In 1946, the Brno Mansard housed the first solo exhibition of works by the painter and print artist Josef Istler, a prominent member of Skupina Ra (Group RA), which was founded around 1944 by artists belonging to the so-called second wave of Surrealists. These artists disagreed with some of their older colleagues’ practices and looked for their own artistic expression. Because the occupying power during the Protectorate considered Surrealism as degenerate art, the group’s members made art in secret, and were only able to show their works in public after the end of the Second World War. This made the Josef Istler exhibition, opened on Wednesday April 3, 1946 at 3 p.m. with Ludvík Kundera’s opening speech, a particularly important event. It presented 57 artworks made between 1940 and 1946, including oil paintings, drawings, tempera paintings, unexpected monotypes from 1945, one wood engraving and one sculpture entitled Composition. Unfortunately, all highlights of Istler’s early oeuvre were missing, as they were destroyed during the air raid on Prague in February 1945 (e. g. Prophecy from 1945).
The exhibition was accompanied by an eight-page catalogue with one black and white reproduction, produced by the Rovnost printing company. It contained a short poem by Zdeněk Lorenc entitled Hledět (Looking) and Ludvík Kundera’s text Obrazy Josefa Istlera (Paintings of Josef Istler). Literary works by these friends of Istler and other members of the Group RA influenced Istler’s art, characterized by masterful execution and great technical inventiveness. The prices of the works listed in the catalogue ranged between 300 and 5000 CZK. Eighteen paintings and drawings were lent by private owners - Gertruda Istlerová, Ludvík Kundera, Milan Kundera, Bohdan Lacina, Zdeněk Lorenc, L. Rejchrt, Jaroslav Borovička, P. Pavlíková, František Venera and Jan Zuska.
Istler's work was greatly influenced by his experience of the wartime terror and the isolation in which he found himself. Almost all of the works at the exhibition radiate inner tension. Istler’s early series called Periphery depicts deserted suburbs in muted shades of brown and grey. Here, the painter focuses on the dark side of urban civilization. The more recent paintings on display, such as Warrior, Civilization and Fear, have an abstract-surrealist character. In this period, Istler was also interested in natural themes. He transformed swamps, spider webs and plants into dreamlike, colourful objects emerging out of a simple, mostly monochromatic background. He returned to each of these themes repeatedly, trying different colours, techniques and materials. For example, the exhibition included four works entitled Swamps. In addition to these works, visitors were also able to see the abstract series Compositions consisting of linear geometrical shapes or interplaying coloured surfaces endowed with great imaginative power.
Several contemporary periodicals published reviews of the exhibition. These largely negative evaluations show that neither Istler nor the other members of the Group Ra were truly appreciated in this period. For example, the reviewer for the newspaper Za svobodné Československo (Toward Free Czechoslovakia) regarded Istler’s compositions as a random conglomerate of lines and blots. Some of the reviewers, however, appreciated Istler’s skill in building compositions and the way he combined shapes, colours, empty surfaces and objects. They also pointed out Istler’s excellent technique and work with materials. Some reviewers commented on Istler's phantoms, a characteristic theme of his early work, which evocatively captured the trauma of the war years. The reviewer for Za svobodné Československo described the phantoms as “strangely crumpled ribbons and torn shreds” which appear so often in the paintings that the viewers are bored [Pchč 1946, p. 5]. In contrast, the review in Slovo národa (The Word of the Nation) approved of these “flowing shapes,” although the author was otherwise quite critical [anonymous author 1946, p. 4].
The reviews repeatedly mention the lack of content in Istler’s works, particularly in the abstract Compositions and Swamps. The author of the article published in Čin (Action) criticized these paintings simply by calling them abstract, a word that, in the reviewer’s eyes, was synonymous with worthless [JG 1946, p. 3]. The review in Slovo národa criticized Istler’s paintings for what he saw as emptiness and the lack of a deeper hidden meaning [anonymous author 1946, p. 4].
In addition to genuine misunderstanding, this negative attitude was also due to the situation in the 1940s when antipathy toward abstract art was beginning to gain sway in Czechoslovak society. This attitude was particularly common among supporters of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, for whom artistic developments in the Soviet Union and the socialist-realism ideology represented the ultimate authority. But the reason for rejecting abstraction was not just misunderstanding. Jindřich Chalupecký, the Group 42 theorist, was also dismissive of abstract art at that time. In line with the Group’s artistic program, he claimed that works of art should be accessible to general audiences, not only to a particular elite group. He argued that some artists follow the conventions in modern art, such as incomprehensibility and aristocratism, distancing themselves from society and assuming a pose of exclusiveness. In Chalupecký’s view, art should reveal and discover the reality in which we live, and convey it to the people in a comprehensible manner [Chalupecký 1946, pp. 1–23].
Some reviews, however, regard Istler as a promising young artist who is not afraid to take his own path and has the skills necessary for tackling new questions [Rp, 1946, p. 3]. This view presaged the future recognition of Istler, whose creative and idiosyncratic work has enjoyed much admiration.
Kříž 1986: Jan Kříž, Čtyřicátá léta v tvorbě Josefa Istlera, Umění XXXIV, 1986, pp. 202–209
JG 1946: JG, Výstava Josefa Istlera v Mansardě, Čin II, 1946, no. 86, 11. 4., p. 3
Pchč 1946: Pchč, Obrazy Josefa Istlera, Za svobodné Československo III, 1946, no. 295, 24. 12., p. 5
Rp 1946: Rp, Surrealismus Josefa Istlera, Národní obroda II, 1946, no. 90, 16. 4., p. 3
Enrico Crispolti, Informale. Storia e poetica, Roma 1971, pp. 564–572
České imaginativní umění (z pozůstalosti textů Františka Šmejkala edičně připravila Jana Šmejkalová), Praha 1997, pp. 289–291, 313–314
Jindřich Chalupecký, Konec moderní doby, Listy I, no. 1, 1946, pp. 1–23
Marie Klimešová, Roky ve dnech, Praha 2010, p. 37, 73–74
Ludvík Kundera, Dvojí cesta, Pavučiny, Praha 1945
František Šmejkal, Skupina Ra (exh. cat., GHMP), Praha 1988
Jiří Vykoukal, Skupina Ra, Umění XX, 1972, pp. 453–46
Josef Istler, Mansarda – Brno – Cihlářská 19
Publisher: Tiskové podniky Rovnost
Place and year of publication: Brno 1946
anonymous author, Výstava Josefa Istlera v Brně, Slovo národa II, 1946, no. 83, 7. 4., p. 4pdf
Fk, Výstava Josefa Istlera, Svobodné noviny II, 1946, no. 89, 14. 4., p. 5pdf
JG, Výstava Josefa Istlera v Mansardě, Čin II, 1946, no. 86, 11. 4., p. 3pdf
Pchč, Obrazy Josefa Istlera, Za svobodné Československo III, 1946, no. 295, 24. 12., p. 5pdf
Rp, Surrealismus Josefa Istlera, Národní obroda II, 1946, no. 90, 16. 4., p. 3pdf
Ch, Nové brněnské výstavy, Svobodné noviny II, 1946, no. 77, 31. 3., p. 5
Jbs, Sborník mladých surrealistů, Rovnost LXII, 1946, no. 186, 14. 8., p. 5
Rt, Další výstava v brněnské Mansardě, Rovnost LXII, 1946, no. 76, 30. 3., p. 7
VO, Grafika J. Istlera, Pravda II, 1946, no. 131, 5. 6., p.