Art on the horizon of extreme situations

Image: Elyeser Szturm

Faced with an ever-present demarcation line, art seeks to reach or surpass it, only to reposition itself, later on, as a utopia

By Flávio Aguiar*

I confess that when I chose this title, I didn't know at all what it would lead me to, although I had, of course, some idea about where I would start from, what topics I would address. First of all, I must warn you that I will commit some heresies throughout this conversation that I have always fought as an academic. In advance, forgive me: these are freedoms that the advance of the years gives me. I am referring to what we call, in university jargon, impressionist criticism, the one that starts not from the analytical and rigorous inventory of the objects of study, but from the observer's impressions of them.

In fact, I will address topics in which I am far from being an expert, not even an intimate visitor, although I have extensive experience in approaching them from the corner of my eye, like a traveler who falls in love with a sudden landscape. Traveler: here is a term that fits here. Listen to me as one who accompanies an essay more about a traveler's tumultuous world than what he observes. I emphasize the word “traveller”: unlike the pilgrim, who fulfills a destination, or the tourist, who fulfills the destiny that guides or today the search for selfies traces to him, the traveler, changing himself along the way, fulfills the words of the poet Antonio Machado: “hikers, there is no way, there is a way to walk”.

I'm going to address two topics that I like, but about which I don't have accumulated systematic knowledge: the birth, development and end of the School, or the Bauhaus Schools, in Germany where Nazism was developing and exploding; and Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, dedicated to Leningrad, in particular its hearing in August 1942, in the city besieged by the Nazis, in a siege that lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, leaving a trail of more than five million victims, among dead, wounded and missing, of which more than a million were Russian civilians killed by the bombings due to diseases and malnutrition.

The third theme is more familiar to me. This is the testimony of the Russian princess Marie Vassiltchikov, in her Berlin Diaries: 1940 – 1945, recognized as the most complete testimony not only of the barbarism of war and Nazism in the German capital, but also of the preparations, execution and consequences and sequels of the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944.

These events, so different in nature from one another, stem from extreme situations that their protagonists had to face. Limit situation: that dead end you reach, with no possibility of turning back, as in the famous duels in western movies, in which none of the contenders can retreat.

The limit situation is an insurmountable frontier, except for its radical confrontation, in a step of life or death. On the other hand, I believe that one of the possibilities of art, as I hope will be seen, is the power to transform an extreme situation into a horizon, that demarcation line that invites and calls us to cross it, just to, always present, like a utopia, to reposition itself further ahead, to open the way to the future, of some future, of the awareness that, as Father Antonio Vieira said in the XNUMXth century, although for reasons different from ours today, “the most important is the history of the future”.

I even thought about the possibility of talking about the life and work of the character in my master's thesis, the playwright of the paid gaucho, José Joaquim de Campos Leão, Qorpo-Santo. He faced an extreme situation: that of being considered and legally interdicted as “insane”.

I remember, in the wake of Michel Foucault, that “madness” is something different from emotional, cognitive or neuronal disturbances that can affect people. Both things may or may not coincide. “Madness” is a social role, whose object is defined by others and that come in the eventual effort on the part of the “madman” to demonstrate that he is not just the confirmation of his “madness”. Thus, if you spend your life writing and self-financing newspapers trying to defend yourself, striving to characterize the moral dramas of your time, and writing a few pieces of high dramaturgical creativity, you can be considered a “madman”, as was the case of Qorpo-Santo in the “late” XNUMXth century.

If you keep talking about feces and penises morning, afternoon and night, if you continually insult women, I point to saying that one of them is not even worthy of being raped because “she is ugly”, if you dedicate yourself to praising violence, of dictatorships, dictators and torturers, not only will you not be considered “crazy”, but you may even be elected president of the republic, in the “advanced” XNUMXst century.

