In the fall of 1932, the House of Art in Moravian Ostrava held Jan Zrzavý's solo exhibition, conceived as a cross-section of his drawing and painting work. The exhibition became an important event. The artist visited Moravian Ostrava, attended the opening, went down the underground mine and was instructed to portray family members of local notables. Moreover, he discovered a new painting theme in Ostrava - black slag heaps in the suburbs, which inspired him to paint impressive pictures, before the mid-thirties and again in the early fifties. Ostrava meant more to him than any other contemporary Czech and Moravian town, except for Prague which he admired, but in accordance with his own words could not paint to his liking. After eighty years, Jan Zrzavý's work returns to Ostrava this year, in a large, internally rhythmic collection of his life's work.
Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977) was one of the most important figures of Czech art in the 20th century. His rich and diverse work experienced two world wars and countless political twists. Between the oldest picture at today's exhibition (Trees, 1907) and the most recent picture (Blue Head, 1974) sixty-seven years had passed. Work by any Czech painter can hardly be introduced in such a large time span without losing its tension, concentration or evolving expression. Even before he painted his first picture, which he considered to be the Valley of Sadness (1907), Zrzavý absorbed amount of stimuli: as an example mentioned, could be the work of the writer Julius Zeyer, addressing him throughout his life, and by the leader of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci. He continued to mention their influence since his youth until middle age when he talked about them in a popular radio show “Jan Zrzavý remembers home, childhood and young years”, published as a book as well. According to him both were outstanding artists, unbeatable role models that he was not only inspired by, but that he also found difficult to cope with. The exhibition focuses on monitoring Jan Zrzavý's coherent and intertwining themes, to which he either approached over decades, or on the contrary, to which he returned after many years, when he thought that he had found the most appropriate way of expressing them. Zrzavý had a different attitude to time than the representatives of modern art and various movements, whether cubism or surrealism. At group exhibitions, his work stood out from the established framework and with individual retrospectives he had extraordinary attention of the public, which in the 1960s, had given him a role of a widely recognized and acclaimed celebrity who aroused devout respect. Jan Zrzavý's work whose artistic legacy is administered by the National Gallery in Prague, includes a number of inner themes that are not only related to identical motives, but above all to the mixed feelings that he often depicted in different ways, and repeatedly emerging types of moods, interpreted with similar compositional approaches. From Jan Zrzavý's work not only do faces, parables, longings and lust emerge in front of the viewers, but also high artistic ideals expressed with relation to poetry and ancient culture. The variability of his attitude can be observed in his relationship with a landscape, interpreted as a place that may not have anything to do with nature.
The layout of the monographic exhibition results from the nature of Zrzavý's work, a conception of a man and a place. From the earliest to the final period, a theme of faces can be observed, representing the author's major encounter with himself on early Self-portraits (1908), dated back to the first years of his painting experiences, and also on the latter Self-portraits (1964-1965), that he drew when he was seventy-five. A face for Zrzavý was also an encounter with someone who he wanted to be around, whether it was Christ (he was even embodied several times in the Ecce homo theme), or Julius Zeyer, whose religious portraits he was engaged in around the year 1950. Zrzavý soon enough detected in himself a fundamental feeling that he could draw inspiration from and that he called melancholy. He depicted it for the first time on the pastel Valley of sadness (1907), which he considered as his initial artwork, foreshadowing his entire work. Under the concept of Melancholia the whole Zrzavý's work is often summarized. In such a broad scope, the picture Melancholia II (1919) and Spring (1924-1929) can be connected with pictures directly inspired by the Munich events (Victim, 1938, Refugees, 1938). Melancholy penetrates Zrzavý's works of the 1960s and 1970s, when he was occupied with heads of angels, which cannot be precieved to belong to a man or to a woman (Blue head, 1974). Zrzavý had a close relationship with the Bible. Allegories generalized to popular themes related to humility, help to a fellow man and mercy were of great importance to him. He was attracted to the relationship between Christ and John, to which he devoted several paintings. From the Abraham's Guests (1911-1912), Magdalena Penitent (1914) and the Merciful Samaritan (1914-1915), there is a link to the Pilgrims to Emmaus (1942) and to the Annunciation (1957), the two most significant works based on early drawings made before World War I.
