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