But that’s how we got to where I wanted to go: the thematic framework of violence, which unites those three “events”, let’s call them that, that I chose to address: Bauhaus, Seventh Symphony, and the written War Diary – and this is not trivial – by a woman. They are stories, each in their own way, of characters who, each and every one in their own way, faced extreme situations of extreme violence during the rise, performance and fall of Nazism.

I chose them because perhaps they can tell us something about our situation today, when we face different forms of violence, ranging from the trivialization of wars and oppression, the continuous invasion of our daily lives by fake news and attempts to curb respect for differences. And I want to examine how art, in different manifestations, facilitated the transformation of the experience of those extreme situations into new horizons of openness for understanding and human dignity.


In 1919, in a Germany materially and spiritually devastated by the First World War, involved in deadly disputes between left and right and already facing the rise of the Freikorps, embryos of the future SA and SS of Nazism, the architect Walter Gropius founded – what exactly? – a school, but more than a school, a movement, but more than a movement, an entelechy, in the Aristotelian sense of the word, that is, a “being in act”, as opposed to a “being in potentiality”, a mode artistic way of being in which the tremendous effort to rise from the rubble of war was transposed into life and into individual experiences.

The First War became a catastrophe that brought together, in a way never seen or navigated before, the new techniques and scientific knowledge available to a destructive capacity that caused an entire continent to succumb, devastating empires and nations at a speed unprecedented in human history. Four empires were mortally wounded during the conflict: the Russian, the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman, although the latter lasted for some time. The British star began to decline, at the same time as that of North American imperialism and that of the now defunct Soviet Union.

It is clear that they contributed to the creation and development of the Bauhaus School, or the Bauhaus Schools, as there were several, a huge series of privileged personalities of men and women who dedicated themselves to them in their 14 years of existence, ephemeral, but which left their marks indelible influences in architecture, in plastic and other arts and techniques, as well as in teaching around the world. Few people know, for example, that the first “Bauhaus Exhibition” in the world was not held in Europe or the United States, but… in India!, in Calcutta.

The fact, however, is that the foundations for the creation of the Bauhaus owed much to the convictions of Walter Gropius, who was its director from 1919 to 1928. Gropius did not act in a vacuum. Similar initiatives, bringing together architecture, new construction and technology techniques, industrial design practices, mass production, visual arts, sculpture, among others, were being articulated in different parts of the world, from the United States to the newly created Soviet Union. It should also be noted that it was not by chance that the experience led by him began in Weimar, a city that had already seen the poetic deepening and study of colors by Goethe, which had, among others, the presence of Schiller, Liszt and Nietzsche.

However, the originality of Gropius resided in radically deepening the experimentation of everything – of materials and forms, in the sense of, instead of creating a “School”, in the artistic sense of the word, opening the horizon of masters and students to a creativity radical, allowing each one to develop their own particular style. So much so that, also on the initiative of other Bauhaus masters, the first moments of a course were often dedicated to free experimentation with all available materials, so that students could shed their previous prejudices.

The Bauhaus procedures were in tune with the experiments of the artistic vanguards on a world scale that sought to make “art” what was not considered as such. For this reason, one cannot speak, for example, of a “Bauhaus style”. What there was was a blossoming of different styles – of art and behavior – and which, not infrequently, came into conflict with each other.

The Bauhaus had two longer phases, one in Weimar, where it was created, and another in Dessau, the city where it moved in 1926. There was also a final phase, lasting ten months, which began in 1932, when the School moved to Berlin, and ended in mid-1933, when its own members decided to close it down in the face of pressure and persecution by the triumphant Nazis.

In Weimar, the Bauhaus had a continually tense relationship with part of the city's authorities and intellectual milieu, which was heavily influenced by traditionalist and conservative thinking. Gropius claimed that the Bauhaus was apolitical, but it was inevitable that there would be created around it, let's say, an aura of leftism and opposition to the status quo on several fronts, both in arts and politics as well as in customs, at a German, European and world moment in which ideological disputes were becoming radicalized and the Soviet Union was blossoming.

