Josef Čapek, Czech Modernist Innovator

  • Posted on Feb 12, 2012 by

The Frick Art Reference Library and the libraries of the Brooklyn Museum and The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) offer many resources for scholars investigating Central European modernism. In conducting research related to the visual arts in Prague between the two World Wars, I was impressed by the number of publications dedicated to this topic and particularly to the highly important Czech modernist artist, critic, author, journalist, playwright, and stage designer Josef Čapek (1887–1945) about whom unfortunately little is known outside the Czech Republic. He is beloved among Czech children as the author and illustrator of the Doggie and Pussycat series of stories, but his importance within the modernist movement far exceeds this aspect of his popularity. In addition to his own work, he wrote plays with his brother, Karel (1890–1938), including the seminal Insect Play and R.U.R.

Josef Čapek, The African King, 1920, oil on canvas, 110 x 77.5 cm, National Gallery in Prague
Josef Čapek, The African King, 1920, oil on canvas, 110 x 77.5 cm, National Gallery in Prague.

There are many things I had not known about Josef, including how closely aligned he was with Pablo Picasso. Using the books mentioned below that can be found in the collections of NYARC partner institutions, a reader can piece together a sketch of Josef’s artistic career. The exhibition catalog Josef Čapek: Drawings 1887–1945 describes the artist’s early life and career. He lived in Paris with his younger brother, Karel, from 1910 to 1911. Josef’s paintings and prints in the 1910s and early 1920s followed the French Cubist style but added elements of Constructivism and Expressionism. In 1923, he organized an exhibition in Prague of works by Picasso and other Modernists. Beginning in the late 1920s, he became increasingly interested in folk art. He played an important role in the contemporary understanding of so-called primitive art, especially the art of sub-Saharan Africa. The anthology Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History includes an article Josef wrote in 1918 related to the topic. He was inspired by “primitivism,” not simply through an interest in exotic material but rather as a means to connect with pure originality, to which he added ideas concerning the relationships among creation, art, and magic, seeking to infuse his own art with the sense of magic power and ritual that he experienced in tribal objects. In the course of describing African works in his article, Josef included a humanistic definition of modern art:

Art that merely represents, that never reaches a higher order and bearing … gives only that which is seen.  Yes, there is in art another, deeper effort, which is not based on mimicry and techniques of imitation, but rather on a more fundamental, more essential goal–on the need to extract a new thing from the inner soul and matter, a new being, a new figure, and to place it within the order of this world as something of special significance.  This is a religious need, it has a mystical nature, yet it is so very simple and real. (115)

Josef Čapek: The Humblest Art, which contains excellent reproductions of Josef’s art, connects his interest in children’s literature to his belief in the importance of children’s creativity. “Magic,” he said, “can be worked from everything. A child will create a princess from the smallest stick of wood and colorful bits of cloth.” In Josef Čapek, it is discussed how this interest led the artist in the late 1920s to create images of villages with many figures of children and in the 1930s to illustrate a children’s book. 

Josef Čapek, drawing from Buchenwald, 1940.
Josef Čapek, drawing from Buchenwald, 1940.

During the 1930s, Josef was openly critical of Nazism and published cartoons opposing the Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia. On Christmas Day 1938 his beloved brother, Karel, died, just as Czechoslovakia was being annexed into the German Reich. In early September 1939, Josef, although not of Jewish origin, was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp. He would eventually die of disease at Bergen-Belsen in 1945, during the waning months of World War II. Some of his drawings from the period of his captivity were preserved by a fellow artist, also a prisoner (illustrated in Josef Čapek). While they offer a sober contrast to his glowing works of the 1920s and 1930s, I feel they also capture the spirit of an artist unwilling to give up his gifts under even the most horrible of circumstances. His poems from the period of his captivity were published after his death, in 1946.  Among them was the following:


I was there in body, but in spirit, with all of you.

In every thought, I was only with you.

I saw only you and not what was going on there.

My soul was here; only my body was there.

How happy am I again, here among all of you!

I– that is to say, I–in truth, is it me?–

Oh yes–it is me.  Only my body stayed behind, there in the foreign land.

My body was taken by the foreign land.


Three catalogs representing Josef Čapek’s work at the Frick Art Reference Library, (1945, 2000, and 2009).
Three catalogs representing Josef Čapek’s work at the Frick Art Reference Library, (1945, 2000, and 2009).

The collection of materials related to Josef held at the Frick includes monographs, biographies, exhibition catalogs (including several from the artist’s lifetime), books published by the artist, and selected examples of his critical writings and correspondence, such as a translation of his The Humblest Art. Titles held at Brooklyn (Cubist Art from Czechoslovakia) and MoMA (The Čapek Brothers and Czech Avant-Gardes) augment the holdings of the Frick.

Lenka Pichlikova-Burke, Book Department Intern, Frick Art Reference Library

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