WWW.VACHAL.CZ / WWW.VACHAL.COM - Simplified English version, updated 30.06.2008 (current news)
Translation into English: Jan Čapek, Pavel Němec, Karel Šimek

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Current news:

The facsimile of Váchal's monumental book > Šumava umírající a romantická - Gabreta dying and romantic is out now!
You can buy the reduced version 37,5 x 29,5 cm (c. EUR 130) or the original-sized 65 x 49 cm hand-bounded version (every impression is an original - c. EUR 1600).
The book includes german translation of the text.
Publishing: Ladislav Horáček - Paseka:
Address: Nakladatelství Paseka
Chopinova 4
120 00 Praha 2
Czech Republic
Phone: +420 222 710 751 or -752 or -753
Fax: +420 222 718 886
E-Mail: paseka[at]paseka.cz

The translation into French of famous Váchal's book Krvavý román - Bloody romance - Roman sanglant is out. The book was presented during the Paris book-fair (March 2008) in the Czech Centre Paris. Publishing house: l'Engouletemps.


These pages are dedicated to Josef Váchal, a phenomenal Czech printmaker, painter, poet and prose writer. Unfortunately there are still very few foreign language materials available on this unique artist, among them a couple of brief articles on the Internet (Josef Vachal - graphic artist... [EN] / Wikipedia [EN] / Literatuur in Context [NL]) and the particular texts in some books (for example: "Sursum" - in English - and "Der Böhmerwald und Josef Váchal" - in German). Website www.vachal.cz/com is currently also in Czech language primarily, but You are welcome to read through this simplified English version based on the M. Šejn's essay and to view many linked examples of Váchal's graphic works.

© Karel Šimek & Vladimíra Šimková 2004-2008 (autor[at]vachal[dot]cz)



The Cry of Josef Váchal

(essay by Miloš Šejn)

The primitive as though wood carved face of scary death in the drawing Davový křik - Cry of the masses (after 1900), which is part of the early fragment of Josef Váchal's literary collection of drawings and texts, very suggestively points out the basis, which is very near the vision of Edvard Munch, and Váchal's spontaneous onset and originality.

The collection of Váchal's earliest works in the first years of the new century presents an abnormally rich and complex unit, which in a number of ways types the artist's future evolution. Besides a certain "stylistic" unity it is also a testimony of grandiose and concentrated creative energy, which shows it's face in interacting activities of various aims, branches of activities, genres and positions, enabled by the general form of a book. In Hodnodle nadšená (1901), a hand written "magazine", we can find various sketches along with written fragments of text next to each other: strictly drawn linear drawings holding back emotional pressure in strange spasms, which resemble living creatures, but also "unsuccessful" "babbling" lazy and colourful blots along with parts of poems, dramas, puppet-plays or criticism; secession stylization next to a demonic caricature style of expressive grotesque or a completely unrestrained "childish" display next to his parody; linearly styled scenery, ornamental headings and lay outs of envelopes next to scary visions and faces or drafts of puppets. This way of expression displays the author's internal tension and reflects a way out of a crisis. It gathers together the base of Váchal's activity, which always returns to subjectivity, thanks to which his work is very close to the formulation of artistic thought of symbolism, early fazes of expression and German expressionism (J. Ensor, E. Munch, E. Nolde, A. Kubin, E. L. Kirchner). The life of the author becomes an organic part of his work as an expressional whole and is retroactively changed, transforming the artist's perspective and his entire integrity along with an impact on the artist's fate. The consistency, with which Josef Váchal combines answers and solutions to contemporary problems or feelings of mystery along with personal aspirations within them in his work, is why Váchal has such a place in Czech art of the twentieth century.

