VII. Tu belleza se llamará también misericordia, y consolará el corazón de los hombres.
Gabriela Mistral, Decálogo del Artista
The beauty that you create shall also be called compassion, and shall console the hearts of men. I painted that seventh commandment of Gabriela’s “Decalogue of the Artist” across the old built-in china cabinets that line one dining room wall. I sketched it first in pencil to get the spacing right, then brushed over the sketch with ivory black in a version of chancery hand. The quotation spans the wall in the original Spanish because the poetry—the music—of the words resides in her own language.
I seized that single commandment for myself but let drop the de los hombres. The phrase was too grand, too sweeping in its embrace. The consolation any one of us can offer is singular, individual. Even at that, it extends only to those few with the intuition to meet and greet it.
Studio artists have to tread carefully through claims for the redemptive powers of beauty. Reading Gabriela’s “Decalogue,” it is critical to keep in mind what she meant by the work artist. She was addressing herself to other writers, to keepers of the word who grasped the tragic dimensions of life.
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Petrograd, 1919: From the villages in the north of Russia came several thousands of peasants, some hundreds of whom were housed in the Winter Palace of the Romanovs. When the congress was over, and these people had gone away, it appeared that not only all the baths of the palace, but also a great number of priceless Sevres, Saxon, and oriental vases had been befouled by them for lavatory use. It was not necessary to do this since the lavatories of the palace were in good order and the water system working. No, this vandalism was an expression of the desire to sully and debase things of beauty. Two revolutions and a war have supplied me with hundreds of cases of this lurking, vindictive tendency in people, to smash, deform, ridicule, and defame the beautiful.
—Maxim Gorki, Days with Lenin
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Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was the first Latin American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. That was in 1945, thirty one years after a young, unknown Chilean schoolteacher, Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, won first prize in a national poetry contest with “Los Sonetos de la Muerte” (“Sonnets of Death”). She wrote under the pen name of Gabriela Mistral. An evocative pseudonym, it honored the archangel Gabriel together with the relentless mistral wind that blows over the south of France. Gabriela’s literary fame began with that prize, awarded in 1914. Sixteen-year-old Pablo Neruda lived in the town in which she served as principal of the local liceo. He was an early admirer, an avid reader of her poetry.
Announcement of the 1945 Nobel Prize to Gabriela Mistral surprised many literate Americans who had never heard her name despite great popularity in the Spanish-speaking world. She was recognized at home as not only a vital and original lyric force but also a moral force. Always a teacher first, only secondarily a poet, she considered teaching a spiritual maternity. In her verse portrait of a rural teacher, she stressed the virtue of purity: A teacher must be pure so that she can guard the purity of her charges, the children of Jesus.
Margaret Bates’ 1946 address to Trinity College undergraduates describes her this way:
She is profound, for the springs of her inspiration go deep. Her roots are nourished by the first waters of the Hispanic tradition, el pueblo, by the Bible, and by the classics of her language. Her patria is that great spiritual fatherland which speaks the language of Saint Teresa, [Luis de] Góngora, and Azorín.
Doris Dana, translator of Gabriela’s poetry into English, found among thousands of pages of manuscript left behind one small fragment: They shall not die. No, no one dies except he who has never lived.
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Gabriela Mistral’s “Decalogue,” appears in Desolación (Desolation), published in 1922. It is readily available online but best read in a dual-language edition. The loveliest of these is Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, a 1971 edition by Johns Hopkins Press, illustrated with the woodcuts of Antonio Frasconi. Born in Argentina and raised in Uruguay, Frasconi lived and worked in the United States until his death earlier this year. A renowned practitioner of woodcut, he was given a last tribute in his obituary in the New York Times. It included this:
Mr. Frasconi did not reach this pinnacle by adhering to orthodoxies. . . . He decried art education, saying the average student does not learn the pertinent questions, much less the answers. He abhorred art that dwelt on aesthetics at the expense of social problems. He repeatedly addressed war, racism and poverty, and devoted a decade to completing a series of woodcut portraits of people who were tortured and killed under a rightist military dictatorship in his home country, Uruguay, from 1973 to 1985.
He was a fitting choice to illustrate Gabriela’s work. In his own, he observed her ninth commandment:
IX. Beauty shall not be an opiate that puts you to sleep but a strong wine that fires you to action, for if you fail to be a true man or a true woman, you will fail to be an artist.