Jan Koblasa’s Retrospective

Jan Koblasa’s retrospective in the Riding School at Prague Castle ended at the end of July. After 21 long years we could see a broad range of work of one of the most significant authors who, due to the Russian occupation in 1968, spent most of his life as an emigre. He was almost kicked out of AVU (Academy of Fine Arts in Prague) when he presented a nude as his final project. Fortunately, he was able to graduate and became one of the main representatives of the Prague School (Informel). He later became a professor of sculpture in Kiel, Germany.

The exhibition symbolically took place in the year when Koblasa celebrated his 80th birthday and it displayed his works spanning 60 years of his career. It was divided into three parts that more-or-less divided Koblasa’s work into chronolological-thematic periods: his studies at AVU and the period after, 1960s influenced by Informel, and the period since his emigration to present.

His sculptures from the 1950s were presented together with his drawings from the fifties and sixties in the side hall of the Riding School. We could also see photographs of his big pubic installations in the former Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, Egypt or Guatemala.

A great contrast was visible between Koblasa’s sculptures from the fifties (gently, lyrically, and even melancholically modeled; dominantly focused on women) and his drawings that he made in his free time (very dramatic). His busts (Portrait of Actress K, Portrait of Maria, or A Girl with Fallen Nose) are very gentle and dreamy and it is hard to believe that their author would change to monumentality of content and form in the course of the 1960s.

In his drawings, we can see motifs that will accompany Koblasa through his career and which show the effort to build on Czech modern art. These are Biblical (The Last Ark is Gone, Lost Son), ancient (Hunting Dian, Sword of Damocles) or references to the 19th century (Olympia). He does not avoid eroticism (Helga and her Beasts, Happy Youth) and post/surreal modes. In his drawings it is possible to find foreshadowings of the later, archaically modeled cycles of distinctive figures (Kings, Prophets, Madonnas).

The second part of the exhibition was located in the mezzanine with a view on to the main space of the Riding School. Koblasa’s main works from the sixties were presented here. He was introduced not only as a sculptor but also as a painter. His paintings were as exceptional as his statues. While his paintings were under the influence of Informel, in his sculpting mode, Koblasa stayed faithful to figures.

The tension between his paintings and statues was the focal point of this part of the exhibition. His Informel paintings bring mostly serious themes (Transcendence, Noli Tangere Circulos Meos, What is Up Is Also Down) or dialogue with contemporary literature (Lolita and I – Escape).

Archetypal figures of the Prophets, Kings or Madonnas do not impress us with their size but shine with confidence and nobility of gestures. They connect our European mythology with the archetypal totems of other nations. The artist of the second half of the 20th century changes into a shaman of quaint gods…

Of course Koblasa, co-organizer of the Dadaist cabaret called Malmuzherciáda (1954), friend and colleague of Karel Nepraš, Bedřich Dlouhý, Jaroslav Vožniak from the legendary group called Šmidrové, had to include humor and hyperbole. Thus there is the funny figure of Máňa the Gnome standing next to the Young Man in Full Bloom and he heaviness of Transcendence is balanced by the Red-haired Manikin.

The third and broadest part of the exhibition brought the selection of Koblasa’s work from his emigration. The space of the big hall of the Riding School was divided into smaller parts by diagonally built white walls that gave the space a suitable rhythm and made it possible to show the individual works with an adequate dose of intimacy.

Before entering the main space of the Riding School, visitors had to deal with the sculptural group called Demons. Four infamous dictators of the 20th century lie here side by side wearing big and funny clown-like shoes. As if the author was trying to say that we will all kick the bucket one day. Even those who spread terror and were drunk by their power and thus decided about the destiny of nations will have to face giggles from following generations.

After entering the space, there is no terror waiting. Quite the contrary – there is Eden: Eve, Serpent, Adam from 2001. By its color, this red sculptural group seems to allude to Karel Nepraš’ work. Biblical motifs are one of the important axis of Koblasa’s work. Statues from the cycle called Laments do not only bring traditional themes but also a wonderful dialogue with the history of sculpture.

A rare example of Koblasa’s non-figurative works are Balance I. and Balance III. The contrast of matter and its perfect balance, where only a small thing could leave to its disruption and cause a terrible fall, contained something chilling.

The cycle Sticking out Your Tongue was created at the beginning of Koblasa’s emigration. Together with the Big Barfer it shows the grotesque but rather sad mode of his works from the beginning of the seventies. The Wheelbarrow (En Hommage a Mikuláš Medek) from 1974 is the peak of his work and it was created several days after his friend’s death.

Koblasa’s interpretations of big operas are much lighter. The oldest, Rosenkavalier (1969-70), is followed by Rusalka, La Traviata or Carmen.

Laments and Angels are a series of smaller bronze statues. When looking at Angels, one cannot help but wander how it is possible that these little figures seem so monumental and despite being made of bronze, they seem very light. The heaviness of Laments is on the other side of the space.

Ulysses and his friends are looking at us from a phalanx. One of the oldest stories of our civilization is looking at us cut down to the frightening simplicity of Achaean helmets. Ulysses is connected to the theme of return and it is the theme that accompanies Koblasa as author and person. Like Ulysses, he returns home after more than 20 years.

The Wailing Wall is the dramatic climax of the exposition. A dark sculptural group created in 1973-74 consists of four parts: Meditation, Young Man, Death, Kiss, Singer, Blessed, and Lamentation.

The exposition is ended by the zestful Actors reminiscent of shaman masks. Golden Calf is soaring opposite them. On the side in the corner, there is the Portal (Homage to Matyáš Braun) – a wonderful dialogue with the Czech Baroque tradition.

The exposition in the main space was not organized chronologically or thematically and despite the fact that there were more than one hundred works to see, it did not lose its dynamics.

Koblasa is a special and unjustly unappreciated figure in the Czech art of the second half of the twentieth century. He walked through the fifties with his head held high. After a long wait during the sixties, he used the opportunities that were offered by the gradual cultural liberalization. After August 1968 Koblasa chose the uneasy way of emigration that was rewarded by the possibility of creating freely. Kiel in West Germany was probably not the choice of his heart but a chance that Jan Koblasa received and used well.

Koblasa has to be admired for the sovereignty with which he works with a variety of materials, his openness, and his desire to find the most accurate expression. Despite all his changes and the courage to experiment with materials and media, Koblasa remains a classic sculptor. His statues represent a special kind of statueness – no matter what the material is. His statues are recognizable and cannot be confused with anything else, they are specific, they engage the spectator and confront him with what is supposed to be shown. Koblasa is an extremely accurate sculptor. In many cases, he presents materialization of great ideas or stories and thus continues in the tradition that was started by the old civilization of the Near East.

In the context of post-war Czech sculpture, Koblasa belongs with sculptors such as Karel Nepraš and Aleš Veselý whose works are still waiting to be adequately appreciated. It was extremely interesting to compare Koblasa’s retrospective with the one of his friend Nepraš that is taking place in DOX. Jan Koblasa’s retrospective is definitely one of the best exhibitions this year. Unfortunately, it did not get as much attention from the media as it deserved.

Concept of the exhibition: Jan Koblasa a Radan Wagner
Curator: Radan Wagner
Organizer: Správa pražského hradu
The exhibition took place between April 13 and July 8, 2012

published: 12. 9. 2012