Cracked Masterpiece

Autonomy of the Artwork

Cracked Masterpiece

Before writing the magnificent "Cinnamon Shops" and "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass," Bruno Schulz scratched his other great work in the technique of cliché-verre. We're talking here about "The Book of Idolatry," his graphic opus magnum. We can't really say that Schulz was a typical printmaker. Rather, he was a brilliant artist who turned anything he touched into great art.


This mysterious book is where we can find "The Eternal Fairy Tale (I)." It depicts a man being graced by a woman who has put her foot on his face. Her foot is dangling charmingly, being casually bestowed on the humbled men beneath her. But there is more to this simple act related to the sexual sphere and the pleasure of coming into contact with the fetish. It is, of course, the excitement associated with the foot itself, the thrill of being at someone's feet and enjoying some form of self-abatement or humiliation. Nevertheless, Schulz expertly took advantage (as bad as it sounds) of the confrontation of a male face with a female foot. It is ambiguous in this (unexpected?) direction as well; what would seem to be the height of humiliation (someone at someone else's feet) appears to be liberating. The man looks as if he's trying to better fit his face to the situation, which also evokes associations with the iconography of early Western art, specifically with figures who lost their sight but regained it by touching or putting something on their eyes (you might think of references to the Old Testament character Tobit in this regard). This ambiguity may lead one to wonder whether the idolaters the Book portrays gain or lose strength. Like any great work of art, "The Book of Idolatry" can be interpreted in different ways. Naturally, this does not change the fact that, on succeeding boards, figures of dwarfed men are depicted in the procession in front of the viewer's eyes. These men think that the highest purpose of their existence is to make their faces comfortable enough for this (specific and mythical at the same time) female foot.

We know some information regarding the circumstances surrounding the making of "The Book of Idolatry." The artist published it on his own dime. In essence, Schulz did not commission any stages of creating the book to anyone else. He was the one who scratched compositions on glass sheets and exposed the paper of subsequent images in a makeshift photo darkroom in his apartment (cliché-verre combines elements of printmaking and photography). He was the one who came up with the beautiful, illustrated title boards (his creativity knew no limits). Finally, he was the one who made the folders framed in canvas in the school workshop he had run as a crafts teacher. A truly unusual and typical situation for Schulz-a great work of art was created, so to speak, under a bushel.


I believe that rationalizing the perception of things that are inherent in a work of art is equivalent to exposing the actors, which is the end of the game, impoverishing the work's central issue. It is not that art is a logogriph with a hidden key and philosophy is the same logogriph, but explained. The difference is deeper. The umbilical cord tying them to the entirety of our problems is still intact in the work of art; there is still mystery blood flowing there, and the ends of the vessels escape into the night and return from it full of dark liquid.

- Tygodnik Ilustrowany, 28.04.1935, Warsaw, Vol. 76, No. 17

It is worthwhile to strain your eyes while looking at "The Eternal Fairy Tale" in order to focus on an overlooked (?) feature or an element that is simply marginal for most people. The compositions for "The Book of Idolatry" were all made on glass (the sheets of glass have not been preserved like many other significant works by Schulz). With the clever term "scratchography," which he coined for the process, Witkacy highlighted the laborious nature of making compositions in the cliché-verre technique. Glass is not the best printing matrix because of its fragility. The glass sheet with "The Eternal Fairy Tale" broke during the making process. This crack runs through the upper right part of the composition, although it is barely visible in the presented impression. However, there are also impressions in which it is very noticeable. This crack seems to be a good commentary on all the hard work and heroic effort required to create "The Book of Idolatry."