December 21, 2005
Brief Biography of Josef Čapek
Thanks to Helen Sullivan, Head of the Slavic Reference Service at UIUC, for referring me to Grove Art Online--a great resource for artist bios and term definitions, among other things. Here is GAO's entry for Josef Čapek:
(b Hronov, 23 March 1887; d Bergen-Belsen, April 1945).
Czech painter, printmaker and writer. He studied weaving (1901–3) in Vrchlabí and then from 1904 to 1910 decorative painting at the School of Applied Arts in Prague, where he was influenced by the highly decorative art of the Secession. During this period he wrote stories with his brother, the novelist Karel Čapek (1890–1938). In 1910 they went to Paris for nearly a year, where Josef Čapek studied painting at the Académie Colarossi and became a friend of Apollinaire. In 1911 he and his brother co-founded the Cubist-orientated Group of Plastic Artists. Čapek attempted to modify Cubism by introducing elements of Expressionism and Symbolism. His efforts dumbfounded some members of the group, and in 1912 he and various of his friends parted company with it. From 1915 he began to achieve a synthesis of Cubism, Neo-classicism and a personal symbolism (e.g. the Man in the Hat, 1915; Hradec Králové, Reg. Gal.), and in 1917 he participated in the first and subsequent exhibitions of the group Tvrdošíjní (The Stubborn Ones) and began to produce a number of prints for the magazine Červen, including the poster design for Arnošt Dvořák’s Mrtvá at the Červná Sedma theatre in Prague (colour lithograph, 1920; Prague, Mus. App. A.). [NB: This poster design is mentioned in the 12/12/05 weblog posting.] In the 1920s his paintings and prints became more densely woven, more expressive and more concerned with issues of civilian and suburban life. He also undertook theatre design, journalism and book illustration as well as publishing his own theoretical essays. In the late 1920s he became greatly influenced by folk art, painting simplified images of houses and countryside in bold strokes of bright colour. In 1933 he became a member of the editorial board of the magazine Život; by then his expressionistic painting had become somewhat oppressive, as in Cloud (1933; Ostrava, A.G.). In 1938 he painted the first pictures of his cycle Fire, whose large, gesturing figures played out a warning against war (e.g. Fire (1), 1938; Prague, N.G.). His last cycle of paintings, Longing, dating from 1939, is symbolic of a despair with contemporary events. On 1 September 1939 he was arrested by the Germans and taken to Dachau, and later to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he died.
Vojtěch Lahoda: "Josef Čapek" Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 21 December 2005, http://www.groveart.com/
Posted by at 3:43 PM
Examples of Josef Čapek's ArtThe Main Library at UIUC has acquired a license for ArtStor, a database of art collections that have been reproduced in digital format. (If you are a UIUC student or a member of the UIUC faculty or staff, then you can access--and register for a log-in to--ArtStor through the Online Research Resources page. Just type "ArtStor" in the white box, and you'll be taken to a link through which to enter, and register for, the database.)
So far, the only Czech artist whose works I could find in ArtStor is Josef Čapek, which is probably no surprise! There are two examples of his Cubist-inspired style in the ArtStor database:
NOTE: You will need a UIUC Net ID and password to view these images.
- Organ Grinder (1913), oil painting (viewable by UIUC patrons only)
- Negro King (1920), oil painting (viewable by UIUC patrons only)
More information about Czech Cubism may be found in this brief 2001 article, based on an exhibition in Salzburg, Austria, that same year: Kimball, R. "Czech cubism, 1912-1916" at the Rupertinum, Salzburg. The New Criterion v. 20 no. 2 (October 2001) p. 43-4. Here is the abstract for the article: "A review of 'Czech Cubism, 1912-1916,' an exhibition at the Rupertinum, Salzburg, Austria, from July 21 to October 7, 2001. Intelligently and professionally put together, this quiet show had the good sense and daring to focus on the artwork, leaving the 120 paintings and sculptures to speak for themselves. Of the nine artists represented in the show, only Josef Capek and Emil Filla are known in America, and their work is also the show's most distinctive and aesthetically rewarding."Also, from Grove Art Online, here is a definition of Czech Cubism:
Term used to describe a style in architecture and the applied arts, directly inspired by Cubist painting and sculpture, which was developed by architects and designers active in Prague shortly before World War I; the term itself was not used until the 1960s. The leaders of the style were the members of the Group of Plastic Artists (1911–14), which broke away from the Mánes Union of Artists in 1911 and for two years published its own journal, Umělecký měsíčník (‘Art monthly’). The architects in the group were Josef Gočár, Josef Chochol, Vlastislav Hofman (1884–1964) and Pavel Janák; other members included Emil Filla, Václav Špála, Antonín Procházka and Otto Gutfreund. The group was reacting against the austere rationalism of such architects as Jan Kotěra, seeking instead to sustain architecture and the applied arts as branches of art rich in content. Their approach was expounded in various articles, particularly by Janák, who developed the principles of architectural Cubism; based on the thesis of Cubism in painting and sculpture, that art should create a distinctive, parallel picture of reality, it attempted to dematerialize a building’s mass by the three-dimensional surface sculpturing of the façade with abstract, prismatic forms.
