If you've ever set foot in a Prague souvenir shop, then you know the work of Jiri Votruba. An architect by training, a painter and illustrator out of love, and a celebrated -- yet somewhat reluctant -- graphic designer by providence, Votruba's work is seemingly everywhere. His often humorous images depicting the sights of the Czech capital and its famous sons, in particular Franz Kafka, adorn countless postcards, tee-shirts, and coffee mugs. We caught up with the artist in his studio this week to hear about his latest projects, and began by asking him how he got his start.
"I don't have an arts education; I am in fact a civil engineer and architect, and several years before the change of regime  I switched to art."
"I started as a painter but it was just my hobby. My father - because we lived in the regime wherein everyone has to do things by himself -when we wanted paintings, he made some, by copying the important artworks, and so we had oil paints at home. When I was eighteen or nineteen, I found the beauty of these paints and my first painting was just copying a postcard. But since then, I started making my own paintings, but not too many, maybe three or four a year; I was at that time already at the university, and this was my great hobby."
Votruba is now working on a series he calls 'Too Much Love" after a song by the rock band Queen, "Too Much Love Will Kill You." It is an ironic comment on the nature of beauty, contrasting pastoral or floral motifs - inspired by a trip to Madagascar - with images from modern-day how-to guides and users manuals.
"For instance, how to open and eat a banana, which you can see here..."
RP: In Bulgaria, just so you know, they open it from the other side.
"Oh, they do? That's a surprise [laughs]. But then in Bulgaria they nod their heads they mean 'no' - so some things go a different way there."
"[But] I sort of paint in cycles, or series, that are shorter and shorter [laughs] - I am changing, and I think it is responding to the time we live in. I think a painter should always reflect what is going on [around him] and what I feel very strongly is the abrupt change in the regime in this country, and still we bear the consequences - most of them are very beautiful, but some are very peculiar [laughs], like the strong position of money, the consumption society that is also quite wild."
"And my last paintings - that is why, I think -- look like Pop Art, which, for American people must look somewhat old-fashioned, but I have to say that I am in my Pop Art period. One friend of mine called it 'Neo-Pop'; that sounds betters [laughs]."
In 1990, Jiri Votruba was working for Albatros, the state-run publishing house for children. He founded a paper studio within that publishing house which was making postcards and paper toys. But Jiri Votruba was having difficulty getting his superiors to consider some of his ideas and illustrations. An old friend from the architectural faculty, Martin Vohryzek, suggested he give him some designs, and he'd print them and try to sell them.
"And so I made four cards, from four designs, and gave it to him. A few days later, I was walking through Old Town Square and looked in the window of a bookstore and there were my cards on the wall. It was a very interesting feeling and he came the next day, said they'd been sold, you should make some more, and so this is how it started. And since then, Martin has been using my designs for a small company that he founded, Fun Explosive, and I am working for them until now and it is very visible, so, the other things... seem to be now in the background, but it is not completely like that."
RP: Have you ever been abroad and seen someone wearing one of your tee-shirts?
"Yes, this happens to me quite often. The last time was in Lisbon, where I was for four days, and I 'met' three pieces in the street [laughs]. Two Franz Kafkas, and one was some flying figures, I think the 'Intellectuals Descending on Prague'. Those are early designs - today I am somewhere else [artistically]."
RP: What goes through your mind when you see someone wearing your work?
"It's a funny feeling, you know. Of course, I never would have imagined merchandising Kafka before because for me he was a holy figure and this commercial use was against my soul. But my friend persuaded me to try and I made the first design, Franz Kafka walking in the street and the sky is full of literature. It seemed not to be attacking the Kafka spirit, and so this is how it started. And I have to say I know Kafka's life quite well and have read all the books accessible - the last one was the memories of people who knew Kafka personally, like his maid and friends, girlfriends, which was very interesting, and I came to the conclusion that he perhaps would not be so much against it."
"Yes, I have it on the shelf over there."
-- and I have to say, the drawings were very friendly, and helped fool me into thinking that Czech was a language that I could learn properly.
"Oh, yes? [laughs] It's nice to hear. I started with illustration much later; I made the first in 1985, something like that, for a children's magazine, and then I started doing both in parallel, and I added some graphics, and now, I have to say that even though I don't like it very much the graphics have taken over because I have very interesting work in this field, so I am sort of living a schizophrenic life in art."
RP: You're not the first artist to experience a bit of schizophrenia.
"Yes, yes." [laughs]
RP: I think just about anyone listening would know your work if they've visited Prague; there's the image of Kafka with ravens in the background, very simple but very distinctive images, and let's say every tenth tee-shirt, postcard, or coffee cup that tourists might take home has got your work on it. I'd very much like to ask you to describe what is it about these graphic designs that makes them so distinctively yours because you immediately recognize: this is Votruba's work, but I can't say what it is...
"I think for me it is difficult too because I haven't done it on purpose but I know that it's a very big victory for a graphic designer that he is recognizable; maybe it is the expression of my inside? My sense of humour... But from the formal point of view, I would say there are always thick black lines and direct [bold] colours filling the spaces between the lines. I like using direct colours and full surfaces: it makes the expression strong."
Jiri Votruba's latest projects include illustrations for the children's book Opera nas bavi - we enjoy opera - and an animated projection for a festival in Japan celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. To learn more, have a look at his website, www.votruba.cz
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