Versatile graphic artist Oldřich Kulhánek dies aged 72

Oldřich Kulhánek, photo: CTK

The well-known Czech graphic designer, painter, and illustrator Oldřich Kulhánek died in Prague at the age of 72 on Monday. He is best known for creating the images on the modern Czech bank notes, but his other works have served as inspiration for a whole generation of graphic artists.

Oldřich Kulhánek,  photo: CTK
Tomáš Masaryk, Božena Němcová, Comenius, Ema Destinnová – the graceful and almost emotive images of these historical figures appear on today’s Czech crown bank notes thanks to Oldřich Kulhánek. The images made him one of the best known Czech graphic artists and illustrators. His colleague, modern artist Jiří Slíva, spoke to Czech Radio about his artistic versatility:

“His style was historicizing, though some of his ideas, for example his erotic cycle, were incredibly funny and included some modern elements as well. He was able to combine the old traditional craft of drawing going back to the time of Rudolf II with modern graphic trends.”

Born in 1940 in Prague, Kulhánek graduated from the Academy of Arts, where he studied under Karel Svolinský, in 1964. Soon after the success of his final school project - the illustration of Vladimír Holan’s poem Dream – he had his first solo exhibit in 1968 in Prague.

He captured the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in that year in a series of allegorical drawings, which included pictures of Stalin and other communist dignitaries. These twelve prints made their way to the West, and were exhibited at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan. A year later, Kulhánek was arrested by the secret police on charges of sedition and slander against members of the party. After being held in jail and interrogated for a few weeks, Kulhánek was set free, but he was under surveillance for the next few years and was regularly brought in for questioning.

Czech banknotes designed by Oldřich Kulhánek,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
During his struggle with the communist regime, Oldřich Kulhánek retained a grain of dark humor both in his personal life and work:

“I remember one interrogation by the secret police, when one idiot kept screaming at me. He wanted to know who Hieronymus Bosch was, where he worked and how I had met him. Even though I knew that he wanted to throw me in jail and was screaming at me, I said to myself ‘I must be dreaming’. When I told him that [Bosch] died 500 years ago, he told me to drop the intellectual mockery.”

Although he was not able to publish in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, Oldřich Kulhánek did not give up. Many of his pieces were published and exhibited abroad at this time, sometimes under the pseudonym Ulrich Böhm. In 1982 he was awarded the silver medal for his illustrations of Faust at the International Exhibit of Book Art in Leipzig.

Photo: Academia Publishing
In 1992-93, he worked on the creation of the new Czech bank notes, still in use today. He also created a number of images of Czech historical figured for stamps. Kulhánek's attention to detail in portraits – both facial expressions and physical qualities – gained him international recognition.

Oldřich Kulhánek died suddenly at the age of 72 in his Prague home; his last two solo exhibitions took place in Hungary and Japan and a permanent exhibit of his work can be viewed at the M&K Gallery in Prague.