Thursday, 18 February 2021

Czech Prints - Puppets



I was talking to my son this afternoon via Zoom and we came to the topic of Czech prints of puppets. As those of you who are regular followers of this blog will know, the Czechs are experts in the making of puppets. We had a wonderful puppet maker as a neighbour and I first met my friend, Hannah, when I went to her flat in London to borrow some puppets she had made. Anyway I promised my son I would share with him some of the puppet prints from my collection of Czech graphics.

The print above is by Vojtech Cinybulk (as are the three immediately below). Cinybulk wasn't just an artist of puppets, he was active in puppet theatre, which no doubt accounts for how many puppet prints he produced. 


It is not generally known in the UK that Dr Faustus was widely performed as a puppet show in Europe.




This print is by Lander.



The next two prints are by Mahulka. A regular character in children's theatre is Kaspar, a marionette boy. 



Here he is again, this print is by Grmela


and again by Borek


But this delightful little fellow has evolved from a more raucous immoral character that stems from the same roots as the British Punch. The change was driven by a change in target audience, with many middle class families having their own set of puppets.  

But puppetry in the Czech Republic has never just been for children. From the cautionary tale of Faust, through the devil-beating Kaspar, to the surreal puppets of Svankmajer, Czech puppets have always also appealed to adults. They have always had a subversive element. The Nazis suppressed puppet performances, although brave puppeteers continued to perform in secret. Over 100 puppeteers and puppet writers died under torture or in concentration camps. The Czechs rightly take puppetry very seriously.


Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Czech Prints - Owls


I am mindful that I have not blogged here for a while. I have been unable to get back to the Czech Republic for a year now because of Covid 19 restrictions, which makes blogging difficult. However I do have an extensive collection (over a 1000 items) of Czech prints, mostly ex libris or PFs, which could stimulate an interesting series of posts - either about the subject matter or about the artist. 

I am going start the series with a post about a subject dear to my heart - owls. When I was nearly three, my family moved house. My father took me exploring the garden, an event that has stayed with me to this day. The previous owner had kept owls in the old stables that sat at the bottom of the garden of our rather normal terraced house and Dad showed me the pellets. The experience is the subject of the poem that gave my newly published poetry collection its title. The poem appears at the bottom of this post. 

Ever since then I have had a love of owls and it seems that the Czechs have too, as owls feature in quite a few prints in the collection. Here are a few of my favourites: 

This is by Hanak, it's just one in a number of owl exlibris by the artist.

This by Plechaty

This by Rajlich

This is by Svolinsky

And this by Bugan. 
You will notice that this ex libris and the one by Hanak are for the same patron. You often find that patrons will commission different artists to create work on their favourite themes. Dr Pribys obviously loved owls. 

In case you are wondering the print at the top of this post is by Palenicek.

Here's the poem. If you are interested in buying the book, it is called Owl Unbound and is published by Indigo Dreams Publishing -  https://www.indigodreams.co.uk/zoe-brooks/4595048690. I have a number of copies to sell (signed if you want), just email me on zoe.brooks@googlemail.com to buy a copy. 

Owl Unbound

First we found the snake
a ball of coiled skin and muscle
in a pickling jar at the base of the hedge.
 
I followed my father up
the outside stair to the stable loft,
on one side the railway signal
without a track,
on the other a brick wall,
pocked as the moon,
that would crumble
like cheese in the rain
under the thud of my ball
and send it flying sideways
escaping me.
 
The tread creaked as my father entered
and I followed into the dim.
I looked around, but saw
only an empty perching post.
The owl had gone with its master.
 
At my father’s instruction
I held out my hands
as if ready to receive bread and wine,
but into my bowl of fingers
he dropped a pellet,
a galaxy of small bones and feathers
cocooned in fur.
 
That night I woke.
The moon shredded by clouds
hung over the stable roof
and an owl called unbound
from the cypress tree.


Sunday, 10 May 2020

The Carpenter - Frantisek Jesus


I am sometimes asked how I found our Czech house. The answer is Hannah's carpenter - Frantisek. She told him I was looking and he took it upon himself to find the right house for me. When I said how it called to my soul, he did one of his mysterious smiles and said "Vim" (I know). That comment pretty much summed him up. He was a man of very few words, seldom more than two left his lips at any one time. But he had a spirituality that was beyond words. The first time I met Frantisek was when he was playing Jesus in the Horice na Sumava Passion play - a part he was made for. Hannah and I joked that he was so into method acting that he never came out of character. To my husband and me Frantisek is always known as "Frantisek  Jesus."

Frantisek was an artist rather than a carpenter. I remember how he stroked the curve of a desk he made for Hannah out of one plank of wood. Nothing Frantisek made was ever quite straight, which was a problem if you wanted him to make a door, but not if you wanted something beautiful. How I wanted him to make me some furniture. But first the house needed repairing, and after a disaster in which he removed my windows to repair without numbering them, I was disinclined to offer him precision work.

One day he arrived excited that he could source some wood cheaply for Hannah and me. We both ordered a load of rough hewn planks - Hannah chose oak and I elm. Mine were piled in the barn to wait the time when they could be transformed into furniture. Very soon I discovered that mine had woodworm, something elm is prone too. Woodworm didn't seem to worry Frantisek over much. On a visit to his house and workshop in Horice, I found my feet sinking into the floorboards they were so wormy. When I finally left my Czech home, the elm planks remained unused and were only fit for firewood. I never did get the chance to own one of Frantisek's quirky bookcases.

