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Brecht Dossier: Six Essays on Painting and Theater

On Painting and Painters
from The Book of Twists and Turns

To Me-ti as a young painter, whose father and brothers were barge-haulers. There ensued the following conversation: “I don’t see your father, the barge-hauler, in your pictures.”—“Should I only paint my father?” “No, there could be other barge-haulers, but I don’t see any in your pictures.”—“Why does it have to be barge-haulers? Aren’t there other things?”—“Sure, but I also don’t see other people who work a lot and get paid very little in your pictures.”—“Can’t I paint what I want?” “Sure, but what do you want? The barge-haulers are in a terrible situation, one wants to help them or should want to help, and you know the situation, you can draw, and yet you draw sunflowers! Is that excusable?” “I don’t draw sunflowers, I draw lines and patches and the feelings I sometimes have.”—“Are they at least the feelings about the terrible situation of the barge-hauler?”—“Maybe.”—“You have forgotten them and now you only remember your feelings?” “I participate in the development of painting.”—“Not in the development of the barge-hauler?” “As a human being I’m in the Association of Mi-en-leh [Lenin], which wants to eliminate exploitation and oppression, but as a painter I develop the forms of painting.”—“That’s like saying: as a chef I poison the food, but as a man I buy medicine. The situation of the barge-hauler is so awful, because they cannot wait. While your painting develops, they are starving. You are their messenger and you take too long to learn how to speak. You feel something general [Allgemeines], but the barge-haulers who have sent you for help, feel something specific [Besonderes], namely hunger. You know what we don’t know, and share with us what we know. What does this mean: you learn to operate ink and brush when you have nothing specific [bestimmtes] in mind? You only find it difficult to operate ink and brush when something specific [Bestimmtes] should be expressed with them. The exploiters are speaking of a thousand things, but the exploited speak of exploitation. You erstwhile barge-hauler!”

Translated by Todd Cronan 


Critique of Empathy

1. Truth in Art. Artists have almost always discouraged those who wanted to see a criterion in the degree of similarity of their images of reality with reality itself. At least in our time, painting considered as the capacity to paint similarly was seen as mere craftsmanship; it had nothing to do with art. Even with jobs where it concerned copying—be it a garden, a pet or a family member—value was placed on perceptibility, one must be able to have the illusion that it was the beloved object. (Here the buyer was somewhat sensitive when artists were only delivering him their associations on the occasion of the object.) In general, artists probably arrived at the fact that the optical use that one could make of an object was as pleasurable as any clever use which one could make of an object that has been manipulated. (One can also discover the pleasure in the body part that lines up cleverly.) The enjoyment of the cherries of Cézanne is thoroughly understandable, though perhaps not those of Apollonius, which birds pecked at.

It was a real asset to the viewer when he learned to make a new use of a thing presented this way, or a new use of his eyes.

2. The best way for an emotion to occur in art is the way it occurs in the rest of life. One does not live to have emotions, but one lives and has emotions.

3. From an emotional standpoint, one can both see better as well as worse, that is, the interests, emotionally assembled [umgesetzt] to make our actions more practical or less practical.

Translated by Todd Cronan


The Blue Horses

I like the blue horses of [Franz Marc] which stirred up more dust than the horses of Achilles. And I’m irritated when the painters are told they are not to paint horses blue; I don’t see any crime in that, society can surely stomach such minor rearrangements of reality. Yes, in a pinch, let’s say, in order not to upset the painter, our biologists could even try to breed blue horse hides, if it does not take too much time, on a very small scale of course. Nevertheless some assertions on the side of the defenders [of Marc] irritate me. Namely, I highly doubt whether through arts education one can make the working people supporters of blue horses, and even more, I doubt whether such an education would be desirable. If there is still there a class of people who stand in a very different relationship to the environment than [Marc] and I do, to people for whom these animals must be groomed, unharnessed, corralled, shod, slaughtered, they do not have, like us, only impressions of horses. Footsteps in the sand may be very attractive for the casual hiker and idler, but they might not satisfy the cobbler so much. In order not to prefer footprints in plaster, he first had to free himself from all sorts of demands for accuracy, which he feels every day.

Translated by Todd Cronan


The Worker Who is a Painter

Since you’re a painter, we would like to know how you see things. Surely you see things differently from us, because you have a finer optic nerve. So you can perceive in things aspects that we cannot make out. Seeing gives you pleasures that it does not give us, but you can give us these pleasures, these pleasurable views: through your pictures.

Since you’re also a worker, we would like to know how you see things, as one of them who bring about so many things and with whom so many things are produced. Surely you see things differently than the rulers, because you live differently and have different goals.

Since you are a worker who paints, you can show us things differently through your pictures than we are accustomed to seeing them: more precise, richer, more practical. Surely a bowl is for you a different thing than for your employer. You not only see lines and colors differently from other painters, but also the bowl as bowl you see differently. Also you perceive a different side of people with the help of your lines and colors.

Translated by Todd Cronan


On Chinese Painting
from a letter to George Grosz (1936)

As we know, the Chinese do not use the art of perspective. They don’t like looking at everything from one single point-of-view. In their pictures several things are ordered in relation to each other the way a town’s inhabitants are distributed throughout the town, not independent of each other but not in a state of subordination which threatens their very existence. It is necessary to look at this comparison a little more closely. The families we are comparing with these things live in a town, represented in our picture, in greater freedom than we are accustomed to living in. They don’t exist just by virtue of their connections with a single family. The Chinese composition lacks an element of compulsion to which we are completely accustomed. This order requires no force. The designs contain a lot of freedom. The eye is able to go on a voyage of discovery. The things that are represented play the role of elements which can exist on their own, and yet in the relationship which they form on the page they constitute a whole, if not an indivisible one. You can cut the pages into sections without rendering them meaningless, but also not without altering them.

