midst for him to forget his creative abilities and succumb to her charms. Men, who in Schulz's prose embody mental faculty, surrender to the allure of women, who the author seems to equate with matter, that which is concrete and practical rather than poetic and artistic. This opposition is the source of the erotic bond the author draws between members of opposing genders. In the end, in Schulz's writings, woman becomes a metaphor for an apocalyptic vision of the world, a vision in which the world is dominated by pragmatism rather than by art. This one possible interpretation does not take account of other readings of Schulz's prose (e.g. those based on psychoanalysis, reference to the Cabal, postmodern perspectives, or, more recently, feminist ones).


Before the author turned to literature, however, he proved himself a successful visual artist (he was self-taught, never having completed the technical studies he embarked on, first in Lviv, then in Vienna). Using the rare printing technique of cliche-verre, he produced, among others, a series of drawings that focused on the subject of sadomasochism, amassed in a portfolio titled Xięga Bałwochwalcza / The Book of Idolatry (c. 1920). Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz was one of the first to praise the works from this portfolio, classifying their author as a "demonologist." Most of these consist of grotesque scenes in which women dominate men, the latter consenting to their role of subordinate beings, adoring the women in all possible ways and ultimately raising altars in their praise. In these works, Schulz draws a close link between female sadism and male masochism.

Schulz was one of the first admirers of Witold Gombrowicz's novel Ferdydurke (1938) and produced the illustrations for the first edition of the book, and also created illustrations for an edition of the Hourglass Sanatorium. He left behind several hundred additional drawings created for a variety of purposes and thus ranging widely in nature. Some of these are pencil studies and sketches for etchings or works embodying the themes evident in his prose (the largest collection of these, consisting of more than three hundred items, is in the possession of the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw).

In 1992 UNESCO announced the Year of Bruno Schulz (to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the author's birth and the 50th anniversary of his death). A rediscovered work was presented, titled Spotkanie. Żydowski młodzieniec i dwie kobiety w zaułku miejskim / The Meeting - A Young Jew and Two Women in an Alley (1920). The author often failed to title his works (The Book of Idolatry being an exception). The Meeting is a version of a motif explored often by the artist: the meeting of two worlds, two conflicting spheres of reality personified by women and men. The opposing nature of these two spheres is underlined here through such means as spatial division and differentiation in dress. The painting depicts a young Hassid (side curls, black robe, and a wide-brimmed round hat) who bows, as is often the case in Schulz's images, in an overly humble manner before two equally young women dressed in art deco style. The scene plays out against the buildings of a small town that lie below. The painting shows Schulz to have had an able hand and significant experience as an artist. His skillful rendering of shapes, original use of space, refined choice of colors allows us to speak of him as one of the most interesting painters of the inter-war years. This impression becomes stronger when one notices the artist's apparent sensitivity to recent and new tendencies in art (German Expressionism, Formism, Surrealism), processed and transformed reminiscences of which can be seen in the canvas. The unexpected appearance of The Meeting generated the hope that in favorable circumstances, additional paintings by the artist might one day surface. The work was first presented to the public at the Museum of Literature in Warsaw, during an exhibition titled Ad Memoriam - Bruno Schulz 1892-1942, organized in 1992 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Schulz's birth and the 50th anniversary of his death. A two-volume catalogue published on the occasion contains the most comprehensive available information on the creative output of the author of The Street of Crocodiles.

The clarity and originality of the world presented by Schulz - be it in his prose or in his art - has generated enduring interest in his oeuvre, interest that continues to grow and has expanded to encompass his biography. The latter has in itself proven to be intriguing and was reconstructed many years ago by Jerzy Ficowski based on the memories of family members and those who knew Schulz. It remains full of mysteries, however. To this day, for example, it remains unknown whether the author ever wrote a novel titled Mesjasz / The Messiah, which he mentions multiple times in his letters. No traces of this have yet been found.


The year 2001 brought the resolution of another mystery: a series of murals painted by Schulz just before his tragic death (on November 19, 1942, the writer and artist was shot in the street of Drohobych by a member of the Gestapo) in "Landau's Villa" in Drohobych. The frescoes considered destroyed fifty years earlier were discovered (and photographed) by German filmmaker Benjamin Geissler. Unfortunately, the discovery was partly destroyed when representatives of the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel secretly removed significant fragments of the murals and transported them outside of Ukraine. The pieces that remained were transferred to the Drohobychina Museum in Drohobych and were presented for the first time in Poland in 2003 as part of an exhibition titled Republika marzeń / Republic of Dreams. Organized by the Gdańsk-based "Kontakt" Agency and the Museum of Literature in Warsaw; the exhibit toured Warsaw, Wrocław and Gdansk.

The international dispute that ensued reminded people around the world of Schulz's links with Drohobych. This city now owes the author its status as a "magical place" that - like Dublin, Prague or Trieste - is recorded forever in the pages of world literary masterpieces. Interest in Schulz's output has gown with the advent of subsequent anniversaries in 2002: namely, the 110th anniversary of the artist's birth and the 60th anniversary of his passing. A series of new publications appeared on this occasion, including new editions of Jerzy Ficowski's Ksiega Listów / The Book of Letters and Regiony wielkiej herezji i okolice / Regions of Great Heresy and Their Surroundings, and the first-ever edition of the vast Słownik wiedzy o Brunonie Schulzu / Dictionary of Knowledge about Bruno Schulz.

Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin, Faculty of Art Theory and the History of Artistic Doctrines, January 2003


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