From the very beginning, Zrzavý moved between semantic polarities. Together with quietning and meditation, an opposite position appeared in his work, depicting loose sexuality and unbridled pleasure as suggests not only Lovers (Obsession, 1915), but especially Cleopatra, where pleasure combines with death, and unusually sexually relaxed illustrations to Shakespeare's Sonnets from the first half of the 1950s. The Cleopatra theme aroused such acclaim, that it became Zrzavý's most significant work. From the art idols, the worshiping of Leonardo cannot be ignored and is represented at the exhibition by distinctive interpretations of St. John the Baptist (1923-1926) and Mona Lisa (1946-1952). Zrzavý had a strong attitude towards literature. He was able to visualize the internal dimensions of stories in a manner often congenial with the literary template, as confirms the artwork to Máj by Karel Hynek Mácha (1924) and to Kytice by Karel Jaromír Erben (1926-1927). Zrzavý's book illustrations from the second half of the 1950s to works by Julius Zeyer (Dům U tonoucí hvězdy, 1957; Světla Východu, 1958) and also to the electrifying Mácha's prose Pouť krkonošská (1959) maintain very high standards.
The main axis of Zrzavý's work was for a long time determined by his relationship with a place – from fantasy landscapes through the Czech-Moravian Highlands (Krucemburk, 1920, Vadínská pazderna, 1920) to two areas that were closest to him: Brittany and Venice. Besides completely abandoned places in an isolated part of Brittany and highly cultural St. Mark's Square in Venice, Zrzavý had a sense for industrial suburbs of Moravian Ostrava (1933), or on the contrary for the ruins of the tombstones on Via Appia (1934). Greece became to him the last important place that he had occasionally referred to earlier but also something he really focused on after his first visit to Greece in 1966. His drawings got penetrated with impulses from ancient Greek art of sculpture, and by a unique place that was also admired by Martin Heidegger in the early sixties: Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. At the end of his artistic career and his life, Zrzavý returned to the origins of European culture, which he always wanted to get know instantly.
The co-organizer of the exhibition is the National Gallery in Prague.
Exhibition Concept: Lenka Bydžovská, Vojtěch Lahoda, Zuzana Novotná, Karel Srp
Texts: Lenka Bydžovská, Vojtěch Lahoda, Zuzana Novotná, Karel Srp
Architectural design: Tomáš Svoboda
Graphic design: Jan Havel, Belavenir Design Studio
Realization: Petr Beránek, Zdeněk Fedák, Ctirad Janečka, Jiří Jůza, Jan Kudrna, Josef Mladějovský, Gabriela Pelikánová, Vladimír Šulc
Promotion: Ian Derson Advertising, Jana Šrubařová
Tour of exhibition: Petr Beránek, Jan Kudrna, Gabriela Pelikánová
Educational programmes: Zuzana Jasanová, Marcela Pelikánová
Translation: Anna Strnadová
Thanks go to all institutions and private collectors who participate in the exhibition:
1. Art Consulting Brno – Praha, Aleš South Bohemian Gallery in Hluboká nad Vltavou, City Gallery Prague, Gallery Kodl, Gallery Maldoror, Gallery of Modern Art in Hradec Králové, Gallery of Modern Art Roudnice nad Labem, Central Bohemian Gallery,Gallery of Fine Arts in Karlovy vary, Gallery of Vysočina in Jihlava, Gallery of Fine Art in Havlíčkův Brod, Gallery of Fine Arts in Cheb, Zlatá husa Gallery, Regional Gallery of Fine Art in Zlín, Town Museum and Gallery Vodňany, Miroslav Korecký, obchod s uměním v Praze, Olomouc Museum of Art, National Gallery in Prague,National Heritage Institute České Budějovice, Regional Art Gallery in Liberec, Regional Art Gallery Vysočina in Jihlava, Prinz Prager Gallery, North Bohemian Gallery of Fine Art in Litoměřice, East-Bohemian Gallery in Pardubice, West-Bohemian Gallery in Plzeň and private collectors