Saturday, 27 March 2010

Josef Capek - and I am sorry!

Cemeteries, Josef Capek and big mouths

I have established that I love art, and books and a lot of other things. I also like cemeteries. Not all, but give me an old cemetery, with history, and I can spend hours there. One of my favourite cemeteries is Slavin in Prague. It is here where Dvorak, Smetana, Mucha and many other famous Czechs are buried, and I think it is the ultimate tribute for a personality to be one of the few ones to be buried there. I love just spending time there, walking around and thinking about the lives of those whose graves I am visiting.

And yet, one of my most shameful memories comes from here. When I was 17 or so, I walked around with two friends of mine and came upon a grave which read "Here, Josef Capek would be buried". Of course, to the unknowing, this offers a lot of questions, and I asked them, probably slightly annoyed, as I did not understand. And I had the biggest set-down in my life, as an old lady passing by told me, that Josef Capek died in a concentration camp and did I not know that. The thing is, I am Czech and I speak Czech, but I am not grown up in Czech Republic, so even if I knew Josef Capek, I really did not know this. Many years, later, it is still one of the top shame incidents in my life and I still feel guilty, for not knowing and being loud and ignorant about it.

Josef and his brother Karel were the Czech intellectual elite before the WWII. Karel was the author, Josef painter. Together they wrote plays, that range between deep and profound to funny. In one of them, RUR, they "discovered" the word robot in one of their plays. (robota is labour in Czech) What signifies both brothers, is the apparant simplicity of their work, the clarity of their vision and their deep humanity. Karel´s play The Mother, about a mother who looses three sons in the war and in the end urges her forth one to go to war as well as she sees that what they are fighting has got to be defeated, is one of the strongest I have ever seen. His White Disease, that depicts the growth of a fanatic society foreboded the war before politicians were speaking about "Pease for our time". Josef did not fight with words, but with art. Karel was lucky, and died before the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Josef was one of the first people to be arrested by Gestapo. He spent six years in different concentration camps. He died, it is presumed, in Bergen-Belsen days before or after liberation. His body was never identified. I hope that he knew that the war was coming to an end. I think that would have made all the difference to him.

This Christmas, there was a big exhibition of his work at the Prague Castle. Josef´s art went through many transformations, but it is so clear that he stayed true to him self, and this makes the strength and fibre in his art. Unfortunately, I am not able to find the painting that caught my eye the most on the internet, but it was a very simple painting of a little girl with a red cup. I stood in front of her a long time, and many many people passed us. And every single one smiled when they looked at the girl. Such was the power of Josef´s art.

Art making history- but no story

John Singer Sargent is one of the most famous American artists of fine de siecle and one of the most famous portraitists ever. And this portrait, of Gertrude Vernon, or Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, was his big break. I "met" Lady Agnew in the National Gallery of Scotland of Edinburgh, where she resides, and I have never forgotten her.
Of course, it is a beautiful portrait, where the colours and shapes .. work. And I do love the way I can sense the softness of the fabrics, and the luxuriosness of silk. But, what makes this an outstanding portrait for me is the personality that shows. There is pride and confidence, but I also see humour and this definitely is not a boring person, there is a lot of character. I would wage that there is a story behind this painting and that the woman in it could not have lived an ordinary life. But, from the depth of www, her claim to fame, in life and a century later - is this portrait. And come to think of it- that is not bad in terms of legacy.