Exhibition looks at work of two great artists as members of Czechoslovak Legions during Great War


Frantisek Kupka and Otto Gutfreund are two of the most important Czech artists of the first half of the 20th century; Kupka was a great painter and graphic artist, while Gutfreund is best known for his sculptures. Both men studied in Paris and both fought for France in the first world war, as members of the Czechoslovak Legions. An exhibition of their work from the period 1914 to 1918 has just opened at Prague's Kampa Museum.

Among those at the launch was the director of the Military History Museum, Ales Knizek.

"We had three legions. One was in France, another was in Italy and the biggest was in Russia. They were made up of soldiers from the Austro-Hungarian army from the Czech Lands, who went over to the other side. Other members were Czechs living abroad who signed up, for example from the Czech community in Chicago. The work done by the legions helped President Masaryk win recognition for the new Czechoslovak state in 1918."

The artists Kupka and Gutfreund were not the only well known figures to pass through the Czechoslovak Legions during World War One.

"The actor Zdenek Stepanek, the father of the current culture minister, Martin Stepanek, was a member of the legion in Russia. Another Russian legionnaire was General Medek, the first director of the Military History Institute - he was the father of Ivan and Mikulas. Frantisek Kupka was a French legionnaire...The foundations of the post-war intellectual and political culture were created there."

Otto Gutfreund had mixed experiences during the first world war. Indeed he spent the latter half of the war in a military prison, after taking part in a protest against a French government decision to categorise Czechoslovaks as enemies, because they were from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Ilona Krbcova of the Military History Institute.

"He was forced to work in a munitions factory, where the work was heavy. He had to walk several kilometres a day to get there. Sometimes Gutfreund is described as a deserter, but he really got in trouble for taking part in a revolt against that French ruling. Our government had to ask France to release him after the foundation of Czechoslovakia."

The curator of the new exhibition of World War One art by Guttfreund and Kupka is Kaliopi Chamonikola.

"Even before the war began both men were already mature artists. In the years just preceding the war they had already demonstrated their modernist feeling. That's seen in the first Abstract works Frantisek Kupka had shown in Paris, or Gutfreund's sculpture Anxiety. The war changed their direction - you can see here that Gutfreund's drawings are of day-to-day happenings during war-time, such as life in the trenches or carrying the wounded and dead."

The exhibition features around 30 drawings from each of the artists, and three sculptures done according to designs by Gutfreund but completed by another artist. It runs at Kampa Museum until the end of the year.