Exhibition shows diverse work and fortunes of Josef Čapek

Josef Čapek

If artist Josef Čapek is less known to non-Czechs than his younger brother Karel, the writer, that’s all the more reason to visit the new exhibition dedicated to his life and work at the National Library. The show, which opens on Wednesday, commemorates the 125th birthday of the jack of all artistic trades, and recalls the very different fortunes and pursuits of his professional life.

Josef Čapek
People from anywhere in the world might know some of the fine art work of Josef Čapek, his other international claim to fame being his suggestion of the word ‘robot’ for his brother Karel’s play R.U.R., which has surely entered every modern language. Czechs themselves meet this personality in childhood, through his tales and illustrations of The Little Dog and the Kitty from 1929.

But Josef Čapek, like his more famous brother, was truly an artistic Renaissance man: a graphic designer, scenographer, poet and literary critic, among many other things – all presented in the new exhibit on display at the Clementinum in Prague. Gina Boháčková of the Karel Čapek Memorial told me more:

“We made an exhibition about the life and work of Josef Čapek, who was an important painter and personality but has always been in the shadow of his brother Karel. He was not only a painter, but also a writer, a poet and a philosopher. So on 30 panels we document his artistic work and his life, showing not only his youth but also his studies, his first writings with his brother, pre-war avant-garde paintings and, at the end of his life, his fight against fascism and totalitarianism, and his death in a concentration camp.”

Čapek spent almost all of WWII in a concentration camp, and died just weeks before the end of the war. How is that painful period of his life recalled in the exhibition?

“It is remembered with two paintings that he made in the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, and an original collection of poems from the concentration camps that were published after the Second World War.”

'The Little Dog,  the Kitty and toys'
Čapek’s poems written in the concentration camps are credited with having been of great comfort to his fellow prisoners, who copied them and shared them amongst themselves. He died in the Bergen-Belsen camp in April of 1945, in the days just before or after its liberation. His burial site is unknown, and so he was given one of only two symbolic gravestones in the Vyšehrad cemetery of notable Czechs.

The exhibition at the Clementinum, however, deals also with the happier times of Josef Čapek’s life, such as his work for children. It also includes many of the publications of the National Library on which he collaborated either as a writer or an illustrator, and many of the monographs kept by the Karel Čapek Memorial fund.

The exhibition will be open until July 4.