Streets Smelling of Walks Fragments in montage

by Karolina Szymaniak, writer,Cracow, Poland, 2012

1. Autumn Carriage

…and then the carriage drove into autumn / Bruno Schulz

It was the first of September 1938, the beginning of autumn, when Debora Vogel wrote to Bruno Schulz: “your today’s letter reminded me of a picture of an old autumn carriage which we were supposed to take together into the land of colours. The smell of journey has an irresistible charm and, strangely, I always associate it with a picture of another person, a companion. Later, it turns out that it is good to be alone – it is good to be alone rather than lonely, abandoned and hopelessly left to solitude and homelessness. Then one can see well. In spite of it, I miss a journey with you. I am very curious of the artistic result of this journey, a talk about certain streets and images that may allow both of us to crystallize our different, or identical, approaches.”

A journey, in Vogel’s case an urban journey, may become an opportunity for formulating her outlook on the world. This journey does not have to be geographically distant – it is sufficient to go for a walk in the provincial Lviv, lying in the peripheries of the world, in a country “plastered with potato fields.” Her walks with Schulz to the Lviv castle or the Jesuit Garden were called “true poetic and philosophical symposia” by Rachela Auerbach. But the most important thing is Peripateticism. Here, the matter of urban experiences and talks about “certain streets and images” become art; art which, for Vogel, always had a deeply existential dimension. And she practiced this art of walking in a very consistent manner.

This letter is one of few traces (that survived or that were found) of renewed – after a long break – correspondence of both writers. A break that was probably related to personal issues and a would-be relationship, to which Debora’s mother, a stately matron, did not agree. The correspondence is established cautiously, like a conversation after ordeals – at the same time, it is intense, in which they discover each other again.

This autumn letter of Vogel contains – not accidentally – melancholic traits, so characteristic for both writers. And this peculiarly contrasting desire of a melancholic subject - to be with somebody and, at the same time, to experience solitude and desolation. Looking for a companion and escape into solitude. Artur Madaliński, when writing about Schulz’s melancholy, used the term coined by Kristeva “sujet-en-procès” which is, on the one hand “in a constant crisis, but on the other hand, establishes itself via its relations with others.” In the above-quoted letter, Vogel asked: “Who wants to meet me? This is very interesting – even more because of the fact that I “live” by these meetings.” Similarly to Schulz, she maintained very extensive correspondence, looking for people whom she “could trust” as she wrote, or – as Schulz wrote – “companions for exploratory enterprises.” Such an enterprise was, for Vogel, a walk in the city.

2. Geometry of Verticality

Vogel mentioned walking the streets at the very beginning of her literary career. Initially, these were, so to speak, proto-schemes of streets, whose rhythms and forms the artist was trying to record with the use of the heroic figure of a rectangle, a square and a circle. Streets do not have names – only numbers: the first, the second, the third. Yellow, grey and blue streets. However, they are embedded in topographic specifics.

This cubist and constructivist city emerges from the “boring and awkward space” and is recorded in the Tog-figurn volume and in early montages. It is a city that is dissolving and disintegrating at the edges, losing its substance and revealing the unformed matter that invokes fear. The poems from the debut volume are full of melancholic images. It turns out that these are not only ellipses – elongated figures of longing for something unspecified – they are the figures of sadness and melancholy. The rectangles are also sad – stiff contours of resignation (Der marancn-hendler). This geometric city is “resounding with melancholy.”

This melancholy is most dominant in personal texts, where the objective description and the impersonal pronoun men, used so willingly by the writer, is replaced by ich. The texts about autumn are in this group not by accident. Constant motives return: sadness, mourning, longing. Mourning that ties the body. Mourning that constrains desires. “A slightly empty taste of wandering along night streets with yellow lanterns” is coming back. The wandering along the streets “should result in something”, but “just like a year before/ before two years and three years/ again, nothing happened/ I only understood the watery taste of longing.” The image of cherries is persistently recurring: “Today, I bought yellow cherries/ that taste watery like longing” (Fun der benksztaft), “I sucked on the sticky pulp/ of lost evenings and wasted days” (Karsznrojte zun). And together with them, love letters – about unfulfilled love, because “everything comes too late” (Libes-lid), about meetings that did not happen, about partings, about passing each other by in the streets. And erotic poems with the recurring theme of horses. And poems where words become – like in Tired of Waiting – the body: colourful words are lips ready for a kiss. Figures of the Day are filled with images of unfulfilled desires and longings.

