The ‘breaking point’ of the exhibition’s title is the boundary between two creative phases in the career of the sculptor Otto Gutfreund, one of the most talented representatives of Czech modernism. In his pre-war works, Gutfreund applied methods of Cubist painting to sculpture – an inherently challenging task. A cubist painting lays bare the fact that anything we observe can only be seen within the bounds of our restricted physical (optical) abilities – we can never see it in its entirety. There is no single empirically knowable truth about the world. This is why Cubist painting presents us with images depicting an object or face viewed from various angles simultaneously, combined into a single compositional entity. Cubism represented a radical break with the centuries-old Renaissance tradition of mimesis, and with the artistic use of linear perspective and illusive three-dimensionality. The illusive nature of painting (as an imitation of its subject) was replaced by an autonomous aesthetic which worked with representations of surfaces, simultaneity and stylized (internalized) interpretations of the subjects depicted. These innovations were developed primarily in painting, and transferring them into the medium of sculpture was a highly complicated problem, for one simple reason: by its very nature, sculpture is three-dimensional.
When seeking to create cubist sculpture, Gutfreund drew his inspiration from previous sculptural approaches to surface representation, such as Donatello’s late works. Above all, his approach centred on the use of relief – a concept rooted in techniques which enable the sculptor to make the surface reflect material, composition and narrative, which are mutually combined in close, compact interrelations between volumes. Gutfreund went even further than this, paradoxically incorporating the principles of relief-based determination into the volume of his sculptures – or rather, creating the illusion of volume by applying the notion that “volume is the result of surface motion”.
These analytical approaches to creating a new Cubist sculptural form contrast starkly with Gutfreund’s post-war civilism. The ‘breaking point’ came with the sculptor’s traumatic experiences during the First World War, which caused him to radically re-evaluate his artistic direction and embrace civilist ideals. He came to oppose what he now saw as the anachronism of formal analyses of sculpture as a tool in intellectual artists’ struggle for a new form of communication. Gutfreund felt a duty to become involved in building the new post-war Czechoslovak republic. He longed to communicate, to convey a poetic and civilist message – though without slipping into banal descriptivism. His portrait heads, busts and figural compositions evolved into sophisticated stylized forms. His post-war civilism represented a radical departure from his pre-war Cubist work. Its characteristic features include compact volumes, cultivated refinement, objectivity, and a calm sculptural language which eschews intense emotionality. His sculptures were imbued with an expressive potential that transcended the merely personal, often with an almost Egyptian magnificence and grand sculpturality.
The aim of this exhibition is to contrast these two highly personal yet starkly different phases in Gutfreund’s career. We can trace his work up to and beyond the ‘breaking point’, experiencing the various manifestations of these two phrases – his route to Cubism, and his post-war civilism – as expressed in forms, dynamics, and content.