Nepraš retrospective at DOX Gallery

Photo: DOX

In this week’s Arts I talk to Markéta Stará of the DOX Gallery about the retrospective of work by one of the greatest 20th century Czech artists Karel Nepraš. The show, features many of Nepraš’ famous metal works but also drawings and work in porcelain, is highly recommended.

Karel Nepraš,  photo: NoJin / Creative Commons 3.0 Unported
Markéta Stará told me more:

“This exhibition is in a way a celebration of Karel Nepraš’ work 10 years after his death; in preparing the show it was necessary to take the time to digest a lot of work, to bring in the drawings and put it all together in a coherent retrospective, which I think we succeeded in putting together.”

You mentioned drawings there but it seems to me that Nepraš was probably better-known for his 3-D work?

Photo: DOX
“I would say most certainly – that is what he is known for from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, where he applied a lot of red colour. People frequently forget that he also worked in ceramics and porcelain: I think that is presented quite well and shows that in many ways his work in different materials is heterogeneous.”

Thematically the drawings reinforce the sculpture and vice-versa: what are themes or formal elements they share?

“The drawing show quite well the anatomical aspect. This is mirrored in his sculptures where he explored the human figure, the organic form, the vein. You can also saw the raw form, stripped down, and we emphasised the connections between the drawings and the sculptures through juxtaposition.”

Photo: DOX
One of the show’s curators, Jaroslav Anděl, wrote that one of keys or rather the key to understanding Nepraš’ work is through humour; what kind of humour did he employ?

“In relation to Karel Nepraš‘ work it is important to talk about the ‘grotesque’. This is somehow also very specific to the Czech environment and he was definitely one of the biggest proponents of this type of humour. It’s a kind of humour that makes you laugh... before it freezes your face. It is a mix of humour and sinister darker elements that create goose bumps. It is also very much tied to the period when he worked although it has to be said he retained that humour in his work even after the revolution in 1989.”

Indeed, he worked and lived through some of the toughest periods in Czechoslovak history – the Stalinist years, Normalisation after the ’68 invasion – and so on. I suppose it is impossible not to see his work relative to the good deal of harassment he suffered under the Communists...

Photo: DOX
“His work very much resembles or reflects the situation during different periods and was, for example, also inspired by Kafka and Existentialism. This goes for his sculptural work in the 50s, when it was more abstract and in later drawings and sculptures you can see the political urgency. There is Great Dialogue, there is how he treated the human figure, the impossibility of speech or communication; all that is expressed.

“There is sense of external force that crushes the human, his soul and being, and I think this is very prominent. Nepraš was also a member of the Krížovnická škola, not an art collective but a group of people who were frequently dissidents opposed to the regime. Like Nepraš, they weren’t able to create or exhibit officially so they spent a lot of the time in the pub, which was a symbol of freedom and exchange. This is exactly what the ‘school’ was about and it wasn’t only artists but also philosophers, dissidents, musicians, teachers and others who shared a certain understanding of what life could – and should – be.”

Photo: DOX
How did life change for him after 1989? I know he began teaching at Prague’s Fine Arts Academy (AVU) where there were others like Sopko or Knížák (who was responsible for clearing out the old guard) – do you think he enjoyed passing on his experience?

“I honestly believe he was glad to join the academy and to have the freedom to produce art. My feeling, going through the materials, was that he was less interested in the 'politics of education' but that he was glad to be able to communicate and work with students.”

Photo: DOX
Is it fair to say that his significance as an artist has grown since his death in 2002?

“He has his place of course but if anything it think it will grow even more. If anything, this exhibition is offering viewers a chance to view a wide tableau of work, some of which they may be wholly unfamiliar with. Now they have an opportunity to get a better overall understanding. Certainly, all visitors should see his major works, too, his heads, the Dialogue, work which was influenced by and focussed on the machine, or his short period ‘in exile’ abroad. They will also be surprised by his later work, when he returned to porcelain and ceramics which was what he actually studied as a student before he went to the Academy of Fine Arts.”