Jan Zrzavý (1890–1977) - Paintings, drawings, illustrations
May 27 – September 16, 2007
The exhibition is being held by the National Gallery in Prague – Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art and Collection of Graphic Art and Drawing
in the Wallenstein Riding School Gallery, Valdštejnská 1, Prague 1
The exhibition is held under the auspices of Czech Senate President Mr. Přemysl Sobotka.
The National Gallery in Prague expresses its gratitude to the Czech Senate for making the Wallenstein Riding Schools Gallery available for the exhibition.
Exhibition author: Zuzana Novotná
Curators: Zuzana Novotná, Tomáš Vlček
Exhibition architect: Lukáš Velíšek
Graphic layout: Robert V. Novák
Film: screenplay and directed by: Michal Pěchouček
Publications and public relations: Petra Jungwirthová
Exhibition production: Daniela Pompeová
Exhibition realization: Wetamber
We would like to thank all the owners of the artwork, without whose loans the exhibition would not be complete: the Moravian Gallery in Brno, the National Museum in Prague, City Gallery Prague, Czech Museum of Fine Arts in Prague, Gallery of Modern Art in Hradec Králové, Benedikt Rejt Gallery in Louny, Gallery of Fine Arts in Ostrava, Art Museum Olomouc, West Bohemian Gallery in Plzeň, Aleš South Bohemian Gallery in Hluboká nad Vltavou, Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, Golden Goose Gallery in Prague and private owners.
Main partner of the National Gallery in Prague: HVB Bank
Sponsor of the National Gallery in Prague: Synot Lotto, a.s.
Partner: AV Media, Národní filmový archiv
Main media partner: Hospodářské noviny
Media partners: Art & Antique, Classic FM, ČRo 3 - Vltava, Xantypa
The main impetus for this broad retrospective exhibition of Jan Zrzavý’s work was the 30th anniversary of the artist’s death; another was his importance as a key personality in twentieth-century Czech art. Yet another reason was the moral challenge posed by Zrzavý’s 1975 bequeathal of more than a hundred paintings, 1,500 drawings and a smaller set of graphic sheets and writings to the National Gallery in Prague. The exhibition includes more than 250 paintings, drawings, illustrations, stage designs, graphic sheets and other works.
The underlying idea of the exhibition is to present the artist’s most important works through a new approach to his vast oeuvre based on individual chapters of the companion guide to the exhibition: I As I and Myth, The Female Principle and Passion, Redemption with Leonardo and Melancholy, The Zeyer Contemplation, Kubišta and Rembrandt, The World of Experience, Intuitive Landscape, Illustrations, Stage Design etc.
The best-known major works are displayed in the main hall of the Wallenstein Riding Schools Gallery. The artist’s other works (including drawings) are displayed in 16 smaller and more intimate settings and arranged both by theme and chronology. In another room, the film directed by Michal Pěchouček is being screened to complement Zrzavý’s biographical data, including his photographs and portraits.
Zrzavý’s applied art is displayed on the balcony, where his sketch books and study drawings may also be found in showcases. The text commentaries include excerpts from Zrzavý’s own writings, which best describe and explain his work, as well as quotes by other authors.
The guide includes an informative text in several chapters summarizing the impulses that influenced the artist’s work and describing the broad scope of Zrzavý’s activities (illustrations, stage design, graphic art). The book also provides biographical information. 80 pp, 66 colour prints, price: 190,- CZK.
Jan Zrzavý heavily influenced twentieth-century Czech modern art with his authentic expression and imagination drawn in part from Czech spiritual lyricism and European modernism. His work is directly connected with his personality, granting entry to a world of intimacy, desire, emotionality and vulnerability, a world free of prejudice and social convention. He defended ethical and aesthetic standards based not on his weakness or naiveté, but on his exceptionalness and determination to set ambitious goals.
Zrzavý’s work has been subject to deep reflection by many art historians, artists and well-known writers, occasionally being rediscovered by a new generation. The first were the members of Devětsil art group, who drew inspiration from his magical likenesses of the world. The second “rediscovery” followed in the late 1950s when Zrzavý became a source of moral support for the young generation of artists who wished not to identify with social realist doctrine. Zrzavý explained his work in vivid terms; certain facts would remain all but hidden to us were they not to be accompanied by his explanatory words. Although a loner by nature, he exhibited his artwork frequently and had an active social life. He first displayed his work at an exhibition of the Sursum art society in 1912. Another milestone show called “And Yet”
came in 1920 as part of an event held by the progressive group Tvrdošíjní (The Obstinates). His first big solo exhibition in 1918 was held in the Topič Salon with the encouragement and help of Zdenka Braunerová. His second solo exhibition in 1923 was also held in the Topič Salon. For the occasion, Karel Teige wrote the first monograph about Zrzavý. In the same year, Zrzavý became a member of the very cordial Umělecká Beseda society, which enabled him to show his new work annually. It was Umělecká Beseda, too, that organized his large retrospective in 1940.
The events of the war and political changes in the 1950s temporarily isolated him from the world of art and exhibitions. In 1963, a legendary display of his work was held at Mánes. Two years later, the honorific of National Artist was bestowed on him. He also gained some popularity owing to radio and film documentaries.
