Josef Vachal - graphic artist and painter, designer of the Portmoneum
In early 1991 the Prague-based book publisher Paseka, run by Ladislav Horacek, acquired an old house going to ruin in the north Moravian town of Litomysl, with one intention in mind: to save the magnificent wall paintings within, which had been completed by the great Czech graphic artist Josef Vachal almost seventy years before. Rare wall paintings that were once brilliant in expressive colour, displaying an array of mystical characters and motifs which had been the artist's life-long obsession, now crumbling beyond recognition, threatening to go to dust. Publisher Ladislav Horacek, inspired by Vachal's work many years before, could not help but intervene. A landmark building saved, and the story of its creator Josef Vachal - both are ahead in today's Czechs in History.
Josef Vachal was born on the 23rd of September 1884, in the village of Milavce in south-west Bohemia, not far from the fabled forest region of Sumava the artist would adore for most of his life. But, he was not raised there, nor was his childhood a happy one: Vachal had been born a bastard son. He would never experience the grace of a normal family upbringing, but would be raised by his grandparents instead, in the south Bohemian town of Pisek. Only when he began to grow wayward in school in his early teens, did his father finally intervene, sending the boy to study bookbinding in Prague, a decision that had a major impact on Vachal's future artistic career. In Prague Vachal would be inspired to begin drawing and painting, and knowledge of hand-printing and hand-binding of books would become dominant tools in the artist's trade.
Another early influence on Josef Vachal, noted by historians, was his father's passion for theosophy. It was he who allegedly introduced Josef to the spiritual mysteries, that reflected on God, the nature of existence, and the afterlife, inspiring visions that would later characteristically make their way into Vachal's paintings, woodcuts, and illustrations: chains of demonic figures, ghosts, and wild beasts, forest creatures, shadows, nomads, and devils, and sometimes the odd saint. Though Vachal would study painting with Alois Kalvoda and Rudolf Bem, as well as attend a private school for graphic design, he also put stock in the further study of mysticism in general, officially joining the Theosophic Society in 1903. His inclination towards the spiritual would then lead Vachal and fellow painters to found the Sursum group in 1910. Not surprisingly, some art historians have commented the group's themes and interests were already anachronisms in their time, though others attributed the continued fascination with the mystical to the peculiar Prague stage. The result, however was something original, not something trapped in the past. In "Czech Modernism 1900-1945", (the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1989), Alison de Lima Greene wrote:
"...by 1910 Prague had become a receptive centre for what at a glance appear to be contradictory currents... Mysticism and primitivism proved to be complementary facets of the avant-garde, becoming a means at once of charting the past and of mapping out the future."
Even inspired by mystical sources from the past century, and inspired by the woodcuts of Paul Gauguin, Vachal's work remained decisively modern in its approach, not directed by any trends but rather by Vachal's instinct. Not fully-schooled, largely self-taught, there was no one really like Vachal before: his oil paintings, water-colours, and wood-carvings containing elements of sarcasm and irony, with his subjects charged, rough-edged, and blunt. Especially his use of colour was incredibly original, a palette that crossed hues and themes that normally would clash, not mix. There was haunting murkiness too. For example, Satanic Invocation, 1909, in which a crowd of blue-robed and bowed figures invoke an evil red figure on a pedestal, as trees bear skulls as opposed to fruit, a painting Alison de Lima Greene cites as a "transitional work" - which she indicates set Vachal apart from his contemporaries. She writes:
"The attenuated figures, the device of the carved frame, and the anthropomorphism of the trees bearing skulls for fruit can be attributed to the influence of Bilek, who executed two similar works in 1899. The brilliant off-key palette, however, and the private and esoteric language of symbols that decorate the frame attest to Vachal's separate development. Where Bilek's imagery is cast in terms dependent upon Christian iconography, with an emphasis on redemption, Vachal depicted more macabre primitive rituals, celebrating the amoral and pagan spirit".
Greene also mentions that after 1910 Vachal dedicated himself almost exclusively to book design, "an increasingly eccentric and inventive programme". It is true that turning his back on the trends of his day made Vachal's work more difficult to comprehend, and the artist lived largely in obscurity, his work appreciated only by a select few. He only experiencing a brief revival in the 1960s, and then much greater and wider appreciation in the early 1990s, more than twenty years after his death. During his creative peak his success was far dimmer, though among those who adored and collected Vachal's work, was Josef Portman, a retired clerk and lover of art from Moravia. It was he who commissioned Josef Vachal to paint the walls of his home in Litomysl in the early 1920s, today's restored Portmoneum.
Standing in the Portmoneum in Litomysl, Moravia, a house which from the outside one would mistake for an unremarkable little building, is really quite a fascinating experience - three small rooms the walls of which are painted from top to bottom with endless chains of esoteric symbols and themes and figures. A mountainous landscape, a forest of thieves. An angel, a demon, death leading a band of noblemen across the bridge of no-return, the light of God on the ceiling from which all hope ensues. Blues seep into greens, yellows and reds, in a mix one would think should be garish but somehow isn't. If anything, it is carnivalesque. Though daring, heretical, there is a humorous quality in the work. And, it's important to say, it doesn't take itself all too seriously, although it is exquisitely done, with an incredible amount of attention paid to each detail. One can spend hours pondering the mosaic, literally hundreds of elements that take turns receding and coming to the fore. Even the cabinets, and very bed are carved in Vachal's characteristic choppy and angular style, themselves painted with demons, one of the most beautiful displayed on one of the armoires - a princely canine face. There is a Naivist quality too, something child-like about the rooms. The Portmoneum is a miniature Mardi Gras for the everyday, celebrating the mystery of life, and death, and ultimately, a renewal.
But, what a state it was in, just ten years ago, thoroughly unrecognisable. Belonging to the National Gallery, without the necessary funds, the paint peeling from the walls in a manner befitting a rusty factory door, not a hidden masterpiece. Here publisher Ladislav Horacek describes the process of how he became involved with restoring the small house in Litomysl, a project that took two years time and great dedication from a small team of restorers:
"Dr Martin Machovec sent me a letter asking me whether I would be interested in saving the Portman house, since as Paseka publishers, we published Vachal's works. Until then I hadn't known whether the house really existed, or whether it was a literary fiction - mentioned in Vachal's Blood Novel from 1924. When I saw the house for the first time the paintings were in horrible condition. We were afraid the whole thing would fall apart within a year. Until then, the building had belonged to the National Gallery, which however, didn't have enough money to pay for the reconstruction. So, Paseka bought the house, and we started what would be a two-year process restoring the house to its original state. Everything was redone - the ceilings and the walls, while the paintings themselves were restored using a non-traditional and quite problematic technique, the paintings covered by a kind of gauze, that literally saw them lifted off of the walls. Then they were put back, and the last phase of restoration saw missing pieces filled in, redone according to existing photographs."
Next month will mark ten years since the project was completed and the house opened to the public. In that period the Portmoneum has become one of the many attractions to see in Litomysl, and in no small way it has contributed to the rediscovery and appreciation of the work of Josef Vachal: his paintings, prints, and books.
If you are interested in more information about the English edition of Paseka's booklet on the Portmoneum remember to visit www.paseka.cz