Paean to a Beloved Daughter
Some time before 1925, Moissey Kogan was approached by the art historian and publisher, Paul Westheim, and asked to make a contribution to an anthology he was preparing for publication. A long time in the making, the resultant book was entitled Künstlerbekenntnisse, or Artists’ Testimonies. It included a selection of letters, diary entries and observations from an array of contemporary artists of the day, primarily those working within the French or German avant-gardes. Kogan‘s entry, which took the form of a prose poem, nine stanzas long, bore the title, Hohes Lied auf die Tochter (Paean to My Daughter).
Westheim amassed written offerings of varying kinds from over 60 artists for his book. Kogan‘s poem was published in an apparent sequence of contributions from artists belonging to the École de Paris, friends of his from the Café de Dôme circle, including Rudolf Levy, Friedrich Ahlers-Hestermann, Rudolf Großmann and Robert Genin, the latter someone he had known – in all probability – from their student days in Odessa. Elsewhere in Westheim‘s book, space was given over to other leading lights of the European and North American avant-gardes; excerpts from letters by Cézanne and Gauguin, August Macke and El Lissitzky, interviews with Picasso and Matisse, and essays and poems by Frank Lloyd Wright, André Derain and Oskar Kokoschka, were featured alongside a one-page article by film star Charlie Chaplin on the business of comedy.
It is not known precisely when Kogan wrote the Hohes Lied to his daughter, Leano, nor indeed in which language he originally composed it. Leano, who was the artist’s first daughter, was born, as the poem states, in July 1916. The first stanza records the time of her birth, and subsequent stanzas are headed discontinuously with days from the following weeks, much in the form of a diary kept at random. Fragments of other poems by Kogan survive, dating to the same decade, so there is nothing to suggest that Hohes Lied might not be contemporaneous with Leano’s birth. Leano‘s sister was born four years later, and her name appears in the poem, albeit one of several associated with beings not yet incarnate. Perhaps Kogan and his wife had already chosen the name for a second eventual daughter, or maybe the poem was composed later. Nonetheless, Kogan‘s marriage failed in spring 1922, so one might reasonably presume that the paean predates that moment.
Indeed, it was then in 1922 that Kogan‘s friends and admirers rallied round to assist him in his hour of desolation and financial need. Westheim was a prime mover in this effort, not only publishing a long, illustrated article by Karl With on the artist’s life and latest work in his flagship art journal, Das Kunstblatt, but also featuring a woodcut by Kogan in the portfolio, published quarterly, of Expressionist artists’ prints, entitled Die Schaffenden. He would include work by the artist – this time a linocut – in the same publication the following year (see below), and again in 1929 (see featured image). Westheim would go on to commission further major articles about Kogan for Das Kunstblatt in 1925, 1927 and again in 1929.
Regardless of when Kogan‘s poem was written, it remains important testimony to many of the key European and non-European sources of his art, to his faith as a Jew, and to his wider mystical preoccupations as a Theosophist. Below, you will find a rudimentary translation of three of the poem’s stanzas. Classical references intermingle seamlessly with allusions to Japanese art, the rhythms of dance, and the Hindu conception of the karmic cycle of reincarnation, destruction and creation, the Pralaya.
Thursday, 20th July 1916, around 11.30 am
Beloved soul, Leano, today you arrived on our sad earth. The Lord wanted to show us His mercy, as you weighed your choices in descent. Your mother suffered for you and, in her severe pains, she sought to clear the way to a new life for you. Thanks be to the Lord! Your first cry, one of horror, pierced my heart, as if it were a reproach that your soul had descended from the upper realms. You then gazed about you to take in the truth, to seek confirmation that you had truly swapped your dwelling place. Confident in the great absolute, you fell asleep, powerless against the karma that the Lord had dispensed upon you. Thus the peace of evening settled on us.
Blessed be the Lord!
Today, Leano, you are lost in sleep. And yet the sun is with you, and the wind flatters you with fond words. The trees and leaves bend and circle about your sweet head.
Does the Athenian caryatid not protect your cradle, and are Utamaro’s two mothers and their little boys, your companions, not close by? And are you not surrounded by innumerable beings, creations of your heavenly Father?
So, do not let our faithful companionship distress you. Be good to us, still your tears! Your sisters, the flowers, cry with you. Let them smile again. Bless us again!
Praise be to the Lord!
Our feast day.
Church bells did not consecrate your Sunday, beloved soul, Leano!
Your father and mother alone were your Levites and kept your divine service. We did not burn candles and fragrant resins on the altar or diffuse aromatic fragrances in the air. The flames of our souls leapt and rose to heaven in prayer for your Sunday. Receive our prayers in your pure heart. May they burgeon into a rose tree in blossom.
We kneel before the light of your face that bears upon it the light of the Lord.
Blessed be the Lord!
Featured image: Moissey Kogan, Zwei hockende Mädchenakte (Two crouching naked girls), woodcut on fine Japan, 25 x 19 cm, 1929, published in an edition of 125 in Die Schaffenden, vol. 6, portfolio 1, 1929.
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