The modern artist has focused with increasing intensity on the realm of the human soul. He looks for the exclusive in humankind, and notices how one who is uniquely disposed shapes his own world by the way he perceives it. More often than not, he finds the ideal object in himself: he asks what can be read from his face and looks for new ways to speak about his soul, whether faithfully or fictitiously.

Either directly or indirectly, modern artists respond in their work to the ground-breaking social and cultural transformations of the world and to the most diverse intellectual stimuli. They understand that orthodox approaches overlook the fundamental in life and that acquired means of expression are insufficient for the coming experience. They strive for a new art. Some of them connect it with the inner, dreamy or fantastical, and distinguish it from everyday reality, while others attempt to capture the present moment. Nevertheless, they all increasingly apply their subjective vision and focus it, inter alia, on themselves. They more often analyse their own feelings or pay heed to their own experiences, while forever emphasising the uniqueness of their status, their otherness. Lyric poetry thrives in literature, self-portraits and portraits increasingly feature in the visual arts, and the artist’s life is displayed as part of his or her work, protecting the inwardness of their art.

Karel Kolařík


Portrait of the artist

“Artists alone […] reveal everyone’s secret bad conscience, the law that every man is a unique miracle; they dare to show us man as he is, to himself unique in each movement of his muscles [...].”
Friedrich Nietzsche, 1874

In addition to the work, the modern artist is represented by his face. This invites artists to attempt to capture its unique features and illustrate how the creative calling is imprinted in its appearance. And thus in portraits, his artistry is not only signalled by the tools of the trade (e.g. pen, brush, palette or musical instrument), but also, perhaps above all, by his physiognomy. This speaks of his sensitivity, determination and mutability in terms of his ability to understand and transform himself into the other, and even of his will to recreate the world in his own work.



Portrait photography

“[...] I consider the body to be entirely secondary, merely accidental, something for which a person is not responsible and over which he has no influence [...].”
Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic, 1927

While portraits depict the subject as artist, they also stylise him or attempt to penetrate to the interior. In contrast, the face captured in a photograph is mainly that of his civilian persona. It presents the often hazy boundary between the private and public, between the civic and artistic self-presentation, i.e. the line that has to be crossed when deciding whether to publish an artist’s journal or correspondence. In other words, a photograph both reveals and dissimulates, and if, along with its subject, it includes a glimpse of his surroundings or friends, it suggests that not only he, but his world, is Janus-faced.



The Records

“The manuscript is the embodiment of the idea, as it is made known by the hand, this glowing, childish servant of life. […] The true poet wishes to see the appearance of his thought, which the handwriting reveals.”
André Suarès

A written or drawn work is able, through the uniqueness of its strokes, to create the impression that it is completely imbued with the writer’s personality, and that it bears witness to him. Fin-de-siècle artists often preferred handwriting to the printed text and the sketch to the finished image. While non-individualised typography seems uniform and impersonal, the manuscript, especially if calligraphic as used by many modernists, speaks directly to the reader. The drawing or sketch also absorbs the primary artistic impulse, testifies to the creator’s vision, and even their vivid strokes seem to reflect the artist’s inner world.



Body language

“I am an image, Chiaro, of thine own soul within thee. See me, and know me as I am.”
D. G. Rossetti, 1849

Artists grow bolder when drawing on the taboo areas of sexuality, disease and death. At the same time they are drawn to and unsettled by the transcendent. They polarise the body and spirit even though they deem them inseparable. They confront this fact as a personal dilemma and deal more often in their works with the relationship between the physical and the inner life, a theme they now reconceptualise in diverse ways. For example, they attribute to certain bodily organs the ability to testify as to personality or soul: we may learn many things from a hand or eye seen as a mechanism associated with creativity, or hair as emitting a “magic” fluid. The entire physical construction, including gesture, speaks to us.


Lands of the soul

“Every landscape is, as it were, a state of the soul, and whoever penetrates into both is astonished to find how much likeness there is in each detail.”
Henri Frédéric Amiel, 1852

The symbolists also project mental states into the environment they portray. Landscape painting is especially important in this respect. The way it depicts the landscape speaks volumes about the artist, his attention, perception and sensitivity. At the same time, however, the scene can also “materialise” the soul: the mental (psychological) landscape does not resemble a real location, but forms a
distinctive space corresponding to the artist’s mood, or, as the famous quote by enri-Frédéric Amiel suggests, depicting the soul of nature. In poetry, too, images of a landscape are often associated with the motif of the soul, and these metaphors demonstrate the vastness and depth of the inner life of a human being.


The Books

“We write in order to clarify our vision. We print books in order to summon related beings from afar. If we achieve such strength of word that we can express ourselves simply, they will come.”
Otokar Březina, 1909

Modernists emphasise the significance of language. Aware of the fact that humans understand the world and themselves through words, they warn against the loss of their ability to name faithfully. There is a danger that the world will be struck dumb, that it will be deafened by meaningless verbosity and that the lie will not be distinguishable from the truth. They appreciate the book as an independent work of art, integrating verbal and artistic qualities. It thus represents the culmination of literary self-expression that everyone strives for and for which new genres emerge, especially the essay. Books also preserve testimonies and pick their way through a multiplicity of voices: in addition to memoires, documents are published and literary history evolves.

The faces of Karel Hlaváček

“The song emanates with tenderness, its gold fades – and there is nothing sadder than the sadness of these two eyes, the eyes of an enchanted poet.”
Karel Hlaváček, 1898

Karel Hlaváček takes as his central theme the modern subject. He examines it primarily as it relates to himself, his own experiences and dreams, and experiments with self-portrait and portrait in which he simultaneously evokes a tension between reality and fiction. His popularity among later generations
confirms the longevity of his legacy and sheds light on the link between the modernism of the 1890s and subsequent trends in art. In part due to Hlaváček’s contribution the world of modern art blossoms as an independent domain of transformation and stylisation, in which the artist does battle with him or herself and transcends conventions, and the viewer learns to look anew.