Conflicts with local authorities, or at least with some of them, also reached the financial area, and in 1926 most of his mentors and students decided to move to the city of Dessau, which had invited them. In my opinion, it was in Dessau that the school – let's adopt this terminology, albeit precarious – reached its apogee. There, thanks to the support received, its members were able to vent all their creativity, both in terms of technical and artistic practices, and in terms of personal and collective experience.

There, next to the main complex, were built, for example, the “Houses of the Masters”, according to the desired functional, practical and aesthetic dictates. These houses were built through the free joining of standardized blocks according to their functions: bedroom, living room, kitchen, dining room, etc. Result: the blocks were uniform, while the houses were not, as they were quite different from each other, both outside and inside.

But in Dessau, burning conflicts also developed, in every conceivable field, from lifestyles to those of an ideological nature. Due to these tensions, Gropius resigned as director in 1928, being replaced by Hannes Meyer, who directed it until 1930, when he was literally fired, giving way to Mies van der Rohe, also an architect, like his predecessors. The tension intensified, with attempts by students to found one or a few Bolshevik cells, while the Nazis took over the government of the province of Sachsen-Anhalt, where Dessau is located. The School moved to Berlin, the city where the outcome took place, after the Nazis took over the federal government with their ideas that considered the Bauhaus part of “degenerate” art and culture.

Still in Dessau, one of the emblematic cases of these confrontations and also of the coexistence of differences, is found in the twin houses of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. On the outside they were quite similar, along the lines of the “building blocks” of the school. Inside, the contrast was enormous. The Klee house was characterized by sobriety, both in terms of atmosphere and customs. Kandinsky, on the other hand, came from a Russian family with aristocratic habits, excelled in luxury and in welcoming great names in European culture and arts. His lifestyle was considered extravagant and was often criticized by other members of the Bauhaus, who promoted a more austere behavior. The coexistence of Kandinsky and Klee, however, was quite harmonious.

After the closure of the school in Berlin, many of its masters took refuge in the United States, among them Gropius. Some students and Hannes Meyer fled to the Soviet Union. From there the former director went to Mexico and then to Switzerland, where he died in 1954. A few members of the school joined Nazism or simply provided services to the Nazis, designing factories and even, in one case, the accommodation of a concentration camp. But these were exceptional cases. Several members of the school – including six women – died in concentration camps. Nowadays, there is even an ongoing reassessment of the role of women in the school's formulations and proposals.

The fact is that in the midst of this turmoil, at the same time constructive and destructive, the Bauhaus left a historic seal and a new horizon in world design and architecture. Today its legacy is the subject of studies, new evaluations and also disputes between institutions in the cities that hosted it: Weimar, Dessau and Berlin. Of course, there are also various initiatives to review the “myth” of the Bauhaus, to point out flaws and limitations in the work of its leaders and students, including that of Walter Gropius, accused, for example, of admittedly partial misogyny, as he did not see it as desirable to that the number of women in the school was very large, under penalty of this “reducing its prestige”.

But in general this prestige only increased over time, even in the former East Germany, where both Weimar and Dessau were located. And also, it should be said, nowadays the Bauhaus has become a fashion house and gives its name to one of Europe's most popular building materials sales houses, Bauhaus AG, headquartered in Switzerland. In a way, the Bauhaus also suffered the same fate as the strict and austere religious reformer, Johannes Calvinus, who now lends his name and likeness to a very popular brand of beer in Geneva.

Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony

The siege of Leningrad by Nazi troops is one of the most dramatic, tragic, epic and even lyrical events of the Second World War. The attack began in mid-August 1941; the siege came to close on September 8 and was only lifted on January 27, 1944, lasting 872 days. The city had almost 4 million inhabitants. Despite the siege, the Soviets managed to evacuate 1 million people by early 700, including 1943 children. They also managed to maintain a precarious supply of foodstuffs, insufficient, however, to prevent the chronic and fatal malnutrition that befell the remnants.