For the interpretation of Váchal's artistic conception, a response is forced in the form of the particularity of his artistic form along with his particular mental unstableness inclining to distress and fear, mostly in childhood, which is also his personal style and is interpreted in contemporary context.
"The huge foundation of fantasy delayed, for the pencil to start at the sight of most common shapes, but pushed me into drawing, … having a lot in common with drawing abstract and savage things. Beyond that I was influenced by all the books I've read and my spirit was agitated by intrusive rhythms of verses, the pencil was substituted for a pen and still before me lay a clean and untouched diary. I alternated in order to execute my impulsive display of both writing and drawing." This he wrote about himself in Paměti - Memories (1935), pointing out the character of his artwork on the border of spontaneous feeling and contemporary artistic and literary presumption, most visible in the so typical themes of danger or control, dream or vision, auto stylization or self criticism (drawing Chimera, to Gellner's poem, 1902; etching Vidění - Vision, 1907; Bolest - Suffering, from the cycle of drawings Chorobná duše - Diseased Spirit, 1907)

In the effort to join into the artistic and spiritual climate of the time and find formulations answering to his personal nature and orientation, he absorbed a number of various artistic opinions, utopist collectivization myths, philosophical and religion opinions into such depths that they indirectly influenced his work and he thus showed the diversity in thought of the turn of the century. At the same time he did not fully identify himself with these opinions, instead he brought them against each other in discordance. His natural criticism (mostly concerning himself) helps him overcome the seemingly impossible, but also the contrasts of that time, which he combines together through the complexity of his work. Practically in parallel originated the drawing Neděle - Sunday (1902, for Gellner's poem from the collection Po nás ať přijde potopa! - Let the flood come after us!) with an alcoholic vision of a ghost standing above a table with drunks, Studie z astrální říše - Study from the Astral Realm, 1902-1904, for his personal magazine Kult mladých - Cult of the Young, capturing the flow of terrible "thoughts" of a self murderer, or Spiritistická sedánka - Spiritualistic séance (1904-1906) with the vision of "the deads spirits" above the evocation table with spiritists.

[woodcut cycle Mystikové a visionáři - Mystics and Visionairists, 1913]

Seemingly the closest opinions to that of Váchal at the beginning of the century were those of the anarchist Nový kult - New cult, of S. K. Neumann and František Gellner, to which he was close due to artistic duality of drawings and poems, but also through his feelings of distress, social criticism, disillusion and self irony. As well as the expressive nature of caricatures in the Nový kult, joining together grotesque expressions and "hollow" secession decorativeness along with a parody of its "bourgeois" face. Drawings such as Tichnou pole, tichnou krávy - Silence of Fields, Silence of Cows, Secesse - Secession (in Hodnodle nadšená, cca 1901), Osvěta - Enlightenment (in Verše z dlouhé chvíle - Verses from Boredom, 1903), Hledání Boha - Searching for God (in Kult mladých, 1904), prove Váchal's transformation in the comprehension of these themes, based on examples from the humor of W. Busch to political caricature illustrators of Simplicism. The sharp edge of this style compared to that of the capitalistic society is Váchal's characteristic contrast, which is either dominated by caricature or oppressive visions. He creates a position which follows him from his early beginnings up to late work, for instance in the drawings Vlasť - Homeland (in Dekadent geniál, cca 1901), V životě bída a hrůza - Misery and Horror in Life (1906) or the etching Ženy - Women (after 1906) and also with full strength after World War One in drawings Popravy - Executions (1918), which are the foundation of further transformations of the authors visions in his works: woodcut cycle Fronta - The Front (1919), a horrifying witness of the War horrors, books parodying the artist himself Váchalova ročenka na rok 1927 - Váchal's year book 1927 (1926) or the so called technical advancement Kázání proti hříchu spěšnosti - Lecture against the sin of hastiness (1939) or the woodcut Úsměvy mrtvých - Smiles of the Dead (1934) with it's grotesque memento of death. This criticism interferes in hidden or openly with the author along with self ironical reversions.

