Letter to a gentleman from Bern
Bear in carved wood holding salt and pepper, made in the Bernese Oberland in the late 19th or early 20th century
Dear Mr Bear,
All right ... A bear, masculine, in French. I had the feeling that you were male. If your name were Waltraud and not Gottfried, I would be confused. Your slightly ‘square’ side leads me to believe that you are indeed Bernese, but still male. Gottfried, it is then. It has something pastoral to it that suits you, if you ask me. Not exactly spontaneous, I’ll grant you that. But, if only because of your morphology, which is more of the peasant school of Oberland than of the delicate old Tanagra, I must not be far off in thinking that spontaneity is not your dominant trait. In any case, this is not the case with your clawed and furry friends who were long held, in defiance of all animal welfare laws, in a medieval pit in the city of Bern. On the pretext that you are the symbol of the canton.
It is surprising - and distressing, I grant you - to observe your evolution from impressive and dreaded lord of the Germanic forest to the loving cuddly toy that you became with the advent of the Teddy Bear in the 1900s. And in your specific case, these highly sought after carved wooden models that have delighted tourists from the Black Forest to Lake Thun since the 19th century and are now the joy of collectors. Which I am. However, any zoo keeper will tell you: a bear is formidable, dangerous, gluttonous, lonely, and has a breath that could kill a horse. Unrefined, so to speak. And terribly intelligent. But here: as you slowly disappeared into the alpine arc because no one feared you anymore, because there was nothing let to fight, you were degraded and mythicized as someone who does nothing but stuff your face with marmalade sandwiches (sometimes wearing rubber boots - how humiliating – not to mention that you are named after a London train station). The less you were seen in nature, the more you invaded bourgeois lounges, between false Henry II furniture and velvet curtains, wedged between the potted plants and the piano. And here you are, extending salt and pepper under the playful eye of my wirehaired dachshund, transformed into a Tartarin-style souvenir for alpine tourists. Greatness and decadence. But one must appreciate the talent of the anonymous craftsman who carved you. Even in this ridiculous pose. Strength and flexibility, raised snout, small erect round ears, massive body, and firmly planted on your hind legs. One can almost see the muscles at work, impressive, under the fur. There is tenderness but also admiration in this little sculpture.
Between you an me, you did well... if I may say so. These two cups intended for seasoning the Sunday roast are but a tiny humiliation. Really, I assure you. I remember seeing - worse, admiring, I confess, blushing with embarrassment - carved bears in the form of an umbrella stand. Or a card case. Even a coat rack. Not to mention the dining table base in a charming little hotel in Grindelwald. A masterpiece, in its style. In light of this, being used as a salt shaker is certainly not very glorious but it is slightly less servile... The nuance is not to your taste, you say? Nicht amusiert. I cannot disagree. But can I assure you, dear Gottfried, of all my tenderness? Hoping, brave but not reckless, never to meet one of your kind roaming in a pine forest at Lake Brienz.