The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 2/Fine Arts in Bohemia (4)

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Fourth part of the series on Bohemian arts. For the whole series see Fine Arts in Bohemia.

3419762The Bohemian Review, volume 2, no. 2 — Fine Arts in Bohemia (4)1918Jaroslav Egon Salaba-Vojan

Fine Arts in Bohemia.


By Dr. J. E. S. Vojan.

During the modern period the development of literature in Bohemia got a start far ahead of the other arts. After Kollar’s “Slávy Dcera” (Slavia’s Daughter) in 1824 and Čelakovský’s “Ohlas Písní Ruských” (Echo of Russian Songs) in 1829 we get suddenly in 1836 the wonderful “Máj” of Mácha, by which the recently born Czech poetry came at a bound into contact with the most modern currents of the world poetry. As against that, the decorative arts and music had to wait a good many years longer. Bedřich Smetana, founder of modern Bohemian music, composed as early as 1847, upon the occasion of the marriage of his pupil, Countess Marie Thun, three “Wedding Pictures”, of which the last is identical with the opening part of the first scene of the “The Bartered Bride”; but the last-named work, one of the most distinctively national products of Bohemian art, took shape only in the years 1863-1866. And in like manner, the lifework of Mánes, the first fruits of which was the portrait of Rieger in 1849 and the delightful “Honeymoon in Haná”, was given forth in its full bloom only some years later. But fate was so far favorable to Bohemian art that it gave to all branches pioneers of genius who reached in their creations the very highest standards and brought the art of the Czech nation to a wonderfully elevated stage.

As Smetana reached by his study of the spirit of folk songs a type of Bohemian musiv which combining modern music with racial characteristics became an example of a distinctive Czech musical art, so Mánes determined in that memorable year 1849 to produce out of Bohemian soil and its spirit artistic creations that would portray the charm of Bohemian soul. By painstakingly careful ethnological study Mánes slowly collated the distinctive characteristics of the people into an artistic type of the Czechoslovak race which for many years was supreme in all Bohemian decorative art. Having made his start in romanticism Mánes naturally created a type of a peasant youth and belle, an idealized type of the Czechoslovak nature. It is far indeed from modern naturalism, but just because this idealistic conception grew out of conscientious study of the purest folk surroundings and reached the very kernel of the Czechoslovak national soul, it became so dominant and so permanent that its influence is manifest in all the monumental works which emphasize the Czech national individuality. We meet with this type in Aleš’ lunettes and wall pictures in the foyer of the National Theater in Prague, in Myslbek's statuary groups on Palacký’s bridge, etc. It is a soft, pleasant, kind type, of a full form; the female type has a round face, fine straight nose, small, tempting lips, clear but slightly dreamy eye, rich hair, generous bust, full arms, round hips and oval legs with a firm calf and slender elegant ankles.

In October, 1849, Mánes paid a visit to the Castle Čechy in Moravia, where the Countess Silva-Taroucca with her son received him most cordially. There he spent an entire year. The Haná motif of his “Honeymoon” Mánes engraved in stone for the album of the Society of Decorative Artists; this album appeared in February, 1850 and contained also Hellich’s “Vision in St. Vitus Church” and Havránek’s “Karlštejn”. This first work of Mánes dealing with a Czech folk theme was a great innovation in this respect also, because in comparison with the works of the Prague ateliers it had grown out of the bracing air of real country. Thence the strong, invigorating flavor which Mánes work will forever have. Models of both figures Mánes found in the village below the castle; the background is formed by the wide, fertile plains stretching between the castle and the city of Olomouc. The folk studies that Mánes commenced to make during his stay in the Čechy castle, he kept up continually, but the richest harvest was the journey he undertook in the summer of 1854 into the southwestern corner of Moravia, the land that later became the domain of Jóža Úprka, and into the Hungarian Slovakland. Mánes is the first to undertake in painting what Božena Němec at the same time was doing in literature. He studies not merely the costume with detail and extreme care, that has not been surpassed so far by any one, but like a true artist he studies the movement of bodies, he observes how men walk and stand, how they sit and make motions; and in all this his great pen finds rich material and happy reproduction. Many beautiful folk studies had their birth at this time; they were made use of later as illustrations to folk songs and in the cycle “Music”.

This ideal type, so happily conceived, helps Mánes to find the true expression for the prehistoric Bohemian period. This he applied in his illustrations of the Manuscript of Králův Dvůr, a document supposed to have been composed in the pagan days of Bohemia. In these drawings the distinctive, characteristically Bohemian art of Mánes is brought out so perfectly that it has not yet been equalled by any more recent Czech artist. The drawings of Aleš illustrating the famous manuscript contain a number of excellent sheets and are closely related to the work of Mánes, but while a few may approach his excellence, there is none of higher merit.

One of the culminating works of Mánes is the “Horloge” for the Prague City Hall. The original is now in the City Museum, having been replaced by a copy by Liška. This work consists of twelve allegorical pictures of peasant life, being an idealistic representation of the relations of the tiller of the soil to Mother Earth. The several labors of country life, plowing, sowing, mowing, grain-cutting, cultivating, grape-gathering, etc., are represented in a manner little short of the epochal.