On the Soviet side, losses reached 3,5 million servicemen; 1 million civilians perished during the siege. At the end of the siege there were no dogs, no cats, not even mice in the city, eaten as they were by the desperate inhabitants. On the Nazi side, supported by Finnish troops and Spanish phalanx volunteers, fatalities reached 580 soldiers. To this day, the numbers are staggering. Leningrad, now reverted to its original, pre-Soviet name of St. Petersburg, is home to one of the largest cemeteries in the world, if not the largest. There lie 420 of the civilians who perished during the siege, in addition to 50 soldiers. On the side of the Nazis, close to the city, 30 Germans are buried, a slightly larger amount than the number of 27 Soviet soldiers buried in Berlin, in the Treptow Cemetery, a part of those who died during the capture of the German capital, which ended World War II in Europe in 1945.

When the siege was established, the musician Dmitri Shostakovich, who was born in the city, was already working on his Seventh Symphony. It was ready in early 1942, and the musician dedicated it to his hometown, naming it Leningrad. There are historians who see in this composer's gesture an effort to recover before Stalin, musicians and official critics of the regime, who did not appreciate his style, seen as too experimental and eclectic. Dmitri had already suffered heavy attacks by his opponents from 1936 onwards, finding himself in virtual ostracism.

It debuted in March 1942 in the city of Kuybyshev, today Samara, on the banks of the Volga River, many kilometers before the city of Volgograd, then Stalingrad, where one of the decisive battles of the Second War would take place. The symphony immediately became an icon of the Soviet resistance against Nazism, then prized in the West. After a new performance in Moscow, she went to the limelight in London and New York.

It was there that the Soviet government and the authorities of Leningrad decided to make a historic presentation in the very city that gave it its name and that at that time still suffered from terrible problems of hunger and disease. To complete the political symbolism, it was decided that the concert would be held at the Hotel Astoria, because apparently Hitler had expressed his intention to celebrate the fall of the city there, which he thought would be quick.

The difficulties were enormous, almost insurmountable. The Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and its chief conductor, Ievgueny Mravinsky had been evacuated to Siberia. What was left in the city, so to speak, was the reserve, and embezzled, team: just 15 musicians from the Leningrad Radio Orchestra and its conductor, who at the Philharmonic was Mravinsky's second, Karl Eliasberg. A dramatic call was then made for anyone who was a musician and was in the city – including military bands – to present themselves for rehearsals. Shostakovich's piece requires at least 108 musicians, many of them for the wind instruments, which, along with the percussion, play a leading role in its performance. Due to starvation and illness, some of the musicians were out of breath during the preparations. Others, weak ones, could not sustain the heavier instruments throughout the symphony's performance, which lasts at least 75 minutes. Supplementary food rations were set aside for the musicians to strengthen their breath and muscles. Despite this, 3 of the selected musicians died during the preparations, due to illnesses caused by malnutrition.

The performance was scheduled for the night of August 9, 1942. It was to be broadcast by radio throughout the Soviet Union and by loudspeakers throughout the city and also directed to German lines. During the day leading up to the event, Soviet artillery and aviation dropped 3 bombs on German, Finnish and Spanish Phalanx volunteer positions to prevent them from disrupting the concert with their bombing raids.

Finally, the concert took place. The symphony has a distinctly eclectic tempo, very much in Shostakovich's characteristic style. Specialized critics see in it resonances of Gustav Mahler, Franz Lehar, the author of “The Cheerful Widow”, and certainly of Eroica, the 3rd. Beethoven Symphony. The predominant tempo oscillates between the lyrical, evocative of the lost peace, dominated by wind instruments, and the dramatic, announcing the advent of war and the arrival of invading troops, centered on strings and percussion. It has four movements characterized, in order, as “allegretto”, “moderato”, “adagio” and “allegro”. For me the most solemn of all is the first, in which times of peace are convulsed by the percussion that announces the presence of the enemy.