Hard contours of geometric figures are losing shape – as in the beautiful Poem About Eyes in which hard, circular chestnuts are slowly losing their perfect, safe and geometric form until “they become velvet brown spots/ and fall heavily, like sweet drops of resignation/ Onto streets. Lanterns and bodies/ From which nothing can come.” One poem, from the Houses and Streets. Urban Poems (1926) series, is distinguished from others by the specific nature of description of city details. This is the ekphrasis for the series of Utrillo’s paintings La Belle Gabrielle, where Vogel is trying – also with the use of typography – to transpose the experience of urban space dominated by the new forms of visualization. An attempt made via a work of art. In Vogel’s poems, the border between experiencing the city and experiencing its representation – in a photograph or a painting – is becoming blurred or complicated. In spite of the signalled specificity, these could be any outskirts or even “all outskirts” (or, as she calls them in Acacias – “back walls of a city”), where a story takes place with “hearts broken once and forever.” An individual love story of a painter becomes the matrix of all stories and Parisian Montmartre simply transforms into a model of outskirts. Without knowing the city details (including the urban legend), reading the poem is harder, even though not impossible. It seems as if Houses in the Outskirts announce later poems, from the 1930’s, where walking in Paris becomes an opportunity for formulating a new programme of art.

Intermezzo in an Unfashionable and Untrendy Style
Paris at night – beautiful perspectives of squares and streets – in the lights of reflectors and neon signs

Some of the greatest charms of Paris, which makes it superior to other capitals, are its perspectives of squares and streets. A passer-by who stands at the Concorde Square and looks towards the Elysian Fields, stretching with a wide, unbroken belt until the Arc of Triumph, simply experiences enlightenment. The perspectives of the Tuileries Garden or the round and majestic Vendome Square are also very beautiful.

When the night falls and the lights of reflectors and neon signs create a glow over Paris, all these beautiful views become even more beautiful, because they are more mysterious.

Over the dreamy waters of the Seine, lights of bridges glow like necklaces of yellow diamonds. Huge stores and music halls compete with neon lights, more and more innovative.

In des Italiens Boulevard, there is always a group of onlookers in front of a highly placed advertisement of chocolate “Poulain” (pony) in the form of three kicking ponies, constructed out of electric lights.

In the Elysian Fields, advertisements of most renowned entertainment facilities are lit. The Claridye restaurant and the famous Lido dance hall are in the lead.

The wide Avenue de l'Opera, or the busy de Rivioli present a sea of lights, whereas the beautiful du Caroussel Square looks like a ball venue ready for guests.

And then, the dawn comes and extinguishes the riot of colours of the night with pink fingers.

Jola Fuchsówna (Paris), “Kurier Literacko-Naukowy”, July 13, 1931

3. … to be recreated by large cities

Vogel does not assess the big city experience in a clear manner, even though she was one of the most important propagators of urbanism in Yiddish literature. Vogel notices that the pace and mechanization of modern life of a metropolis is physically and psychically exhausting; it disrupts the internal rhythms and awakens in people “the primeval fear of empty spaces”: “the huge space of a metropolis, mechanized in a rhythmic movement of all its cells – streets, factories, workshops – offers, as a result, a dangerous element of monotony and vacuum; it leads to exhaustion, bordering upon loss of equilibrium; it introduces disharmony between its rhythm as a whole and the carrying force of the biological rhythm of an individual. This disproportion is capable of making a modern man aware of the sense of living – as in the past he became aware of the element of hunger, cold and heat.” Monotonous rhythms of a mechanical city with rhythms of capitalist production and consumption express the type of man – a mannequin/ man – puppet, mechanically performing every-day activities and becoming similar to figures from advertisements and display cabinets.

