Czech painter’s odes to joy border on saccharine
The name Ladislav Sutnar usually rings a bell in connection with graphic design, especially after his big monographic exhibition in Prague in 2003. Galerie Rudolfinum is now displaying Sutnar’s passion for painting, which has been almost forgotten, although he was an active painter nearly all his life. On display is a series of Venuses made in the 1960s and ’70s, some of which are being shown for the first time. Taken singularly, they are playfully joyful, but as a whole, they are somewhat cloying.
Sutnar was born in 1897 in Plzeň under the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and shared the fate of many European intellectuals and artists. During the 1920s in the new democratic republic of Czechoslovakia, he was a member of the lively art scene and a member of Umělecká beseda, a noted art association. Because of the Nazi threat, however, he left the country in 1939 for the United States, where he stayed until his death in 1976.
Sutnar’s Venuses pop with vibrant color and follow his doctrine of Joy Art.
When Sutnar came to the United States, he was a nobody. He lived in a cheap flat on 52nd Street in New York City, which transformed at night into a red-light district. The painter turned his experiences into art, and judging by his paintings, Sutnar’s experiences likely weren’t so bad.
Although having a more than solid reputation as a graphic designer (he published a notable book on graphic design titled Visual Design in Action in 1961), Sutnar was virtually unknown as a painter and had to start from scratch, trying to find his way in the art world. Not even acquaintances with Andy Warhol and Thomas Messer, the director of Guggenheim Museum, brought any significant benefits for Sutnar in establishing himself as a painter.
In his artwork, he evidently followed a graphic approach, and one can even say he followed a design approach. All of the exhibited works, each of his Venuses, are based on a well-prepared composition and employ clear geometry and bright colors of a single tone that do not overlap. The women in his paintings are playful and erotic. They exhibit a variety of postures and moods: chaste, skittish or with a love of shopping. Above all, these Venuses are carefree – smiling, easy and seductive.
Sutnar was very critical of Pop and Op art, the dominant artistic tendencies of his day, and strived to distinguish his work from others’, though whether he achieved this is debatable. Today, Sutnar’s art appears clearly as a product of the 1960s and ’70s.
In 1969, Sutnar presented his own views on art in a manifesto titled Joy Art. Under this term, which carries a sarcastic undertone aimed at Pop and Op art, he promoted an art that is vital, optimistic, spiritual and humanistic. Basing his work on ideas of early modernity about a happy and prosperous future, Sutnar saw Joy Art as the future of mainstream art. Most of modernity’s movements and “isms” had the belief that there was a bright future ahead for mankind. With superb science and powerful technology, there would be plenty of free time to enjoy life, and Joy Art could be one of the ways to do it, Sutnar believed.
These paintings are well composed with a strong, rational background and geometry. Today, they seem to belong to an era that was full of expectations for the future. One wonders why there are no Venus astronauts, although some of Sutnar’s Venuses do, in fact, resemble Sputnik. Some are right on the edge of being merely eye candy, however.
Sutnar often spoke of deep aesthetic and spiritual values, but it is difficult to see any manifestation of these in the work he produced. What is undoubtedly present is a strong visual quality, artistic skill and good use of color.
Although Sutnar’s Joy Art is not mainstream today, when viewing it, one can briefly forget about all worries and enjoy the Joy. There is certainly something optimistic, healthy and happy about these paintings. However, it is apt that there are only 21 of them on display. Any more would be like chewing a colorful gum that soon loses its flavor.