Last week saw the opening of a new exhibition at Prague Castle, Růžena: The Story of a Painter, focusing on the life and work of the remarkable early 20th century Czech artist Růžena Zátková, forgotten for years in her homeland. Born to a well-to-do south Bohemian family in 1885, she along with her sister, most unusually for the period was encouraged by her parents to develop talents in the arts, and she pursued these in earnest in both music and painting after the family moved to Prague.
“Růžena Zátková came from a respected south Bohemian family; her mother was a pianist and the whole family wanted her to study music, the arts and languages. That was very unusual and different from the usually education of girls’ then. Růžena studied mostly after the family moved to Prague in 1901 and she studied piano and harmony with Vítezslav Novák and painting at Antonín Slavíček’s private school. Here in Prague she was both a pianist, giving some concerts and even began to exhibit but was not decided what to do.”
Zátková tried to break through onto the Prague scene but was less than successful. Her early painting was traditional and failed to impress.
“Her early work was inspired by the Impressionists and was traditional painting: nothing modern, nothing new.”
The turning point in Zátková’s life and career as an artist really came after her marriage in 1910 to a Russian diplomat based in Rome, who opened up a world of connections. Moving to Italy, Růžena befriended artists in Milan and Rome at the centre of the Futurist movement, including its leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. As a result she has been called the lone Czech Futurist, although the term is less than accurate. Alena Pomajzlová explains:
“In the beginning of the second decade she got to know many of the Futurists including Giacomo Balla, Marinetti, Humberto Boccioni. From them she gained a new outlook on art, abstraction, the use of new materials and the focus on the dynamism and inner energy of objects.”
JV: The Futurists celebrated the modern, the machine, industry…
“That’s true but Růžena Zátková didn’t continue in this direction because she was mostly interested in Nature. She used the Futurists’ dynamism but not as a sign of civilization but of Nature.”
JV: Did this put her at odds with the Italian Futurists or create an interesting ‘dialogue’ between her work and that of others?
“It did. She also met Russian artists in Italy, the circle around Diaghilev, and the Russian ballet. Larionov, Goncharova, and composers Prokofiev and Stravinsky. She learned from there about different approaches and Russian folk art, themes of immobility and stability that contrasted Futurist dynamism. One part was Futurism, one part were decorative aspects of Russian folk art.”
The exhibition on at Prague Castle’s Imperial Stables captures key moments in the artists’ life through letters and photography, as well as original sketches, drawings, abstract paintings, and kinetic works, mostly from private collections in Italy, Great Britain and the US.
Sadly, much of Zátková’s most fascinating work was lost, including a dynamic sculpture called The Pile Driver, which was luckily recreated as a beautiful 3-D copy especially for the Prague exhibition, using the latest in computer technology. It is a piece that captures the frozen rhythm and dynamic of the machine and modern industry so celebrated by the Futurists. Curator Alena Pomajzlová told me more about the copy as well as the original piece:
“She wanted to express the sounds and moving parts of the modern machine. First she made a picture but it wasn’t enough and she decided to construct the object. She used glass, metal, wood and leather and the object was a metre tall. It was very different from her previous artwork and different from work in Bohemia. It was in 1916.
“The materials didn’t last and the sculpture, so we had to make a new copy using new technology. It was done using a computer by Czech sculptor Michal Gabriel.”
“We are standing before a so-called luminous painting made at the beginning of the 1920s. It is another experimental work made from different materials as well. The most important aspect is that it has a kinetic element. A circle here allows you to move parts in the work for optical effect.”
In Italy, Růžena Zátková kept only a few ties with her Czech homeland, and in a different milieu, explored vastly different directions than some of her Czech contemporaries. Sadly, suffering from ill health – battling tuberculosis – she at times had to sidetrack her work in favor of convalescence, although she was happiest when she was working Tragically, after exhibiting successfully in Italy, and ahead of a planned Prague show, she died. Alena Pomajzlová again:
“She died fairly young in 1923 and was largely forgotten as a consequence. She had been preparing exhibits in Prague and Berlin. She always had problems with her health, but put it second when she was at work.”
Paradoxically had Zátková’s Prague exhibition gone ahead at that time, there is a little chance, Mrs Pomajzlová believes, that it would have gone over well’ far greater was the likelihood her work would have been underappreciated or misunderstood.
“For example, her sister wrote her that she couldn’t understand her work and that it wasn’t what she wanted to do. With the orientation in Prague towards Cubism, I don’t think her work would have been well-received here then.”
Růžena: The Story of a Painter offers a fascinating glimpse into the life, aspirations and triumphs of a forgotten artist, a story which Alena Pomajzlová says, unravels like a “good detective mystery” (at least that is how she describes her research over ten years).The show continues at Prague Castle’s Imperial Stables until July 31.
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