At the same time Josef Váchal in a number of his works transforms the suggestive artistic mythical image relations of esoteric emblems, medial drawings, psychic "photographs" or evocational self stylization of the body, in which his fantasy finds a relation not only to himself but also to "tradition". These very strong images based on myth, are shifted in meaning and incorporated into his own personal artistic world in ambivalent themes of distress or that of control over perilous strengths (etching Kouzla - Magic, 1908, painting Hlava media - Media Head, 1908) and their irony or grotesqueness (etching Černá magie - Black Magic, 1908; photograph Séance, 1906). Although literarism sometime prevails (painting Kult Ahrimana - The Cult of Ahriman, 1908), the most precious for Váchal are paintings of open meaning (with modern artistic symbols), oscillating between tradition and expression, for instance in the woodcut Magie - Magic (1909) or drawing Duch perníkáře - Spirit of the Gingerbread baker (1912) where "respect" is also "belittled" and a vision is as close to apparition as it is to caricature. This dualism in Váchal's work is brought out in the image of a double-ganger with romantic and expressionistic tradition, which takes up many appearances while melting into vision of a demon (painting Kuřák opia - Opium Smoker, 1908), physical multiplication (drawing Strach v domě - Fear in the House, 1914) or grotesque changes, often with hidden social satire, or in the vision of a mask as a grimace (drawing Hlavy - Heads, 1918).

[coloured linocut cycle Bellum - Warfare, 1913]

Váchal's most natural means of expression is drawing, which he used throughout his whole life. Not only for it's purpose of catching emotion but also for the ties it offers compared to other artistic branches and materials. Besides numbers of unrestrained drawings, creating some sort of thematic circuit (Spiritistická sedánka - Spiritualistic séance, 1904-1906; Pláň elementální - Elemental plain, 1904-1907; Sen mrtvého - Dead Man's Dream, 1918; Séance, 1918), or drawing cycles (Pekelné epos - Infernal Epic, 1904; Slovníček barev a linií v myšlénkách spiritualisty - Dictionary of colours and line in the mind of a Spiritualist, 1919), there is a number of drawings forming a compact block with text images. These works are from the Váchal's beginnings (Litanie o Anežce Hrůzové - Rogation of Anežka Hrůzová, 1900) but also from the years to come (Musrus, 1912; Píseň strašlivá... - Fearful song…, 1913; Modlitby - Prayers, 1917) or his late years when they formed a part of handwritten books (Cesta Slovenskem - Journey through Slovakia, 1930) or texts in the form of letters (Dopisy bratří Chocholků... - Letters of the Chocholka brothers..., 1947). The drawing is also an instrument of developing Váchal's talent; he managed to present his visions through it, not only as an overpressure of his imagination but also as an immediate comment to many books by placing drawings between the lines, from drawings taking up all the space between and around the text (F. Gellner, Po nás ať příjde potopa!, 1902; O. Březina, Básnické spisy, 1916) to classical book illustrations (O. Březina, Básnické spisy - Poetical writings, 1921). The thought of immediate permeation of text and image comes close to Váchal's text image transcription (J. Šimánek, Astartina mše, 1907; O. Březina, Ranní modlitba, 1920) reaching into other branches (his own text in the etching Vidění - Vision, 1907, or in the book Vidění sedmera dnů a planet - The Vision of seven days and planets, 1910) where Váchal used the solution of František Bílek.

[Josefa Váchala Vykládací mystické karty - Josef Váchal's mystical Tarot cards, 1912]

Váchal's expressivity also identified itself with disgust, due to the use of material, which in a way explains the stance of graphic art in his work. In his first decade he worked mainly with etching (1907 8th studio of A. Hervert), and in it gathers together a number of his drawing themes (Svědomí - Conscience, 1909). Almost at the same time he finds himself in woodcuts and wood carvings – he became one with the technology and the artistic view of this art form in such a manner, that he stylized himself into this role (he used woodcut techniques up to his 50s, occasionally up to his death). In graphic cycles joined together with texts he managed to follow up his thought of a book. A collection of drawings for Váchal's first book Vidění sedmera dnů a planet (Poznámková kniha J. Váchala) - The Vision of seven days and planets (Note book of J. Váchal), 1909, which came out in print in 1910, illustrates the transition from expressivity of drawings into a more balanced, decorative and harmonic final form of a woodcut. This book is his first piece of work where a view of beauty of a book as an art form is used.

