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For Dusan Kallay, Everything Relates to Everything Else

By Katerina Kyselica | For over forty years, the sought-after illustrator of children’s books Dusan Kallay has managed to spark the imagination of hundreds of thousands of young readers. His publishing record, which incorporates over 200 titles, includes the world’s best Alice in Wonderland, as awarded by the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. Illustrating books is not just a job for Mr. Kallay; it is more of an internal journey replete with discoveries that directly influence his prints.

Slovak printmaker Dusan Kallay at his home in Bratislava. Photograph by Katerina Kyselica

Slovak printmaker Dusan Kallay at his home in Bratislava, Slovakia. Photograph by Katerina Kyselica

A prolific printmaker and draftsman, Mr. Kallay has cultivated an intimate understanding of every traditional printmaking technique’s specific properties, including their methods, processes and means of expression. The artist’s technical knowledge has provided him with various opportunities to create unique, imaginary worlds reflecting the complexities of life and depth of the human soul.

When I visited Mr. Kallay in Bratislava, I found myself in a quiet residential area on the outskirts of the city, pausing in front of a two-story family home. Standing there evoked facing a gate to a house of secrets. I envisioned all of the labyrinths, towers, mysterious creatures and mechanical organisms that inhabit the artist’s prints, and of course, Alice. Nonetheless, I stepped into warm interior spaces full of morning sun complemented by the good-hearted smile on my host’s face. For a few precious hours, he guided me through an extensive archive of works, ranging from student pieces that he created under the tutelage of Vincent Hloznik up through his most recent experiments with screen printing. Prints make up the majority of his massive collection that also encompasses drawings, paintings and books. We talked about printmaking craft, drawing, illustration and literature, simply because for Mr. Kallay, “everything relates to everything else.”

As an artist completely immersed in printmaking, because you’ve been also teaching printmaking and illustration for over twenty-five years, when did it all begin for you? I actually didn’t want to be a printmaker. My grandfather was a painter. He was a priest, but he painted as a hobby; it was sort of naïve art. As a child, I used to love going into his room to play with his oil paints. I went to an art school where I painted, and continued to pursue the medium in college. After a two-year preparatory program at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, I joined Jan Zelibsky’s atelier to study figurative composition and landscape. However, during the third year in the program I started itching; I sought to do something else. I decided to ask Vincent Hloznik, who was the head of the Department of Printmaking and Book Illustration, to accept me into his program, which he did, for a trial period. Printmaking immediately enchanted me. I used to lug lithographic stones into the painting studio to work on them. That was quite a weight to carry! Later, Hloznik allowed me to enroll into the regular program under the condition that I would complete the entire thesis and all related projects that he required. I graduated with two majors, painting and printmaking.

What did you find interesting about printmaking, as a painter? Printmaking’s attractiveness lies in the process, the making, which lives its own life with its own rules. You can draw anything on the plate but the end result depends on how the plate is etched, how it’s printed. Only when you make the print will you find out if you proceeded correctly. The manual craft occurs in the very beginning; printmaking then travels into the dimension of technical specificities, which distinguishes the medium from painting. When you’re standing in front of an easel, painting, you have to paint. There is nobody or nothing that can replace you. It’s “a la prima,” so to speak—I’m referring to how you think about what you’re doing. That’s what is different. In printmaking, the making of the print is affected by other factors. I became fascinated with the techniques and kept exploring each of them, switching them often for my work. The first one I exploited was lithography. Frantisek Malina, a technician at the Academy, constantly recycled old matrices. He provided the students on a trial period with old plates to draw on the back side. I absolutely loved it. I used the matrices frequently and made many small prints. My devotion to printmaking and inspiration to learn of all the different methods began this way.

As a student, I traveled to Paris and fell in love with the city. I also discovered Francois Villon. This profound experience inspired my master thesis, which was a book—in the form of what we call “bibliophilia,” or livre d’artiste—entitled Grand Testament in 1970. I applied a number of techniques to construct the project: linocut, drypoint, etching, scraped lithography and even a little bit of painting. Scraped lithography belongs among my favorite methods.

What exactly is scraped lithography? You cover a lithographic stone with a layer of asphalt and draw into the surface using anything sharp like a pin or razorblade. This fantastic technique offers a great range of tonal values. It produces a reverse print, like mezzotint, but with a completely different quality result.

I view the Grand Testament piece more as an artist’s book, as a conceptual space for your own formal and material interrogations, rather than a traditional livre d’artiste with the standard alteration of text and image. Yes, it’s more of an artist’s book inspired by Francois Villon, my visit to Paris and that period of my life. The work also includes wood reliefs—woodcuts in a way, I just never printed them; the blocks became the cover of the book, remaining in the sculptural form.

