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

Sep 192013
 

rackself

Today is the birthday (1867) of Arthur Rackham, prolific book illustrator, whose works are much beloved down to today.  His first book illustrations were published in 1893 in To the Other Side by Thomas Rhodes, but his first serious commission was in 1894 for The Dolly Dialogues, the collected sketches of Anthony Hope, who later went on to write The Prisoner of Zenda. Book illustrating then became Rackham’s career for the rest of his life.

In 1903 he married Edyth Starkie, with whom he had one daughter, Barbara, in 1908. Rackham won a gold medal at the Milan International Exhibition in 1906 and another one at the Barcelona International Exposition in 1912. His works were included in numerous exhibitions, including one at the Louvre in Paris in 1914. Arthur Rackham died in 1939 of cancer in his home in Limpsfield, Surrey.

rack3

Arthur Rackham is widely regarded as one of the leading illustrators from the ‘Golden Age’ of British book illustration which encompassed the years from 1900 until the start of the First World War. During that period, there was a strong market for high quality illustrated books that typically were given as Christmas gifts. Many of Rackham’s books were produced in a deluxe limited edition, often vellum bound and sometimes signed, as well as a larger, less ornately bound quarto trade edition. This was often followed by a more modestly presented octavo edition in subsequent years for particularly popular books. The onset of the war in 1914 curtailed the market for such quality books, and the public’s taste for fantasy and fairies also declined in the 1920s.

rack1

Rackham invented his own technique which resembled photographic reproduction. He would first sketch an outline of his drawing, then lightly block in shapes and details. Afterwards he would add lines in pen and India ink, removing the pencil traces after it had dried. With color pictures, he would then apply multiple washes of color until translucent tints were created. He would also go on to expand the use of silhouette cuts in illustration work, particularly in the period after the First World War, as exemplified by his illustrations for Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Rackham’s work is often described as a fusion of a northern European ‘Nordic’ style strongly influenced by the Japanese woodblock tradition of the 19th century.

I really don’t want to dribble on about his art.  So much better to just give you a gallery to enjoy. Here’s a sampling of images I like:

Fairies

rackfairy4  rackfairy3  rackfairy2  rackfairy5
Sleeping Beauty

racksleep2  racksleep1

racksleep3   racksleep4

Grimms’ Tales

rackgrim30-big  rackgrim19

rackgrim14   rackgrim03

Alice

rackalice4  rackalice3

rackalice2  rackalice1

Christmas Carol

rackxmas1  rackxmas2

rackxmas3   rackxmas4

For a suitable recipe I have chosen the caption for this last illustration from Dickens’ Christmas Carol, “He produced a decanter of curiously light wine, and a block of curiously heavy cake.”  I can’t think of a Dickensian era cake heavier than Isabella Beeton’s “Rich Bride or Christening Cake,” which is a very dense fruitcake much like classic English Christmas cake.  In this case the recipe is not only heavy in texture but also in sheer weight.  There are 17 pounds of dry ingredients along with 16 eggs, which conservatively weigh 1 ½ pounds.  Quarter the recipe and use an 8 in deep pan.

rackcake2

RICH BRIDE OR CHRISTENING CAKE.

1753. INGREDIENTS.—5 lbs. of the finest flour, 3 lbs. of fresh butter, 5 lbs. of currants, 2 lbs. of sifted loaf sugar, 2 nutmegs, 1/4 oz. of mace, half 1/4 oz. of cloves, 16 eggs, 1 lb. of sweet almonds, 1/2 lb. of candied citron, 1/2 lb. each of candied orange and lemon peel, 1 gill of wine, 1 gill of brandy.

Mode.—Let the flour be as fine as possible, and well dried and sifted; the currants washed, picked, and dried before the fire; the sugar well pounded and sifted; the nutmegs grated, the spices pounded; the eggs thoroughly whisked, whites and yolks separately; the almonds pounded with a little orange-flower water, and the candied peel cut in neat slices. When all these ingredients are prepared, mix them in the following manner. Begin working the butter with the hand till it becomes of a cream-like consistency; stir in the sugar, and when the whites of the eggs are whisked to a solid froth, mix them with the butter and sugar; next, well beat up the yolks for 10 minutes, and, adding them to the flour, nutmegs, mace, and cloves, continue beating the whole together for 1/2 hour or longer, till wanted for the oven. Then mix in lightly the currants, almonds, and candied peel with the wine and brandy; and having lined a hoop with buttered paper, fill it with the mixture, and bake the cake in a tolerably quick oven, taking care, however, not to burn it: to prevent this, the top of it may be covered with a sheet of paper. To ascertain whether the cake is done, plunge a clean knife into the middle of it, withdraw it directly, and if the blade is not sticky, and looks bright, the cake is sufficiently baked. These cakes are usually spread with a thick layer of almond icing, and over that another layer of sugar icing, and afterwards ornamented. In baking a large cake like this, great attention must be paid to the heat of the oven; it should not be too fierce, but have a good soaking heat.

Time.—5 to 6 hours. Average cost, 2s. per lb.

Fruit cake like this was always traditional for English wedding cakes. The top tier was often saved for either the bride and groom’s first anniversary, or their first baby’s christening.  Prince William and Kate are reported to have saved the top two tiers from theirs (below).  This is possible because the cake is so dense (much like Christmas pudding). Note that this one, according to Beeton’s calculation would have cost more than 36 shillings, which was more than Bob Crachit took home in two weeks (he made 15s per week).

rackcake