Another form of expression, born from the relation to material lead the author in the final years of his first decade of work to changes of his thoughts and moved him back to secession decorativeness, also wanted by the audiences (Putování malého elfa - Journey of a small Elf, 1911; Sedmero hlavních hříchů - Seven main Sins, 1912; Ďáblova zahrádka - The Devil's garden, 1924), or the brutally expressive (Cyklus dřevorytů chvalozpěvem velmi pěkným provázený - Woodcut cycle accompanied by an encomium most fair, 1912). After the First World War, which meant a big change in his work, this artistic opinion lead Váchal to an effort for a "clean" artistic and mental effect of his art form. In his art from this period a reflection of colourful strokes and blots can be seen, derived from aquarelle in which he synthesized his existing efforts clasping together the expressiveness of colours and lines with expressive symbolic movements of his world of images (Mystika čichu - Mystique of scent, 1920; Josefa Váchala dokonalá Magie budocnosti - Josef Váchal's perfect Magic of the future, 1922). This rarely well balanced image of Váchal's artistic thought which uniquely appeared along with the summary of themes in the 40's (drawing Vznesena do věčnosti - Raised into eternity, 1943) is also followed by his previous critical disposition of tossing away his former idea sources, that had a share on his balanced art. This corresponds to the two views of German artistic expressionism; on one side the critical and expressive political grotesque of G. Grosz (Váchalova ročenka na rok 1927 - Váchal's year book 1927, 1926), on the other hand the uneasy solving of aggregated image views of Vasile Kandinsky or Franz Marc (woodcut Wůně hmyzu - The scent of insects from Mystika čichu - Mystique of scent, 1920; linocut Legenda františkánská - The Franciscan legend, 1921).

[coloured woodcut cycle Meditace o životě (Svět jednotlivců) - Meditations about life (World of individuals), 1915]

The interest in the woodcut technique and in the opportunities it brings with different materials brought Josef Váchal into a sphere of self exploration from which he managed to gain many new technological procedures in the 20's and 30's (motor milling, multi colour print from one plate, "lithographical" principle of soaking wood – he summarized his knowledge in Receptář barevného dřevorytu - Recipe book of colour woodcut (1934) along with new expressive contents, which led to completely unique aspects. His work borders on one side with the "liquidation" of a woodcut, where Váchal works with a rare cult of disgust (book Čarodějnická kuchyně - The Witch's Kitchen, 1928), on the other side he breaks the border of colour woodcut, in drawings, paintings or photography, notably in cases of structural compositions (woodcut Prales pod Falkensteinem - Primaeval forest below Falkenstein, 1930) or in his graphic and photograph transcripts (woodcut cycle in the book In memoriam Marie Váchalové - In memoriam of Maria Váchal, 1923); woodcut Zbytky pralesa v Gayerruck - The remains of the primaeval forest in Gayerruck in the book Šumava umírající a romantická - Gabreta dying and romantic (1931), where he connects to examples of photo mechanical reproduction of structure in B. Paul's caricatures on the pages of Simplicissm. Retroactively this sensitivity can affect into a drawing itself, as shown in Nekromantie - Necromancy (1917) in the relation of expressive area with structural passages. On the other hand it points to the possible connection between "milling" carving of Váchal's later woodcuts and secession decorative rhythmic structure or rhythmic line drawings in endless loops, for instance in the drawing Kotrmelec vědy - Somersault of Science (1915).

The intense relation between the classical image of an artist of the 19th century (painter or sculptor) strongly recognized between artists in the peaks of secession and the new expressive tendency of multi scope feeling (already in the works of P. Gauguin and further unwrapped mainly in German expressionism), is evident in Váchal's relation to painting. In his decision to express himself purely through painting, supported by his personal studies at A. Kalvoda and R. Bém is from the beginning (1904) a certain form of tragedy, based on the un clarity of goals, in the search and sense of his art, typical for the entire generation, but in Váchal's case a very strong sense of un clarity. Even though Váchal attempted to paint in his first decade, his expressive activities led him to other relationships. His real rich paintings in the contents of Váchal's artistic work are born on junctions, where these tendencies relate to pure visions, transmitted through monumental instruments of painting as images derived from drawings (Inspirace - Inspiration, 1908); graphical conversion in woodcut Fantasie - Fantasy (1911) or reaching a multi scope overlapping.

