The magical world of children's book illustrator Štěpán Zavřel

Štěpán Zavřel

There is a very long and rich Czech tradition of children’s book illustration – from Mikoláš Aleš in the 19th century to Zdeněk Miler (of Mole fame) and Jiří Trnka in the twentieth century. In fact, the first picture book for children in Europe was produced by the Czech educator Comenius in the 17th century. An important part of this tradition is the illustrator Štěpán Zavřel (b.1932), a charismatic and influential artist who escaped to Italy from communist Czechoslovakia in 1959 and established the biggest centre for children’s book illustration in Europe in a village 60 km north of Venice. This autumn, to mark the tenth anniversary of his death in 1999, a collection of accounts by those who knew him will be published and I met with an editor of this retrospective, poet and translator Tomáš Míka, to discuss Zavřel’s importance for the world of children’s books.

“This treasure is called Štěpán Zavřel and he’s a world-famous illustrator of children’s books, and also author of some of them, who is a recognised figure in this field all over the world, especially in Italy where he lived, but also elsewhere - the books he illustrated were translated into tens of languages. He is virtually unknown in his home country, which I think it’s a pity, and many others think it’s a pity and there is a group of Italians who are working on this project and who came up with the idea to present Štěpán Zavřel in his home country. I should mention their names, they are Alessandro Catalano, who is an editor of the Souvislosti magazine where the presentation will be made, Marina Tonzig, who wrote her diploma work on Štěpán Zavřel from the art point of view and Massimo De Martin, who lived very near to Štěpán, who knew him personally and then moved to Prague – I never asked whether it was under his influence or not – and he came with the idea; this is how it all came about.”

So, this presentation in the autumn in Souvistlosti, which is one of the leading serious literary journals in this country, you hope will reach a wider audience and maybe lead to an exhibition of Štěpán Zavřel’s work?

“Well, that would be the ultimate goal, to make an exhibition in Prague, or somewhere else in the Czech Republic, because his works were only exhibited here in 1993 in a collective exhibition by the Bohem publishing house, which he co-founded, back in the 70s with Otakar Božejovský.”

Despite living for most of his life in Italy, since 1959 when he managed to escape ingeniously, he always kept his Czech citizenship.

“Yes, that’s true, and he also kept a huge picture of Charles Bridge in his house and it was just opposite the entrance door, so when you entered you saw this yellowish picture of the Charles Bridge, and there were many Czech books in his library, and he was never was one of those who had difficulty speaking Czech after a couple of years. He was there, as you said, for most of his life, and he always spoke perfect Czech. He prepared for emigration apparently for quite a long time and it’s probably because he loved freedom, he loved freedom so much he simply couldn’t stand the life under the communist regime of the time. And he chose Italy probably for artistic reasons, because Italy is full of art that he loved only from pictures, and here he had the opportunity, which he used profoundly, to study art. He was such a treasure of knowledge about everything that concerned art, especially the ancient art that he loved. He wasn’t much of a modernist, although his own art is modern, his illustrations or approach was very modern, he was deeply rooted in tradition.”

I’ve had a look through the presentation, which comprises recollections of family, friends, fellow artists, various people who knew Štěpán, and what comes across, time after time, is the incredibly charismatic personality of the man and the impact he had on everyone who knew him.

“ I’m not a painter or an artist, but the way artists that he taught speak about him you can see that he was a really very good teacher, in a kind of Zen Buddhist way, when he sometimes completely destroyed the work of his students, who then hated him but eventually found out that probably it was the right thing to do. So yes, he was a very charismatic person, definitely.”

He settled in a tiny little hamlet called Rugolo, on the edge of a small village, Sarmede, and he established there, not only an amazing house, which seemed to have been constantly full of visitors, but also a huge international festival of children’s book illustration, which is the biggest in Europe, and he also established a summer school for children’s book illustrators and so has been hugely influential. I’ve heard people refer to this little area as “Zavřel land”, which is a nice counterpoint to Disneyland.

“Yes, I only read this in some of the contributions to this Souvislosti block on Štěpán - “Zavřel land”- but when I first saw it I immediately had the idea of arches, mosaics and frescoes, because Štěpán reintroduced these three art forms into that area. He told the local people – “look, you had this in ancient times, there were arches all over the place, there were mosaic floors, you forgot about it, you build these boxes of houses with no aesthetic feeling”. And he learned these trades, how to do it, and he first did it in his own house, and then people wanted him to do it in their houses too. So it spread and around Sarmede and Rugolo and the whole region of Treviso there are many houses with stone arches and beautiful mosaic floors and frescoes all over the place. Sarmede is the best example as there are frescoes all over, and not just by him but also by his students.”

