Despicable Matter: Deborah Vogel’s Cubist Prose

IWMPost Article

Deborah Vogel—art critic, philosopher, writer, poetess, translator, and educator of the interwar period—is little known for any of these activities in her native Poland and even less so in the English-speaking world. Alicja Rybkowska restores the memory of the plastic value of her work and documents Vogel’s struggle to achieve this value.

Deborah Vogel was born in 1900, in the small Galician town of Burshtyn, in today’s western Ukraine, as the single child of a well-to-do Jewish family. She studied philosophy and aesthetics in L’viv and Kraków and remained active in these fields for the rest of her life, publishing internationally critical texts and giving lectures. She also completed a considerable number of poetic and prosaic texts that she wrote in Yiddish and sometimes translated into Polish. Together with her mother, her husband, and their six-year-old son, she was killed during the liquidation of the L’viv ghetto in August 1942.

In her literary works and her aesthetic theory, Vogel consistently stressed the role of systematic attempts to organize and transform the matter, be it philosophical thought, plastic representation, or language. Despite her pessimism about the possibility of such transformation, her works remain a brilliant, yet little known, example of the creative usage of plastic imagery for narrative imagination.

The few personal statements made by Vogel to have survived testify that she struggled to combine plastic and literary means of expression. She believed that life can only be made understandbale when organized and structured in artistic forms. She felt, however, that there is a disparity between the richness of the world and the modest means of making it comprehensible. The efforts to achieve a satisfactory form from the eluding, “despicable” matter, the “icky and dissolute mass,” are only partly successful. For Vogel, life itself is chaos over which one must gain control. It has no form and is meaningless, “greasy,” “reeky” as long as it is not mediated in artistic forms. This struggle to achieve the desired form from the resistant, intractable material reminds us of the modernist experience of the cubist breakdown of the object.

In Vogel’s times the term “cubism” still had a generic meaning of all avant-garde figurative art but her expertise in the newest artistic trends would have prevented her from such a vague use of the term. I believe it was rather the seminal character of cubism that convinced Vogel of its crucial role in the development of art. By initiating the geometrization of painterly forms, it opened new possibilities for other genres as well. Vogel was of the opinion that artists working in other genres became forced to match the originality and ingenuity of cubist painters. The latter’s unconventional mode of presentation of objects, she believed, was an incentive for writers and poets to confront the problem of conventionalization of literary language.

Vogel’s articles on art prove that she had an extraordinary plastic imagination. It comes almost as a surprise that she never attempted to draw or paint, of which there is absolutely no indication. Her poems and novels, on the other hand, are a worthwhile attempt to translate the cubist imagery into poetry and prose. The result is something like cubist literature: use of words and sentences that does not cater to habitual expectations and an ambiguous portrayal of reality that renders the recognition of the relationships between its elements highly difficult. The choice of mundane subjects that gain meaning through their transmutation into an artistic experiment and the lack of any apparent narrative make her writing like a cubist painting. She pointed out this similitude herself, calling her stories “montages” and claiming that their plastic equivalent were the “so-called photomontages,” which can be traced back to cubist papiers collés.

Cubism is a term that is relatively rarely used in reference to literature. There was never a collective effort to apply the principles of cubism to literature, nor are there any statements or typical representations of this genre. Perhaps the caution in using the term “literary cubism” stems also from the fact that cubism, as opposed to such avant-garde movements as expressionism or surrealism, which influenced literature significantly, is a term that refers directly to the method of construction of the painterly object, and not to what may become this object (the inner states and experiences of an individual, the reality of dreams, and the like). Notwithstanding this, the name cubism was hugely accidental and was initially meant by its originator, Félix Fénéon, to be an ironic comment on the painterly manner of young Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Moreover, even if the name refers only to the ways of perceiving and representing reality—and thus is restricted to the visual sphere—literature undoubtedly has the capacity of describing the visual as well. The cubist revolution influenced not only the way we see things and, arguably, the way we describe them, but also the way we can imagine things. For imagination, like cubist compositions, offers numerous perspectives at once and allows us to see what we generally know of the object. Paradoxically, this breaking up of the object into a multitude of perspectives does not deny its continuity but rather stresses the plurality of possible interpretations. The aim of this procedure is to better depict reality in all its abundance and diversity.

However, the underlying principle of Vogel’s montages was putting manifold elements together in order to achieve a new entity, whereas in cubism the principle appears to be more formal and it is to break a given entity in order to achieve a new outlook of its elements. Vogel protested against the view that her poetry is just a formal experiment with no connection to life. In poetry, she believed, the analogue of geometrical forms in painting are banal, unrefined words. Vogel described them as typical, banal, anonymous, even stupid, but she was convinced that in this precisely lies their power: they name the things that typically remain overlooked. The repeatability of life may cause melancholy, but transformed into poetry it offers consolation. The poetry of “cold statics,” as she named it, was the cubist-constructivist poetry: dispassionate, minimalistic, even boring. It followed from a systematic reduction of the literary language, analogous to the reduction carried out in early cubism: restricted use of adjectives, replacement of abstract names with particular feelings and incidents, substitution of metaphors with comparisons. Furthermore, Vogel’s later montages also lack individualized protagonists. They are often difficult to follow, challenging in their choice of words and themes. Eliza Kącka recently noted that it is almost impossible to learn from any paper on Vogel what her works are—partly because they are about nothing particular at all. But, if we read them as a record of grappling with the unresponsive matter—and unresponsive readers, perhaps—the seemingly formal experiment reaches a psychological depth and it becomes an appealing and relatable story.

The result of the constant struggle with the material was an overpowering feeling of sadness that is best depicted in Vogel’s artistic credo: “The monotony, laid bare as the structure of reality, may become the program of life—it means then the rehabilitated dailiness. It is a hierarchical, and therefore also a heroic worldview: it sees the proper value in the heavy repetition of a few plain, every-day gestures, in the miracle of movement as such, to the very end. She called this attitude a “sort of modern stoicism,” the art of wilful resignation from the unfettered participation in the fast-paced flow of sensations. In her work she chose to concentrate rather on the often overlooked material of these sensations: life itself, too big a subject to fit into an artistic project of just one person. Her tenacity and determination to   modify, nuance, and refine her theories in order to remain up-to-date ceased with the outbreak of the war. She did not publish anything in the last years of her life and rejected a friend’s offer to escape the L’viv ghetto. It is as if the matter had triumphed—but Vogel was very well aware of the impossibility of overpowering it once and for always.

Szymaniak Karolina, Być agentem wiecznej idei: przemiany poglądów estetycznych Debory Vogel. Kraków: Universitas, 2006, 272.

Alicja Rybkowska, trained in philosophy and art history, works for international projects in higher education. She was a guest of the IWM in 2019 and Józef Tischner Junior Visiting Fellow in 2020.