Čestmír Kafka began his studies in art in 1940 at the School of Art in Zlín. His studies were interrupted when he was sent into forced labour (1942-43). He completed his education in 1945. He studied applied and decorative painting in architecture and advertising under Vladimír Hroch. Vincenc Makovský, known for his surrealist leanings, also taught at the school in Zlín. Kafka shared these leanings and his inclination in that direction was reinforced: in Zlín Kafka created numerous surrealist drawings, many of which resemble diary entries. He was also interested in literature, especially surrealist, and art theory. And he was politically active – attracted to this activity in part by his friendship with painter Václav Chad, who was shot by the Gestapo.
In 1946-1949 Kafka studied at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague under Emil Filla. Instruction in cubism introduced a new experience into the artist’s surrealist world. The earlier echoes of Picasso’s work (not just from his cubist period) began to mix with a rationally organised cubist articulation of the visual surface. Čestmír Kafka also went through a period of struggling to find a generational style, which was typical among students of art in that era. It was a time when the war had severed the natural course of artistic development, and when, after 1948, the dictatorship of Stalinist cultural ideology seized control. Most young artists then looked to pre-war trends for something to draw on. An example is Kafka’s painting Black Tables (Černé stoly, 1946), in which the artist put his surrealist-cubist lessons to use, and in which there is still a sense of a waning wartime gloom.
In the second half of the 1950s some artists began coming together in different art groups centred on a shared outlook. Čestmír Kafka was a member of the group Route 45 (Trasa 54), which had its first exhibition in 1957, and whose members included other graduates of Filla’s studio (E. Kmentová, J. Válová, K. Válová, O. Čechová, Z. Fibichová, V. Preclík, K. Vaca, O. Zoubek, Z. Šimek). This group espoused the aesthetics of the poetry of everyday life. Simple, informal modernism was interpreted as a reaction to the pathos of cliché images and the gestures of socialist realism so remote from real life. Kafka’s paintings from this period are expressively sober and gravitate towards a constructivist composition of the visual elements (Střechy, 1958; Velké střechy, 1960). The lessons of Paul Klee are deployed here, the inspiration for Kafka’s paintings with character-type stylisations or even abstract in tone (An Italian Town / Italské město, 1962).
In the 1960s Čestmír Kafka gravitated towards material ‘painting’. He applied thick layers of colour into which he mixed other elements and objects. Oil, plaster, enamel, sand, clay, glass, paper and other elements not usually used in painting were layered in various ways and their surfaces dug at and scratched to heighten the emotional component of the image. And he also devoted attention to the work’s geometric organisation. In the end the image is dominated by a graphic character (The Yellow Bride / Žlutá nevěsta, 1965). Here the artist showed his talent in two fields: he was someone who perceived the world sensitively and with poetic reflection, and he was also a person with a rationalist inclination. That aspect began to dominate in the late 1970s, though Kafka never became a constructivist artist in the pure sense. At the back of his work there are always what seem to be remote surrealist echoes from the early days of his journey. A painting was often sparked by a memory from his personal life, a landscape, or something he had experienced. And perhaps that is why we often have a sense of some mysterious code at play in Kafka’s work (Little Sheep Pen, White /Ovčinec, bílý, 1970).
There is also a strong imaginative feeling to paintings such as Measurement (Měření, 1970), the cycle Parting Cubes (Rozestupující se krychle, 1971) and Drawing for the Installation of a Piece of Equipment (Nákres k instalaci zařízení, 1972). In these works the expressive device is no longer the material but lines, seemingly marked out in black on a white base. Here Kafka was at his freest in the sense of minimising his devices. This is a direction of his work than runs right through the 1970s and extends even into the early 1980s (Window-Branišov / Okno-Branišov, 1977; Old Garden II / Stará zahrada II, 1984-86). The paintings capture the atmosphere of infinite timelessness, which can be interpreted as a statement of the artist’s feelings in the normalisation era. The world is colourless, figures illegible, spaces silent and empty. The illusionary-architectural images of a world without life testify to an existential experience of existence and pull us into the sphere of metaphysics, as a place of refuge from the sense of hopelessness at that time.
Along with these works on the philosophy of existence, from 1973 Kafka was creating objects that incarnated his faith in the expressive force of materials. This was the motivation for the cycles Piercing (Prorážení), Months (Měsíce) and On the Union of Two Things (O spojování dvou věcí), which continued into the 1980s and which the artist referred to familiarly as ‘connect-the-dot’ works. They have a diary-like quality to them (another link to surrealism). The artist covered the surface with various objects and connected them to each other in different ways. For Kafka connection was almost a ritual process, in which he comes to an awareness of himself. He would take remnants of clothes, used packaging, and other relics of the human world and cut and fold and sew and bind them together. These simple materials and the simple way in which they were worked evoke spirituality, an area Kafka was constantly drawn to as a place where it is possible to find meaning in life.
In the 1980s Kafka worked on the cycle Substances (Hmoty, 1983-84). He focused on creating intellectually more direct assemblages with a more material impression. The artist would loosely arrange natural materials (grass, ash, clay, roots, leaves) on a soft foundation of assembled padding and then press everything together beneath a transparent Plexiglas panel.
Although Kafka’s work had intellectual foundations, its source was his strong emotions. An interest in philosophical questions of existence (especially in the existential sense) was balanced by leanings towards simple, natural, everyday materials. The high points of Kafka’s work include his painted ‘white paintings’, filled with ethereal constructive elements, and his assemblage cycles, in which he made use of direct contact with the material. In both aspects we can see a metaphor for Kafka’s feelings and views in life, which constituted fusions of strong personal emotions amended by rationalism, and which at the same time were infused with ideas that sprang from the artist’s unconscious or his reflections on life.
Monografie – katalogy výstav:
Ostatní literatura (výběr):
Klimešová Marie , Roky ve dnech (České umění 1945-1957), Galerie hlavního města Prahy, Praha, 2010
Hlaváček Josef , Cvičení z estetiky, Gallery, spol. s r.o. (Jaroslav Kořán), Praha, 2007
Hlaváček Josef , Umění je to, co dělá život zajímavější než umění (jak praví r.f.), Artefact, Praha, 1999
Kafka Čestmír , O tom (texty), Vysoká škola uměleckoprůmyslová (od 1945), Praha, 1997
Nešlehová Mahulena , Poselství jiného výrazu (Pojetí informelu v českém umění 50. a první poloviny 60. let), Artefact, Praha, 1997
Šetlík Jiří , Cesty po ateliérech (1976-1986), Torst, Praha, 1996
Chalupecký Jindřich , Nové umění v Čechách, Nakladatelství a vydavatelství H&H, s.r.o., Jinočany, 1994
Hlaváček Josef , Výpovědi umění, Severočeské nakladatelství, Ústí nad Labem, 1991
Kroutvor Josef , Internáty (Kresby Čestmíra Kafky z let 1943-45), Uměleckoprůmyslové museum, Praha1985
Bénamou Geneviève , L´art aujourd´hui en Tchecoslovaquie, Geneviève Bénamou, Paříž, 1979
Hlaváček Luboš , Současná československá grafika, Nakladatelství československých výtvarných umělců, Praha, 1964