The reception was enthusiastic. According to testimonies, the crowd present gave the musicians a standing ovation for an hour, and there were tears of emotion throughout the city. There are even reports that, in the lines on the other side, a German soldier would have made the comment that “we will never conquer this city”. At the end, a girl came onstage and handed Eliasberg a bouquet of flowers, which was a real luxury given the general poverty of the inhabitants.

The feat had repercussions around the world. But after the first moment of enthusiasm and after the end of the war, contradictory vicissitudes came. Mravinsky returned from “exile” and, it seems, managed to sabotage Eliasberg's image and career. This one did not fall into disgrace, but remained in an “obsequious background”. In the West, some voices were raised with disdain, saying that it was a piece aimed at people with unsophisticated musical tastes, etc. For me, envy and the Cold War stuff.

None of this undermined the prestige of the Seventh Symphony. She continues to be presented as a symbol of tenacious resistance against the brutality of Nazism. There were symbolic concerts, with the surviving musicians from that performance in Leningrad, conducted by Eliasberg, who last did so in 1975, three years before his death.

One of the most famous performances took place in 2003. Its conductor, Semyon Bychkov, gave a memorable performance, recorded on video. As if he were a disciple of Konstantin Stanislavsky, he cathartically embodied all the drama of the symphony, his final expression becoming famous, in the silence that follows the last chords, in which critics and witnesses read so much the relief of seeing a promise of victory against the barbarism and perplexity in the face of this same barbarism.

I could too: the orchestra was the radio and television orchestra of the German city of Cologne; the conductor, Semyon Bychkov, was born in 1953, in what was still called Leningrad, to a Jewish family that had survived the siege and the war. Proof that Shostakovich's symphony continues to inspire the encounter with the spirit of resistance to intolerance that, amid the contradictions of history, inspired its composition and the historic performance of August 9, 1942.

Berlin Diaries, 1940 – 1945

“The silence of the last chords”: joining the silence to which “Enteléquia Bauhaus” was subjected, although both the symphony that ended when the School that fell silent survived its extreme circumstances, this expression connects us to the third movement – ​​let’s go so to call the steps of this exhibition – of our journey.

berlin diaries, by the Russian princess Marie Vassiltchikov, records her visit to the German capital during the frantic and gloomy years of the Second World War. And he ends by recounting, after the end of the war, a bicycle ride he took through the Taunus region, a range of green hills and mountains (it was summer, early September 1945) northwest of Frankfurt am Main.

It evokes the restful silence that the landscape offers it, after all the deafening noise of the bombings in Berlin and also, in the end, in Vienna, in addition to the howl of the flames caused by the incendiary bombs, the alarm sirens, the malignant noise of speeches Nazis that she detested, the ominous noise of the death rattle of her friends who conspired to rid Germany and the world of Hitler, but were caught by him and his minions and executed with refinements of cruelty. Restful, the silence also resembles an epitaph. The Taunus was a region preferred by members of its class, the European aristocracy that is definitively succumbing, as a class, in the midst of the rubble of war, according to the precise notation of John Le Carré – the novelist – who writes a brief presentation note for the first edition of the book.

Marie Vassiltchikov arrived in Berlin at the age of 23, coming from a family of Russian aristocrats who went into exile after the 1917 Revolution. A polyglot, she ended up working at the German government's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, already during the war, facing the first resounding successes of the Nazi offensive. She found herself, paradoxically, in a loci privileged. The German government needed to know what was actually going around the world: therefore, there was no censorship of what entered the Ministry's information grid. From there onwards, everything was censored by the Nazi watchdogs, who progressively surrounded and invaded the Ministry, each one more disingenuous and mediocre than the last.

However, it was there – stronghold of the remnants of a high German aristocracy that occupied important positions in diplomacy and also in the country's armed forces – that she came to know a group of people perplexed and scandalized by the destruction of the country that the Nazis and their militias ended up producing. . They decided, after much hesitation, to carry out the attack which, on July 20, 1944, was carried out. Its failure put a damper on this group and on the German aristocracy itself.

