'13 Chambers' highlights work of Czech Republic’s Generation Zero

Photo: archive of the Kostelec nad Orlicí chateau

In this week’s Arts my guest is Jana Fantová, the head of komiksfest which returns in October and the curator of an on-going exhibition at a 19th century chateau in East Bohemia. Entitled 13 Chambers of Comics, the exhibition highlights works by some of the country’s best graphic novel illustrators and artists.

Photo: archive of the Kostelec nad Orlicí chateau
I began asking Jana Fantová about the ‘main aim’ of the show.

“Actually, it is to present current comics in the Czech Republic and because it is during the summer the main aim is not to present a lot of theory but to together a pleasant or leisurely show at the chateau in Kostelec nad Orlicí.”

Would you say it is pretty unusual for a show about comics to be held at a castle or chateau?

“Yes, it definitely is. That said, it’s hard to even gain placers in Prague – galleries that would be interested in backing Czech comics – so it is unusual, especially in a small town in eastern Bohemia.”

The whole idea of it being held in a chateau must provide for some interesting contrasts, no?

“Actually, that’s one of the most surprising things about the show, that there aren’t really great contrasts. The site is in a classicist style so the walls and garden are very neat and neatly ordered. So the artists’ work can be displayed individually and do not clash or interfere with the space. What does come across it how different Czech graphic novels or comics are: they are not mainstream like in the US where you have superheroes and so on. In the Czech Republic in comics the underground is perceived as the mainstream. There is only one hero by a Czech artist, which is Voleman by Jiří Grus. Czech comic authors tell stories that centre more on ordinary life which that fit well thematically with the chateau.”

Photo: archive of the Kostelec nad Orlicí chateau
Why do you think it is that Czech artists are much less mainstream - that they choose topics that are much more off the beaten path?

“For one thing the mainstream traditionally had no historic roots here; another is that the new generation, called Generation 0, has deliberately tried to get away from the past, even highly inspirational and famous artists like Kája Saudek, who was always copied in the past, especially for Muriel and the Angels and Muriel and the Orange Death. He was immensely influential, but these artists have tried to break away from the past. Incidentally, one thing that helped influence the new generation of commix artists was that in 2000 greater numbers of comics began being published in the Czech Republic sot it opened the door to new work and a new overview of some of the things going on. The broader offering of new, translated titles allowed the Czech scene to develop.”

One of the more famous years that Jaromír 99 worked on with Jaroslav Rudiš was the story of a crazed or haunted railwayman: what are other works, or who are some of the artists besides Jaromír 99 who are represented?

Artwork by Lela Geislerová, photo: archive of the Kostelec nad Orlicí chateau
“There are 13 chambers and 11 are dedicated to each artists: others include Lucie Lomová, whose books have been translated into French and English, Renata Fučíková, Václav Slajch, Tomáš Kučerovský, Dan Černý and others. Each had complete freedom to exhibit what they wanted and included are not just comics but paintings or sculptures as well as their portfolios.”

Whose works, personally, do you enjoy?

“From women artists I recommend Lela Geislerová and among men I like Dan Černý who is actually more mainstream but writes really good plots, really good stories which I enjoy even if they include horror elements or zombies.”

On the whole, do you thinks comics are much more respected today than ten or 20 years ago?

Photo: archive of the Kostelec nad Orlicí chateau
“I think that even publishing houses accept comics as a new and accepted media. Things have gotten much better and comics now are seen as a normal written book. One of the wider impacts they have made is in education, an easy way how to explain certain concepts. On the other hand, it is a ‘simple’ way of explaining things and if someone thinks that reading Shakespeare in comic form will inspire them to read... well I don’t know. But on the whole, things are positive.”

Including public reaction to the show?

“Yes. It’s a bit unsettling that until now all the response has been positive! Of course we are glad but you can’t help but wonder whether it’s really true! But of course we’re very happy about it.”