Salvation from the overwhelming rhythm of a big city can be found in geometry – in a closed, geometric space of one’s own flat. “Besides, a certain international class that remains beyond time, a human family that communicates with a specific language of poetry understands the sense of a room. These are people who – as they say – are looking for a man in city streets; they are looking for meetings and adventures, a face. And tired, they come back to their rooms.” Echoes of this analysis of “psychical and social function of a room” can be heard in the My Room poetry. Vogel willingly wanders the city streets making such futile searchers and she writes down her impressions in subsequent poems.

However, the experience of a metropolis is not only the experience of exhaustion. In the course of time, stronger and stronger willingness for subjugating oneself to the rhythms of the city appears – of exposing oneself to its potential. A great city allows Vogel to regenerate herself; it is an inspiration for further work. It also allows her to liberate herself for a moment. In a letter to Schulz of May 21, 1938, she wrote: “It seems to me that everything in me froze because of the mountains (…). Is it possible to say: the vacuum of nature? And yet, it is a vacuum for me today, here, in its hostile formation, without people, whereas when crammed into city landscape, it is dazing with smells, greenery, the glow of greenery on fallow asphalt. We need variety. Urbanism is not an empty phrase. We should recreate ourselves in foreign cities.” And a moment later, she discusses the details of Schulz’s trip to Paris, expressing a hope that also she, if finances allow her, will be able to go to the French capital at the end of August.

In Paris, de Chirico wrote, in the atmosphere “filled with creativity and surprise: a visiting artist may come and get warm by the fire of a great city open towards guests and offering consolation.”

Intermezzo: Dead Models In Search of New Forms: Art Becomes Helpful – Types of Dolls
In various areas of every-day life, our epoch is trying to create its own original forms. It is necessary to get rid of templates and replace them with truly modern shapes. This tendency is visible in […] the entire applied art. Toys for children are stylized in a modern way; a similar situation takes place in the case of figures decorating store windows, wearing models of dresses, coats, etc. Every large city has a significant demand for such figures in order to decorate store windows with them. In the past, such dolls were only partial, i.e. they consisted of a model of the corpus – today, whole figures are made, sculptural casts on which a dress looks natural, as if on a real body. Greatest centres of this industry are located in Berlin and in Paris […].
A visit at a laboratory producing store mannequins makes an incredible impression. Propped against the walls are rows of white figures; one of them raises its hand, the other is tilting its head. Here, we can see various poses, various sizes, various hair styles, etc. The manufacturers take care of very accurate physical appearance of figures. Painters put red on white lips, darken the eyebrows, paint locks of hairs, stick eyelashes and make the dolls smile or sad.

In this manner, we receive a whole “series of types”, very modern in their expression. These types are provided with proper dresses – bright and joyful, girlish or serious, distinguished or modest. A customer who enters the store looks for the type that she likes and is not lost in the mass of models.

Similar figures are also present in the “men’s clothing” section, where we can admire beautifully tailored tuxedoes, jackets and tail coats on elegant silhouettes.

Thanks to this, store windows of today’s stores and their interiors are much more aesthetic and nicer than in the past, when wax figures with contorted and inhuman faces were scaring the customers away.

(zg), “Kurier Literacko-Naukowy”, July 20, 1931

4. In the City of Blue Greyness and Five Million Legs

At the beginning of January 1937, Vogel wrote to A. Lejeles in New York: “What do you think about meeting in Paris, in the summer? I am currently taking such a refreshing trip into account completely seriously and if I am able to part with my little son for a couple of weeks – I will use this time for Paris. It would be good if we could meet there!” In 1937, a Congress of Yiddish Culture was held in Paris. In February 1938, Vogel wrote to Szlojme Bikl: “This autumn, I spent a few weeks in Paris – later than everybody else and the congress and I have not met anybody, including you. It is a pity.”

