The Last Days of Mankind – A Visual Guide to Karl Kraus’ Great War Epic
Artwork by Deborah Sengl
Contributions by Marjorie Perloff, Matthias Goldmann, Anna Souchuk and Paul Reitter
December 2018. Hardcover. 176 pages, fully illustrated in color.
$38.95 | 9780999754412 (hc)
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY – TOP 10 IN ART, ARCHITECTURE & PHOTOGRAPHY, Fall 2018
When the age died by its own hand, that hand was Karl Kraus’.
– Bertolt Brecht
With critical success over the past four years, artist Deborah Sengl (b. 1974) has exhibited taxidermied rats, drawings and paintings in order to restage Karl Kraus’ nearly-unperformable play The Last Days of Mankind (Die letzten Tage der Menschheit, 1915–22). Featuring Sengl’s entire installation, the DoppelHouse Press edition also includes essays that examine her ambitious dramaturgy, which condenses Kraus’ ten-to-fifteen hour drama into an abridged reading of its themes: human barbarism, war profiteering, the role of journalism in war, and the absurdities of nationalism. Select translations of Kraus’ original excerpted from the edition by Bridgham and Timms (Yale University Press, 2015) provide a window to see Kraus’ humor as well as his other “war” — a war on the misuses of language itself.
Published in conjunction with the centenary anniversary of the Armistice, which ended The Great War but bred another soon to come, this edition of The Last Days of Mankind offers an agit-prop protest crossing the boundaries of art, literature and history and spanning the knowledge of the century that has passed since Kraus penned his play. Deborah Sengl offers her stylistic model for envisioning human folly through animal actors, who become more than human, while confronting a violence particular to humankind, laced with selfishness and greed.
Contributors include modernist poetry scholar Marjorie Perloff (The Edge of Irony, University of Chicago Press 2015); arts writer Matthias Goldmann; Paul Reitter (editor/contributor to Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project, Harper, 2013); and professor of German Languages and Literatures, Anna Souchuk.
[Deborah Sengl’s] stunning display of 176 taxidermied rats as actors presenting forty-four scenes from The Last Days of Mankind deliver[s] a bracing test of [the play’s] potential. […] The preparation, costuming and posing of the rats as well as the meticulous attention to miniature props – facsimiles of period newspapers, a factory owner’s top hat and bow tie, the sample cases of traveling salesmen, infantry rifles – reflect a deep knowledge of Kraus’ text and disciplined commitment to an unconventional representation of its meaning.
The powerful effect of this large assemblage of monochromatic tableaux is heightened by juxtaposition with the preparatory drawings, which were exhibited next to them. […] These delicate line drawings all use color, sparingly but pointedly, so that the viewer is inevitably drawn to a comparison with the corresponding tableaux. Seen up close, as they are in the catalogue photographs, which include some unsettling enlargements, every white rat’s cocked head, gaping mouth, or crooked claw points back to the linguistic physiognomy of the speakers of a war-contaminated language who people Kraus’s drama.
– Leo Lensing, Times Literary Supplement
Sengl expressly states that she is not in a position to offer a quick solution for all the injustices of our times. But her works urge us to cast a more open and more empathic view of our environment, and that would already be a very commendable first step.
– Acid Rain
– Publishers Weekly
Sengl’s art itself plays with the tensions of life and death in her use of taxidermied rats. These once living animals are now turned into frozen props for a play that is all about death. Unlike purely biological or zoological taxidermy dioramas, these rats are anthropomorphized, mimicking human activities in miniature. […] The initial reaction to seeing the white rats wearing the tiny corsets and holding rat-sized guns results in deeply conflicted emotions. Cuteness and horror collide in these miniature scenes. […] Sengl continues the legacy of acid-tongued Austrian artists from Kraus and Kafka to more contemporary voices like Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek. Her adaptation of Kraus’ war epic, The Last Days of Mankind, makes it more accessible to audiences and helps to render the experimental play into a more comprehensible whole.
– New York Journal of Books
Modern fables for adults.