The decision whether to become a painter, author or actor had a major impact on Zrzavý’s early years. After several attempts to succeed in all of these professions, he eventually made up his mind to become a painter. Nevertheless, his literary work was published in various periodicals and publications and is often quoted as a means to understanding his work.
The themes in Zrzavý’s work are diverse. They range from self-portraits, portraits, myths and symbolic motifs in figural compositions, to religious themes, still lifes, illustrations, stage designs and graphic art. Landscapes were another major motif.
As a member of the young avant-garde, he joined the search for common points of departure within the context of European art and participated, together with foreign artists, in forging a new modern art. Zrzavý’s imagery was formed by his frequent trips and sojourns abroad, particularly in Italy and France. At the same time, metaphysical likenesses of the world arose from literary inspiration, provided, in Zrzavý’s case, by the vocabulary and romanticism of Julius Zeyer’s literary oeuvre.
The formal expression of his imagery transformed from structured painting into full volume and planar stylization. In his early years, he created original iconographic motifs, returning to some of them periodically. He moulded forms using light and shadow. Colour assumed a major role, ultimately existing in contradictory levels ranging from symbolical chromaticism to monochromatism. He utilized the contrast of black and white and the effects of light emanating from within an object or from another outside source, the moon and the sun.
He instinctively absorbed the Fin de siè cle atmosphere, which informed his response to concepts in art. He was influenced by the pointillism of Georges Seurat and Paul Gauguin’s “primitivist” symbolism. He came to terms with the influence of Edvard Munch and responded to decadence and expressionism with characteristic exaltation. He co-founded the Sursum art society and studied the principles of cubism with his friend Bohumil Kubišta. He found his models in the mediaeval Bohemian painting of Master Theodoric and admired the Italian art of Fra Angelico, Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci. He drew inspiration from El Greco and Rembrandt. Neoclassicism and civilism also impacted his work.
The main streams in Zrzavý’s work tie in with his psychological ambivalence and self-stylizing expression. At times he touched on narcissism and the homoerotic. Another aspect of his work was based on the theme of femmes fatales. From among the artistic themes depicted from the late nineteenth century till the 1910s, he chose Cleopatra as the synthesis of such women. Cleopatra accompanied Zrzavý throughout his life; he created her definitive image in 1957.
He admired Leonardo da Vinci from childhood, studying the master’s principles and developing them into a form that was his own. Of major importance was his friendship with painter Bohumil Kubišta, who introduced him to cubism, taught him how carefully to prepare compositions using geometry and the golden section and acquainted him with the theory of colours and their interrelation. Zrzavý connected them with the spirituality of a work’s content and repeated them in multiple religious compositions and themes.
Another common challenge for his generation was to experience deep sorrow, melancholy, passion or suffering and their personified transposition. Some themes even found similar treatment in terms of subject and composition. Zrzavý knew how to express his feelings through colour, which further enhanced the tension in his paintings.
In the mid-1920s, he began intensively to paint landscapes, translating them into abstracted and deserted landscapes of a parallel world. He did countless paintings – both out of an innermost need and on commission – inspired by trips to southern European countries such as Italy, Greece and France and Brittany – places connected with the sea – but also to England and Germany. Wherever he went, he found motifs that suited his perception. The first major theme he embraced in his own country was the Ostrava landscape, whose crudeness he compared to Brittany’s Ile de Sein. He intensively painted the Czech landscape in the 1940s. He found inspiration in the places of his childhood and his home, places like Krucemburk, Krásná Hora and Okrouhlice, but also did paintings inspired by his later sojourns in Vodňany. In Prague, he connected the motif of Loretánské Square with that of its capuchin church. His last major inspiration came from trips to Greece, where he discovered powerful motifs for his drawings.
Illustrations were an important part of his work. His especially fine drawings illustrated books by Karel Hynek Mácha and Karel Jaromír Erben for the Aventinum publishing house in the 1920s. After World War II, illustrations were of key significance for him as they gave him a chance finally to work with Zeyer’s books and renew communication with his admirers.
He cooperated with the National Theatre from the 1930s on. He prepared myriad stage and costume designs, particularly for plays directed by Ferdinand Pujman. The two men produced many performances, drawing for their repertoire on both international and Czech opera.
From the mid-1960s, his free work was dominated by drawing in distinct-colour pastel. He rendered new themes as relaxed masterly stylizations inspired by remote exotic countries; mysteries and myths of ancient times assumed the form of Old Testament shepherds and patriarchs. He also returned to the religious motifs found in the iconography of the old masters.
Jan Zrzavý died on October 12, 1977 in Prague. The commemoration ceremony at the Rudolfinum was attended by large crowds and turned into a national demonstration.
Basic 150 crowns, reduced 70 crowns, family admission 200 crowns
Reduced admission after 4 p.m.: basic 80 crowns, reduced 40 crowns, family admission 100 crowns
Open daily except Mondays from 10 a.m. till 6 p.m.
Wallenstein Riding School Gallery
Valdštejnská 3, Praha 1
Transport: subway A-line, tram no. 12, 18, 20, 22, 23 – station: Malostranská
Contact for journalists:
Petra Jungwirthová, head of the Press and Communication Department, National Gallery in Prague, tel.: +420 222 321 459, cell phone: +420 606 166 513