Max Svabinsky

By Alena Skodova Today's subject in Czechs in History is Max Svabinsky, a remarkable personality in the history of Czech painting in the first half of the 20th century, who died at the age of 89 after a fruitful artistic life. He was one of just a few representatives of modern art who was positively accepted by the communist regime.

I spoke with art historian, Dr. Jana Orlikova, who told me that Max Svabinsky, who was born in 1873, was the illegitimate son of a 16-year-old girl:

"He was born in the south Moravian town of Kromeriz to a very modest family. From a very young age, he showed an exceptional talent for creative art, and at the age of 11 he started earning money for the whole family by selling his pictures. He was raised by three women - his mother, grandmother and aunt, and that fact proved very significant for Svabinsky's work throughout his life. His work was in fact one big tribute to the women he encountered during his life."

Young Svabinsky studied at the local secondary school in Kromeriz, but when he failed his exams in the fifth grade, he dropped out and decided to leave for Prague. He attempted to enroll at the Academy of Fine Arts and was accepted immediately as the best applicant that year. He studied under a well-known professor, Maxmilian Pirner. As a young student, Svabinsky became a member of the Manes association of creative artists and was offered significant commissions. His life changed when he got married:

"His fiancée Ela Vejrychova, whom he married as a very young girl in 1900, acquainted him with a small village of Kozlov in northern Moravia, where the Vejrych family spent the summer holidays. It was in Kozlov that many of his early portraits were painted. Within his generation of painters, Svabinsky was significant mainly due to the fact that he was an excellent painter of portraits and social scenes, while others painted mostly landscapes. In 1900 he won a major prize in Paris, for a picture called "Round Portrait", depicting his young wife."

Also in 1900, one of the most important of his works - "The Poor Region" - was painted. It is an allegory of the Czech-Moravian Highlands, a region of beautiful scenery but very poor people, again depicting his wife Ela. Svabinsky soon became professor at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, and he was highly appreciated not only as an ingenious drawer and painter, but as a graphic artist as well. He remained a well known public figure from that time until his death in 1962. It's interesting that his understanding of art differed from that confessed by his contemporaries, who are often called 'the tragic generation' because all of them died before their 50th birthdays.

"Svabinsky survived his generation by some 50 years. One of his major large paintings is called 'Harvest'. He finished it in 1927 after many years, but in the meantime he accepted several important commissions, such as to paint three stained-glass windows in St. Vitus cathedral at Prague Castle, and create a mosaic in the Liberty Memorial on Vitkov hill in Prague. Unfortunately, both works were finished at the time Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia - in 1939 - and that's why people don't know much about them."

After 16 years of an idyllic family life, with summers spent in picturesque Kozlov, a turning point in Svabinsky's life came in 1911, when Ela's brother Rudolf married Anna Prochazkova, the daughter of a steelworker. Rudolf had to fight fiercely, because the Veyrovsky family did not want to accept her, and Ela spoke about her with disrespect.

"Svabinsky's life, although fully devoted to art, was one big romance. He had an exceptionally great affection for his mother, whom he took to his flat when she was old and cared for her till the end of her life. Then he fell in love with Ela, and in 1911 he was deeply smitten by Anna Prochazkova. This woman was so beautiful that her beauty must have been rather provocative, and Svabinsky fell desperately in love with her."

A complicated menage a trois began. Max and Anna got close to each other at the turn of 1913 and 1914. She was 30 - he was a decade older. They loved each other, but Anna felt guilty. Svabinsky once wrote to her: "You Anna, are not just my mistress, you are my beloved lover, and all my future pictures will celebrate you." And he kept his promise.

"From that time on their relationship became a 'public secret'. In 1916, Svabinsky painted his famous picture called "The Studio" where all the people involved in the situation are depicted. Anna is there twice, once as a real woman, once as the painter's Muse. Svabinsky tried to resist people's cold attitude to his love in his paintings - that's also why a cycle of graphic sheets with a strong erotic charge, called Paradise, came about."

Dr. Orlikova explained that what was really beautiful about this cycle of woodcarvings, is the fact that Svabinsky did not try to conceal anything and depicts himself and Anna in very intimate situations. He believed that art could defend everything, that it could explain and purify his ardent relationship with his sister-in-law.

The two married in 1930, after Anna's daughter Zuzana married. But Anna had serious problems with her heart, and she died of a heart attack in 1942. Svabinsky died 20 years later, at the age of 89. I asked Dr. Orlikova what was Svabinsky's position after 1948, when the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia.

"He was among the first artists who were nominated for the title 'National Artist', and he was awarded that prize in 1945. This might have been a kind of reward for the stained-glass windows in St. Vitus cathedral and all those big monumental canvases such as The Harvest, which is 20 square metres. But at that time Svabinsky was already an elderly gentleman, he was in his 70s, and lived a little bit in the background. He was also an honorary professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, which provided him with a studio for life. He started painting official portraits of all Czechoslovak presidents, but he also designed stamps and bank-notes."

The communists were well aware of the fact that such a realistically-oriented artist might be very advantageous. But Svabinsky took on those jobs just like any other commissions and he was not politically affiliated at all. Besides political portraits, including for instance the well-known portrait of the Communist journalist Julius Fucik, he did many portraits of Czech writers and composers - they form a whole portrait gallery of famous Czech personalities.

Max Svabinsky died at the age of 89, and his first wife Ela survived him by 7 years. He is one of the most outstanding personalities in the history of Czech art. Those who would like to see his pictures, drawings and graphic sheets must go to his native town of Kromeriz, where there is also a permanent exhibition devoted to the life and work of Max Svabinsky in the local museum. In Prague, his two most famous pictures, 'The Poor Region' and The Merge of Souls' are to be seen at the National Gallery, but you can also admire his three stained-glass windows in St. Vitus cathedral and the mosaic in the Liberty Memorial on Vitkov Hill.