Friday, 8 September 2017

The Extraordinary Portmoneum

I gave my Australian artist friend a tour of the more unknown treasures of the Czech Republic and Litomysl's Portmoneum had to be on the list of stops. From the outside the Portmoneum is a humble single-storey house on a back street in Litomysl, but oh boy what wonders await you inside!

The story of the Portmoneum is the story of two men: one the artist Josef Vachal and the other, Josef Portmon, a teacher and a collector of art especially Vachal's. Portmon's collecting fervour bordered on the obsessive and eventually his demands on Vachal put such a strain on the relationship that the older man wanted nothing more to do with his admirer. In the Portmoneum we benefit from that fervour, for how many collectors would invite an artist to decorate every surface of two rooms in their small house – ceiling, walls and all the furniture? Even then it was not enough for Portmon who sought to commission more, but Vachal refused.

It is quite impossible to fully describe the impact of the Portmoneum. Vachal's art is vibrant, full of strong colours, metaphor and spirituality. Created in the early 1920s Portmoneum's expressionism stems from the Art Nouveau movement, but it both looks back at the Baroque and forward to today. In this his greatest work Vachal manages to combine a sense of humour with profound psychological depth. There is so much going on in the art, which literally surrounds the viewer, that it is impossible to take it all in.

Vachal has a very contemporary appeal. However it was not always so. Obviously his spirituality did not sit easily with Communism, so it was not until the late 1960's that his reputation began to recover. Even so the Portmoneum suffering from water damage was allowed to decline until the 1990's, when at last restoration began. I have visited twice and on both occasions we found ourselves alone to enjoy Vachal's amazing work.  

If you want to own a Vachal, it is quite possible to do so, as he also produced ex libris. Here is one from my collection: 


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