By KATHERINE BLOOD and BIBI MARTÍ
The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division recently received a substantial gift of contemporary prints by Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian printmakers from Gerald Cerny, a Washington, D.C.-based collector.
Cerny contacted the Library in early 2003 after Carlotta Owens, modern prints and drawings curator at the National Gallery of Art, suggested that the bulk of Cerny's collection might be a valuable addition to the Library's holdings of fine prints. Other selections from Cerny's collection, which complement his gift to the Library, are at the National Gallery of Art.
Library curators Katherine Blood and Elena Millie visited Cerny's home last year to examine his collection and assess its scope and relevance in relation to the existing holdings and the acquisition goals of the Prints and Photographs Division. They concluded that the prints would be a significant contribution to the Library's holdings and to scholars of Eastern European printmaking and art history in general. Together with the holdings of the National Gallery, the prints in the Cerny collection provide a rich resource for researchers interested in the study of modern Eastern European printmakers and their works.
The acquisition enriches the Library's fine print collection, which includes more than 100,000 artists' prints dating from the 15th century to the present. Cerny's gift of 269 prints brings fresh examples of work by many artists already represented in the Library's collection, as well as first-time representation for a number of notable contemporary artists— making the Library an important U.S. repository for graphic art from East Central Europe, Southeast Europe and Eastern Europe. The gift significantly updates and strengthens an extant collection of 169 fine prints from behind the former Iron Curtain, which were acquired by the Library between 1968 and 1979.
Cerny's donation also includes 26 posters, which augment the Library's collection of 20th century posters from Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia and Poland. The Polish posters in the Prints and Photographs Division include rare pre-World War II works, and its posters from Hungary include strong representations of those produced during the 1919 revolutionary period.
Jeremy Adamson, chief of the Library's Prints and Photographs Division, said, "During the era of Soviet domination, artists in the former Eastern Bloc, isolated from art trends in the West, excelled in etching, engraving and other traditional printmaking media, often employing an intricate, figurative style with symbolist overtones. In the 1960s and 1970s, Prints and Photographs curators [at the Library] actively acquired examples from important triennial print shows in places such as Kraków, Poland, and Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, as well as elsewhere. But in the past 20 years, such acquisitions were less frequent. Dr. Cerny's remarkable gift, therefore, not only helps fill a chronological gap, but also reveals remarkable artistic changes in Eastern European printmaking since the collapse of communism."
Cerny began to assemble his collection in 1992 under the guidance of Simeona Hošková and other experts. Hošková served as artistic director of the Central Europe Gallery and Publishing House in Prague beginning in 1990 and was also co-founder of the Inter-Kontakt-Grafik Foundation (1995) and co-founder (1993) and director (from 1995) of the International Triennial of Graphic Art in Prague. In 1996 she became editor in chief of the quarterly journal Grapheion: The European Review of Modern Prints, Book and Paper Art.
That same year, Cerny became an international correspondent for the journal, which was published by the Central Europe Gallery and Publishing House from 1996 to 2000. In the premier issue of Grapheion, Hošková wrote: "We feel that it is important to support high-quality graphic art, including the technical and craft traditions and also that graphic art which transcends the classical definition of this technique. It is also our aim to place emphasis on graphic art in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, since the political and cultural isolation they experienced resulted in a lack of awareness outside the borders of this region."
Cerny's collection reflects this vision and embraces a diverse array of techniques, subject matter and styles, ranging from symbolism, abstraction, expressionism and surrealism to abstract expressionism, pop art, constructivism, minimalism and conceptualism. Cerny notes that his personal collecting focus was on "nonobjective and figurative abstractionist work by dissident artists and their disciples."
The East Bloc had dissolved when Cerny began collecting, and he recalls having unprecedented access to print curators and museum collections, as well as opportunities to meet many artists and visit their studios. On occasion, he purchased works of art directly from the artist, as in the case of Polish printmaker Zbigniew Lutomski, who is known for his woodcuts. Cerny purchased two of the 11 Lutomski prints in his collection directly from the artist.
Lutomski's 1993 color woodcut titled "Znaki II" ("Signs II," p. 139) is a strong example of abstract work found in Cerny's collection. Cerny corresponded directly with Lutomski, writing in September 1998: "When I saw 'Znaki II,' I immediately became enthralled with your resourceful manipulation of wood to bring out the design of your mind's inner image and with your deft use of color."
"Prorok" ("The Prophet," p. 141), a 1996 color aquatint by Czech artist Aleš Lamr, is another graphically powerful abstract image with sculptural, multicolor forms suggesting both weight and whimsy. The print won the Komercní Banka Prize at the 1995 Prague Print(s) of the Year and was featured at the 1997 International Print Triennial in Kraków. Cerny has donated "Prorok" to the Library in honor of former Czech President Václav Havel.
A completely different visual voice is demonstrated by "Vel'ká Mizeria" ("The Great Misery," p.140), made in 1990 by Slovak printmaker Dušan Kállay. Also known as an illustrator and painter, Kállay displays a masterful handling of multiple intaglio techniques to create a dense thicket of "unnatural history." The print depicts a barely discernible skeletal creature—possibly a bird or a dinosaur—caught in a net studded with bits of wreckage. In the lower right corner, a small winged figure tugs on a single strand of the tangled web. Kállay wrote about "Vel'ká Mizeria" in Grapheion, 3rd/4th issue, 1998:
"The labyrinth does not interest me as the search for a path, like the vision of Ariadne's thread, rather the opposite. It interests me as the search for the undiscovered, the uncovering of newly intertwined passages and passageways, mirroring the reasoning of man, in the labyrinth through passion recognizing what is hidden behind our picture, within us."