Books (Les Poètes maudits, R. Škeřík’s book series)

The book series Prokletí básníci (Les Poètes maudits), published at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s by Rudolf Škeřík, presented in twelve volumes the works by ‘Les Poètes maudits’, including the famous book of biographical essays by Paul Verlaine, after which it was named, poetry by Villon to the then-living Rictus. The book series suggested that even today, works are being created that remain unacceptable to ‘official’ literary structures and often precede artistic development. It also reflected the avant-gardists’ interest in the aesthetic principles of the 1890s generation, from which they distanced themselves. However, figures like Baudelaire and Mallarmé inspired them in a different manner, which they consistently emphasized: these poets represented revolutionary visionaries who foreshadowed cultural and spiritual transformations to come.

Landscapes (Prague)

František Kobliha’s woodcuts from the Prague series present both the ghostly and the gloomy aspects of the city. Twilight and night scenes resonate with the atmosphere of the turn-of-the-century literature, where the city is compared to a disgraced queen or a cruel stepmother, evoking a labyrinthine sensation. As the capital of a subjugated country, it embodies all the disappointments of past hopes and becomes a backdrop for personal defeats. The pervasive sense of hopelessness is heightened by the neglect of memorial sites and the omnipresent sludge, foreshadowing final disintegration through motifs of immobility, particularly the image of the stone ocean—Prague’s rooftops. Stiff pantile roofs confirm the inaccessibility of the dreamed-of Czech sea and the freedom associated with it.

The Body (Smokers’ hands)

The stylization of the modern artist as a smoker is one of the most characteristic. In addition to symbolizing the artist’s independence and modernity, it also helps to reformulate their relationship to their work. The creator polarizes his creations in a dandy manner, presenting their life as an original, even pivotal creation, and manifesting their mastery as self-evident. This aspect is also reflected in the watercolor sketches of the Polish artist Marjan Ruzamski for his self-portrait. Whether he ends up playing with a brush or pen, in one sketch the artist’s hand is holding a burning cigarette, and in another, the sketched object can be reminiscent of a Virginia cigarette.

Manuscripts (dedications by Stanislav Mráz)

To many critics, including Karel Čapek, Stanislav Mráz represented the dead end of Parnassian lyricism and the artist’s self-concept as a being enclosed in his own artificial world. However, this poet, sacrificing as much as he could for his work, desperately tried to appeal to contemporary readers, whom he did not seek among old-fashioned aesthetes but among ordinary people. These efforts are reflected in his messages to the editors of Ženský obzor and Sokol magazines and on the covers of his books. Mráz did not succeed, and after his death, the poor citizens of the Košíře neighborhood used his unsold writings in their stoves, as recounted by Jiří Kuběna, one of the most prominent Czech poets, who, in contrast, appreciated Mráz’s work. Vladimír Holan, as indicated by his notes in the prints, was also among those who valued Mráz’s work.


“We all work into each other’s hands,” Otokar Březina replied to Miloš Marten, thus demonstrating the mutuality of the spiritual work of artists at the turn of the century. However, they were far from being so familiar and united – they passionately debated and had uncompromising discussions. The polyphony of their richly diversified communication resounds with their countless letters, which reveal how various ideas arose, describe the publishing or exhibition “operation”, and show personal dramas. The writer also formulated his opinions, described his own world, and captured himself, as illustrated by the letter in which F. X. Šalda drew Sigismund Bouška’s attention to his voluntary loneliness: “[...] I am going alone, following my inner path.”

Group photograph

The group photograph ideally depicts the relationships between the subjects. Older studio photographs still followed traditional compositional habits and, rather than representing meetings of related people, they captured family members in generally defined roles or isolated individuals (as can be seen from Julius Zeyer’s photograph with his friends-writers). However, this gradually changed. A more original scene was provided by a later stylized film by translator Hugo Kosterka with his wife and the Danish writer Aage Matthison-Hansen, whose book the couple was reading. The boundary between the artificial and the real interior seems uncertain, and the writer’s own bodily presence becomes significant as a ghostly personification of the work being read.

With the development and expansion of technology, the photographic apparatus also penetrated into exteriors and the contact of captured persons was more vivid. Snapshots from Jarmil Krecar’s walk with his contemporaries in nature, which seemed to illustrate a romantic narrative, or a picture from Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic’s visit to the painter Wlastimil Hofman in the garden of his Smíchov studio, give a relaxed impression. The warm friendship is immediately expressed in what appears to be an amateur photograph from an informal friendly meeting between Zdenka Braunerová and artists from the younger generation in her studio in Roztoky.

Karel Hlaváček (Les Poètes maudits)

In a number of portraits, Hlaváček expressed the disharmony between the artist and society through expressive physiognomic stylization or by emphasizing the relationship between the face and the colored background. Concurrently, he imbued his portraits with a Cain-like quality, a sign of exclusivity, and underscored their detachment from their surroundings, reinforcing the impression of difference. For instance, the red area behind Zola’s bust (likely inspired by another model) symbolizes the fire ignited by his revolutionary work. Similarly, the flashes emanating from the richly shaded purple surface in Verlaine’s uniquely designed profile evoke the mutual conflict between the poet and the world. Hlaváček explored the artist’s sense of foreignness most extensively in a zoomorphic self-portrait, likening himself to a spider with bat ears.

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