The melancholic genius of Alen Divis


Prague Rudolfinum Galery last week opened an exhibition of a very remarkable, though almost unknown Czech artist - Alen Divis. He is a significant artistic figure from the first half of 20th century, who was researched very little up until today. The exhibition at the Rudolfinum presents his work for the first time, and gives an overview of his life.

Alen Divis was born at the turn of the century in 1900. His life as an unrecognized artist was difficult and often sad. As one of the exhibition curators Tomas Pospiszyl says, Divis's Art has only been rediscovered as late as the 1980s.

"He became a sort of mythological figure in Czech modern art. He was known as an artist that was forgotten and then sort of miraculously rediscovered. He was someone who was very secretive, whose art was very dark. He was more a figure coming from a romantic literature than from life. So the reason for this exhibition was to correct this myth and to show who Alen Divis really was."

Can you compare the art of Alen Divis to some of the artists of his era or mention some artists he got inspired by?

"I can not do that. Simply because Alen Divis was a type of artist, who did not draw his inspiration from other artists, but he was rather searching for an inspiration inside himself."

The exhibition shows not only Alen Divis's artworks, but there are also lots of documents depicting his living conditions. The exhibition starts at the very beginning - his childhood, to the period he spent in Paris, New York, and back at home in Czechoslovakia after the war, and in the 1950's.

I asked both the exhibition curators Tomas Pospiszyl and Vanda Skalova to guide me through the gallery and tell me a little more about the interconnections between Divis's life and work.

Now we are standing in front of one of the first exhibits. It looks like a trunk. What is it actually?

Vanda Skalova:

"In 1947 Alen Divis came with this big suitcase from the United States. He came back with two big suitcases, full of pictures and drawings. A large part of the exhibition actually traveled in this very suitcase."

Alen Divis spent most of his life abroad. Like many Czech artists in the 1920's, he also decided to move to Paris and start his artistic career there. But his stay in France was not just an easy-going, bohemian life. He got accidentally involved in politics and spent two years imprisoned. At the very beginning of the war in 1939 Alen Divis formed with his friends, who fled from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia, an institution called "The House of Czechoslovak Culture". But as Tomas Pospiszyl points out the institution did not last long.

"The 'House of Czechoslovak Culture' existed for less than a month. At the outbreak of the Second World War the whole house was surrounded by police and everyone who was inside was arrested. The reason for this was very simple; those Czechoslovak intellectuals were the only ones in Paris and maybe in France that actually celebrated the beginning of the war. Because for them it meant that world politics were finally moving. They hoped that the beginning of the war would mean that Czechoslovakia would be freed and German Nazis driven out of Czechoslovakia."

Lenka Reinerova, who is currently the only living Czech writer in German language - at the time a very young woman - was also among the artists in "The House of Czechoslovak culture".

"One morning they came and we were just at the table, having breakfast, when they took us all. As a matter of fact we didn't know why they came for us. Practically, the real reason isn't known until today."

Alen Divis was arrested and put in one of the toughest French prisons - La Sante. Its harsh conditions influenced him very much in his art. From this time he started to paint only dark, gloomy pictures.

"These painting were inspired by graffiti that Alen Divis found on his prison wall. During his imprisonment in solitary confinement he was left with nothing else but himself and four empty walls. These prison walls were covered with graffiti, little drawings, and little notes by people who were imprisoned there prior to Alen Divis. Through those drawings and notes Alen Divis was able to relive their own destinies, their own lives. It was also for him a place where he projected his own memories of his past life."

After six months Divis was released from La Sante. But he spent another year and half in different concentration and internment camps before he was finally freed. In 1942 he moved to New York City where he continued in his art. After spending a great part of his life abroad, he returned to Prague in 1947. Even though he managed to have one successful exhibition there, the upcoming communist culture did not welcome this kind of art.

Tomas Pospiszyl:

"I think what provoked them the most was the atmosphere of the paintings. The atmosphere is very often dark, and in those years Alen Divis was also interested in spiritual themes. As you may see his spirituality was quite unorthodox. He was interested in Christianity, but he also developed this motif of the 'Christ of the blacks', where he painted very traditional iconographical scenes of the crucifixion, but the man on the cross is black."

But not all Divis's pictures are necessarily sad. The writer Lenka Reinerova owns one of those more cheerful ones.

"Well naturally, I have just such a one - it's a drawing.... I think he must have been a very sad person, if you look at the pictures he made, not only in prison but also afterwards. For me it's a very sad kind of art. And sad kind of art is not exactly what I would like to have on my kitchen wall. But when I saw this picture with a smile - which is also full of fantasy - when I had the possibility to choose out of many drawings, I of course took one which is - well, almost optimistic."

After a few unsuccessful experiences in the 1950's, Divis stopped striving for commissions, exhibitions and illustration work. He withdrew from society to his little studio and died in 1956 as a poor and completely unrecognized artist. Although his work often lacks any sign of happiness and optimism, a visit to his exhibition certainly makes a great impression.