Peace Testimonies in Literature & Art

     In Virginia Woolf’s reading scrapbooks, compiled for her extensive pacifist project that includes the peace pamphlet Three Guineas, there is pasted a typed-out excerpt called “War and Writers” that addresses the interconnection between writing and political activism, between literature and the production of society. Writers, this passage asserts, have a major responsibility to society because they can shape the consciousness of the people. Therefore, it is the writer’s job, “War and Writers” argues, to “spread the spirit of peace.”14 Thinking across the humanities, this exhibition, based on the “Peace Testimonies in Literature & Art” Writing Seminar, undertakes a study of the way in which writers, activists, and artists have utilized literature, art, and acts to “spread the spirit of peace.” Additionally, many artists, including Virginia Woolf and Pablo Picasso, actively raised money for Spanish relief.15 Aldous Huxley penned the introduction to the 1938 American Quaker fundraising initiative, They Still Draw Pictures, a copy of which is included in this exhibition. Here we investigate the relationship between belief and daily conduct, and trace the way in which art, literature, and deeds perform and promote pacifist philosophies.

    The digital humanities projects featured in this exhibition, created by students in the Spring and Fall 2015 “Peace Testimonies” seminars, explore the ways in which writers and artists responded to the conflict in Spain, using their writing and art as a way of spreading peace. This course is structured around pacifist documentary projects that each have many layers of composition and compilation. For example, Three Guineas, which Jane Marcus has called a “major documentary project” and an “interactive”16 text, was compiled based upon three reading notebooks Woolf kept that included letters, newspaper articles, and typed-out excerpts. Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Mediterranean” is part of a much larger series of writings on Spain, which include the experimental novel Savage Coast, news articles, and prosaic-philosophical meditations. Pablo Picasso’s great mural Guernica has been documented by his partner, the surrealist photographer Dora Maar, allowing us to study the various stages of creation. Langston Hughes’s Spanish Civil War dispatches are in conversation with his poetry, creating an intricate dialogue of his time in Spain, encounter with total war, and anti-fascist beliefs.

    Students of the “Peace Testimonies” seminars have 6 created scholarly annotations embedded in the texts themselves by taking the supplementary materials, for example the stages or studies from Guernica, or Virginia Woolf’s scrapbooks, and have digitally annotated the final products with a close-reading analysis of how these supplementary materials enhance or illuminate an understanding of the text. The students have hyperlinked their annotations, creating an intricate web of conceptual and historical connections between the texts, demonstrating and inventing a method for reading intertextually in the digital age. Through the intertextual analysis of Muriel Rukeyser’s poetics, Virginia Woolf’s writings, Pablo Picasso’s paintings, Langston Hughes’s Spanish Civil War dispatches and poetry, and the Quaker relief effort in Spain, this exhibition uncovers lost histories of pacifist thought and examines how artists, writers, and activists worked together to imagine and create a world without war.

    From the students’ scholarly annotations, it becomes clear that the thinkers featured here have a shared value in forging an activist pacifism that cannot be divorced from either social justice or human rights concerns. Virginia Woolf combined socialism and feminism into a radical global pacifism that we have read in conversation with Langston Hughes’s internationalist images of peace based on social justice and racial equality, Muriel Rukeyser’s passionate, kinetic poetics that convey a longing for peace, and Pablo Picasso’s work publicly promoting peace and freedom. As pacifists, these artists and writers actively denounced the continuation of warfare. They deliberately used their art to display the suffering of civilians, many times transcending partisan ideologies, to promote the cause of pacifism. However, there is also a shared antifascist sentiment that these artists expressed after seeing the brutality of total war. Despite their differences, all of these artists believed that peace could be born from the free spread of ideas through art. By hyperlinking the modernist, pacifist documentary projects of Hughes, Rukeyser, Woolf, and Picasso, the students explore the intertextual threads of the works put forth, illustrating that each of these projects responded to and engaged with the cultural conversations of their time. This exhibition reveals the powerful Peace Testimonies embedded in the poetry, prose, paintings, and actions of the Spanish Civil War era and shows how artists, activists, and authors sought to create a world in which peace is possible.