The Last Days of Mankind is, naturally enough, about the First World War, and about all war, but it is also about what our civilization is and about who we are. That is why, like all great works of art, it is, and will always remain, a ‘contemporary’ work. Those questions; who we are, what are our beliefs and values, what do we stand for, are as urgent today as they were in 1914–18 and its aftermath. Kraus, like the other three great writers he stands beside (Aristophanes, Juvenal, Swift) […] is the voice we need to hear.
– Michael Russell
No folly, no mendacity is exempt from Kraus’ gaze.
– Marjorie Perloff
The work is a hundred years old, but for me it is still current. We may not have war in the immediate vicinity, but the war within us is as strong, if not stronger, as it was then.
– Deborah Sengl
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
Deborah Sengl (b. 1974, Vienna) is an Austrian artist whose paintings, drawings and sculptures pose questions about the role of individual identity in modern society. She uses taxidermied animal actors staged in tableaux and two-dimensional works of human-animal chimera that suggest a cathartic release of violence and trauma associated with institutions, culture, politics, consumerism, poverty, and leisure. Recent solo exhibitions include the Essl Museum of Contemporary Art; IFK, Linz; Museum of Modern Art, Carinthia; Galerie Geschler (Berlin); Galerie Hilger (Vienna); and the National Gallery in Tirana, Albania. She studied art at both the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and the University of Art in Berlin, and has made a secondary career in costume design.
Marjorie Perloff is among America’s leading critics of poetry and the author of over a dozen books of literary criticism. She teaches courses, lectures around the world and writes on twentieth and now twenty-first century poetry and poetics, both Anglo-American and from a Comparatist perspective, as well as on intermedia and the visual arts. She is Professor Emerita of English at Stanford University and Florence R. Scott Professor of English Emerita at the University of Southern California as well as being an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. Perloff’s titles include Wittgenstein’s Ladder, The Futurist Moment and Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Several recent books take up the subject of her Viennese heritage, her exile, and Vienna’s cultural milieu. Her most recent book The Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire (University of Chicago Press, 2015) was praised by Adam Kirsch in The New York Review of Books and features the seed of the analysis that blooms in her writing on Deborah Sengl’s The Last Days of Mankind.
Matthias Goldmann is a writer and translator. He has published essays, poetry, and stories, has created and exhibited computer text animations (archived at Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach), and has cooperated with visual artists and authors on various projects and publications including authoring the artist monograph Franz West: Man with a Ball (Rizzoli, 2014). His translations of essays and literary writings by Elfriede Jelinek, György Dalos, and Tim Parks, among others have appeared in anthologies, magazines and art catalogs. His most recent book translation is Franz West Notes. Writings 1975 – 2011, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Ines Turian (Verlag Walther König, 2018). Goldmann also works as an editor with academic publishing companies in Austria and the United States.
Dr. Anna Souchuk is Associate Professor of German and Director of the German Program in the Department of Modern Languages at DePaul University, Chicago. Her research primarily concentrates on the writings of Josef Haslinger and his depictions of Austria’s conflicted relationship to processes of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (coming to terms with the past). She researches and writes about other Austrian writers and artists, too, such as Elfriede Jelinek, Linda Stift, Deborah Sengl, and the filmmaker Markus Schleinzer. Most recently, she edited a special edition of the scholarly journal Modern Languages Open that focused on the family novel in German-language literature, a project that drew on her larger interests in the family story and its generational transmission as a metaphor for coming to terms with the past in Austria.
Paul Reitter is Professor in German Languages and Literatures and Director of the Humanities Institute at Ohio State University. He is the author of three books: The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siecle Europe (University of Chicago press, 2008), On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred (Princeton University Press, 2012), and Bambi’s Jewish Roots: Essays on German-Jewish Culture (Bloomsbury, 2015). He has also worked on multiple collaborative editions including Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project (Harper, 2013) and he has contributed essays and reviews to Harper’s, TLS, Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, The Nation, and others. He recently co-edited Anti-Education, a new translation of Nietzsche’s lectures on the German educational system, and The Rise of the Modern University, an anthology of sources having to do with the mission of the research university.