The principal buildings to embody these ideas include Gočár’s sanatorium (1911–12) at Bohdaneč, and Black Madonna House (1911–12), Prague; three houses by Chochol (1911–13) beneath Vyšehrad in Prague (for illustration see Prague, fig. 6); and Janák’s rebuilding (1913) of an existing Baroque house in Pelhřimov with Cubist details. Later works include three teachers’ houses (1917–19), Prague, by Otakar Novotný. Jiří Kroha also acknowledged Cubism in some of his studies but soon moved away to develop an expression of his own. Architectural Cubism, unmatched in any other country, was a significant step in the evolution of Czech architecture, contributing to the demise of 19th-century academicism and historicism. At the same time it amounted to a break with other developments of the early 20th century, including the Viennese Secession as well as rationalism. However, while it brought architectural form to artistic abstraction, dynamizing mass and elaborating the spatial plasticity of façades and their detail, it had no profound effect on the interior planning of buildings or on their structure.
The principles of Czech Cubism found more prolific expression in the applied arts and in furniture design. In 1912 Gočár and Janák set up the Prague Art Workshops (PUD) for the design of arts, crafts and furniture; it was intended to concentrate on the furnishing of the complete house, with the contention that furniture should not only meet the demands of utility and good taste but also be serious art of substantial content. Distinctive Cubist furniture designs were produced by several architects including Janák (see Czech republic, fig. 23). They also designed lighting, tableware, vases and other products. The style gained international recognition with the dining-room interior presented by Gočár and František Kysela (1881–1941) at the Deutsche Werkbundausstellung (1914) in Cologne.
After World War I and the formation of the Czechoslovak Republic (1918), the Cubist style underwent a major change. The pyramid was replaced by the cylinder and sphere in the rich plastic decorativeness of Rondocubism, which laid claim to become a national style in architecture. It is associated with the same group of names: Gočár, for example, used the circle as a generating motif for the Legiobanka (1921), Prague, with façade sculpture by Otto Gutfreund; Janák employed the style for the crematorium (1921) in Pardubice and the building of the Riunione Adriatica di Sicurtà (1922–4), Prague; and Novotný built a block of flats (1921) in Prague. This attempt to create a national style, together with the concept of architecture as primarily an art form, culminated in 1925 with the interiors of the Czechoslovak Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (1925), Paris, designed by Janák and Kysela; the Pavilion was designed by Gočár. It then yielded to the more vigorously evolving Functionalism of avant-garde Czechoslovak architecture in the 1920s and 1930s, supported by Devětsil, the group centred on the figure of Karel Teige that was formed in 1920.
Radomíra Sedláková: "Czech Cubism" Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 21 December 2005, http://www.groveart.com/
P. Janák: ‘Hranol a pyramida’ [The prism and the pyramid], Umělecký Měsíčník, 1 (1911).
I. Margolius: Cubism in Architecture and the Applied Arts: Bohemia and France, 1910–1914 (London, 1979).
Filla, Gutfreund, Kupka och tjeckisk kubism, 1907–1927 (exh. cat., Malmö, Ksthall, 1982).
V. Šlapeta: ‘Cubismo Bohemio’, Quad. Arquit. & Urb., 169–70 (1986), pp. 48–55.
Český kubismus, 1909–1925 (exh. cat., eds J. Švestka and T. Vlček; Brno, Morav. Gal.; Düsseldorf, Kstver.; Prague, N.G.; 1991–2).
A. von Vegesack, ed.: Czech Cubism: Architecture, Furniture and Decorative Arts, 1910–1925 (London, 1992).
Prague, 1891–1941: Architecture and Design (exh. cat., Edinburgh, City A. Cent., 1994).Radomíra Sedláková: "Czech Cubism" Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 21 December 2005, http://www.groveart.com/
Posted by at 2:56 PM
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 9:30 AM