Out of all cities known to the writer, Paris was – it seems – the most important. And maybe she knew it best and visited it most often. It is most present – next to Lviv, the city of peripheries – in her works. In her texts, we can also find records of other urban experiences, e.g. in the excellent text Urban Grotesque – Berlin. She got to know Berlin and Stockholm earlier. But Paris became for Vogel the archetype of a modern metropolis, even though she wrote about New York that is was “the essence of all cities.” However, whilst translating a poem of a New York poet, Anna Margolin, “The Fifth Avenue at Dusk” – instead of New York avenues, she sees boulevards: “With night on my eyes/ With night, destruction and gold in their eyes/ Young women are walking as swinging melodies/ Nervously, they stretch over the boulevard/ Their small wings/ Of crazy butterflies.”

Vogel’s Paris is a Paris of meetings and opportunities: destroyed ones and these that are only potential or lost. Just like a meeting at Champs Elysées from a late montage at one o’clock in the afternoon between a lady with steely eyes and a man in gray coat and a stiff hat passing each other by at a deserted boulevard.

In Paris, Vogel met Marc Chagall to whom, a few years earlier, she devoted an interesting essay Forms and Themes in Chagall’s Art. She wrote about meeting him in a letter: “(…) I visited Chagall and gave him our “Cusztajer” (he was very surprised that Jews were involved in art criticism).”

It was January 1932, when Vogel was writing this letter, having returned from Paris, where she spent five weeks. “(…) I satiated myself with paintings and colours of the city and the magnificent speed, which is the speed of life; Paris is the symbol of life that is always winning, it does not allow for stagnation and “subsiding into one place” (I am quoting myself). (…) I felt how wonderful a big city can be, and how a big city attracts and charms me.” In the winter of 1931 she organized – successfully, as she wrote – a poetry evening in Paris, where she read her poems from the Tog-figurn along with new ones, published three years later Manekinen. Introduction was made by the critic Chil Aronson. “He caught the essence of my poems so deeply and accurately and he talked about them with such amazement that I was simply touched… He is also writing an introduction for my second volume, which is going to be published in the Parisian publishing house Triangle (…); however, at this moment I do not have money, even though it should not cost much – I do not have the conscience to demand from “Cusztajer” these 15 dollars that I contributed as an iron fund. (…) Our “Cusztajer” is liked by everybody, even the French writers.” Nothing came out of the publication. Manekinen was published in 1934 by “Cusztajer”, which previously used to publish an ambitious literary and cultural periodical, mentioned by Vogel in her letter. The last, third edition of the magazine was sent to the press in 1931. However, some translations of Vogel’s poems appeared in French.

During the same stay, a series entitled Szund-baladn (Tacky Ballads) was created; it consists of a series of poems devoted to Paris – notes from walking the streets. The record of Parisian walks differs from early poems which are – as mentioned before – almost devoid of topographic details. This is a stage where Vogel passes, as she wrote, “from the specifics (absolutely the specifics) of the so-called abstract art to the specifics of every-day details.” In poems, she describes various routes and places. She does not resign from geometric seeing, but fills geometric schemes with content. “Going beyond geometry does not entail complete negation of this form,” she wrote in a Cracow magazine. The whole time, she is looking at the city not only with modern painters, but also through their works. She sees Champs Elysees through the works of Annenkov; she sees store windows – e.g. in the vicinity of de la Concorde – through the works of de Chirico and the outskirts through dirty pink of Utrillo. And there are also other paintings – primarily advertisements and posters, which fill the streets of the metropolis.

Intermezzo: Along Banks of the Seine through Paris (from the reading of Cracow’s press in the Jagiellonian Library)

Bridges of the Seine – there are about thirty of them between the two tollgates of Paris - are completely different from one another and each of them, with its own structure and work that it performs, emphasizes this separateness. {…} At the foot of the Eiffel Tower at Pont d’Iena, marble Gallic figures of riders are restraining bolting horses. Through the wide bridge, it is possible to see the magnificent Palais the Trocadero, from whose steps one can admire the steel giant, the Eiffel Tower, straddling in the middle of the park. [...] Pont de la Concorde and Pont Golferino, well sewn together with iron and stone, are the two gentlemen among bridges. […]

With a raised collar, I was walking home. Over the narrow and grey straits of the Batigolles streets, blurred sky was acquiring a pink tinge. In the centres of the city, as every day, colourful flowers of advertisements were starting to bloom and paint the sky with pink glow and drops of rain in defiance of grey and wet winter.