I mentioned in the introduction to our conversation this fantastic tradition in the Czech Republic, and the former Czechoslovakia, of children’s book illustration. What do you think that Zavřel’s contribution was?

“It was a combination of things. Probably one of the reasons was that this tradition was so strong in Czechoslovakia and very poor in many other countries, like in Italy, apparently, from what I heard there was almost no tradition of children’s illustration before him. So he simply brought the ‘know how’ and spread it in the right way. That’s probably one of the reasons.”

When you look at his books, how would you describe them?

“They always give a very harmonious, very peaceful look. The colours are in harmony and are really pleasant to look at, in many ways. From what I heard from other people his contribution was his comprehensive view of the book for children. He didn’t view illustrations as something added to the text, he always saw the book as integrated. So, he read the text, he invented some first ideas about how the illustrations should work and then he worked with both the text and the illustrations so both the text and pictures flowed through the book in an integrated way.”

Much of Štěpán Zavřel’s work has been associated with Christmas themes or Christian themes.

“Well, he was a Catholic; he comes from a very religious family. But he was this kind of big Catholic who didn’t like to obey very much, who had this very strong love of freedom. So there was this big tension in him, in his personality, and this was probably one of the sources of his art because it was, I think, really strong. On one hand, he did marvellous Christian books for children, and his biggest work was illustrations of the children’s Bible, which was a really thick book, very successful, his last major work in the nineties, but it definitely wasn’t only harmonious for him to be such a strong believer, it also brought about big disasters in his personal life, apparently.”

One thing that struck me when looking at the recollections of people who knew him, he seemed to be something of a whirlwind, you somehow got caught up in him, but also a very hospitable person who really seemed to be one of those people who had a genius for friendship.

“Well, since he never married, as one of the contributors suggested, he had this replacement family, or this family of his friends, which he really hosted generously in his house in Rugolo.”

This energy he had seemed often to spin off into adventures.

“Yes, there are many adventures recorded by his friends. I just remember the first time we went there, in 1990. That very same day, after all day working and drinking and everything, he suddenly decided we would go to Norcia, which was, I don’t know, 200 km from that place - at midnight - and it all took several days to get there, we had many stops. And I remember at one place somewhere in Tuscany, we decided to sleep in the open air. And he took his eiderdown, because he never used a sleeping bag, so he took his huge eiderdown and we climbed over a fence next to the road. And he said, “well there’s something written here, I hope it’s not a hunting season warning or something”, and it was too dark to see so we climbed the fence and we slept under the starry sky and everything was really beautiful.

“And then very early in the morning we heard Štěpán screaming “oh my god, it’s the hunting season, I was right, can you hear the dogs?” and we could hear the barking of the dogs and we could hear people shooting. He said “Oh these Italians are really crazy, go away everybody! go away! wake up! they will shoot us all, the dogs will eat us!” and we were really scared; of course he was exaggerating. So, he was like that.”

On the website, we’ll be putting up some of the illustrations from his books so people can see the magical quality of his work, that’s a word often associated with his art, and what strikes me very much is the respect he had for the world of the child’s imagination, that he really felt is was a thing that should be honoured and given the best craft possible.

“ In his illustrations you can see so many motifs taken from the Czechoslovak reality of the time of his childhood, in the 30s and 40s, which is absolutely amazing. He was a child himself and he had respect for children’s imagination, definitely. I remember him being sometimes pretty nervous with real children. I remember he was pretty nervous when my child was screaming at some point, because he wanted something, he was three years old. He took him, he had an open-air aquarium in front of his house with some gold fish, and he took the child and said, “if you don’t stop screaming I’ll put you there with the fish” and my son stopped screaming immediately - and then he painted a little fish for my child with a pacifier, or dummy, in the fish’s mouth, which he still has, he’s now 13 and it’s hanging in his room. So I think it was more a respect for childhood in general, for the child in himself, and I think his art took him to his own childhood, and somehow it worked with others as well.”

I hope very much that the work that you and the others are doing to tell more people about this really wonderful illustrator will have an impact and also let Czech people know that such a great Czech artist is so highly regarded in the rest of the world and maybe it’s time that they also realised just how fantastic he is. So thank you very much Tomáš.

“And I thank you very much Bernie.”

Bohem Press -

The International Exhibition of Children’s Book Illustrations, held in Sarmede town hall and in the Zavřel Museum, Sarmede -

The retrospective on Štěpán Zavřel will be edited by editor-in chief of Souvislosti, Martin Valášek, for the October edition -

Film of the house of Štěpán Zavřel in Rugolo