Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Messages From Another Time

The spine of the old book was tattered, thick and covered with bold words:

“NOB U Delima Likovnih Umetnika Jugoslavije”

I had to climb a ladder to retrieve it from the top shelf of the art section in a favorite used book store I frequent every time I’m in Hollywood. Some people go to health spas, or meditation retreats, or brothels. I go to used book shops. They are like temples to me.

Over the years I have obsessively developed a juicy art book collection containing an especially gorgeous array of rare folios on painting and drawing. I believe I have a keen sense about a book even from the look of it’s spine, and I still get a primitive thrill from the simple act of discovering such a book, especially when it is stuck high above my head on a shelf nine feet from the floor. There is a sense of locating a missing friend, or finding a piece of humanity’s great puzzle. This is my compulsion.

When the book was finally in my hands, I took in the feel of the worn canvas cover, the heavy water damage and even the aura of the book itself. ( Yes, books have auras.) Then I read the title on the spine again:

“NOB U Delima Likovnik Umetnika Jugoslavije.”

I opened the first pages, and found them all to be printed in what seemed to be...Yugoslavian. The publishing date was 1958. Like someone savoring the slow opening of a wrapped present, I thumbed past the text to the plates. What met me was image after image of human suffering, and strength in the face of dispair. I stood in the bookshop aisle for ten minutes, returning to the beginning page and assessing the prints with admiration and care. Paintings and sculptures of wounded soldiers, old women in kerchiefs, torn landscapes and huddled children filled the pages, affecting me with so many intense emotions. I had not expected this. The intimacy and often hurried appearance of the drawings gave testament to the fact that many of the works featured within the yellowed paged were dated 1942 through 1945. Obviously these were images created during the second world war.

Ah, I see you have found the book,” said the grizzled shopkeeper. He had been watching me carefully. “It takes a special someone to appreciate that one, and I have seen hundreds of people just flip through it’s pages and then jam it back in the shelf. But not you. You cannot put down.” He came around the counter and put on a pair of glasses that had been hanging from a tarnished chain around his fleshy neck.

I told him that I thought the book was incredible, and asked if he could give me some background about it.

“I think it translates as 'Yugoslavian painters and sculptors reflecting on the struggle of world war two'. It‘s a difficult book. Such images of sadness...and it‘s all still happening today, you know. You can still see these images on CNN. Sixty years have passed, and we are still learning this, over and over. Different countries, different people, same lesson. ”

For a third time, I flipped through the pages, while the two of us commented or drew a heavy breath at the sight of each of the two hundred and seventy paintings, sculptures and sketches from almost a hundred artists. Many of them dated from the height of the war years and seemed to have been drawn from actual observed scenes. Mesmorized, I bought the book.

I think of these artists as time travelers, sending their messages to our twenty-first century as a way of warning us, or at least linking us, to their own time of darkness and hope. The old book could be our own, and the words on the spine could be printed in countless languages.

I have included images taken from this remarkable find. I was distressed to think that these artist’s expressions were all but lost to the world, and that if the book had been neglected by me or had been ultimately discarded, the recording of their visions and feelings would be lost as well. When I purchased the book, it was for the memory of these artists, and to the communities and families that they depicted. They are us. They are the images of our own soldiers and mothers, children and grandparents.

These images may move you in their bleakness, or inspire you by their authenticity. They were made by forgotten Yugoslavian artists who would not close their eyes at what they saw. They did not ignore what they felt. They talk to us now, from across time.

Take a moment to read about The Country and People of Yugoslavia.
All Images in this post are from "NOB U Delima Likovnih Umetnika Jugoslavije" Published in Belgrade, 1958