Letter from to Zdenka Braunerová, 29 December 1897

Zdenka Braunerová, one of the first Czech modern women painters, passed through artistic generations as an ageless, sympathetic figure but also a distinctive artist in her own right. She openly voiced her views on both older and newer art, inspired young artists, and collaborated with many local and foreign figures, including Paul Claudel and Auguste Rodin. Her influence on many artists is evident from the numerous surviving letters in which writers, artists, and critics alike tell her of their plans, artistic experiences, and life's adventures, and emphasise her influence in transforming their worldview.

Dear Madam,
Thank you very much for your latest, kind letter. I came home on Monday feeling so worn out, with a heavy, colourless gloom hanging over my soul like a thundercloud, and I found your letter on the table. It helped me think more clearly. For a moment, at least, the sun broke through the grey fog.
Why have I been silent? Why has it taken me until today to write to you? Here is why: I am unwell; I carry myself with indifference but underneath that feigned surface there is pain. And I have days and nights of desperate and hopeless desolation, days and nights of spiritual torpor. Can you understand? Sometimes I am so tired, so agonised, such nirvâne opens up in my soul and begins to yawn, such a terrible certainty of the pointlessness and worthlessness of my whole being, of all feeling and striving and especially of thinking. The outside world speaks to me very little in general, but back then it spoke hardly at all. My impressions are pale and hollow; they move slowly like sand, grain after grain, like pointless, fruitless, endless sand.
One walks down the street and the people are nothing but shadows on the wall, their dull game falling and rising so miserably on the glass of one's soul. And one talks to them and laughs and chatters nonsense with such utter indifference as if it were a dream. And then I come home and close the door behind me and look round, and such a terrible sadness descends upon me from the ceiling and the walls, such a wretched, empty sadness. And one would weep over the terrible pointlessness but cannot. All the wellsprings in the soul have somehow dried up; there is no water, no air. A void. Nothing moves, nothing one could cling to and hold on to. And this goes on for days. And I can't write anything, I cannot do anything at all. And I’m afraid to write to anyone, as if I’m afflicted with the plague and as if I could pass the disease on to them. And I curl up on the sofa like a beaten animal and count the squares on the ceiling or on the wall.
That is how you must interpret my silence. It is neither due to forgetfulness nor some petty defiance, but to the pain of the soul. It is the silence of sleeplessness in the desert, perhaps a new, anguished prayer. You seem to think it is due to those actors on the bridge that morning. Oh no, you must not think of me that way. While I am certainly a proud man,
I am not vain. And then: what kind of word can offend me? Just a word – one single word? It takes more than that. Also: what is an insult? I don’t allow for it among great minds, among people who value each other’s spiritual worth. Although you can cause me pain, you cannot insult me the way ordinary people could. Despite all the nice words you write about me, you still consider me a petty human at my core, something like a male coquette. But I am not like that at all. I am terribly serious in my soul, in spite of the nonchalant smile on my face, in spite of the mask I wear when I am with people because I do not want to be insulted by an indifferent gaze into my inner world where I am my own priest and victim. I like to lock myself in with seven bolts, and my pride consists in passing through this sordid life like a clown through a marketplace, sharing none of what I carry inside but instead just the indifference and deceit that I carry on the surface. . ..........................................
I am awfully glad you found poor old Hebbel worthy. You understood him beautifully. I do love his kind of poetry; the kind that deals with portentousness, the horror of worlds colliding and shattering, the stars
crashing against each other. You see, it is the poetry of doomsday, the poetry of the old world ending, and a new world being born. This is so far from any frivolity and pettiness! These are the messages themselves that have become flesh and blood. This is the thunder that sings the meaning of the world and of life, this is the heart of the Archaean rocks that chants. These are the last roots of humanity uncovered that anchor it to the centre of life and death. Both are still as terribly and intimately combined here as God and man.
