People, just people, and again people
Josef Čapek's drawings and prints ponder the human condition
Posted: February 6, 2013
The artist's work featured a true parade of humanity: down-and-outers, beggars, drinkers, destitute women and children, blokes and these Girls (Two Harlots), from 1918.
As a visual artist, Josef Čapek (1887-1945) is best known as one of the main protagonists of Czech Cubism. His importance goes far beyond that. In the first half of the 20th century, he was the paragon of a cultural polymath. He was not only a painter, printmaker, draftsman, illustrator, book designer and scenographer, but, like his younger brother Karel, he was also a writer - a poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, editor, cartoonist, art critic and children's author.
Above all, he was a humanist, a quality that vividly shone through in his visual work as well as his writing. The exhibition "Song From a Dark Corner: Social Motifs in the Work of Josef Čapek 1916-1926" at the GATE Gallery shows how Čapek approached his fellow men and women from a deeply thoughtful and compassionate point of view.
The exhibition comprises about 160 works, mainly drawings and prints along with two paintings. The predominant colors of pencil gray and inky black against the warm yellow of the paper give the show a unified tone to the parade of humanity - down-and-outers, beggars, drinkers, harlots, destitute women and children, and blokes.
Many of the works are from the collection of the Gallery of the Central Bohemian Region in Kutná Hora, of which GATE in Prague, less than a year old, is both the predecessor and a younger sister branch (both are operated by the region of Central Bohemia). GATE resides in the recently reconstructed building on Husova street that was the longtime home of the Czech Museum of Fine Arts, which was also run by the Central Bohemia Region and closed in 2009.
This show is also a homecoming of sorts to this address for curator Richard Drury, who was long associated with the Czech Museum of Fine Arts. He is also the author of the exhibition catalog.
The period covered in the exhibition starts halfway through World War I and ends exactly a decade on. By 1916, Čapek had been back in the Czech lands for five years after a sojourn in Paris. Like many Czech artists of his time, Čapek had been drawn to the cultural magnet of Paris, where he encountered a swirl of avant-garde movements and particularly embraced Cubism. Čapek was one of the leading artists to transplant Cubism in Czech soil, where it took root and flowered in remarkable ways.
While he was in Paris, like numerous other modern artists notably including Picasso, Čapek visited the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadéro, where he was impressed and influenced by its collections of tribal art from Africa, Oceania and elsewhere. It was a strong experience, and he incorporated it into his art, distinctively combining the formal language of Cubism with a radical, stylized reduction of figures to pure geometry, their faces often reminiscent of African masks.
As Drury points out in his catalog essay, Cubism was for Čapek an intellectual and emotional framework through which to tap into the age-old essence of human identity and creativity, and at the same time to harness these "primitive and magical" qualities to achieve a modern artistic idiom capable of reflecting the world in which he lived. As a result, the figures in his works are at once specific and modern and also universal and timeless.
To somewhat stretch the meaning of the word, Čapek's repeated returns to particular motifs, his method of approaching them from various angles, in different media, amounted to a broadly "Cubistic" approach to his favored subject matter.
In the catalog essay, Drury mentions that Karel Čapek, in his forward to the Album of Ten Prints by Josef Čapek, wrote: "the subject of my brother's pictures are people, just people, and again people."
The postwar period brought an edge of anxiety to his work, which was in tune with the societal tensions caused by economic crisis and high unemployment. Other themes that emerged after the war were widows in graveyards and a series of "blokes," portrayed singly or in pairs, usually standing aimlessly or sometimes ambling purposefully.
Though already well past the years covered by this show, the humanism and freedom of expression he advocated and his anti-fascist stance, expressed in word and image, led to his arrest by the Gestapo Sept. 1, 1939, after which he was transferred from one concentration camp to another, finally ending up in Bergen Belsen in February 1945, where he died, apparently in a typhoid epidemic, in April of that year, just before the war's end.
This show is tailor-made for avid fans of Čapek's work who would like to see multiple variations of some of his best-known themes, some more immediate and sketchlike, others more fully realized, but nearly all of them imbued with the intimate poetry of daily life.
The next guided tour with curator Richard Drury is Feb. 21 at 5 p.m.
Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at
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