December 12, 2005
Josef Čapek and the Poster "Boje a zápasy": Tragic Irony or Subversive Subtext?
The Czech artist Josef Čapek, whose work is reproduced on two posters in the Winters Collection, is remembered best for his paintings, book illustrations, theatrical set designs, and writings (particularly of novels, plays, and journalistic pieces). He also collaborated on short fiction and critical writings with his brother Karel, who is probably the better known of the pair.
The two posters featuring Čapek's work are "Boje a zápasy" (Fights and Encounters, poster #7, Folder 1), which advertises a 1973 exhibit in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the "February Victory" (the Communist Party's rise to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948), and "Scéna 'Červéna sedma.' Arnošt Dvorak: Mrtvá" (Folder 5, poster #81), a 1978 copy of the 1920 poster that Čapek designed for a production of playwright Arnošt Dvorak's Mrtvá (Dead) at the Cervná Sedma theater in Prague. The latter poster, originally a color lithograph, is reminiscent of Cubism, the style of painting for which Čapek became known early in his career.
The artwork shown on the poster "Boje a zápasy" likely originated in Čapek's cycle of primitivist-style paintings titled Touha (Longing), which he created in 1938-1939, approximately the same time that Germany seized power in Czechoslovakia. At this time, too, Čapek could not get his drawings published in Lidové noviny (People's Daily), which had been reproducing his work for several years; by the late 1930s, in a pre-World-War-II climate of invasions, threats, and persecutions, the newspaper was censoring itself out of fear for its own demise. The theme of Touha is one of a cry for survival and endurance. As Blanka Stehlíková asserts in her article on Čapek, "Josef Čapek and his Children's Books" (Phaedrus, vol. 13 , pp. 49-55), the paintings in Touha "portrayed the Republic as a symbolic woman figure crying over the burned, devastated homeland and calling for the defense of the country" (p. 54).
To give some sense of what the painting in "Boje a zápasy" looks like, here is a website that displays a reproduction of a Čapek painting from the 1938 cycle Ohen (Fire), which consists of works similar to those that comprise Touha. Like the figure at this site, the one in "Boje a zápasy" is dressed in the colors of the Czech flag but the resemblance ends there; the clothes on the woman in "Boje a zápasy" are torn and ragged, a symbol of struggle and tested endurance.
Because the woman in Čapek's Touha is painted in bold strokes and ruddy colors, with the rounded contours and substantial frame typical of female figures in proletarian art, perhaps it's not surprising that a painting from this cycle was chosen to advertise a Communist-themed exhibit in 1973--which was only five years after the Prague Spring and thus still a politically tense time in Czechoslovakia. As I consider the context of this poster, the work reproduced in it, and the artist who created the original work, two questions come to mind: is this poster an example of a museum applying artwork for a particular purpose because it suits that purpose, or does the poster capture the musuem in a subtle act of subversion?
In terms of the first question, here is what I'm thinking (which results from some discussion with Marie Kallista, a Czech colleague) . . . During his own lifetime Čapek had been defiantly and vocally anti-Fascist. Mainly for this reason, he was arrested in 1939 and deported to a series of concentration camps; he died in Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. Whether he would have become a Communist, had he survived the war years, will never be known. But that the Communists used a painting Čapek had created, in response to the destruction of all the things he knew and loved about Czechoslovakia, to commemorate their takeover of the same country is tragically ironic. The poster makes a travesty of a great artist's work. In my mind it exemplifies--to borrow familiar jargon from the copyright world--"unfair use": it does not do Josef Čapek the justice that his memory and talent deserve.
OR . . . by using this very work, arguably an illustration of Czech national pride and the struggle to maintain a national identity, was the Alešova jihočeska galerie (Alesh South Bohemian Gallery), which commissioned the poster, engaging in an act of subversion? The painting looks like an example of socialist realist visual art, but given who created it and the context in which he did so, it would not be accurate to designate or suggest it as such. I'm wondering whether the musuem featured this work--which, as part of a cycle titled Longing, evokes Čapek's deep passion for his country, culture, and people--in a poster about the celebration of a Communist victory as a way of saying, OK, we'll have this exhibit on the anniversay of a Communist triumph, but we'll assert a sense of autonomy by featuring a work that was created in an atmosphere of national threat and uncertainty--that was about holding on to a sense of national identity. If the main idea that Čapek reinforces through this painting is the defense and protection of his homeland in the face of its usurpation, then its application in a poster about a Communist victory strikes me as subtly subversive and would have been a modest but symbolic victory for the museum.
Posted by at December 12, 2005 9:30 AM