Rediscovering Jan Zrzavy

Jan Zrzavý

A large retrospective exhibition of the works by Jan Zrzavy is currently being held at Prague's Waldstein Riding School. Although his work attracts large crowds of Czech art lovers, Zrzavy's reputation does not seem to extend beyond the Czech borders. In this week's Arts, we look at why Jan Zrzavy, one of the country's best-known Modernist painters, has yet to be rediscovered abroad.

"When I was on the train in Germany on my way to Paris, a young man walked into my compartment. He was a littler older than me, around twenty, and we started talking. He like the idea of me being a painter going to Paris and when we were getting off the train, he gave me his card and told me that if I needed anything, I should come to him and he would help me. One day I was walking near the Palais Royal and I ran into him. He said 'Don't forget that if you were not doing well or if you need something, come to me'. But I never did. If I had done it, I might have stayed in Paris and my life would have been quite different."

Jan Zrzavy remembering in 1969 his first trip to Paris he made in 1907. His first encounter with France only lasted for a week before a lack of money and luck when looking for a job made Zrzavy come back. He would return to Paris many times in the inter-war period and was in fact blamed for alienating himself from his homeland during his longs stays in France. Some of his pictures are even signed with the name Zerzavy, with an e in the first syllable, which earned him accusations of trying to appear French. In 1931, Jan Zrzavy said: "I sign my paintings that I know will stay here as Zrzavy. But the French can't really pronounce my name and therefore I insert that e in my name. Imagine the embarrassment for a painter who lives and wants live for most of his time among them." In the 1920s and 1930s, it appeared that Jan Zrzavy would stay in France. He found most themes for his work in that country, especially in Brittany, and he also painted Venice. But in the autumn of 1938, he moved back to Czechoslovakia.

If Zrzavy had stayed in France in 1907, or if things in Germany had developed differently in the 1930s, Jan Zrzavy would today perhaps be known and appreciated around the world as much as he is in his native country. While Zrzavy's exhibitions were always very well received here, few of his works are featured in public museums' collections in the West. What is it that made him so popular with the Czechs? I asked Ondrej Chrobak, of the National Gallery in Prague.

"Zrzavy was already very popular in the 1930s, his paintings sold well. He spent a lot of time in France in the inter-war period, in Paris and Brittany. This connection to yet another source of French modernity was admired and valued by Czechs. His popularity was paradoxical to a great extent, because Zrzavy's work has many highly complicated and structured capacities and the popularity of his work is presumably very superficial. Just like with all great artists, his work has many levels and one of them is accessible and even borders on some kind of Symbolistic kitsch. The feeling of accessibility meant that reproductions of his works were often hung in school corridors, dental surgeries, and so on."

Other art experts believe there is something unique in Zrzavy's paintings that speaks to Czechs rather than people from other parts of Europe and the world. Some say it is some sort of melancholy; others talk about a spiritual tune that goes beyond sensual perception. But Jan Zrzavy was apparently very conscious of his own image, in modern terms. Ondrej Chrobak of the National Gallery again.

"Jan Zrzavy always demonstrated his connection to the old painters. He admired Leonardo da Vinci, and for the general public he symbolized a direct link to the source of some mythical creative power, the source of art. Zrzavy also very carefully built-up his image. Some people still remember him living the end of his life in Mala Strana, walking around with his well groomed beard and a beret or a red cap. He was narcissistic by nature and complied with the general image of what an artist should look like."

Zrzavy exhibited regularly ever since he started painting into the early 1940s. After the war, he was able to travel again for a few years but when the communists took over the country in 1948 he spent most of his time working in solitude. The communists favoured a different kind of art which they called Socialist Realism, and Zrzavy and other modern painters of his generation did not fit in. It was perhaps then when the isolation behind the Iron Curtain made the western audience forget about Czech art. Milan Knizak, the director of the National Gallery.

"Everything happened after the Second World War. It was a time when Czech art was in a bad position, the Iron Curtain fell, there was no information and therefore we missed the right time. There were some people who were already known from before and some were known even during the communist period. But I still think the situation is not normal, because, for instance, Frantisek Kupka, who is no doubt one of the best artists in the whole world, his prices are, say, ten times lower than, for example Piet Mondrian, who is about the same kind of artist, Kupka being even a little bit more interesting, but that doesn't matter. We can say they are similar, but the prices are not similar. We are still in a position of a white spot on a map of the art world."

One of the tasks the National Gallery in Prague is pursuing is placing figures such as Zrzavy, Kupka, Filla and Styrsky back on the map of the art world. Art curators, historians and critics in Western Europe and the United States, however, tend to be more inclined to recognize those artists who fit a category that has already been established, such as Cubism, for example. It is easier to hold an exhibition of a French expressionist than one of Jan Zrzavy whose work really defies these definitions. Steven Mansbach, professor of art history at the University of Maryland in the United States who teaches about Zrzavy in his classes, says however that Czech art is regaining its reputation.

"One of the great paradoxes, but a happy one, is that Czech art is becoming much better known and much more widely appreciated. But in part, that is because many of the leading Czech artists, Filla for example, or even Kubista, seem to conform to the categories or paradigms that western art historians and audiences already know. Zrzavy, although one might say he is Cubist and Expressionist, really does not conform as neatly to these paradigms or categories. So even though Czech art is becoming much more greatly appreciated and much better known, Zrzavy is less so."