Quote and image of the month 02.2020

Posted on  UTC 2020-02-03 14:17

Albin Egger-Lienz, Mann und Weib (1910)

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Albin Egger-Lienz, Mann und Weib / Man and Wife, 1910. Sometimes titled Das Menschenpaar / The Human Couple Image: Landesmuseum für Kärnten, Klagenfurt.

Albin Egger-Lienz (1868-1926) was a Tyrolean painter who moved from genre realism to striking and original metaphorical works. This is not the right place to praise him as a painter – the generality, originality and humanity of his work demands more than a few lines.

Egger-Lienz, the meticulous genre painter, moved towards a great simplification and decluttering of his work within a few years. In the period between 1907 and 1911 he created numerous striking studies of the labouring poor of his native Tyrol, one of which, possibly the most famous, was Mann und Weib, 'Man and Wife'. The use of the old word Weib instead of the modern word Frau might even suggest to native speakers of German a quasi-biblical representation. The alternative title Das Menschenpaar, 'The Human Couple', is a further hint to think beyond the specific.

There is nothing extraneous in this painting, nothing whatsoever. The background hints at the wall of a log cabin, the ground consists of irregular boards. These are just gestures which contain no detail at all. Only the two figures have detail – and even then these details are not distributed evenly. The clothes the figures are wearing have just enough detail to make them plastic. The pair are positioned together but separated: there is no intimacy, no overlap.

The detail of the painting is reserved for the heads and the hands.

Readers do not really need a prose description of the faces of the couple, but just for the record we note that their expressions are grim – resignation is probably the right word. The man looks almost puzzled, uncomprehending. He is staring, eyes narrowed, without focus out of the canvas to the right. The woman is similarly unfocused, gazing down out of the left of the canvas preoccupied with her own thoughts. The gazes thus run in different directions, underscoring the separation of the two figures.

Those familiar with the works of Egger-Lienz's mature period will recognize this gaze of apathetic resignation, whether in the context of the horrors of war or the horrors of life.

The most detailed objects in the painting, however, are the hands. Both pairs of hands are massive – out of proportion, but not jarringly so. Their dominance causes us to realise that these hands reflect the principal and defining characteristic of both of these people, manual labour (pun intended).

The man and wife are representatives of the labouring class who have nothing to offer but the work of their hands. In traditional portraits, the moneyed educated are set in scene with the artefacts of their comfortable and important lives, their furniture, their books and their pens.

In contrast, these two Tyrolean peasants are set in scene with the only artefacts of lives of hard and relentless labour that they have: their hands. The man's hands – marvellously detailed – hang down, ready for use. The woman's hands are folded across her waist, in that characteristic pose of the pregnant woman. Once we realise that she is with child, the resignation in her facial expression takes on added meaning, as does the more generic title of the work 'The Human Couple'.

'Human' here is not homo sapiens (©Linnaeus), not even homo economicus (©Devas) or homo faber (©Jones), but homo laborans (©Arendt), the beast of burden. Marx and Co., allegedly the workers' friends, would have assigned them to the Lumpenproletariat – stupid, dispensable and politically meaningless: dirty rags (Lumpen) to use for dirty jobs and then throw away.

There is humour in most situations, though, however bleak they may be. In April 1939, thirteen years after Egger-Lienz's death and not long after the German Anschluss of Austria, a grateful Gaukulturstelle des Reichsgaues Kärnten, 'Regional Cultural Authority of the Imperial Region Kärnten' (in the Tyrol) sent Mann und Weib to their newly acquired Führer, Adolf Hitler, as a present for his fiftieth birthday.

We are not surprised that Hitler, the Austrian artist manqué, instead of hanging it over his sofa, passed it on immediately to the Kärnten Gallery as 'a loan of the Führer's'. The Lumpenproletariat was obviously as little to his taste as it had been to Marx and Engels, despite what was written on the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei tin.

Bertolt Brecht, Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters (1935)

Questions from A Worker Who Reads

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you read the names of kings.
Did the kings drag the lumps of rock here?
And the oft-destroyed Babylon,
Who rebuilt it so many times? In which houses
In gold-radiant Lima did the builders live?
On the evening that the Wall of China was finished,
Where did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had much-hymned Byzantium
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in legendary Atlantis
In the night the ocean swallowed it up it
The drowning still roared for their slaves.

Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters

Wer baute das siebentorige Theben?
In den Büchern stehen die Namen von Königen.
Haben die Könige die Felsbrocken herbeigeschleppt?
Und das mehrmals zerstörte Babylon,
Wer baute es so viele Male auf ? In welchen Häusern
Des goldstrahlenden Lima wohnten die Bauleute?
Wohin gingen an dem Abend, wo die chinesische Mauer fertig war,
Die Maurer? Das große Rom
Ist voll von Triumphbögen. Über wen
Triumphierten die Cäsaren? Hatte das vielbesungene Byzanz
Nur Paläste für seine Bewohner? Selbst in dem sagenhaften Atlantis
Brüllten doch in der Nacht, wo das Meer es verschlang,
Die Ersaufenden nach ihren Sklaven.

The young Alexander conquered India.
On his own?
Caesar vanquished the Gauls.
Did he not have a cook with him at least?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Did no one else weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years' War. Who
Else beside him won it?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the victor's banquet?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many reports.
So many questions.

Der junge Alexander eroberte Indien.
Er allein?
Cäsar schlug die Gallier.
Hatte er nicht wenigstens einen Koch bei sich?
Philipp von Spanien weinte, als seine Flotte
Untergegangen war. Weinte sonst niemand?
Friedrich der Zweite siegte im Siebenjährigen Krieg. Wer
Siegte außer ihm?
Jede Seite ein Sieg.
Wer kochte den Siegesschmaus?
Alle zehn Jahre ein großer Mann.
Wer bezahlte die Spesen?
So viele Berichte,
So viele Fragen.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters, 'Questions from A Worker Who Reads'. The text here is taken from Bertolt Brecht, Gedichte, Frankfurt am Main 1960-1965. Translation ©Figures of Speech 2020, reuse in whole or part only with link to this page.

Bertolt Brecht wrote this poem in 1935, during the first of his many exiles from the National Socialist regime in Germany. This particular exile was in Denmark, in the town of Svendborg on the island of Fyn (Funen), hence the poems of this period are known as the Svendborger Gedichte.

Ever since its first publication in 1936, the poem has been pinned to the banner of the German Communists and Socialists. For a while in 2017 it was even declared to be 'part of the programme' of the German crypto-communist party Die Linke, 'The Left' – or, more accurately, the 'leftovers' of the East German SED, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. It is still part of the manifesto of the linksjugend party in Rhineland-Palatinate.

It is also a favourite poem of socialist secondary-school teachers (a tautology) in Germany, who like to ask their impressionable charges to write about the poem.

The precise point of the poem is the facelessness and namelessness of the common people in the shorthand writing of history – which is fair enough, except that all the examples it 'cites' are merely 'straw men' – that is, statements without any evidential existence. They are distortions from the pen of Bertolt Brecht, not from historians.

For those prepared to go beyond the headlines, history books are full of personal records, anecdotes and memoirs from all these events. The fact that until recently most of the great unwashed couldn't read or write and thus left no record of their existence is not the result of some great capitalist conspiracy to suppress 'real' history.

Two centuries before Bertolt Brecht wrote the present poem, Thomas Gray in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard dealt much more intelligently and even-handedly with the 'destiny obscure' of the toiling classes. If Brecht's questions are the best ones the reading worker can ask, he or she needs to read a lot more.

The 'poem' has no rhymes, no metre, no rhythm, no blank verse, no form and no structure of ideas or images, although German secondary-school teachers will try to tell you there is a structure. The ragged line lengths have no significance or semantic or grammatical role. However, it is customary to follow piously the line breaks of the original edition (which we, too, have done here), but this really is only editorial piety – nothing would be lost or gained if the 'poem' were just written out as prose.

The poem goes off the rails within its own terms particularly with the reference to Atlantis. Up to this point historical figures and events have been used to set up the straw men. Invoking the legend of Atlantis, which is a legend and not an historical event (as far as we know), breaks the pattern: there are neither buildings nor builders here, death dealt extremely democratically with the aristocrats, their serfs and their servants. All we have here is a few lines of unconcealed class hatred.

The poem's adoption by socialist minds as a proxy for the sufferings of the downtrodden proletariat is another example of the error of reading ideas into a poem that are really not there.

Ultimately it all brings us back to the mentality of East Germany, where Brecht spent most of his post war life as a happy chum of Stalin and recipient in 1955 of the – don't laugh –'International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples'. We note in passing that 1955-1956 is a time that Hungarians in particular will remember only too well, when the USSR strengthened Hungary's peace for it.

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