When we discussed the state of contemporary Slovak printmaking and experimenting, you didn’t seem much in favor of conceptual approaches. Yet you do experiment, and this book from 1970 shows an early example! For instance, you chose not to print off of something that could have functioned as a matrix. Instead, you used this incised wood block as a book cover, an enclosure. Exactly. Experimentation is incredibly important for printmaking. When working on the Grand Testament, I explored the role of text in a book. I wanted the typography to refer to the historic method of carving texts into wood and then printing them, the way it was done before the introduction of the Gutenberg press. Linoleum was my choice of material for inscribing the text. Plus, I wasn’t that interested in following Villon’s original writings word by word. I rather filled the pages with selections from his oeuvre along with other Latin texts and some of my personal correspondence. I combined all of the words into a continuous flow without dividing sections into chapters in a conventional sense. I was looking for a challenge: to create a single book using several seemingly disparate techniques that share a common denominator.

Do you mean the theme as the common denominator? The theme, but also the method of carving and drawing, as it’s something that connects those prints. In Slovakia, the books for bibliophilia were traditionally made with woodcut or etching. Even today there is a belief that this custom should be observed. I, on the other hand, thought back then, why should there only be one way? So, I worked with all of those techniques for one book. And I discovered among the techniques a sort of parallel expression, despite their differences. It may not appear obvious at first, but when you look at this book’s prints up close, you will notice lines in the linocuts, lithographs and etchings that reveal similar characteristics.

I would like to return to our discussion about experimentation. Do you think that there is a limit to experimenting? That going beyond a certain threshold is pointless and a waste of energy? How do you see contemporary printmaking, not only as an artist but also as an educator? That’s a difficult question that would require more detailed analysis. As I mentioned, experimentation is the essence of printmaking. Every new work is an experiment, not only because the result depends on the idea itself, but also that it is born from the realization that you must give each endeavor everything it requires. The same goes for the new media that more recently entered printmaking and significantly changed its possibilities, affecting the medium in both positive and negative ways. New media did lead to discoveries of innovative methods, which have undoubtedly expanded our horizons—for instance, transitioning from the typical small print size to large-format works or interdisciplinary crossovers. Naturally, the understanding of new media places its own limits on the applications that dictate the final quality (although, today, works are valued more for their concept and novelty). Often, however, the command of new media becomes a prerequisite for a better evaluation of the work because the technology is progressive and modern. The value of its knowledge doesn’t necessarily matter though. Then, it’s also a question of fashion since contemporary society seeks new trends.

Dusan Kallay, Scales, 1994, screen print

Image: Dusan Kallay, Scales, 1994, screen print, 11 7/8 x 8 5/8 inches image size (30 x 22 cm), 19 5/8 x 15 inches paper size (50 x 38 cm), edition of 22, printed by Jan Kvasnica, photograph by Juraj Kralik.

And the negative impact? Even in school we regularly noticed incorrect identifications of prints in catalogs, in which drypoint was mislabeled for etching, woodcut for wood engraving. Such mistakes were due to lack of knowledge. Most printmaking techniques can be “read” in the prints. It’s exactly the process, the way print is created, that I consider a riveting performance. Today, the term “print” is misused. It has become a label for anything, even for works that aren’t prints. A drawing made on a tablet raises the question of whether it’s a drawing or print. On the other hand, some art disciplines are disappearing. Finding wood or carving tools suitable for wood engraving, a challenging technique, is not an easy task.

But, then, why should you go through these efforts to prepare a plate or printing inks if you can simulate the technique on a computer with such bravura that it puzzles experts over whether the work is created manually or digitally? Yet I’m not skeptical at all! Printmaking is moving forward. There are many young artists dedicated to exploring printmaking, both in traditional and digital media, and they are successful.

When did you discover literature? During the mentioned trip to France, in 1969. Paris is a fascinating place. They say, “Touch one stone and you can feel Villon. Touch another one and you can feel Rabelais.” The city’s unique history truly emanates. I remember walking around, painting on a bridge, making pastels—I didn’t make much by selling them, but I was in Paris. [laughs] What I sold paid for the two weeks I spent there.

Villon connected me to the ship of fools—a moralizing medieval allegory about, among other topics, why we do things that we don’t have to do. To some extent, the literary work linked to my explorations of Villon, even though he embodies of the opposite of its concept. But some parallel exists. That is what has always captivated me about literature; it’s not about reading upon what the author wrote but drawing what is hidden in the text, in between the lines. That interest has remained with me.

