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Evgeny Bogat: Rembrandt’s girl

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Russian writers on war

Evgeny Bogat: Hiroshima and Socrates

Evgeny Bogat: In a world of napalm and burning villages, love is the triumph over non-existence

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Evgeny Bogat
From Eternal Man
Translated by Christine Bushnell

The subject of “Night Watch” is famous: the Banning Cock Company is setting out on a march – one person is beating a drum, another is loading a musket, another is raising a flag. The atmosphere of the painting is permeated with military pride, and there is rather a dramatic touch in the depiction of happy people whose powder is already damp. It is one of Rembrandt’s most charming physical canvases and recently restoration work has wonderfully brought the figures to life. For long decades the painting hung in the Amsterdam infantry guild, where damp peat burned in the fireplace. It became darker from the smoke, as if true to its mysterious name: “Night Watch.” But a number of questions also arose. Recently, under the soot and later layers of paint the restorers discovered sunny Rembrandt tones. Thus the old name was curious, but there was another riddle – the girl in the crowd of armed people. What was she doing there, and why is she in that particular place on the canvas? It is the brightest and most radiant spot of the canvas, and a number of investigators interpreted her (before the restoration) as a ray of light contrasting with the somber tones. They were convinced Rembrandt was using the girl to light up the dark night. But it is night no longer, and the girl is still there. She has become even more of a riddle. Why did the artist depict her among those people, people who do not see her? The majority of the figures in the painting are shielded by one another and this brings forth the ire of some of the soldiers who are very close together pushing one another, practically standing on top of one another. But the girl is out in the open. Had this not been a group of burghers parading in full military dress, but a real battle in a moment of real danger, the girl would be an extremely easy target. Her defenselessness amidst gunpowder in this theatrical picture is shocking. But the world is not a riddle for me, she arouses my fear for her safety, alarm over a world in which beating a drum is more important than protecting a child….

In the girl standing out in the open I see Anne Frank, the girls from Auschwitz, from Hiroshima. I wish at least one of the figures of “Night Watch” would shield her with his own body, but they are all too busy with themselves. And their clothes, weapons, and bearing all express militarism.

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[In an imaginary dialogue with Rembrandt]

We spent long hours talking about man and he told me things of infinite importance that have played a tremendous role in my understanding of the world. He helped me to better understand the people around me and these people helped me, in turn, to more fully understand his canvases. He said that most of his contemporaries could not realize their potential in verse, music, love and good deeds. He said that man, in his inner depths, is incomparable richer than he appears on the surface. With each epoch we must become more and more conscious of this difference and as mankind develops the difference will become less and less tragic. He told me about women who died without ever falling in love, or who fell in love but never came to know the fullness of life. He talked about poets who never wrote a line, and even about artists who did not leave one canvas behind. He spoke of people who did not create a hundredth of what they were capable of, of people who did not carry through what they were born to do. He helped me sense the very essence of man, to keenly perceive his unfulfilled promise. And I better understand the golden twilight of his paintings and their sorrow, He told me about burned manuscripts, ruined canvases, broken hearts, and unfulfilled promises.

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There are many entirely similar men and women, but there are no children exactly alike. It would seem that differences among persons and differences in character should become more apparent as people grow older. But this is not the case. The differences sadly fade away, leaving only the memory of the wonderfully unique world of childhood. Where has the child gone? Can it really be that a despondent, untalented person who goes around with an ordinary expression on his face and stereotyped phrases – can it be that once he was a child? At times, one may think, the child has really departed, he quietly slipped away at daybreak so that he would not have to turn into this person. He is living somewhere else – drawing, making models, delighting in the world, loving dogs and sunshine. Is there, perhaps, somewhere, a fantastic land of boys and girls who run away to remain themselves? In this land of the eternal child there is no boy-Socrates, no boy-Tolstoy, for they did not need to run away, they live within eternal man. And perhaps in the future the population of this fantastic land will cease to grow, and not a single boy or girl will be added in the next 1,000 years, because man will, in the future, be able to keep the child within himself. The child will have no need to run away. And then the words “untalented person” will seems as absurd as “untalented child” seems today.

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