Delightful are his children’s cartons and aquarelles describing “Life in a Manor House”. They were made in the years 1855–1860. Mánes, who was familiar with the life of the nobility from his visits to the Castle Čechy, to which for twenty years he used to come just like to his old home, could readily compose these graceful works in which charming children play the role of their elders and bring home to us life in the castle in its most various and intimate forms. Children next to woman play an important part in the lifework of Mánes. But woman is the red strand in Mánes’ creation.

Mánes is the first Bohemian painter of woman. The center of his art is the bewitching belle, of healthy charms and full lines. To her he dedicates ever new and fervent hymns. A little picture “Kiss” from 1851 will serve as an illustration. Young rococo love and two pairs of hungry lips met here in a kiss. But how ardently is painted this moment of burning passion, how splendidly are drawn the two heads whose intoxication we feel, though we do not see their eyes and faces.

The art of Mánes can be appreciated only now, when sufficient time has elapsed to see him in all his greatness. His contemporaries did not realize what Bohemia had in this man of genius, and this lack of understanding aggravated the melancholy the causes of which were to be found in family troubles. When Mánes took part in the pilgrimage to Moscow in 1867, signs were already manifest of a serious nervous disorder. The disease grew rapidly worse, a trip to Italy brought no improvement, and Mánes breathed his last in the darkness of mental disease on October 9, 1871.

In many respects the heir of Mánes was Aleš; nad so we shall interrupt for the time being the historical current of our story and will discuss this artist, whose work, next to Mánes, was most characteritically Czech.

Mikoláš Aleš was born November 18, 1852 in Mirotice. When he came to Písek in 1862 to follow his two elder brothers to school, his uncle, Thomas Famfule, who had charge of the three little students, little thought that the youngest would learn the most from his uncle for his future career. Uncle Thomas was compelled in 1812 to put on the “white coat” and was placed among the chevau-legers (light cavalry) of Vincent’s regiment. He saw service in France, Poland, Italy, and only in 1830 he came back to Mirotice. Famfule was the original of “Salakvarda Baltazar Uždán” in Jirásek’s historical story “Skaláci”. When the old soldier related his experiences to the boys about his white horse and his successor the black horse with whom the soldier parted so reluctantly that he almost decided to remain in the army, when uncle sang with them folk songs of Bohemia, the soul of young Aleš received indelible impressions, so that we do not wonder, why the drawings of Aleš abound with rearing horses, such as few artists can create, and why Aleš became the incomparable illustrator of Czech folk song.

Aleš came to the painters’ academy of Prague a born master of pen, as the director, John Swerts, a Belgian, found out very soon. He told him once: “You may become a great artist, for you possess in great measure the things that cannot be taught.” Aleš remained in the academy until 1875. That he possessed a hard, South Bohemian head he proved at the riot caused by professor Alfred von Woltmann. This German historian of art came in 1874 to the Prague University, at that time still wholly German, and lectured also at the painters’ academy. When he went so far as to declare that all decorative art in Bohemia was of German origin and that there were no monuments of art either in Prague or elsewhere in Bohemia that could not be traced to German sources, he caused great riots in the university, and in the academy he was thrown bodily out of his lecture room. Aleš took a prominent part in the proceedings and spent a few days in the cells of the Prague police headquarters.

The first drawings of Aleš were published in November, 1872, in the humorous weekly “Paleček”, then edited by Dr. Josef Štolba. His first pay of two florins (about 80 cents) was a great event to Aleš. But the superstitous might say that it was but an omen of the beggarly rewards which the great artist was to reap for years, until at the age of fifty things became better.

The year 1879 was memorable in the life of Aleš. For the decoration of the National Theater in Prague Aleš offered sketches of twelve lunettes and four great wall pictures for the foyer. Among many competitors he won out. The lunette cycle “Vlasť” (Motherland) is one of the culminating points of the lifework of Aleš and together with Smetana’s cycle of symphonic poems “Má Vlasť” (My Motherland) constitutes one of the most splendid expressions of Bohemian art of the 19th century. Truly says Jirásek: “It is an epic of deep feeling, a gripping song of our motherland; it holds in itself divine dreams and gives out the charm of mythical twilight like the song of Radovan in Smetana’s “Libuše”. A heroic young man brought up on the stories and tales of his people, rides through the Bohemian lands; in the Ore Mountains he has a sword forged, in the Trutnov country as Trut he fights the dragon of Teutonism, in the Krkonoše Mountians he is healed of his wound by herbs of strange virtue, in the Tábor district he talks with the future Žižka’s peasants, in the gold-bearing Otava he waters his horse, etc. The cycle ends with Žalov, the ancient Czech cemetery, where Morana points out to the young man the end of his road.

