Jan Zrzavy: quietly observing the essence of things


Prague has been particularly generous to art enthusiasts this summer, with a number of exhibitions ranging from the Abstract painters František Kupka and Piet Mondrian at Museum Kampa to the Modernist Emil Filla at Prague Castle and contemporary Czech art at the City Gallery. But one of the greatest treats at the moment for Czech art lovers is a large retrospective of works by the great Jan Zrzavy at the Czech Senate.

"If it had been my choice, I would have never wanted to be born into this landscape here. I can't really say I don't like it, it is nice, but it's not a painter's landscape. The colours here are so crude. The green here is green, black is black, blue is blue, and there are no other colours. It's all terribly sad and tragic. This is a tragic landscape."

That is Jan Zrzavy talking in 1969 about his home in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. Born in 1890 in the village of Okrouhlice near Havlickuv Brod to a rather poor family - he had eight brothers and sisters - Jan left his native Vysocina in 1906 to study at a technical school in Brno. He became quite ill at the time; his parents thought he was going to die young and let him go to Prague and paint, just to make the rest of his life more pleasant. But Zrzavy had quite a different perspective in mind. In the autumn of 1907, at the age of 17, he was already an aspiring artist and decided to go where all real artists belong - to Paris. With very little money and nobody to help him in the beginning, he looked in vain for a job and had to return to Prague after only a week's stay. Karel Srp, curator at the City Gallery Prague and the author of a monograph on Zrzavy, says the journey proved to be decisive in the painter's life.

"That journey failed, because he got there with very little money and without his parents approval. He took this trip on his own, and it somehow initiated his adult life. This journey had a deep and lasting impact on his life. He went to the Louvre and he also became familiar with modern French art. However, he distanced himself from it all his life. His visit to the Louvre, where he saw the work of Leonardo da Vinci, and other Italian mediaeval and Renaissance painters, was crucial and he drew on this all his life. Seeing the Mona Lisa was fundamental for him. This trip brought him irrevocably to art."

After Jan Zrzavy came back from the trip with his mind full of fresh experiences and impressions of what he had seen, he made a pastel which he called Udoli smutku, or Valley of Sorrow. The following year, he worked it over with oil colours. It depicts a landscape lined with small hills and green mountains in the background and a girl in a long dress standing under a slim tree. In 1969, Jan Zrzavy explained.

"At that time, I didn't think of how the painting was made. It was all strange to me, and I was happy because that was my first painting, a real one. Only much later, when people were talking about it and about the influences and how things came about, I knew that there was Munch, above all. The landscape and the mountains are from the Mona Lisa I had seen before in Paris. That brown landscape, the small hills, the trees were from Bavaria I rode through on the train, and the girl, well, girls were like that then. They wore long skirts and those hats."

Zrzavy realized it was time for some proper artistic training. He enrolled at Prague's Academy of Arts and Architecture but was expelled after two years. He then tried to apply to the Academy of Fine Arts four times, but was rejected on every occasion. A professor even told him he should quit art for good and become a gardener instead. He didn't. He was featured in several exhibitions by then and, more importantly, met the Cubist painter Bohumil Kubista, six years his senior, who influenced him profoundly. Jan Zrzavy again.

"Cold colours like blue, green, purple, they are the colours of sorrow, they evoke sorrow, while orange, or red, these are live colours, tragic, and at the same time joyful, lively, dramatic. Yellow for me was the colour of love, of a state of felicity. I had my own theory of colour, but Kubista taught me to use colours as a composition or construction means in building up space. I put his teachings to good use working on Cleopatra."

It was during the first two decades of the 20th century when Zrzavy created the paintings that are most highly valued by today's critics and art historians. With works such as Mediation, Grief, Remember! and Antichrist, he became a leading figure in modern Czech art, fully exploiting his inspiration by old Renaissance masters and combining it with Symbolist and Modernist influences.

In 1923 Jan Zrzavy went back to Paris and lived in France on and off for the next fifteen years. Only in 1938 did he come back to Prague, a decision affected by the French betrayal of their Czechoslovak allies in what became an overture to the Second World War. After the war, he returned briefly to France, but the Iron Curtain soon fell between Prague and his beloved Brittany. He was not persecuted by the communist regime; he was simply ignored. Karel Srp of the City Gallery Prague.

"Zrzavy exhibited regularly during the First Republic and his sales exhibitions from 1918 to 1938 were always successful. In the 1950s, Zrzavy was blacklisted. His work was not very accessible; it worked with idealistic premises that could hardly meet the criteria of socialist realism and he exhibited very little. He was not banned, but his exhibitions were simply not held. He did have some exhibitions outside Prague of his current works including a beautiful series of male nudes which was never on display again. It was only at the beginning of the 1960s that he was fully rehabilitated at the exhibition entitled The World of Jan Zrzavy in the Manes Exhibition Hall in Prague. It was one of his most successful exhibitions ever."

The success of the Manes exhibition and the crowds that came to see it - more that 100,000 spectators came - made the authorities change their mind about Jan Zrzavy. Several years later, he was presented with the title of "National Artist", the highest award given to artists under communism. He lived in Prague and in his native Okrouhlice and worked on the themes he was fascinated by all his life. The painting of Cleopatra, for example, took him an incredible 45 years from the first idea to the last stroke. Jan Zrzavy died in 1977 and was buried near the place of his birth in Krucemburk, where his father's family came from.

The current exhibition of Jan Zrzavy's work is held by the National Gallery in the Waldstein Riding School in Mala Strana, a part of the Czech Senate, until September 16. Ondrej Chrobak of the National Gallery explains how it differs from various Zrzavy exhibits in the past.

"This exhibition is different in that the National Gallery wanted to show the work of Jan Zrzavy in its complexity, not just his paintings and then separately his drawings, as was the case in 1990. Now they are displayed together. For example, visitors can, for the first time ever, compare the large painting of Cleopatra, arguably the best-known painting by Zrzavy, with a preparative pencil drawing of the same format. There are more such encounters of drawings with paintings."

With very few exceptions, the exhibition features all of his major pieces, from Valley of Sorrow of 1908 to his late works from the 1960s and 1970s. You can see for yourself if he succeeded in materializing his views on life and art he described in a pre-war interview. "I love the forthright and serene life that is not blurred by passion - just quietly observing the essence of things and rejoicing at their beauty."