Ladislav Sutnar: U.S. Venus opens at Rudolfinum

In today’s Arts we discuss a new exhibition at Prague’s Rudolfinum Gallery of almost forgotten paintings by iconic 20th century Czech-American graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar. Entitled U.S. Venus, the show features playful, highly-stylised nudes that fit within the designer’s concept of Joy-Art, a humanistic manifesto which looked ahead to the 21st century. On the day of the opening, Jan Velinger spoke to the show’s curator Iva Knobloch of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. She talks about Sutnar as a painter but also discusses his immeasurable contribution to the field of graphic design.

“Ladislav Sutnar was one of the most important graphic designers in the Avant-garde and at the same time he was an anticipator of ‘New Media’ and the internet information age. He was able to found information design, a branch of graphic design, way back in the 1940s, at a time when no one was thinking about the information age. And he was able to anticipate it and to write about it in the 1940s, ‘50s and 1960s.”

Much has been made of his use of typography and punctuation to simplify the presentation of text and information so that it is quickly presented...

“Yes, that was his main mark and he even wrote a book he self-financed about it called ‘Visual Design in Action’. His idea was that design has to help in everyday life. It has to help you to be able to work and live in a contemporary world which is full of information chaos. A chaotic world.”

So, to help divide up information properly and sort it properly where it’s needed when it’s needed...

“Yes. But it’s more than that: it wasn’t only visual organisation but also organisation of the content, which had to be simplified. All of this simplification of information is a highly intellectual process, a scientific process.”

Photo: CTK
I’ve read that he was a proponent of ‘universality’ but at the same time it seems to me his work is instantly recognisable, he has a certain trademark; could you discuss some of the things that were typical of his style?

“Geometry was sacred, if I can put it in those terms. For his generation of Avant-garde artists geometry was very important: they believed that it would help the world, would help construct healthier and better societies. It’s a cornerstone of their work. You can see it in Sutnar’s drawings: they are based on the geometrical grid. The grid also had a role in his design as well as in his paintings, even if, in his paintings or even in the graphic design it isn’t readily apparent. But you can see it in the preliminary sketches or drawings as he prepared, different variations on how to approach the subject. Intellectually this was very concentrated long-term work.”

If we look at the exhibition which has gotten underway at the Rudolfinum – U.S. Venus – it nevertheless seems to me to be, at least in some ways, a departure. It certainly seems very ‘American’ if nothing else!

“Yeah, it is. In fact I just spoke about this with Ladislav Sutnar’s son: the women in the paintings are American, not European. They are emancipated, self-confident in their beauty, wisdom and energy. During his life Sutnar experienced two big waves of women’s emancipation, in the 1920s and later in the 1960s. As a designer of interiors he communicated with women in the sense that they were the main users.

"In the 1960s, in the US he was involved in advertising where there was a strong tradition of Pin-Up girls that helped sell products and was very typical for mass success; Pin-Up girls who had a seductive force. Interestingly, Sutnar never used such images in his own advertising which was objective, punctuated on information and not seduction. But in the paintings you can see the influence of mass market images. There is also the common point between his work and Pop Art...”

I was going to ask about that...

“The introduction of mass images into painting was the field of Pop Art but compared to Sutnar they used the images in a very ambivalent way. They appropriated mass media images to criticise consumer culture but at the same time they used it to promote their own media success. Both are present in Pop Art.

Photo: CTK
“Sutnar was old-fashioned: he believed in the ideal, in Utopia, and he used this for his programme Joy-Art, a play on Pop or Op Art. And that was his answer, his answer for a happier and better future into the 21st century. He wrote about Joy-Art as a future mainstream. His nudes...” They certainly seem idealised...

“They are and they are icons and idols of humanism and humour, spirituality and vitality. All four were part of hi Joy-Art manifesto written in 1969... his answer to Pop Art.”

Technically, how were the paintings done?

“They are very simple on basic material, fibreboard. But the paint is brushed and sometimes you can see interesting textures. It is not only a play of colours and fantastic composition but also of texture.”

I’ve read that this is Sutnar’s first one-man show since he died in 1976, is that right?

“Yes that’s correct. I think it’s a miracle that the paintings were preserved. Sutnar was known primarily as a designer and after his death all of work was given to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, dedicated to design. The paintings, which were undervalued and not considered an integral part of his work, were put aside although considered by his family, but it was a complicated situation and essentially they were forgotten. During the first retrospective in 2003, we showed some of Sutnar’s paintings as an integral part of his work and they were very well-received. The response was a big surprise and that’s why we followed through with this show. His paintings merit recognition.”

The individual works are playful, sexy, generally very positive: do you have any works you’d highlight above the others?

“Well, first one aspect that I like is the mix of the European and American. There is some kind of European view, an outside view and that is why I like the painting All the Way to the USA, which shows this outside view of the American woman and American culture. It was 1969, a difficult time and not the happiest of periods, so there is a touch of irony seen from the outside.”

You must be very pleased that this show came to fruition: what would you like viewers, who may be less familiar with Sutnar’s painting, to take away from the experience?

Photo: CTK
“One thing we are very happy about is the book that was published. The book is very important, very nicely done by graphic designer Štepán Malovec, and it will help Sutnar be recognised as a painter. There are photographs and archive material that offer insight into the work and the process. At the time when he painted he was already 65 and it wasn’t at all easy to compete with younger Pop artists, one reason the paintings were underappreciated or not strongly received in the US, also as they, were his intentional statement against Pop Art.”