While the general public perceives Zoubek as a one position sculptor – creating rather impassioned sculptures evoking ancient theatre, which, following 1989 sometimes slipped all the way to the decorative style – if we take a closer look, we will see a sculptor who has had a very interesting and complicated development. It reflects the many problems that Czech art was faced with – primarily the loss of continuity after WWII, the difficulty in regaining it on the break of the 1950s and 1960s, and at the end of this decade also a fleeting contact with international sculpture.
Olbram Zoubek belongs to the strong generation that entered the scene after WWII. If Jindřich Chalupecký once remarked that in the generation of the 1940s, Ladislav Zívr was the only sculptor, then Zoubek’s generation was the last one in Czech art where sculpture dominated. In the beginning (until the beginning of 1960s), this generation could not deal with the existing issues of contemporary sculpture because it did not know it and it was preoccupied with other problems in the local conditions. There was nothing else to do than to follow up on the classics of Czech and international modernism – in Zoubek’s case these included Zadkine, Lipchits or Wotruba, as well as Miró or Léger. Sometime around 1965, sculpting symposia became an important source of information for local sculptors, and our environment was actually very close to them as they originated “around the corner” in Austria. Today we know that symposia were a phenomenon that contained many conservative or even retrogressive elements. This is actually valid also for the delayed touch of abstraction (at that time current in the Czech environment), which is linked to this group and played a certain role primarily in Zoubek’s work. His sculptures from Sankt Margarethen, Vyšné Ružbachy or Oggelshausen, free of any shape, encouraged by the founder of the symposia Karl Prantl, still have a figurative core. Let’s pause to recall that at this time he experienced his actually greatest breakthrough within the international context when in 1969 his sculpture from Sankt Margarethen was featured on the front page of a retrospective catalogue for the 10th anniversary of this historically first symposium.
From an art-historical perspective Zoubek was unlucky in a way for being born in such a strong generation, as a result of which he stood in the shadows of his peers whether it was Palcr, Chlupáč, Sekal, Kolíbal or his wife Eva Kmentová (naming just sculptors). But his sculptures-symbols from the break of 1950s and 1960s, his very strange sculpture group of a pair of engineers Malátek and Loos with the gestures of suppliants (1964), or his already mentioned sculptures bordering abstract stelas, co-created that overflowing creative atmosphere in the pressure cooker of the Czech basin of the 1960s, which was a mixture and cooperation of several generations and opinion streams. And it was certainly no coincidence that he belonged to the wider circle around Jindřich Chalupecký and that he was represented in 1967 at the exhibition Pět sochařů (Five Sculptors) in the Špálova Gallery. It may come as a surprise today that we can also find him among the participants of underground events such as Setkání na tenisových dvorcích v Praze (Meeting at the Tennis Courts in Prague) (1982), but Zoubek, although he was a classical sculptor, belonged to the core of the back then cultural opposition. This was confirmed also by the army of his statues at the exhibition Forum 88 in Holešovická tržnice – the first representative presentation of the Czech unofficial scene. In the spirit of this, he became the president of Nová skupina (New Group) in 1990 which was initiated by Chalupecký. This group, however, did not have a chance to become a fundamental platform because the circumstances had radically changed and Chalupecký’s principles, valid during the time when there was a lack of freedom, were suddenly no longer attractive for artists. Intergenerational solidarity lost its meaning in the new world, and all of a sudden the most important thing was individual performance.
In the renewed freedom Zoubek broke through like no one else and he was struck by the unhappy destiny of being a living classical artist, which does not necessarily mean a benefit for the artist and his work. He was, for example, quite harmed by the unlucky monograph from 1996 published as an honour to him by the Masaryk University – this concise art-historical and commemorative material turned out to be embarrassing from the typographical, as well as printing aspect. Today his work may appear to be too literary, impassioned and – as is the case of his memorial at Újezd – almost stage managed. In a way it is also encumbered by the period prior to 1989, because today we have the tendency to perceive it exactly in its context – as a private revolt against its shallowness, like a morality... And although I’m afraid that the new generations of young art historians will not have such sympathies for Zoubek’s work like those who had the chance to be influenced by its dignified and pleasant appearance (for that matter, something similar happened to another icon of Czech art, Mikuláš Medek), his work has unquestionable qualities that cannot be disregarded together with that superficial public interest that accompanies him today.