International Congress for the Defense of Culture, Hall of the Mutualité, Paris, 21th of June, 1935

International Congress for the Defense of Culture, Hall of the Mutualité, Paris, 1935 © Gisèle Freund
International Congress for the Defense of Culture, Hall of the Mutualité, Paris, 1935
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border


Bertolt Brecht, Paris, 1935 © Gisèle Freund
Bertolt Brecht, Paris, 1935
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border


E. M. Forster, Paris, 1935 © Gisèle Freund
E. M. Forster, Paris, 1935
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border


André Malraux, Paris, 1935 © Gisèle Freund
André Malraux, Paris, 1935
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border


Anna Seghers and Gustav Regler, Paris, 1935 © Gisèle Freund
Anna Seghers and Gustav Regler, Paris, 1935
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border


Henri Barbusse, Alexej Tolstoi, Boris Pasternak, Paris, 1935 © Gisèle Freund
Henri Barbusse, Alexej Tolstoi, Boris Pasternak, Paris, 1935
Black-and-white photograph; Fiber Base Silver Gelatine Print; white outline border
On the evening of June 21, 1935, thousands of people converge on the Maison de la Mutualite in Paris, where the Congress for the Defense of Culture is opening. The large hall, containing three thousand seats, is full, and outside a crowd gathers around loudspeakers that have been set up so that those unable to enter can at least follow the speeches. Tickets must be bought, and the audience is largely composed of writers and intellectuals from the most diverse horizons and political parties. Close to two hundred and fifty writers, from thirty-eight countries, have been invited, constituting the most brilliant audience ever assembled. For five days they meet at 3 P.M. and 9 P.M.

On the platform, Andre Gide, E. M. Forster, Julien Benda, Robert Musil, Jean Cassou, E. E. Kisch, Jean Guehenno, Edouard Dujardin, and Andre Malraux. With their differing political, literary, and philosophical opinions, they are a good representation of the stakes at this historic gathering; to defend freedom of the mind against the threat of war and fascism. The organization of the Congress, in which the French delegation is naturally the most numerous, is chiefly owing to the speaker who most fascinates the audience by his eloquence and fire: Andre Malraux.

“The humanism we want to create, and which finds its former expression in the line of thought running from Voltaire to Marx, lays claim above all to man’s true awareness. To be a man is to reduce one’s pretense to a minimum,” he declares, at a time when he believes that “communism restores to the individual his fertility.”

The most famous Frenchman present is undoubtedly Andre Gide, with his clean-shaven, ascetic face. He too has recently been won over to the cause of the working classes. “It is my claimthat one can be profoundly internationalist while remaining profoundly French. Just as I claim to remain profoundly individualist in full communist assent and with the help of communism. For my thesis has always been the following: it is by being the most private that each person best serves the community. Today I would add another thesis, counterpart or corollary of the first: it is in a communist society that each individual, the privacy of each individual, can most perfectly expand.” (After his trip to the USSR, Andre Gide was to change his opinion radically, as did Andre Malraux a few years later.)

I also remember Henri Barbusse, his features already wasted with illness; Aldous Huxley, halfblind behind his thick glasses; Bertolt Brecht, with his timid smile and his head shaved like a prisoner; Ilya Ehrenburg and his lion’s mane; Heinrich Mann, looking like a peaceful bourgeois; Anna Seghers, with her dreamy eyes. And Boris Pasternak, whom no one yet knew, since his poems had not been translated, and who at the Congress had this to say about poetry: “It will always be in the grass, it will always be necessary to bend over to see it, it will always be too simple to be discussed in assemblies. It will always remain the organic function of a happy being, overflowing with all the felicity of language, lying contracted in the native heart ever heavy with its load, and the more happy men there are, the easier it will be to be an artist.” The photograph I took of Pasternak on that occasion shows him young and smiling, like his words. Unlike Gide, he did not bother to find a justification for his individualism. His expansiveness was not owing to a communist society, and was certainly not against it; rather, it was a pure and natural movement. Poetry was his only world.

If a Congress of such importance were to be held today, a hundred photographers would be there to take pictures. In 1935, there were only myself and Chim, who a few years later was to become David Seymour. The hall was dark, but I did not want to work with those magnesium flashes that photographers then used. Film, however, was much less sensitive than today, which explains why a number of negatives were underexposed. They resembled “solarizations,” with that surprising effect that makes the photograph look like a drawing.

I thought back on this memorable Congress when I attended the Rencontres Internationales de la Sorbonne on February 12 and 13, 1983. At the instigation of François Mitterrand, close to six hundred artists and intellectuals had been invited from all over the world. Writers, philosophers, painters, composers, scientists, economists, journalists, and others discussed the gravity of the crisis that was beginning to be perceived by public opinion. They tried to shed light on the present relations between culture and economic development, between creation and technological innovation; they analyzed the necessary diversity of cultures and their
cross-fertilization. Intellectuals of different races and religions sat side by side in the study halls where the opening discussions took place: between North and South, Arabs and Israelis, blacks and whites. Even for the most sceptical of those present, this dialogue between adversaries conveyed an emotion that was perceptible not only in the tone of the debates, but in informal meetings and in the often lyrical flights of the speeches as well. And on the second day, when two thousand people crowded into the great hall, the calm and cordial atmosphere was truly extraordinary. Was culture perhaps capable of resolving the most difficult problems of our period, as Keynes had wondered decades before.

By Gisèle Freund, 1985

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