Ready for spotlight, Czech artists exhibit transformations

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Ready for spotlight, Czech artists exhibit transformations


Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957), the most noteworthy artist in the exhibition, “Memory of Landscape I Have Never Seen,” drastically changed his style over time, as did his Czech contemporaries. The changes can be observed through paintings on display at the Deoksu Palace branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in central Seoul. Among them are “Silent Path; Sphinxes”(1903), above, which Kupka painted in his symbolist stage, and “Blue Skeleton II”(1920-21), which he painted in Orphist style. Provided by the museum

Koreans visit the Czech Republic in larger numbers than other Asian tourists, as Vladimir Rosel, head of the National Gallery in Prague, says, but they remain unfamiliar with the country’s visual artists.

An ongoing exhibition of the Prague gallery’s collection in Seoul aims to change that. The event highlights artists who struggled and transformed among political upheaval and the flood of avant-garde art from Western Europe.

“It is the first exhibition to introduce Czech modern artists to Korea,” Rosel told reporters on Thursday at the Deoksu Palace branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, where the show started on Friday.

The exhibition, “Memory of Landscape I Have Never Seen,” features 107 paintings produced by 28 Czech artists from 1905 and 1943. The title comes from a painting by surrealist Josef Sima (1891-1971) that is among the works on display.


From left: Vladimir Rosel, head of the National Gallery in Prague, explains the exhibition. Vlasta Vostrebalova-Fischerova’s (1898~1963) 1926 painting “Letna in 1922,” center, and Josef Sima’s (1891~1971) 1935 painting “Lady in a Theater Box” are among the works on display.

“The year 1905 is important in Czech art history,” Rosel said. “In that year, Expressionism was introduced with an exhibition of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch [best known for the masterpiece ‘Scream’] in Prague. And it triggered an evolution of Czech modern art that included various movements including Fauvism, Cubism and abstract art.”

Asked who is most noteworthy among the artists participating in the show, Rosel picked Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957). He is famous outside the Czech Republic as an early pioneer of non-figurative art or pure abstraction.

But in his earlier days, Kupka was a Symbolist, painting mystical landscapes or mythological stories in classical style. One of his paintings from that period is on display: “Silent Path; Sphinxes”(1903).

A comparison with Kupka’s later painting “Blue Skeleton II” (1920-21) will illustrate the artist’s dramatic transformation. “Blue Skeleton II” is a pure abstraction, and in the painting, various vivid colors that remind viewers of light passing through a prism are portrayed in rhythmic shapes. The painting looks like a visualization of flowing energy or resonating music.

French poet Guillaume Apollinaire called such paintings “Orphism,” a term coined after the poet and musician Orpheus from Greek mythology.

“Most Czech artists of Kupka’s time went through such dramatic changes like him,” Rosel said in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily after the press preview. “Because it was the time of dramatic changes in everything!”

Rosel pointed out that Czech people of the time came to face not only modern art but also modern technology, a modern lifestyle, and in particular, a modern political system. In 1918, the people were liberated from the Habsburg Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lasted hundreds of years. The Czechoslovakian Republic was also established that year.

“Not only avant-garde art but also a modern way of life was a representation of democracy to Czech people of the time,” Rosel said, explaining why Czech artists were so active in trying various modern art movements and in accepting drastic changes in their styles.

Many of them began to study in Paris, the center of modern art at that time, instead of Vienna, where Czech artists of the older generations mainly studied. It was one of Czech modern artists’ moves “to cut away from the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” Rosel said.

Czech artists’ openness to sharp changes is also seen in other paintings in the exhibition, including works by Emil Filla (1882-1953), who led avant-garde art in Prague between the two world wars.

Filla’s 1908 painting “Self-Portrait” with a blue face has strong Expressionist and Fauvist qualities. But his paintings of the 1910s show markedly different styles. They are half-abstract Cubist paintings, heavily influenced by the modern masters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

The four paintings made by Filla in the 1930s, which can be seen near the end of the exhibition, are again different from his earlier paintings. These pieces depict in Expressionist and Surrealist styles a mythical hero fighting a beast or perhaps beasts fighting each other or preying on others.

Most pieces focus on cosmopolitan qualities instead of showing the unique character of the Slavic region, though a painting by Kupka depicts himself in Czech folk costume with a wide red belt.

“Czech people are not so nationalistic and quickly melt into a new environment,” Rosel said.

“In addition, modernization including modern art, came to the Czech people with political liberation,” he continued. “Accordingly, Czech artists were very positive and optimistic about modern art movements.”

This might be the biggest difference between Czech and Korean modern artists. Koreans faced modernization, including avant-garde art, along with the invasion of Western and Japanese imperialists. So Korean artists had both admiration for and antipathy against modern art.

But it’s quite the opposite for the Czech.

“In the time of this exhibition’s artists, Czech people thought all the bad things had gone,” Rosel said. “But this optimistic view - partly even naive approach about modern civilization - ended with the start of World War II.”

Artists began reflecting fears about the rise of Fascism and Nazism as well as the upcoming war. Paintings from the 1930s, including Filla’s beasts, have a darker ambience.

Filla’s paintings also imply strong resistance against the Nazis.

Accordingly, he was arrested by the Gestapo on the first day of World War II along with Josef Capek, whose works are also on display. They were subsequently imprisoned in German concentration camps. Capek died, but Filla survived.

“This exhibition’s door opens with paintings made in 1905, when Czech artists opened doors to modern culture with optimism. And the exhibition’s door closes with paintings made in 1943 during World War II, when the artists had to close doors from optimism and freedom,” Rosel said. “It is a symbolic exhibition.”

The exhibition runs through April 21 at the Deoksu Palace branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Admission is 12,000 won ($11.08) for adults.

The museum is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and to 9 p.m. on Friday to Sunday. It is closed on Monday.

Go to City Hall Station, line No. 1 or 2, exit No. 1, 2 or 3.

For more information, call (02) 6273-4242~3 or visit

By Moon So-young []
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