By Anna Pravdova, translated from Czech by Katerina Kyselica | On a spiritual journey for a cogent portrayal of man, Jan Krizek steered towards printmaking as he adapted sculptural principles into a two-dimensional medium. His lithographs and linocuts demonstrate the drive of an artist once active in the Parisian art brut scene.
Jan Krizek (1919–1985) was first and foremost a sculptor. However, various circumstances restricted his ability to work in his chosen medium. Because he only sculpted occasionally, Krizek left behind a rich body of work consisting of drawings, paintings and prints. In the wake of World War II, personal and political factors forced the Czechoslovak-native artist to settle in Paris. It was during the seventh year of his stay in France, as a thirty-five-year-old, that the artist unexpectedly encountered printmaking, a format he briefly embraced while exploring alternative forms of expression and implementing new methods into his drawings and sculptures. Krizek created a distinctive graphic oeuvre that conveys a continuous interest in depicting man, capturing his existence and mapping relations with his surroundings.
Due to political reasons, Jan Krizek was almost unknown in his home country during his lifetime. The only bond he maintained with the art culture there was a profound creative friendship with the painter Vaclav Bostik (1913–2005), the sole person to whom he confided. Krizek mailed descriptive letters laced with deliberations about his work to his counterpart. Their correspondence remains for us today the key to understanding the sculptor’s original artistic stance.
Krizek studied sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In 1946, he participated in a student trip to Paris, and the city enchanted him so much that he immediately traveled back for a three-month visit. He and his wife then ventured to the French capital with the idea of living there for perhaps one year. The 1948 Communist coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia ultimately prevented their return.
In Paris, Krizek created the lion’s share of his oeuvre, albeit in modest conditions. Within the first few months of his stay, Krizek obtained studio access at Spanish sculptor Honorio Condoy’s atelier, which enabled Krizek to work on small-scale sculptures from stones he culled from Parisian building sites and carried on the metro. Condoy brought Krizek’s creations to the attention of theorist Michel Tapie, who worked for Jean Dubuffet at the newly founded Foyer de l’art brut.1 Immediately in November 1947, Tapie included a few of Krizek’s pieces in the very first exhibition of art brut at the Foyer. Krizek’s solo show of sculptures and drawings followed shortly after, accompanied with an exhibition catalog for which Tapie wrote an introduction. Krizek met with an array of notable personalities at the exhibition opening, as he informed Vaclav Bostik in a letter:
At the opening I met with a number of people, the most interesting of them was the painter Dubuffet. He is the person who is the spine of the entire art brut, a painter of P. Klee’s position, a man incredibly educated in theory, painting in the style of children’s drawings . . . . So the opening, attended also by Braque prior to my arrival, was a great success, internal for now, later a great interest from A. Breton came.2
The important art critics, theorists, artists and collectors who praised Krizek’s work included Charles Estienne, Charles Ratton and Pablo Picasso along with the above-mentioned Michel Tapie and Andre Breton.
Despite the success of his first exhibition in Paris, Krizek faced financial difficulties in 1948. He decided to leave with his wife that summer with the idea of moving to the South of France to earn money by selling ceramics. It was not until the mid-1950s that the artist refreshed his Parisian contacts. He sought out Charles Estienne, who supported a circle of artists, and presented his new drawings; Estienne instantly included Krizek in the group and invited him to exhibit his work. Thanks to Toyen, a Czech painter living in Paris, Krizek began to attend meetings of the Parisian Surrealist group and reestablished his relationship with Andre Breton. In 1956, Krizek held a solo exhibition at A l’Etoile scellee, a gallery directed by Breton, presenting mainly sculptures, ceramics and ink drawings. The leaflet for the show featured Krizek’s black-and-white linocut.
Since Krizek resided in a small Parisian maid’s room with his wife, a lack of space hindered the artist’s sculptural capabilities. Nevertheless, he found a different means to work with stone, his favorite material, in lithography. He met Jean Pons, a local painter, typographer and skillful printmaker who operated a lithographic workshop in which numerous key artists printed. Pons permitted Krizek to practice in the space. In addition, Pons had co-founded the October Salon (Salon d’Octobre), the main platform for supporters of lyrical abstraction and tachisme, which first took place in Paris in 1952. Krizek became a member of the October Salon’s executive committee in its second edition—thanks to Estienne—and he encountered a number of prominent figures involved in the Parisian art milieu.
Image: Jan Krizek, Untitled, 1956, linocut, 10 1/8 x 11 inches paper size (25.8 x 27.8 cm), private collection.
Krizek’s graphic oeuvre includes three series (none of them titled): one in lithography, two in linocut. The series of approximately fourteen black-and-white lithographs was created in 1954 in Pons’ workshop. Similar to his sculptures and drawings, the thematic content of these images evolved around a portrayal of man. Although Krizek appeared several times at the very edge of lyrical abstraction, man was always central in his work. The human form would remain recognizable despite the fact that Krizek’s approach to rendering it was markedly distant from a realistic depiction. In fact, he employed a distinctive analysis in his figurative representations, as he wrote to Vaclav Bostik:
Of course, the question of how the figure leaves the plane was stretching out through all this like a red thread, if it really gets out of the plane or from the space into the place, etc. It was necessary to carry on and learn the anatomy of the figure, however not in the old academic way, but in a new, vivid way, where anatomy should be rather called biology.3
The artist channeled his concern with how human beings interacted with their surroundings....
[This article appears in full in the print and digital editions of Celebrating Print, Vol.3, No.2.]
1. Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut in 1945 to refer to the “original, raw” works by self-taught artists, artists-spiritualists, mentally ill individuals and others outside of the official culture. Foyer de l’art brut was founded in 1947 in the basement of Galerie Rene Drouin at Place Vendôme in Paris to present such works.
2. Anna Pravdova, Jan Krizek (1919–1985) “Chez-moi, l’homme ne doit jamais disparaitre” [Jan Krizek (1919–1985) “The human must never disappear”] (Prague: National Gallery in Prague; Limoges: FRAC Limousin, 2015): 66–67. The underlined words are underlined in the original letters.
3. Ibid., 253.
Image top: Jan Krizek, Untitled, 1958, linocut, 6 1/2 x 8 7/8 inches paper size (16.4 x 22.5 cm), edition of 38, private collection.
A full version of this article Jan Krizek Prints as Two-Dimensional Sculptures by Anna Pravdova appears in the print edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.3 No.2.
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ANNA PRAVDOVA is an art historian and curator of the Collection of Modern Art at the National Gallery in Prague. She received a PhD in art history from Charles University in Prague and the University Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne (she was awarded the John Jaffe Prize in France for her dissertation). Pravdova's research focuses on Czech artists living abroad and germane Czech-French relations. She curated a series of pertinent exhibitions, including Caught by the Night: Czechs Artists in France 1938–1945 (2015), Jan Krizek (1919–1985) and the Paris Art Scene in the 1950s (2013) and Jiri Kolar & Beatrice Bizot: Correspondage (2012). As a Fulbright Research Scholar at the Art Institute of Chicago (2015), she researched Czech artists in the US during WWII. Pravdova also authored two recent monographs, including Jan Krizek (1919–1985): Chez moi, l’homme ne doit jamais disparaitre [Jan Krizek (1919–1985): The human must be there] (2015).
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