Preview: Tribute to Oldřich Kulhánek!
The dissident strove to capture the spirit of his times/the human figure as a symbol of the human condition
Posted: March 13, 2013
Kulhánek's lithography work often reference interrogations.
There is still time to see a small exhibition of works on paper that Museum Kampa quickly organized to honor the Czech artist Oldřich Kulhánek after his unexpected death at the end of January. The exhibition draws from works collected by the museum's founder, Meda Mládek, who followed Kulhánek's work and organized a solo exhibition in Chicago for him in the mid-1980s.
Even those in this country who don't recognize Kulhánek by name come into intimate contact with his artwork on an almost daily basis - with their hands and even their tongues. For the past two decades, the artist has been almost synonymous with the Czech currency and postage stamps, drawing the pantheon of personalities gracing the bank notes, from St. Agnes of Bohemia on the now seldom-seen 50 Kč note to the 19th-century writer Božena Němcová on the 500 Kč bill to Czechoslovakia's first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk on the 5,000 Kč note - also seldom seen by most ordinary folks. He also designed postage stamps, including those portraying the presidents Václav Havel and Václav Klaus.
Born in Prague in 1940, Kulhánek studied at the Academy of Applied Arts (VŠUP) in the studio of Karel Svolinský, who in his day also designed bank notes and postage stamps for Czechoslovakia. But, though Kulhánek's teacher - who was given the title of Meritorious Artist and later National Artist by the communist regime - was a signatory of the so-called anti-Charter, which denounced the Charter 77 human rights declaration, Kulhánek went in a completely different direction.
A prominent artistic dissident, Kulhánek was briefly imprisoned, and then for two years after that he was interrogated every two weeks; the transcripts of his police interrogations became the subject of a Czech Television documentary after the collapse of communism. He was also banned from exhibiting his work throughout the 1970s.
But many of the former dissidents had their day after the 1989 revolution, which swept one of them up to Prague Castle. One can only savor the irony in Kulhánek's becoming one of the most famous graphic artists of the post-revolutionary period and replacing his former teacher as the official face (or, rather, the hand behind the myriad faces) of stamps and currency.
Faces and hands, in fact, along with torsos and limbs, are the motifs Kulhánek was always most drawn to. His draftsmanship was superb, and his command of demanding printmaking techniques such as color lithography enabled him to render highly complex imagery in an almost photorealistic way. He emerged as a key figure of New Figuration in Czechoslovakia along with other remarkable artists such as Jiří Sozanský and Jiří Anderle.
Kulhánek posted a few salient statements about his output on his website, which is still being maintained. "In my work you can find parts of the human face, pleading hands, raw hands. For me, the symbol is a way of expressing the age in which I live, the place where I live. The human face is my symbol. The human face with its lips stuck together, the human face disappearing in torn scraps of paper."
At the core of the show at Kampa are etchings from the late 1960s and lithographs from the 1980s, and the two phases of his work go hand in hand. It was in the years following the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia that Kulhánek was jailed in 1971 for his politically charged etchings, which "defamed representatives of communist countries" - mainly Stalin.
Several of the lithographs, which masterfully combine elements of photorealism and trompe l'œil, make reference to his time in jail and interrogations by the secret police. All made in 1990, their concise titles tell the story: Tribunal, Portrait of My Secret Policeman, Interrogation, Ruzyně Prison, Cell 321.
"My opinion, my conviction, is that in his work an artist should give an account of himself, and of the time and place he inhabits," Kulhánek wrote in another statement on his website. "The artist should reveal the pretense (or lies) of the establishment, unmasking what is happening to man and showing how man is manipulated and dehumanized. The artist should present an account of the soul of his contemporary."
Kulhánek was the longtime president of the Hollar Association of Czech Graphic Artists and was the recipient of this year's prestigious Vladimír Boudník Prize, a sort of lifetime achievement award for innovative contribution to Czech printmaking. He did not live to accept the award, which was announced three weeks after his death.
This intimate tribute to a remarkable draftsman and printmaker leaves an indelible impression of an artist whose work became part of the country's daily life. And his life and work unquestionably merit the exclamation mark in the exhibition's title.
Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at