Adam Polewka, “Kurier Literacko-Naukowy”, February 23, 1931

5. … at the railway station, I will wait until the train departs

I am going to Paris by train. In my suitcase, there is a thick wad of texts, notes, maps, routes of walks and addresses. The objective: to attempt to decipher Vogel’s “rhetoric of walking.” The journey is – in its assumption – impossible to implement. I am setting off to walk along streets which do not exist anymore. I am setting off to look for images which can no longer be there – how to look for advertisements painted on house walls, former posters, kiosks, bills of theatre performances and cinema screenings? Parisian texts of Vogel are, in a large extent, an attempt at coping with the urban specific, an attempt at presenting it “in a literal form, in its heroic and simple literality.”

How to see a city through non-existing lenses? How to catch and capture these visual impressions? Therefore, it is a journey for what has been lost. I am trying to recover it somehow. I am searching in old newspapers, digging through second-hand booksellers’ stands. I am visiting exhibitions. For hours, I sit at Centre Pompidou and the Museum of Modern Art. I drop by the Museum in Boulogne. I lock myself in the National Library and in site Richelieu, I look at photographs, graphic works and catalogues of Great Exhibitions in this – as it was called by newspapers a while ago – “intellectual factory of the world”. Photos to the article about this factory were taken by Gisèle Freund. Similarly to the famous photographs of Walter Benjamin, who worked on a book about Paris here. I use old films and books in site François Mitterand, whose functionalist, well thought-out interior Vogel would have probably liked. But maybe she would also perceive the ultra-modernist snobberies here? (I am thinking about it, sliding in rain over the boards of the above-ground part of the library and desperately trying not to fall down).

However, even in the streets of modern Paris unexpected meetings happen. Like the advertisement of CADUM soap with the famous blonde Bébé Cadum, fat like Baroque puttos, whose images flooded the magazines and the streets of great metropolises in the first decades of the 20th century. An innocent face of a baby – indentified with the child of Isadora Duncan drowned in the Seine and later with the kidnapped son of Charles Lindenbergh – was constantly present in the mass imagination. Therefore, it is not surprising that this image is willingly used by painters and writers. Bébé Cadum also appears at the Great Exhibition in 1937 in Pavillon de la Publicité.

It surprises me at a Montmartre boulevard during one walk. A pink infant with a huge head smiles from the blue background. It is clear that it has been recently painted. And a caption: “Savon Cadum pour la toilette”.

“…flat tin material of varnished oranges and lemons; it may bring you to an unknown fantastic station…”

I am going to Paris by train.

Intermezzo: Salve Lutetia

C'est à Paris que l'esprit moderne acquiert son aspect le plus consolant; il y garde les dons de la surprise, du charme et ce trouble heureux que nous donne l'oeuvre d'art lorsqu'elle renferme l'énigme du talent. Il y perd l'effrayant, le cruel, le méchant. La divinité grecque et babylonienne, reconquise, brille dans le faisceau lumineux d'un phare nouveau; le bébé gigantesque du Savon Cadum et le cheval rouge du Chocolat Poulain, ont pour nous l'aspect troublant des divinités antiques, ...reviens toi ô première félicité la joie habite d'étranges cités de nouvelles magies sont tombées sur la terre.

Giorgio Chirico, Bulletin de “L’Effort Moderne” (1927)

6. Rue du Moulin de Beurre and Chocolate (in a Banal and Tacky Style)

It is a frosty January morning. Nine o’clock. I get out at the Raspail station. There are almost no people in the streets. After leaving the underground, I turn left into Campagne Première. I pass by Hotel Istria, number 29, where Picabia and Duchamp, Kisling, Mayakovski and Man Ray used to live or drop by. The plaque features a fragment of Aragon’s poem, who also lived here: Il ne m'est Paris que d'Elsa: « Ne s'éteint que ce qui brilla... / Lorsque tu descendais de l'hôtel Istria, / Tout était différant Rue Campagne Premère, / En mil !)( neuf cent vingt neuf, vers l'heure de midi ». Rilke, whom Vogel read carefully, also used to come here. Rilke, who became an inspiration for the writer’s article “Courage to Be Lonely.” In this article, she discussed an issue which she also mentioned in a letter to Schulz: loneliness in creation, but also hope for finding a companion. “Every lonely thought will find a person - somewhere and at some point in time - who would pick it up and understand,” she wrote, referring to Irzykowski. And she added: “Such awareness may be of assistance in loneliness. It is to be accepted as a necessity.”

