Nov 052017
 

Today is the birthday (1890) of Jan Zrzavý, a major Czech graphic artist, illustrator, and scenographer, representative of the avant-garde in Prague at the beginning of the 20th century. He is well known these days in the Czech Republic among artists and graphic designers, and you can see his influence in a variety of Czech media. He is not especially well known outside eastern Europe, except among the cognoscenti. In part this is because he was a private, solitary figure not drawn to fame.  He is sometimes called malíř snů (the painter of dreams), because his paintings can evoke a sense of other-worldliness and alienation from reality.

Zrzavý was born in Okrouhlice near Havlíčkův Brod. He wrote poems and plays but is mostly remembered in the visual arts. He studied at the UMPRUM (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design) in Prague for two years before being expelled. After that, he made four attempts to enroll at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague without success. Thenceforth he studied privately with Czech painters, such as, Karel Reisner, Vladimír Županský, and František Ženíšek.

When you look at Zrzavý’s oeuvre you can see he was influenced by many world-famous artists and many artistic styles, especially Italian Renaissance masters, as well as Medieval Gothic paintings. He also found inspiration in the works of modernists such as Munch, Seurat, and Gauguin. Religious imagery is evident throughout his collection.

At first he was drawn to symbolism and impressionism, for example in his paintings Údolí smutku (Valley of Sorrow) or Nokturno (Nocturno).

There is a marginal influence of cubism seen in, for example, Zátiší s konvalinkami (Still life with Lily of the Valley) and Meditace (Meditation).

After the First World War Zrzavý emphasized plain volumes and shapes, soft contours and muted coloring.

Between the wars he traveled to Italy, Belgium and France and focused his effort on landscapes, in particular in Venice, Bretagne and Bohemia.

During the Second World War his landscape paintings featured fatalism tinged with lyricism.

After the Second World War the lyricism, or lightness, became more prominent.

Beside being a prolific painter, Zrzavý was also a distinctive illustrator. His best known illustrations can be found in Mácha’s Máj (May) and in Karel Jaromír Erben’s Kytice (The Garland). In addition, he produced stage settings – for example, for operas performed at the stage of the National Theatre and the Estates Theatre in Prague (Mozart – Idomeneus, Verdi – Rigoletto, Debussy –The Prodigal Son, Dvořák – Armida).

After the war he became an associate professor at Palacký University of Olomouc, Department of Visual Art at the Faculty of Philosophy, teaching painting and composition. In 1965 he was honored with the National Artist title. In 1972 he published a book of his memories simply called Jan Zrzavý vzpomíná (Jan Zrzavý recollecting).

Despite long periods of poor health, Zrzavý died at the age of 86, on 12th October 1977 in Prague.

Kulajda is one of the great classic soups of the Czech Republic. It has a potato and mushroom base soured with vinegar and sour cream, seasoned with dill, and served with a poached egg on top. Classic. The mushrooms need to be well flavored, not your generic white agarics. Czechs often use strong dried mushrooms. If you use dried mushrooms, soak them in warm water for an hour or so, and use the water in cooking.

Kulajda

Ingredients

3 cups peeled and diced potatoes
1 tbsp whole peppercorns
2 bay leaves
½ cup flour
¾ cup sour cream
4 eggs
3 tbsp white vinegar
1 cup sliced mushrooms
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
1 tbsp caraway seeds
salt

Instructions

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and barely cover with water. Add the bay leaves, peppercorns, caraway seeds and salt to taste, bring to a boil, then simmer until the potatoes are very soft. Mash some of the potatoes with a fork and stir the soup. Mix the flour in a bowl with the sour cream making sure there are no lumps. You can use a whisk or fork, but mix very well.  Add some liquid from the hot soup to the sour cream a few tablespoons at a time whisking until it is smooth. Then pour the mixture through a fine strainer back into the soup pot.  Bring to a simmer until the soup thickens.  Then add the vinegar, mushrooms and chopped fresh dill.

While the soup is heating through poach the eggs. Some people get fancy and poach them right in the soup. I find this a bit risky, so I poach them separately.

Serve in shallow bowls with a poached egg in the center of each.

Serves 4

May 132015
 

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Today is the birthday (1882) of Georges Braque, a major 20th-century French painter, collagist, draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor — one of my all-time favorites. His most important contributions to the history of art were in his alliance with Fauvism from 1906, and the role he played in the development of Cubism. Braque’s work between 1908 and 1912 is closely associated with that of his colleague Pablo Picasso. Their respective Cubist works were in some cases indistinguishable.

Braque was born in Argenteuil, Val-d’Oise. He grew up in Le Havre and trained to be a house painter and decorator like his father and grandfather. However, he also studied artistic painting during evenings at the École des Beaux-Arts, in Le Havre, from about 1897 to 1899. In Paris, he apprenticed with a decorator and was awarded his certificate in 1902. The next year, he attended the Académie Humbert, also in Paris, and painted there until 1904. It was here that he met Marie Laurencin and Francis Picabia.