But the triumph was of short duration. Instead of further recognition a long series of years came full of knocks and hard struggles, pain and bitter search for a living. The things that Aleš had to draw just to support himself! But he never despaired. In 1883 he wrote to Jirásek: “After all I desire to do something for my country by my art, and so I must keep up the fight, in the commonplace current hold fast to the ideal, overlook offenses, ignore the worst blows.” Aleš knew that it was the fate of the majority of men truly great to receive their reward only when they were dead. And when somewhat better time came, though not so good that he would not have to worry about his bread, frequently he sighed and gently complained among friends, and it was plain that what pained him most was the time he had lost. So in a letter which he wrote me in March, 1907, he says: “I am fairly well again and have much work; if only people did not ask me for various trifles that take up foolishly my time and are hard on the eyes during the winter fogs. You know, to be called ‘the purest Czech master’ implies a lot of disadvantages. If I could live in the country, I would avoid the obtrusive people and it would be healthier for body and soul. For my artist’s roots lie in the woods and fields and meadows.”

The young Bohemian artists fortunately were convinced that Aleš was a great master, and they finally compelled recognition for him. When in 1886 Wiesner undertook the serial publication of the famous “manuscripts” with Aleš’ drawings, a violent attack against Aleš was started. Some declared his drawings childish, others imperfect, others faulty and incorrect. But the young fellows, who usually stone the idols and have no respect for the “old gentlemen”, took up the cudgels for Aleš. The society of Bohemian artists in Munich, whose president was then Alfons M. V. Mucha, and secretary Artuš Scheiner, sent to Aleš on July 10, 1886, a diploma in which they said: “Full of bitterness over the inconsiderate attacks of your enemies, and full of admiration for your art, sympathizing most warmly with your artistic aims we hasten to carry out our previously entertained plan to nominate you for the honorary member of our society.” After ten years, in February, 1896, the “Mánes” society of young progressive artists wrote as foreword of the first of three volumes of the works of Aleš: “We do not publish this collection because Aleš has been the president of the society from its foundation, but because in view of the lack of understanding with which his work meets on many sides, we want to compel by this collection admiration to the spirit, art and labor deposited in his works. This admiration we do not intend to win by long introductions or fulsome praise; his soul and feeling will be appreciated by those who have soul and feeling.”

This was the year after the Ethnographical Exposition which opened the eyes of the public. The riches of folklore collected at the exposition demonstrated clearly what was the real spirit, the pure Czechism of the people’s art—and men saw that it was identical with the art of Aleš. And so his fiftieth birthday in November, 1902, was a veritable national fête day, and no one dared anymore to call himself an opponent of Aleš. Still greater honors were extended to him on his sixtieth birthday in 1912. On that occasion the Bohemian Artists’ Club of Chicago upon my initiative sent the master a gift of one thousand crowns which, as he wrote, came in very handy. Only now the official circles seemed to realize that they ought to make Aleš’ old age free of cares. The city of Prague appointed him inspector of drawing and the state granted him a subvention, but unfortunately Aleš was not destined to enjoy the ease very long. He died July 10, 1913.

His ill fortune compelled Aleš to produce an immense number of things. It is not to be expetced that all of it would be great. But the hand of the master is evident in every little sketch. His daughter Maryna commenced the publication of a collective edition of the works of Aleš; we in America have not yet seen it, as the war has interrupted mail communications. How gigantic were his labors can be best seen from this fact that in February, 1896, seventeen years before his death, the “Mánes” society estimated the number of his drawings at 2,700. Among them are innumerable sgrafita and chiaroscura for buildings, public and private—my former residence in Letná is one of these buildings—lunettes in various banks, cartons for mosaic lunettes in the Royal Bohemian Bank, decoration of the vestibule ceiling in the Old Town City Hall, of the “bar” in the Guests’ House of the City of Prague, etc.; also a number of oil paintings, aquarelles and cartons forming entire cycles, such as the “Five Senses” for Mr. Brandeis in Sukdol, the cycle “Elements” with Indian motifs, property of Countess Bianca Thun, the cycle “Prague”, then a multitude of drawings for books, such as the illustrations to Čelakovsky’s “Echo of Russian Songs”, Quis’ “Honza the Fool”, further the two celebrated Manuscripts, Jirásek’s Psohlavci” (Dogsheads), covers for all of Rais’ novels, etc., as well as illustrations for periodicals and occasional publications of all sorts.

For the “Květy” (Blossoms), edited for many years by Svatopluk Čech, Aleš drew his finest illustrations of the Czech folk songs which form one of the most important parts of his artistic legacy. They were republished by Otto in two small volumes. K. B. Madl says of them: “These drawings will bear comparison with the greatest masters that ever embodied their visions in pictures. And yet they resemble no others. First for their individuality, next for their distinctiveness of line and style, far different from the cold sharpness of Holbein’s “Dance of Death”, from the sentimental hardness of Durer’s engravings, from the picturesque fantasm of Rembrandt, from wild passion of Goya, from impressionist intellectualism of Foraine, from playful wittiness of Gavarni, from Heine’s impertinence, from sacred pathos of Jenewein, from the forked crustiness of Schwaiger, from smooth delightfulness of Mánes. Nothing of that is a part of Aleš; his pictures are his own, although in other ways by the synthesis of material with its artistic transformation he resembles all these great men who translated their fantasy, their passions and loves, their hatreds and dreams into the free realm of art. The pictorial art of Aleš has the simplicity and singlemindedness of our folk songs, their lack of ostentation and polish. His art is sincere."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1944, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 79 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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