I fear, however, that your understanding of Judith’s end is not in keeping with Hebbel’s intentions. You say she is happy even in death. But Judith does not die in Hebbel’s play; she lives, and her torment consists in that terrible, purposeless life, that sacrifice whose futility she grasps but about which she is afraid to speak. (Notice the ending: how disgusted she is when the priests and elders of the community praise and glorify her, and what she says to the crowd before that: “Yes, I have killed the nation’s first and last man, so that you could feed your sheep in peace, so that you could grow your vegetables, so that you could ply your trade, so that you could bear children who look like you.”) After all, she killed the man she loved, the hero she always dreamed of! She, who wanted to make a hero of Ephraim, and instead turned him into a villain!
She has taken upon her shoulders the weight of a terrible act that she will not be able to bear. Hebbel himself speaks of this in the preface, pointing out the difference between a true, original act, and mere self-summoning. Holofernes in this case stands for spontaneous action and will power; Judith only forces herself into heroism but collapses under the weight of it in the end. She cannot breathe atop those high mountains which she has so painfully ascended. ……………………………………………………...
You see, I love two extremes in art, two poles: either the art of the highest mountains, or the opposite: the deepest depths and quiet places. I also love souls that are quite broken, souls which lean over their innermost selves as over a boiling cauldron full of vapour and fog, until they drown. Souls whose every nascent feeling dissolves into a mist, as they chase after its disappearing wisps. Souls which argue with their own shadow, which do not distinguish that shadow from reality, which doubt the ground on which they stand. Souls which feel the wind blowing even in locked greenhouses, and which have compressed the web of roads of the universe into the microscopic surface of their hearts. – I like those two poles. Whatever lies between them is mediocre. …………………
I love what you wrote to me about Botticelli. I don’t know his Judith that you mentioned. But I do know his Primavera, the dance of the light-footed women of the underworld on the asphodel meadow, that light dance, so light that it does not bend the grass. What you write of Judith’s face, that mixture of seductiveness and tragedy, that mysterious imprint of fatality, is something I have always noticed in da Vinci’s heads. I sensed in them the same terrible mixture – a somersault of two connected and merged mental states. His heads are as mysterious as sphinxes, so above all the pain and joy of world, with such unearthly clarity and coldness, and yet so painfully provoking one to engage in midnight longing and recollection.…………………………………
So, you don’t like the passage in my article about the need to do away with the old grandfather's wrought iron chests? Why not? Believe me: the past suffocates us tremendously. It is a vampire that prevents the future from being born (I don’t care about the present, for it is but a bridge, and I thank destiny for the passing of every moment). I love the past as a clear perspective, I love its airy, iridescent value,
so to speak. I love it as an atmosphere and, above all, as a heritage and a legacy – of great dreams and great premonitions and great disappointed aspirations – of all the things we are supposed to turn into reality. But I do not love its material substance; I do not love its ruins. That, to me, would be like loving not the memory and dreams of a dead person, but their bones. To me, the old material remains seem to be the bones of a decayed past, and loving them feels somehow idolatrous, somehow against the “spirit and truth” in which we are called upon to pray. I do feel the magic of material things, too, but I try not to give in to it. Sometimes, when I walk down the street and I feel enchanted by a relic of the past age, by some old stone, I always wonder on how many hearts it was built, how many hearts whose loves and dreams were silenced it must have taken to build that material monument of hard life (so hard that the monument has survived to this day). Where are those hearts now? What traces have they left? I don’t want to destroy the past; on the contrary, I want to absorb the part of it that is life and its wind and its current. I want to soak up that spirit which also drives our wretched windmills today. But I don’t want to be burdened with mere outer packaging, just because it comes from the past. I want to support past altars, not chests.. .………………………………………………………
I would like to talk to you again, and this time about Hebbel – more than I can say in a letter. May I visit you again one afternoon? On a Sunday, perhaps? Write me a note if you are at home and are able to see me. And I want to see your studio, too. I like landscapes – quite silent, immersed in themselves, immense in themselves, without people, without the noise of temporality. They speak to me more deeply than human faces. Fear not that I will insult you with praise and compliments (from a layman such a thing must offend). All I intend to do is quietly and humbly look at the paintings, express my gratitude, and no one will hear a word about it. Will that be to your liking?
I send you my friendly regards.
Truly yours,
Prague, 29th December 1897.
Subject: Others
Author: Šalda, F. X.
Title: Letter from to Zdenka Braunerová, 29 December 1897
Origin: Zdenka Braunerová collection
Licence: Free license

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