In the drawing Vzývač pohlaví - Invoker of Sex (1908), which is part of Váchal's Deník - Diary (1907-1913) is an image vision based on an ecstatic bent figure, close to Bílek and some kind of theatre panoptical assembled by plastic visions on the edge of live statues or puppets; this witnesses the forming of artistic thought in many spheres. An example of an overlapping image and sculpture is the painting Vzývači ďábla - Invokers of the Devil (1909) in which the meaning of the painting is overlapped by the carved frame, having as in the case of P. Gauguin or F. Bílek a parallel relation to woodcut and embossment and is therefore a typical gesture of the time. The contact between the two medias is mediated by a unique coloured relief with its own zone of contact between the area and the plastic mould.

Embossments, free sculptures or sculptural integrities are a different area in which Váchal shows his relation to wood. One of his first big embossments is Adept (1910), formed in a cycle by small plates, which brings together the feeling close to that of drawing cycles presented by Váchal in his work as a grouping of paintings next to each other (Píseň Asura - Song of Asura, 1907). It once again shows to a complex gesture same as in the case of a more "painting" embossment (Smrt sv. Terezie - Death of saint Theresa, 1910) or his work on the edge between embossment and woodcut matrix, comprehended as a plastic piece of art (Golgota - Golgotha, 1909). A deeper overlapping "into life" can be found in Váchal's ritual sculpture, which has the shape of an altar (Oltář mystiků - Mystiques' Altar, 1916), totem (Sloupy ke knihovně M. Martena - Pillars to the library of M. Marten, 1911) or free standing and sitting figure, puppets, paper weights. These figures of Váchal's panoptical are either by drawing indicated on the cylinder block (Dvě postavy - Two Figures, around 1910), or carved into vast areas (Idol, 1912), or totally stingily immaterialized (Skřet - Orc, 1916) or impressively construed into a multi spectacle silhouette (Démon - Daemon, 1916) but never reaching monumental proportion (as in the case of embossments) and they do not even have the character of individual sculptures. They do have the tendency to gather together in groups, similarly to Váchal's drawing drafts of puppets to the play Švec a kníže - Cobbler and Prince in Hodnodle nadšená (1901). A number of these figures were made to become puppets (Faust, 1911) or have the tendency to become an individual being and find the strength to turn against their author, as in the case of the photograph Autoportrét s plastikami - Self-portrait with sculptures (around 1915), where Váchal's face is shown in a magical grip of ghosts – sculptures and fully shows meaningful overlapping between his own work and himself and the opportunities of expressing fear.

Through the consistent realization of the sculptural image expression, there is a certain "stylish" interference into all things in Váchal's surroundings that make up some sort of imaginary stage, forcing the author to take up the roles and they themselves gain the character of living things (a speaking library, bed, table). In the moment of his peak expressive gesture sometime around the first decade of his work he shifted his interest to various things and changed their sense of meaning by interfering into their former structure (Bůžek-Kopyto - Godling-Hove, 1906) or decorated them with carvings (pipes, canes, paper weights) or with paint (clay pots, vases). Later on he alters furniture with wood carvings and writing (1909 for him self, 1911 for M. Marten, 1924 for J. Portman, 1924 and 1926 for A. Macek) or he grasps hold of entire houses and changes them into some sort of "temple and workshop" (F. Bílek), into a new age hermitage, workshop and stage of life (Apartment for J. Portman in Litomyšl - "Pormoneum", 1920-1924, painting of walls, doors and ceiling, completely carved and painted furniture, painted ceramics, sculptures, paintings, books) and executes the secession thought of a uniform artistic piece of art (gesamstkunstwerk) in the form near to that of the expressionistic style of E. L. Kirchner studios. In Váchal's later days after World War I he concentrates more on books.