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Braque’s earliest works were impressionistic, but after seeing the work exhibited by the artistic group known as the “Fauves” in 1905, he adopted a Fauvist style. The Fauves, a group that included Henri Matisse and André Derain among others, used brilliant colors to represent emotions. Braque worked most closely with the artists Raoul Dufy and Othon Friesz, who shared Braque’s hometown of Le Havre, to develop a somewhat more subdued Fauvist style. In 1906, Braque traveled with Friesz to L’Estaque, to Antwerp, and then home to Le Havre to paint.

In May 1907, he successfully exhibited works of the Fauve style in the Salon des Indépendants. The same year, Braque’s style began a slow evolution as he became influenced by Paul Cézanne who had died in 1906 and whose works were exhibited in Paris for the first time in a large-scale, museum-like retrospective in September 1907. The 1907 Cézanne retrospective at the Salon d’Automne greatly affected the avant-garde artists of Paris, resulting in the advent of Cubism.

Braque’s paintings of 1908–1913 reflected his new interest in geometry and simultaneous perspective. He conducted an intense study of the effects of light and perspective and the technical means that painters use to represent these effects, seeming to question the most standard of artistic conventions. In his village scenes, for example, Braque frequently reduced an architectural structure to a geometric form approximating a cube, yet rendered its shading so that it looked both flat and three-dimensional by fragmenting the image.

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Beginning in 1909, Braque began to work closely with Picasso who had been developing a similar proto-Cubist style of painting. At the time, he was influenced by Gauguin, Cézanne, African masks, and Iberian sculpture while Braque was interested mainly in developing Cézanne’s ideas of multiple perspectives. The invention of Cubism was a joint effort between Picasso and Braque, then residents of Montmartre in Paris. These artists were the style’s main innovators. After meeting in October or November 1907, Braque and Picasso, in particular, began working on the development of Cubism in 1908. Both artists produced paintings of monochromatic color and complex patterns of faceted form, now termed Analytic Cubism.

A decisive time of its development occurred during the summer of 1911, when Braque and Picasso painted side by side in Céret in the French Pyrenees, each artist producing paintings that are difficult—sometimes virtually impossible—to distinguish from those of the other. In 1912, they began to experiment with collage and Braque invented the papier collé technique. French art critic Louis Vauxcelles used the terms “bizarre cubiques” in 1908 after seeing a picture by Braque. He described it as ‘full of little cubes’. The term ‘Cubism’, first used in 1911 with reference to artists exhibiting at the Salon des Indépendants, quickly gained wide use but Picasso and Braque did not adopt it initially. Art historian Ernst Gombrich described Cubism as “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce one reading of the picture—that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas.” The Cubist style spread quickly throughout Paris and then Europe.

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The two artists’ productive collaboration continued and they worked closely together until the beginning of World War I in 1914, when Braque enlisted with the French Army. In May 1915, Braque received a severe head injury in battle at Carency and suffered temporary blindness. He was trepanned, and required a long period of recuperation.

Braque resumed painting in late 1916. Working alone, he began to moderate the harsh abstraction of cubism. He developed a more personal style characterized by brilliant color, textured surfaces, and—after his relocation to the Normandy seacoast—the reappearance of the human figure. He painted many still life subjects during this time, maintaining his emphasis on structure. One example of this is his 1943 work Blue Guitar. During his recovery he became a close friend of the cubist artist Juan Gris.

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He continued to work during the remainder of his life, producing a considerable number of paintings, graphics, and sculptures. Braque, along with Matisse, is credited for introducing Picasso to Fernand Mourlot, and most of the lithographs and book illustrations he himself created during the 1940s and ’50s were produced at the Mourlot Studios. In 1962 Braque worked with master printmaker Aldo Crommelynck to create his series of etchings and aquatints titled “L’Ordre des Oiseaux” (“The Order of Birds”), which was accompanied by the poet Saint-John Perse’s text.

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Braque died on 31 August 1963 in Paris. He is buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. Valery in Varengeville-sur-Mer, Normandy whose windows he designed.

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Braque’s hometown, Le Havre, is a well-known fishing town in Normandy as these images attest (including a number of impressionist paintings by Monet who was a resident):

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I did find a recipe for scallops Le Havre but could not discover what made them unique to Le Havre. Besides it was not particularly interesting. So, I have settled for a Normandy fish stew that I like. It’s a simple but creamy bouillabaisse.

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Normandy Fish Stew

Ingredients

500g mussels

300ml cider

1 tbsp butter

2 leeks, cleaned and sliced

100g baby button mushrooms halved

150ml crème fraîche

4 fillets skin-on white fish

small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Instructions

Scrub and de-beard the mussels. Discard any that do not close when tapped.

Put the mussels and cider into a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cover. Cook for about 3 minutes or until the mussels have opened. Discard any that do not.

Drain the mussels by using a sieve lined with muslin over a bowl to strain out any sand.

Clean and dry the pan and place it on medium high heat. Melt the butter and sweat the leeks until soft. Add the mushrooms and cook 1-2 minutes longer.

Add the mussel broth and crème fraîche and simmer to reduce by half.

Add the fish and parsley, cover, and cook until the fish is just cooked through (time depends on the thickness of the fillets). Return the mussels to heat.

Serve in the pot at the table, with crusty French bread.