Whilst walking on my own in Paris, I think once again about the naivety of the idea of walking in Paris following the paths of Vogel. And once again – in banal terms – I muse upon the impossibility of walking in such empty and quiet streets, where the fate of modern art is no longer decided, even though many artists still live here. I peek into the annex of house No. 9 where, at the end of the 19th century, a building housing an art atelier was built. It was constructed of materials that remained after the Great Exhibition of 1889. Here, before the 1st World War, artists and writers started to move from Montmartre. Giorgio de Chirico and Rainer Maria Rilke used to live here. Did Vogel look inside during her Parisian walks? It seems impossible that she would not do it. Or maybe it was here where she met with French artists and what she described in her letter? Once again, I am smiling to such questions, which seem to be indispensable. In the morning, the atelier courtyard is quiet and still immersed in a drowsy rhythm. Somebody is throwing away garbage; somebody else is looking at me from the threshold of an apartment, holding a cup of hot coffee. The plaque informs that the peace of the inhabitants should not be disrupted and their privacy should be respected. I take a bad photograph in a hurry.

And I continue to get lost in the streets of Montparnasse, hoping that somewhere I will find the green bar Pelican and a street called Moulin de Beurre, which I could not find on the map. I pass by the Raspail Vert bar, Boulevard Raspail, No. 232. Close. Green. This may be it. However, this is the former “Aux Grands Hommes.” The Pelican Bar, in spite of a conscientious and methodical search, is not to be found. For a moment, I was ready to believe that the name of the green bar from Vogel’s poem derives from the Pelican ink brand: “November and the spring – fluctuating with possibilities, obliteration and greenness of the Pelican brand – are still separated by three months of flat prospects of white,” she wrote in Flower Stores with Azaleas. And flower stores with perfect azaleas were located at Boulevard Montparnasse. “Pelican” recurs one more time, in a very Parisian context, also in the Flower Stores – “Forever Broken Hearts” – a variation about Utrillo’s painting La Belle Gabrielle à Montmartre (the same painting recurs in the above-mentioned Houses in Outskirts): “Banal hearts, cut with arrows, hearts from Utrillo’s light pink walls and all back walls of a city belong, in an equal degree, to life, like walking, happiness and “Pelican” leaves made of chromium in the month of October and November.”

However, the Pelican bar existed; it was located by Boulevard Raspail number 208. Café du Gymnase is located in its place today. However, it seems that Pelican was not green, but white - le Pélican Blanc – if we are to believe the testimony of the age. This was an “American” type bar, where cocktails were served. People were dancing to the sounds of jazz orchestra until three in the morning. Félix Valvert used to play here. Therefore, greenness may derive from the overlapping of the picture of ink and the bar. But I am careful, because I have slipped many times. Old streets tend to be treacherous.

The streets of Moulin de Beurre, where you “went not really knowing what for” are gone for several decades. It was located on the diagonal from the Raspail underground when crossing the Montparnasse cemetery. Between avenue du Maine and rue du Château. One of the three streets from rue Vandamme to rue Vercingétorix. The other two are rue de Medea and rue de Perceval. I am thinking about this coincidence smiling: about antiquity sneaking into my walk from a completely unexpected side. And about other coincidences – because a street whose existence was hard to explain, this street from the peripheries of large city fate, for which it is impossible to find an objective explanation, has simply disappeared. It no longer exists.

I get on the underground, which takes me to the Château Rouge station. By the littered rue Doudeauville, where an open air market is held every day, I enter the SPAR store. By the counter, I buy some chocolate. A blue rectangular bar of milk chocolate. At the top, there is the characteristic logo of Poulain: a red slogan on a yellow background and in the back, there is a galloping colt.