Over the years Frantisek would occasionally turn up for a wordless visit. But then his visits stopped. When I asked my neighbour, a mutual friend, she told me that Frantisek had been working in Germany (something many local craftsmen do) and that one day coming home over the Sumava mountains and probably tired after a long week of work, he mistook a tight bend and drove into a tree. His son who was with him was thrown clear, but Frantisek was killed.



I shall always be grateful for that silent, strange and wonderful man. When I left my Czech home I left a carving, the only thing Frantisek made for me, a self portrait of Jesus. It was too heavy to take on the plane and besides I very much felt that it should stay there.


Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Little things


One thing being in the Czech Republic gives me is a tendency to observe more closely those little things, that usually I pass by. There I was walking around the square in Telc, a place bustling with tourists, when I observed these little eruptions between the cobblestones. They were everywhere.

Czech cobbles are bedded in sand and the gap between them had made a perfect place for solitary miner bees to excavate their nests. In burrows, under the tourists' feet, the bees had built egg chanbers, furnished them with a sack of pollen, and laid their eggs. Now the new bees were hatching unobserved by all but me and launching into the air to feast on the flowers that decorated the square. 

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Smallholding


When the purchasers of my house first visited, they asked about the land around the house. On hearing that it had always been rented to the house owners by the council, they got very excited about being able to grow vegetables and fruit. The dream of having a small holding is one that Czechs hold dear. A few may want flower gardens, but many want to have sheep or goats in the orchard, chickens and rabbits in lean-to shelters, and potatoes, squash, cabbage and beans in ground. Go into a country dweller's home in winter and you will find jars of tomatoes, soft fruit, sauerkraut, and potatoes in sacks, stored apples, onions and garlic. As a builder once told me "All a Czech needs for the winter is potatoes and cabbage." He should have added beer, but that goes without saying.

I tried to join in this dream of self sufficiency by planting fruit bushes, but was not in the country enough to fight off the deer and birds that raided my garden. I was soon disillusioned of my rosy ideas of the rural idyll - growing food was a battle, but rearing animals for food was more demanding.

This was made very clear to me one day. I was standing at the bathroom window cleaning my teeth, when I saw my neighbour take one of the rabbits from the hutch. I watched as he killed it, hung it from the apple tree to strip it of its fur and gutted it. He had spent all summer carefully picking dandelion leaves specially to feed it and yet he was brusk even brutal when it came to killing the animal. I was shocked, this was so unlike my gentle giant of a neighbour. It made me think about my attitude to meat. I had never seen an animal killed for food before, although I eat meat. Mine is the first generation in my family that have had the luxury of ignorance. My mother remembered the killing of of the family pig and no doubt other animals. My grandmother talked in great detail of the flurry of activity that followed the pig's death, including the making of those famous Lincolnshire sausages. Wasn't the Czech approach more honest than mine?

Monday, 27 January 2020

Lety


On this the Holocaust Memorial Day this post is about the concentration camp at Lety close to Pisek. 

Lety was built as a labour camp for criminals by the Czechoslovak authorities, but in 1942 it was designated by the Nazis as a camp for "gypsies and gypsy half-breeds" of which there were 6500 registered in the country. The camp's capacity was increased to 600 inmates, but that was soon exceeded: by August 1100 men, women and children were crammed into thin-walled wooden huts. In December 1942 typhus broke out in the unsanitary conditions and lasted until the camp was closed in summer 1943. 326 people died at the camp, including all the 30 babies born there. The rest were transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau and the final solution of the "gypsy and gypsy half-breed question".  Only 600 Czech Roma survived the Holocaust or the Devouring as the Roma call it.

Lety camp 1942 (photo: Museum of Roma Culture.)

Lety has been a sore in the history of Czechoslovakia. There were many who argued that it was simply a labour camp for criminals and sadly there still are people who believe this. The camp guards were employees of the police force of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, not German SS officers. The brutal treatment of the prisoners went unpunished after . Over the decades since the war the Roma have had to fight for the removal of a pig farm built on the site and for a memorial to be erected to the dead. The Roma and Sinti remain the forgotten victims of the Holocaust.

This poem of mine was published in the second Poetry Birmingham Literature Journal at the end of last year:

RAINBOW OVER LETY

I view from a passing coach
the broken wheel of light
one end stuck in rutted clay,
one in forest loam.
Under the trees the leaves are flayed skin,
the roots whitened bones.

We move too fast to watch the light fade,
the dissolution of the arch into grey.
We, who are blessed with movement,
hurry past the stillness of the dead.
The restless ones rustle but cannot leave,
they for whom movement was everything


Monday, 13 January 2020

A Final Walk


Before Christmas I spent four weeks waiting to sign the contract for the sale of the house. In the end the signing took place on the morning of my departure date. So I am again in the Czech Republic to hand back my temporary residency paper to the authorities, to partially empty the house and sort various other matters.

So here I am sitting in a room that no longer feels like mine - there are no books, no cds, no pictures on the wall and very limited choice of food. I will be handing over my keys on Thursday, this is the end of my life in my Czech home. I have removed the brass fox doorknocker from the front door and for the first time I haven't seen my friend and mentor the local fox during my stay, although I am hoping he will come and say goodbye before I leave.

My lovely husband is with me for this last visit, for which I am very grateful as this is all proving very hard. Today was his birthday, so we took the early evening bus into Krumlov and had a meal at Nonna Gina's, the pizza restaurant we used to regularly visit with Hannah. Afterwards we took a walk through a nearly deserted town. It was just like it used to be, when first we visited the Krumlov. Without hordes of visitors and with wood smoke hanging in the crisp air, we could enjoy the atmosphere and beauty of the historic town, imagining that around the corner might appear someone from a time gone by. I haven't felt like that for a long time.

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