The Chinese artists also have lots of room on their paper. Some parts of the surface appear to be unused; but these parts play an important role in the composition; judging by their extent and their form they appear to be just as carefully devised as the outlines of the objects. In these gaps the paper itself or the canvas acquires a quite specific value. The basic surface is not simply denied by the artist through covering it up completely. The mirror in which something is here mirrored retains its value as mirror. Among other things that signifies a laudable abandonment of the thorough subjugation of the viewer, whose illusion is not fully completed. Like these pictures I love gardens in which the gardeners have not shaped nature completely, which have space, here things lie side by side.

Translated by Anthony Maslow


Prospectus of the Diderot Society

International societies of correspondence devoted to the interchange of scientific experience have existed for hundreds of years. The arts (we are concerned here with the theatrical arts, including the cinema) have not known corresponding societies of this sort. This fact may be explained by the traditional contrast between the methods of science and of art. The sciences have their technical standard, their common vocabulary, their continuity. For the arts (as we have known them hitherto), with their thoroughly individualistic character, such features have not been considered necessary.

As long as the theater was regarded simply as a medium dedicated to the self-expression of the artistic personality, it was hardly possible to speak of a technical standard of theatrical art, except with regard to innovations in the mechanics of stage lighting, scene shifting, etc. For one artist to borrow from another a means of expression is to admit failure—to parade in borrowed plumage. (Be it noted, however, that this taboo does not apply to the soulless machinery of the stage!) On the other hand the tasks assumed by science have never been limited to the capacity of individuals. The criterion of science has been, not the degree of individual talent, but the degree of general advance in the mastery of nature.

Like the theater, science works by constructing images of life, in a fashion peculiar to itself. Scientific images seek to control the factual world. This is not so with the images created by the theater. Theatrical images, shaped to a greater or lesser degree by the creative will of individuals, have sought rather to construct an independent world of emotion—to organize subjective sensations. For this purpose neither accuracy nor responsibility is required.

In recent decades, however, a new kind of theater has developed-one which sets itself the goal of an exact picture of the world and which admits of objective, non-individualistic criteria. The artist who belongs to this theater no longer attempts to create his own world. He does not set out to add to a stock of images which are essentially portraits of the portrayer. He does not assume that the laws of life are already codified and immutable. On the contrary, he regards the world as unknown and in constant process of change. His purpose is to create images informative of the world rather than of himself.

It is not easy to create images which will aid in mastering objective fact. This attempt naturally encounters great difficulties, and obliges the artist to refashion his technique to suit his new purpose. The visionary ignores discoveries made by others; experiment is not among the mental habits of the seer. The inner eye has never needed microscope or telescope. But the outer eye needs both. Unlike the visionary or the seer, the artist in pursuit of a new goal finds no subliminal apparatus ready to serve him. He must renounce the technique of hypnotic enchantment. Under certain circumstances he must even forego the usual method of emotional communication used by the artists of earlier periods. The building and projection of this new type of image is a technical process beyond the limited capacity of individuals. The new artist therefore helps to develop a technique which will be at the service of all artists. To this end he offers inventions of his own and makes use of the inventions of others. (Thus, in spite of the great differences between them, the stage and the cinema can operate together, insofar as both dramatic mediums explain nature and human relationships.)

THE DIDEROT SOCIETY intends to help gather systematically the experience of its members; to create a terminology; to review, scientifically, the historic conceptions of theater. It will collect the reports of artists engaged in experimental work in theater and film, and arrange for an interchange of these reports. (Papers sent to the Society may be published simultaneously elsewhere, with the subtitle: Report to the Diderot Society.) Members receiving reports from other members abroad will endeavor to place these writings in periodicals in their own language. It is proposed that an editorial board reissue all papers, numbered, in book form. The scope of any paper is left to the discretion of its author. Papers may be comprehensive essays or brief notes. They may describe an entire theatrical production; a mechanical discovery or intention of great or minor importance; experiences with audiences or with stage artists. Unsolved problems may be submitted. Technical details are especially interesting. Scenic innovations such as the treadmill stage (Piscator); analyses of new rhythmic forms; problems in the projection of stage or screen characters; the social meaning of certain texts; the dramatic development of a theme; utilization of facts; planning of preliminary work; study of source-material, of documents or of scientific methods; suggestions for a technical terminology; critiques of criticism, etc., etc.—all these may be the subject of reports to the Society.

There being no dues or other requirements, the Society will be considered organized when a sufficient number of qualified experimental workers indicate their willingness to contribute papers at their convenience, along the lines indicated. For the present the address of THE DIDEROT SOCIETY will be: care Brecht, Svendborg, Denmark.

The Society will welcome information regarding periodicals or journals interested in publishing its reports.


Translation by Mordecai Gorelik 


All texts are translated from: Werke. Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe. Band 22: Schriften 2. 1933-1942.  ©Bertolt—Brecht– Erben/ SV. All rights reserved by and controlled through Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.
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