[Pormoneum: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; czech homepage, article in english]

In books, spontaneously developing from his earliest beginnings he found at the end of his first decade the ideal medium, which gave him the opportunity to integrate drawings, texts, graphics, paintings, photography, sculptures along with his communicativeness allowed Váchal's emphasis on the contents of his communication, his confrontation of thoughts and ideas and the interconnection between him and his work. His work on books as a form of art also brought problems, which had to be solved and so Váchal enters the world of typography, print, binding, paper. He made up a number of his own letterings (in the years 1926, 1935), which have their history in the views of his books. He deals with the problem of print and manages to put his graphical views into books and at the same time twists books under his expressive sensitivity. The entire book has its meaning from the paper, sewing, leather binding, to the shape and size of the book along with the books "own" meaning in the classical frame of view, which Váchal manages to overcome in his conception.

[coloured woodcuts in Mor v Korčule - Black Death in Korčula, 1924]

Understanding the importance of seemingly unsubstantial details and activities is proved by Váchal's relation to photography. His approach to it (from the beginning of the century to the 50's) is based on his relation to the specific photographic language and to the opportunities it had to offer (recording of reality in a magical image, giving the image immortality) compared to those of other art forms. Thus into the centre of attention come photographs that in other views would be completely unimportant and without interest. The photograph gains the role of documentation and in the hands of Váchal becomes the means of saving personal memories and life into into art work in the form of auto portraits and auto stylization: Dvojník - Double (1901), Ukřižovaný - Crucified (1909), Tančící - Dancing (1915), Autoportrét s plastikami - Self-portrait with sculptures (around 1915), Příběh o psu - Story of a dog (1916), S Tarzánem - With Tarzan (1924), S matkou na hradě Valečově - On the castle Valečov with mother (1937), J. Váchal jako fotograf - J. Váchal as a photographer (1947), or in overlaps of these themes in books (Kniha vzpomínek - Book of Memories ,1900-1911) or that in paintings (woodcut Unikání - Escaping, 1947 -1948). Photographs from trips are not sources of landscape documentation, but also documents of memories of personal presence, which give them the same weight along with their notes in diaries and drawings of routes in maps.

The work of Josef Váchal is visionary in complexity and shows the problems of his generation in such detail that it seems to be the most authentic value in Czech modern art. The other side of this gesture is the tension of expression in the collisions of various forms of work and the penetration of activities, the overlapping of ideas and artistic formulations. His being is expression along with revaluing and deforming old visions, typical for other members of the symbolist generation, which are led to changes in image structure.

[coloured woodcut cycle Neprachov (v desátém století a dnes) - Neprachov (in the tenth century and nowadays), 1914]

His primitive expression was from the beginning joined with internal strains, presented fully in paintings through ambivalent images, where visions are the same as caricature. This immediately shows the critical social bases of Váchal's artistic revolt, notable in the picture theme motive of a double. This formerly romantic image relates with the ambivalence of bodily and un-bodily and the problem of unity; this can be seen in his work either as a parallel of a number of image layers or as a penetration of various identified elements, for instance decorativeness. The tendencies of expressively joining visions can be fully seen in Váchal's work through the size of his entire work and is noticeable in his multi field solutions, in the relation to materials, most deeply in books. The book becomes his object of complete artistic intention and the medium joining various means into a whole, thanks to which he leaps past contemporary comprehension of the beautiful book ideal with a completely new conception. Also the overlapping between sculptures and things making up the surroundings of the author, transformation of photography through graphic technique or overlapping between documentation of himself and that of his work are a gesture in his books of the struggle for complete unity of will and interpretation of life, which are an expression of Váchal's modern knowledge (P. Gauguin, E. Munch, E. L. Kirchner), opening up unknown opportunities, but also having their own pits.

Váchal's work that at it's beginning comes into contact with the struggle of the second generation of Czech graphic symbolism is also the conclusion of the secession revolt in expression and in pointing out exceeding certain limits, where language interpretation is hardly understandable and punishable from the position of classic comprehension of art. Thus the author gets into conflicts with society, but also with his own bases, when he does not care about the form of his expression or the means of expression, but only to become one with his work. This practice of self-endangerment is why the personality of Josef Váchal can be compared to that of František Gellner, in whom he personally found so much in common to that of his own fate at the beginning of the new century.

[examples from Váchal's Ex libris woodcuts]