Review: I Follow in Your Footsteps: Homage to Jan Z
A studio exchange leads to an exploration of Jan Zrzavý's time in France
Posted: January 16, 2013
Michal Pěchouček and Marta Morice, a pair of Czech artists, studied the work of a Francophile and came up with some interesting art of their own.
France has long been a magnet and a source of inspiration for Czech artists, particularly between the fin de siècle and World War II, when greats like Alfons Mucha and František Kupka established ateliers in what was then the epicenter of creativity. As an exhibition at the French Institute shows, that country still has an allure for Czech artists.
"I Follow in Your Footsteps: Homage to Jan Z." is a project by the Czech artists Michal Pěchouček and Marta Morice that emerged from a studio exchange. In 2011, the artists swapped spaces, with the latter, based in France for more than a decade, returning to the Czech Republic to work in Pěchouček's Prague studio while he spent the summer working in hers in Lorient, in the Brittany region. The two embarked on a second project in August 2012, this time setting out together to discover the trail Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977) took through Brittany in the 1920s and 1930s, when he frequently came here to paint the coastal landscape en plein air.
Zrzavý is a solitary figure in Czech art who emerged on the Prague art scene in the years before World War I and is probably best known as a second-wave Symbolist. He was a founding member of the Sursum group, which formed in the second decade of the 20th century and was drawn to mysticism and dream work. In the interwar years, he shifted focus, drawing inspiration from the landscape of his native country and scenery he encountered on his travels abroad. From the mid-1920s, he made frequent painting trips to Brittany, his last journey taking place in 1939, just as war was sweeping through Europe.
Both Pěchouček and Morice had some previous connection to Zrzavý, which formed a basis for the new works they produced as they retraced his steps three-quarters of a century later.
at Gallery 35 of the French Institute Ends Feb. 9. Štěpánská 35, Prague 1-New Town. Open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Pěchouček, born in 1973, is a significant figure on the Czech art scene. He initially attracted attention as a painter in the mid-1990s, but he also works extensively with video, photography and also literary forms. He won the Jindřich Chalupecký Award for young artists in 2003. In 2007, he made the short Zrzavý Film, which was not just about the artist himself but was also a meditation on the topic of making a documentary about a painter, calling attention to the inadequacies of the genre.
Morice was born just a few kilometers from Zrzavý's birthplace in 1971, and she grew up surrounded by reproductions of his work. In light of Morice's longtime residency in Brittany, a project about Zrzavý was almost a natural choice for the two artists.
They decided they would try to identify the exact places where Zrzavý set up his easel to paint. They went, for example, to Locronan, Camaret, the Île de Sein and the Île de Bréhat, where he painted the ports, embankments, reefs, ships and, especially, sailboats. They decided to each create a series inspired by their experience following the trail of Zrzavý and of the landscape itself, and to then exhibit the resulting bodies of work side by side.
Their styles and practices differ significantly. Morice is showing a series of large, loose, spontaneous watercolors that combine undulating passages of green-blue paint evocative of the sea with areas of monochrome. Apart from one abstract painting recalling ocean waves, the works are all figural, usually featuring a female body with a feline head. One, for example, depicts a woman in a bikini with the head of a panther. Another painting shows a bikini-clad female body with a feline head beside a portrait of Pěchouček, wearing a suit and tie and painted in monochrome. The only color Morice incorporates into her portrayal of Pěchouček is a light green wash over his hand, which holds that of the animal-woman (presumably a self-portrait), and his face, which seems to be melting in the coastal sunlight.
Pěchouček's work in the show is a notable departure for him - not just the literal one to the shores of Brittany but a major shift to full abstraction and a pitch-dark palette. His response to Zrzavý is uncharacteristically nonnarrative and nonobjective, producing a series of seemingly black paintings with subtle geometric reliefs, sometimes incorporating contrasting lines in lighter tones.
Of course, with Pěchouček, there are always multiple layers of meaning in any given work. And in these seemingly black paintings there are a great many physical ones - up to 50 separate layers of built-up paint. When you step up close to them, it is immediately evident that they are not actually black but contain many colors in rich, saturated abundance. Triangular forms emerging from below the surface recall boat sails, and criss-crossing lines evoke ocean waves. Some of the paintings have a simple oval or round outline, like a head or the sun.
The two artists' works produce a lively interplay. Pěchouček's stand out, however, as the more radical response and intense homage to Zrzavý.
Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at
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