The work of 20th Century Czech artist Jiří Kolář is a comic provocation. It's also an excavation and juxtaposition of received forms that reveals an unsettling humanity within – or lurking underneath – objects most of us take for granted: bank notes, numbers, stamps, works by great artists, and even a self-portrait.
One of the deeper layers of Jiří Kolář (1914-2002): Forms of Visual Poetry, now showing at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, is not much on display in the exhibit or in the catalog. Those who admire the work of one of the greatest Czech fiction writers of the 20th Century – Bohumil Hrabal – will find a visit to the Kolář exhibit allows them see Hrabal in a new way.
Though Hrabal and Kolář were born in the same momentous year in Central European history (1914), they took very different paths to artistic prominence.
Kolář had begun making art (not only graphic works, but eventually poetry) by the age of twenty, before the Munich betrayal and the Second World War engulfed Czechoslovakia. His first exhibit of collages was in Prague in 1937, and his first book of poetry was published in 1941 under the German occupation. Kolář and a like-minded group of Czech artists formed the influential Group 42 in 1942, and collaborated until another momentous year in Czech history: 1948 and the Communist cementing of power in the country.
An excellent obituary of Kolář by Robert B. Pynsent in the Guardian observes that Kolář's poetry -- most of which has not been translated into English -- was already challenging the derangement of language by authoritarianism in the late 1940s. His first brush with dissidence came in 1953, when police seized a copy of one his unpublished works (Prometheus' Liver). He was detained for nine months and then sentenced to time served. By the late 1950s, Kolář largely abandoned written poetry to concentrate on the visual arts. The artist's works from the late 1950s through the early 1970s form the bulk of the exhibit now showing at American University.
Hrabal's path into the prominence was a slower and more winding one. He had difficulties in his studies during his childhood and adolescence, but eventually won a place in law school in 1935. He did not finish his law degree for eleven years, working on the railway and in other odd jobs during the period when Nazi authorities closed Czechoslovakia’s universities.
Though he did get obtain the degree in 1946, Hrabal practiced little or any law after getting it, working another series of odd jobs as he sought to pursue his burgeoning aspirations to be a writer. (It's a period of Hrabal's life addressed in three memoirs, written in the voice of his wife, Eliška "Pipsi" Plevová, and published in English translation by Northwestern University Press as In-House Weddings, Vita Nuova, and Gaps.)
The early 1950s was the moment in which Kolář and Hrabal's careers intersected. As an established figure in Czech culture, Kolář drew a number of younger artists to his orbit. (The playwright and future Czech president Vacláv Havel was in one such of group that met with Kolář in the famed Cafe Slavia.)
Though the same age as Kolář, Hrabal was another artist who sought out his tutelage and support. In a book-length interview with Hungarian journalist László Szigeti (published in translation as Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp), Hrabal numbers Kolář with author Jiří Weil and artist Vladimír Boudník as:
… the kind of people who knew how to pass on everything to me, so educated were they. For example, Kolář read Shakespeare every year. I've never heard anything more beautiful about Shakespeare than from Jiří. Because there's a direct line from Shakespeare to Joyce. Then from Joyce to Eliot. Eliot, that Wasteland, owns much to an inner kinship with Joyce's Ulysses.
The link between classical art and modernism that Hrabal articulates here is an animating force in the work of both artists. Wander through the Kolář exhibit at American University, and you are overwhelmed by the intellectual energy of his work – an endless interrogation and unmasking that is playful and yet unearths darker urges and desires. See, for instance, Kolář's "Married Venus" (1969, left.)
Readers of Hrabal will instantly feel at home in Kolář's work. So many of these strategies are also those adopted by Hrabal in his own writings. A relentless dialogue between the higher knowledge of philosophy, literature, psychology and art, and the colloquial language of labor and love. In the short prose piece, "Handbook for the Apprentice Palaverer," published as an introduction to a 1974 English translation of his early works, The Death of Mr. Baltisberger, Hrabal writes:
I am a negative genius, a poacher in the meadows of language, I am a game warden of comic inspiration, a tried and true ranger in the fields of the anonymous anecdote, a murderer of good ideas, a keeper of the questionable fish tanks of spontaneity, an eternal fan of and dabbler in debility and pornography, a hero of thinking thoughtlessness, a hurried and premature Knight of the Cross of Parallel Lines who hungers for a slice of bread buttered with infinity and thirst for a stein of the cream of eternity now, right now, and never again, in other words, never...
When I was visiting Prague in the early 1990s, I purchased a copy of Automat Svĕt – a 1966 collection of Hrabal's short prose – from an antikvariat. It is a hopeful book for a hopeful moment. The green shoots of the Prague Spring were already taking root, and Automat Svĕt included a number of Hrabal's classic stories: "Do You Want to See Golden Prague?" "Romance," "Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age," and the title piece.
It was also my introduction to the works of Jiri Kolář. Not only did the artist design the cover of the book (though my copy's dust jacket was frayed when I purchased it), but he also created six fold-out collages to illustrate the book. (See a few samples below.)
In the second volume of Hrabal's memoirs, Vita Nuova, the author relates – in the voice of his wife, Pipsi – his impressions of Kolář. It's a key that unlocks why Kolář's work continues to possess such resonance -- and why you should go visit this vital exhibition if you can:
I wished my husband could dress as well as Mr. Kolář could tuck a little white handkerchief into his breast pocket a la Mr. Kolář I wish he had a little pride in himself a little swagger like Mr Kolář whose source of pride came from the poet inside and you could see it a mile away the pride just radiated from him and it was reflected in the way he dressed as well...
*Self Portrait, 1971 Collection of Museum Kampa, the Jan and Meda Mládek Collection, Prague
*Married Venus, 1969 Collection of Museum Kampa, the Jan and Meda Mládek Collection, Prague
*Photos of Automat Svĕt, Bohumil Hrabal, 1966, Máj ,made from a copy in the collection of Richard Byrne