Interestingly, through these tortuous paths of history, it was Hitler who ended up with the remnants of what was to come. Old regime in Germany. They were not revolutionaries, in the sense that we lend to the word. They were patriots, and some hated the Nazis not because they were reactionary, or authoritarian, but because they were vulgar. reached – newly arrived, and ill-mannered invaders – to the halls of power of the Germanic nation.

Marie Vassitchikov records all this drama – or tragedy – of history in a diary that she writes frantically and compulsively. By force of circumstances, she often writes in shorthand, or even on a typewriter, but in a code that only she understands. And she hides the pages in different places that only she knows. Thanks to this, she developed a writing style that was at once vehement and restrained, burning and dry, registering in words of terrible beauty the denunciation of atrocities and even extreme hopes that take place in the very heart of civilization, where the barbarity of crimes against the humanity.

His descriptions of bombed Berlin are heartbreaking, with its buildings on fire, the crowds of people abandoned in the streets, and the hundreds buried under collapsing buildings. His report on the hope and disappointment of seeing and then not seeing the hated Leader dead is poignant, as well as the mention of the torments of the persecuted at the hands of a biased and truculent judge like Roland Freisler, Hitler's favorite, with the subsequent execution, hanging many with piano wires to increase their suffering. On few occasions has the writing been so exiguous and at the same time so eloquent, about the inexhaustible capacity of human cruelty, and at the same time the undying devotion to denounce it.


The silence of the muted school; the silence of the moved maestro; the silence of the mountains that soothes the exasperated soul: I would dare to ask Theodor Adorno, who said that “writing a poem after Auschwitz is a barbaric act”, if there would then be a more radical protest poem than the perception of the silence imposed by the crushing of human consciousness, as is being promoted in Brazil today? I am not praising passivity, and I am very appreciative of the very wave of intelligent protests that have gone up against enthroned stupidity as a form of government. I am also drawing attention to what this rising of voices in protest brings behind it, as ballast and strength of their indignation: the silence of what is lost once and for all thanks to the empire of self-satisfied ignorance.

I used to tell my students that, in order to begin to understand the drama of our Americas, the first thing to do was to equip ourselves with an imaginary radio telescope and turn it to the past, in order to hear the silence of languages, of cultures, of dreams that were extinguished so that we could come into existence.

Among these silences, none was and is more eloquent than that of Anacaona, the queen of part of the island that would later be divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. About her everything is certain and uncertain at the same time. There was a queen of the Taíno people, named Anacaona, who succeeded her brother, who died in 1502. She appears in some reports made by the conquerors, among them Friar Bartolomé de las Casas.

According to these reports, her name meant “The Golden Flower”, and she sang poems called “areitos”; it is possible that they had some ritual or religious function. Also according to these reports, and here we begin to enter the territory of the legend, they were very beautiful. What is certain is that Anacaona was accused of sedition by the Spanish governor Nicolás de Ovando. After some betrayals, as usual, the Spaniards managed to practically exterminate the Taíno people and arrest Anacaona, who was hanged in 1503. Apparently all that remains physically of her is a chair – a kind of throne – on which she sat and at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris.

Is there a more eloquent metaphor for the American tragedy, provoked by the barbarism that lies not on the periphery, but at the heart of civilization, than this empty chair from which emanates a silent poetry, which will never be deciphered? It accompanies, like the silence of the mute school, the pathetic silence that follows the chords of Shostakovich's Seventh, and the silence that the princess finds in the Taunus, after the deafening noise of war, and animates us, in the midst of the barbarism that today surrounds us so closely, to continue building his humanist legacy. Which can also have images, as we have seen, sounds and eloquent words amid the confusion of our old world without a gate.

*Flavio Aguiar is a retired professor of Brazilian Literature at USP.

Text created from the lecture given at the Institute of Arts of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul


Pictures of the Bauhaus School in Dessau:

Symphony Leningrad by Shostakovich with the Cologne Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov:

Cheo Feliciano singing Anacaona:

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