I can relate to two or three authors, like Francois Villon or Sebastian Brant. Some books stay with you for a lifetime. Through the process of illustrating books, I discovered many literary works and matters, like those by Lewis Carroll. That’s a man whom I love, in a way. Literature can put me into a state where I am standing with an open mouth and just staring.

In traditional printmaking, artists typically prepare drawings that they transfer onto the matrix, using one of the transfer methods. What do your preparatory drawings look like? I don’t make preparatory drawings for my prints. No sketches, nothing. I sit down and begin drawing on the plate. The plate is like a notebook for me. I draw directly on it. There may be a bit of inspiration at the very beginning of the process. For instance, a part of Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent inspired my scraped lithograph Homage to Pieter Brueghel, which acts more like a paraphrase based on the original. The painting features two figures, among many, in the foreground, one being Carnival impersonated by a large, fat man riding a beer barrel, close to a thin figure sitting on a cart, garbed like a nun, who carries fish. But I usually don’t start with any purpose or concept. Look at the work Great Misery; it’s basically a mountain of threads, strings and cords standing in space. If one were to blow at it or pull out one of the strings, its entire form would collapse. I simply began drawing on the plate. When you start drawing and continue for six months, you gradually figure out what you’re creating, step by step. And you find the form. For relief works, I draw directly on linoleum or wood and follow with carving. But in this case the initial drawing is always richer; by carving out the material I reduce the complexity of the drawing. Linocut is fantastic.

Do you make corrections on the plate? No, or very sparingly. There is really no room for corrections in my work.

Dusan Kallay, Homage to Peter Brueghel, 2011, scraped lithograph

Image: Dusan Kallay, Homage to Pieter Brueghel, 2011, scraped lithograph, 20 1/8 x 15 3/8 inches image size (51 x 39 cm), 25 x 18 7/8 inches paper size (63.5 x 48 cm), edition of 50, printed by Alex Krascenic and the artist, photograph by Pavel Kastl.

Text often appears in your etchings, as if you etch directions for viewers’ use. Text has always been part of my prints, particularly etchings. Language coincides with my understanding of etching—the process of making etchings and working with the matrix—because an etching cannot be created in one day. Etching, or more precisely the metal matrix on which I draw and later etch, acts like a notebook that invites me to keep writing, even though my idea may change tomorrow. One time, after I was working on a matrix for months, I decided to turn the surface upside down and draw on it from that perspective. The transition proved fruitful.

Do you consider yourself a painter, draftsman or printmaker? The truth is that I haven’t parted with any of the media. For me, they all work together. I’ll give you an example: after I received the commission to illustrate Alice in Wonderland, I came across a section of the book in which Carroll describes birds in the presence of Alice, who is sitting on a small stool. This theme and situation caused me to envision a flock of wild birds attempting to foster paradise through the simple act of sticking together, tightly wedged next to one another. The imagery acts not only as a paraphrase of Alice but also as an independent theme that I further developed, like in the etching Paradise of Wild Birds.

[This article appears in full in the print and digital editions of Celebrating Print, Vol.3, No.1.]


The article For Dusan Kallay, Everything Relates to Everything Else by Katerina Kyselica appears in the print and digital edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.3 No. 1, published in April 2017.

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DUSAN KALLAY (b. 1948 in Bratislava, Slovakia) is a painter, printmaker and illustrator. He received Master’s Degrees in painting and printmaking from the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava (1972). Kallay’s works have been exhibited in various international venues. A few of his many awards include Grand Prix at the international Biennial of Illustration Bratislava (1983), the Hans Christian Andersen Award for his lifelong achievement in illustration (1988), the UNICEF Award for the illustration of Zaubertopf und Zauberkugel by H. R. Unger (1988) and the Grand Prize at the exhibition Alice150 for his illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, granted by the Lewis Carroll Society of North America (2015). Kallay’s fine art prints are in numerous public collections, including Kunsthalle Nuremberg (Germany), the National Gallery in Prague (Czech Republic), the Picture Book Forest Museum in Karuizava (Japan), the University of Alberta in Edmonton (Canada) and the Tuscon Museum of Art (US). Dusan Kallay has been a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava since 1994, teaching printmaking and book illustration.


KATERINA KYSELICA is a visual artist, designer, curator and lecturer. She received a BFA from VCU School of the Arts in Virginia and a Master’s Degree from Charles University in Prague. Her prints and works on paper, represented in private collections, have been exhibited in solo and group shows in New York, Paris and the Czech Republic. She organized and curated the Celebrating Print Exhibition (2013–2015), a survey of contemporary prints from Central and Eastern Europe. Kyselica’s articles on art, printmaking and design have appeared in, Design Magazin, MF DNES, Celebrating Print and the Journal of the Print World.

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