Muffs and veils - Hollar's original take on the Four Seasons

Born in Prague, he lived in Brussels, Stuttgart, Cologne, and later London and Antwerp, meticulously recording his surroundings and reflecting the society around him in his art. Václav or Wenceslaus, or even Wenzel, Hollar sounds like a modern-day European artist, but he actually lived four hundred years ago. Although he was brought up to go into law, Hollar became an etcher and draughtsman, whose work now provides us with beautifully detailed depictions of the people, architecture, landscapes and even a battle that took place in Europe in the seventeenth century. This week, the Czech National Gallery opened a small exhibit in the print room of the Schwarzenberg Palace of Hollar’s allegorical etchings of the Four Seasons. I spoke to the exhibit’s curator Alena Volrábová, and asked her why she selected these specific pieces for the exhibit:

“I had to find a special collection for this small exhibition room – print cabinet – because our collection of Hollar’s prints and drawings is one of the biggest in the world. And it has been extremely diffcult to find exhibition material from this collection, because Hollar’s oeuvre is so big and he was very prolific draughtsman and graphic artist that it was very important for me to find something that would show his original contribution and the collection of the series of his Four Seasons is very good in showing his artist way.”

Alligorical representations of the four seasons was a common theme in etching and painting during Hollar’s time and later. What makes Hollar’s Four Seasons different?

“Yes, the Four Seasons were very common especially among Dutch artists and his first impressions were made to resemble those of his Dutch colleagues, but then he started to create them in his own way. His first series of four seasons was not about countryside and seasonal works, but he created urban views, he tried to show how city dwellers spent their time. So they bathe in the river, and so on. It was very original in that time.

“This was in his German period, which ended in 1636, when he met Thomas Arundel, Earl of Arundel, and left Germany with him to come to London and then he started to create different etchings than before – not only landscapes, but also series of female figures with their wonderful garments and beautiful dresses. He started to depict their winter and summer dresses and thus found a new idea to create the new series of Four Seasons as female figures. And I think it was the beginning of his most famous Four Seasons series, and it was a very original idea. I think it’s one of his most interesting contributions to the art of his age.”

So, how many of these Four Season series are presented at the current exhibit in the National Gallery?

“There are his first series of landscapes that were based on the designs of his colleagues and then his first series from Strasbourg and three series of Four Seasons as female figures. And there are also his wonderful still lifes with muffs. They are very famous, and I think there is a connection between them and the Four Seasons series, because they signify wintertime. Maybe the four seasons series is the inspiration for his later still lifes with muffs and masks. He was excellent in depicting special materials like muffs and furs and lace.”

Hollar left his homeland in Bohemia quite early on and had spent most of his time in England. Is he an important figure within the artistic heritage of the Czech Republic today and was he seen as Bohemian or English painter in his own time?

“He is very popular in the Czech Republic because of his origin. He was very proud of his origin. You can see that because his signature on his prints was Wenceslas Hollar Bohemus – this means he was proud of his origin from Prague. But in fact I think he was an English artist. When he was in London he was an English artist, he collaborated with his contemporaries at Arundel court and in London, he collaborated with Van Dyck. And now it’s very hard to say if he was Czech or German or English artist, because, for example, now in our collection his works are located among Czech artists. In Germany, his works are located among German artists, because he spent several years in Germany. And in England, of course, his work is located among English artists. So, maybe we can say he was a European artist.”

Besides his allegorical pieces that are part of this particular exhibit, what other kinds of works did Hollar produce during his lifetime?

“He was very prolific and his etchings were either special artworks or for example maps, or views of London. After the great fire, London was rebuilt and Hollar’s urban views were very detailed and they are very good information and were very important for the rebuilding of London and the Globe theatre. One scholar called him a delineator of his time, meaning that he depicted his environment without a personal bias.”

It sounds almost as if he was the equivalent of an architectural photographer. He also paid homage to his home city in a few of his works.

“Hollar left Prague in his twenties and then returned with his new patron Earl of Arundel, and that was the last time he visited Prague. And this time he created his Large View of Prague. There is a beautiful drawing in our collection and the etching based on the drawing he created in Antwerp. He left London to go to Anwerp because of the civil war and he spent several years there. It’s very interesting that the view of Prague is very famous, but you cannot actually view Prague in this way. Although it’s perfectly done, it is a composition. But it was very common at the time. “

Is his influence noticeable in the works of other artists, either today or form the past?

“Hollar is very popular among print artists, they admire his perfect workmanship. Some of his contemporaries, like Francis Place, were influenced by him. His work was based on the work of the previous era, on the work of famous artists from the sixteenth century, like Joris Hoefnagel, and he was a very original artist in this age.”

The exhibit of Vaclav Hollar’s The Four Seasons opened this Tuesday and will run until 30 November at the Print Cabinet of the National Library in the Schwarzenberg Palace.

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