Josef Čapek: The Humblest Art
Exhibition Halls of the Municipal House, náměstí Republiky 5, Prague 1
3rd December 2003 -- 29th February 2004
The exhibition, organised by the Municipal House for the end of the year 2003, borrows its title from the short book of essays by Josef Čapek, published in 1920 by the Aventinum publishing house. This modest but inspiring volume is an admiring exploration of the so-called low or popular forms of art, like painted shop-signs, illustrations to cheap adventure books and old portrait photographs. It also introduces new and emergent art forms, such as documentary photography and film. Čapek's choice of subject here has provided both the name and the underlying conception of this exhibition. Rather than being a retrospective of Josef Čapek as a representative of the avant-garde in Bohemia, this is a thematic exhibition focusing on the segment of Čapek's work directly related to The Humblest Art, i.e. the decade between 1914 and 1924. By presenting his ideas on marginal forms of art as a critic and theorist, his own paintings and drawings and a sample of works by untrained producers of low art from the nineteenth century, the exhibition opens up a space for a new interpretation of this particular area of Čapek'soutput as an artist. Furthermore, it is an invitation to a more universal reflection on the relationship between `high' and `low' art, the way their mutual interpenetration and influence has shifted the borders of traditional notions of what an artwork should or could be, and maybe even Duchamp's radical step beyond such borders. The interest of the period in the artistic `periphery', the work of unschooled producers, objects and paintings from primitive cultures, children's art and the work of the mentally ill, was not just a sign of a quest for authenticity of expression, the roots of creation and the `lost centre'. It also related to the wider issue of a transformed perception and under standing of art and its essence.
Čapek likewise takes us to the periphery, undervalued and untouched by theoretical scrutiny, yet encouraging a new awareness of forms of art other than those we encounter in galleries and museums. This transformed view may help us appreciate modern art in a new context, and also reach a better understanding of the collection of Čapek's works presented here, in which banal, mundane reality, inspired in particular by the `humblest' art, plays a significant role.
To reflect this particular approach,the exhibition presents Čapek's works in two phases. The first is defined by the period from around 1914 to 1917 and focuses on Čapek's principle of assembly, whereby he composed the human figure from the simplest elements as if it were a jigsaw or a building-set, completing it with a banal element, a naively formed fragment. This resulted in a challenging combination of the reduced geometrical sign with the concrete detail, a brief instant of reality, memory or imagination. The exhibition juxtaposes this period of Čapek's work with old photographs.
The second section of the exhibition presents Čapek's work with special regard to his Primitivism, with its tendecy to the naive, where the inspiration drawn from the `humblest art' is far more open. This phase is in line with the more general trend in twentieth-century art towards simplicity, plainness and the everyday. Apparent banality may, however, lead us to the magical expression of things, to their everyday sanctity and mystery. Apart from a selection of works of unschooled art from the nineteenth century, the exhibition points up comparisons with twentieth-century Czech painting (Štyrský, Wachsman, Muzika, etc.) and with the later Surrealism.
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