Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"International Grafik," 1969-1980: Graphic art, unafraid, behind the iron curtain

“If you have talent and a need to express yourself, you live unafraid.”
(a Czech citizen who lived in Prague during the Communist Era.)

This is one of those holiday season weekends where I let the shoppers rush home with their treasures -- and without me in their crush. It was a brilliant 70-degree afternoon, and summer-like.

I spent a lazy day with doors and windows open, talking to family and friends, writing Christmas cards (seasonal duty shall not be overlooked), listening to Cistercian monks chanting "music for contemplation" on the hi-fi, and following my muse's nose into some internet links previously unknown to me. These are (admittedly) legion, but then free time and a liberal arts education has its benefits.

Here, for example, is a 2010 offering from Bohemian Ink, a site that offers a look at eastern European art and graphics. Its tagline, Budapest, Burbank and beyond, indicates the blog's broad look at the original Bohemian culture as curated by Jessica Taylor Tudzin, an American writer now living in Budapest, Hungary.

In the Bohemian Ink entry Tudzin writes: "Neil Philip, a British-based writer who also runs the online original print gallery Idbury Prints ... has graciously given Bohemian Ink permission to reprint his fascinating post on Czech graphics of the 1970s. I can only just imagine the times these featured artists endured as they bravely created their art."

Included in the post is a selection of reproductions from International Grafik magazine and its thirty issues dating from 1969; the final press run was in 1980, and was devoted entirely to works by Miraslav Matous. Read the entire post here. An excerpt:

In the 1970s I remember a great deal of interest in the West in writers behind the Iron Curtain, but almost none in artists. It was just assumed that all artists in the Eastern Bloc were producing soulless socialist realism or figurative kitsch. So it has been fascinating for me to acquire work by what seems a representative sample of Czech printmakers from that decade, all published in the Danish art revue International Grafik, edited between 1969 and 1980 by Helmer Fogedgaard and Klaus Rödel.International Grafik was an altruistic labour of love.

It published almost exclusively woodcuts, wood engravings, and linocuts, printed from the original blocks or plates, in a numbered edition of 1000 copies. No doubt many important artists are unrepresented in its pages, especially those who specialized in etching and engraving, but there are enough artists here to at least get a flavour of the currents of Czech art at this time. All of the Czech artists contributing to International Grafik were doing so from inside the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.

The first surprise is that in the decade after the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, Czech artists were not retreating into safe figurative images on socialist themes, but were instead diving headfirst into experiment and abstraction. These are not cowed voices, but confident and progressive ones.

Maybe in the period of “normalization” that followed the overthrow of Alexander Dubček’s reformist government there were too many other people to police, and the graphic artists somehow operated under the radar of government surveillance. I’d be very interested to hear from anyone with memories of the cultural atmosphere of this time.

(Jaroslav Vodrázka, 1973)

Graphic artist Jaroslav Vodrázka was born in Prague in 1894. He studied at the School of Applied Art, and then at the Academy of Visual Arts under Max Svabinsky. Jaroslav Vodrázka himself became a professor of graphics. He produced wood engravings, linocuts, etchings, engravings, and lithographs, and was always interested in exploring new printmaking techniques, using materials such as plastic and plexiglass. Although he lived until 1984, Vodrázka remained rooted in figurative art, creating images of peasants, landscapes, and religious scenes.

(Joseph Weiser, 1971)

... The graphic artist, art teacher, and art theorist Josef Weiser was born in Switzerland in 1914, but moved with his parents to Moravia during WWI. In 1933 he became a teacher, and from 1950-1958 was a professor of art education in the teacher training college in Olomouc. Subsequently he became head of art teaching at the institute of advanced education for teachers in Olomouc. Besides his original graphics, Josef Weiser is also known for his bookplates. Weiser, too, remained a figurative artist; in the linocuts published by International Grafik, the predominant motif is that of a rather idealised young woman. He died in 1994.

(Miroslav Matous, 1980)

... Lastly, Miroslav Matous was born in Zdárky in eastern Bohemia in 1920. Known as painter, printmaker, tapestry designer and architect, Miroslav Matous attended the Mánes School for painting, studying under Vladimír Sychra. As a printmaker, Miroslav Matous is known for lithographs, drypoints, etchings, linocuts, and woodcuts. From the evidence of these prints, the 1960s had definitely arrived in Czechoslovakia by 1980!

Tudzin adds this note: Among Neil Philip’s books are Mythology (with Philip Wilkinson), English Folktales, The Cinderella Story, Victorian Village Life, and The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse. He has also published two collections of original poetry, Holding the World Together and The Cardinal Directions. All text and photographs on this post are copyright © Neil Philip. Copyright in the artworks remains with the artists or their estates. Read more from Neil Philip on his blog,Adventures in the Print Trade.

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