Further illustrating the diversity of Cerny's collection is the work of Hungarian artist Róbert Swierkiewicz. His 1997 lithograph-screenprint "Két kis forgószél (Callot Jacquessel)," or "Two Small Whirlwinds (with Jacques Callot)" (image on this issue's cover) appropriates images of actors from the "Balli de Sfessania" series of 17th century French etcher Jacques Callot, an artist whose works are extensively represented in the Library's print collection. Swierkiewicz radically inflates the scale of Callot's original figures and transforms them from black and white to brilliant color. The figures are seen filtered through raking strokes that further invoke Callot's signature printed lines.
In her magically surreal "Sit" ("Net") from 1980, Czech artist Anna Khunová places a small towered city atop a double-faced head whose shadow is captured in the net below. Also dated circa 1980, "Golem II" by Czech artist Emilie Tomanová symbolically combines text and image, showing a walled city (possibly Prague) atop a hill with Hebrew characters reading the phrase "Blessed is He who gives strength to the weary and to the helpless great power." (In Jewish folklore, a golem is an inanimate figure that can be endowed with life by a combination of letters forming a sacred word. In the 16th century Rabbi Judah Löw ben Bezulel of Prague created one of the most famous versions of the golem tale, considered to be the inspiration for the story "Frankenstein.")
One of the most recent works in the Cerny collection, from 2001, is a small ex libris print titled "Múza" ("Muse," above) by Slovak artist Vojtech Kolencík. Kolencík studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava before establishing his own graphics atelier at the academy. Cerny's impression of "Múza" is signed with a personal dedication.
Today contemporary Eastern European artists are widely known for their strong graphic arts traditions, particularly in the fields of printmaking and poster design. International competitions of prints and posters helped these traditions thrive both before and since the collapse of communism. These include the celebrated Biennial of Graphic Art in Ljubljana, Slovenia, founded in 1955; the Biennale of Graphic Design, held since 1964 in Brno (Czech Republic); the International Print Triennial in Kraków, begun in 1966; the International Poster Biennial in Warsaw, also started in 1966; and the relatively recent International Woodcut Triennial in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, begun in 1995. Many award-winning artists from these competitions are represented in Cerny's collection, among them Slovak artist Albín Brunovsky.
Brunovsky's technically and aesthetically dazzling "Exulanti" ("Exiles," right) combines etching, mezzotint and aquatint to create a fantastic, alternative world brimming with lively action. Brunovsky served as the head of the Department of Graphic Arts and Illustrations at the Academy of Fine Arts, Bratislava, and is the recipient of the Grand Prix at the International Biennale of Graphic Arts in Kraków, in 1992 and the Award of the Mayor of Kraków in 1994.
Examples of work by Brunovsky's students, including award-winning artists Dušan Kállay, Vojtech Kolencík and Katarína Vavrová, are also represented in Cerny's gift to the Library. Vavrová's color etching "Lod' komediantov" ("The Ship of Comedians") from 2000 brings a surreal twist to the well-traveled theme "Ship of Fools."
The Cerny collection comes to the Library fully listed, with original language titles, corresponding English translations and complete descriptions with date, media, exhibition history and awards. In addition, Cerny has given the Library a valuable reference collection of exhibit catalogs and ephemera, personal papers and a complete run of the journal Grapheion. The gift also includes an entire set of Grapheion club prints, original works of art that were distributed to the journal's subscribers. One of these is a small drypoint by Czech artist Jaroslav Králík, which was introduced in the fifth issue of Grapheion in 1998.
In text accompanying the print, Králík writes: "I love the old masters, Breughel and Bosch especially. In my paintings I 'stimulate' fragments of their painting and join them with ordinary objects such as stones, shells and string, because these are important for childhood memories . ... However, at the same time I am aware of their more general cultural symbolism as ancient archetypes."
Králík has often worked in collage as well as painting and printmaking. His richly textured drypoint "Poslední tanec" ("Last Dance") is a fragmented, collage-like image, in which the artist incorporates such disparate visual symbols as an egg, a cross, constellation forms and the archetypal figures of a man and woman.
Cerny's recent donation is a gift to the Library and to researchers and academicians, who now have access to a wider scope of Eastern European prints from the 1960s to the present time and, consequently, greater opportunities for further inquiry and research.
A selection of Cerny's donations is accessible on the Library's Web site through the Prints and Photographs Division online catalog at www.loc.gov/rr/print/catalog.html. Like the division's other online collections, the prints are searchable by artist or title. The prints and posters in the Cerny collection are also available for research in the Prints and Photographs reading room in the James Madison Memorial Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C.
Katherine Blood is a curator of fine prints in the Prints and Photographs Division, and Bibi Martí is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office. The authors would like to thank the following Library staff for their assistance with translations: Ronald Bachman, Helen Fedor and Ken Nyirady from the European Division and Michael Grunberger, head of the Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division.