Jan Kavan

Jan Kavan

Printing, painting, illustrations


8th of March 1947 in Zlin

Beginnings I was born, as usual, to my parents. In the town called Zlin. My father, though born in Prague, but of South Bohemian ancestry, has worked here as a teacher of sculpture at the School of Applied Arts. Later on I lived in the Prague suburbian district called Holesovice which for me was a place of many charms. That is where the accesible bank of Vltava river merged into the remains of a former village and newly built apartment houses. Vegetable gardens slowly gave way to warehouses and fences. All of this was dominated by power plant chimney stacks. We lived in a suburbian family house that was a part of a picturesque cluster of similar houses. Part of our yard was occupied by my dad's studio, which actually did not differ very much from the sheds in the neighborhood. Then there was a little garden with an old oak tree and even with climbing vine. Tiny little grapes with the flavour of power plant ashes and the drumming of chestnuts onto the metal roofs of the shed - that is how I remember the fall season in Holesovice. That is where I learned the beautiful copperlike color of cobble stones and the fragrance of vernal rains... As a boy I used to spend my summers in a village called Sedlhanky not far from Prague. At that time the Labe river flowing through this village was clean and we used to go swimming at a rafting-yard near the ferry. In its vicinity there were blind river arms vergrown with reeds and with flourishing fauna, meadows with typical flowers and deciduous forests - that was a real paradise for romantic fantasies and explorations into the realm of natural history.
Professional training Though my father is a sculptor and was a teacher at the College of Applied Arts for many years, he has never interefered with my attempts in the field of visual arts. However, he had a huge library full of art books. Moreover, the time spent in his studio was certainly a kind of school per se...
Secondary school of Applied Arts,
Zizkov district, Prague
There were many excellent teachers there, especially those taking us for technical subjects. The head of the section of applied graphics that I had taken up was Richard Pipal. He stressed the importance of craftsmanship, but he also tought us how to think in a creative manner. Alois Vitmk in his distinctive way fostered our ambitions as artists. Frantisek Dvorak, an ardent art historian, helped us organize our knowledge of art history. If I add my first loves to all that - I have thoroughly enjoyed those days there...
College of Applied Arts, Prague That is where one suddenly came down to earth, when one realized that he actually knew nothing whatsoever. Moreover, my first days at this college were affected by bad luck. I joined the special course tutored by professor Antonin Strnadel, but as a matter of fact I have never met him. He was seriously ill at that time and could not come to school. Prior to that I had attended the then obligatory one-year preparation course. Altogether this amounted to two years of wasted time due to the fact that the college lacked any clear educational concept and also due to my personal confusion and problems. To make matters worse all this was taking place back in the turbulent late sixties.

After summer holidays I joined a new studio which was then opened. It was the legendary Jiri Trnka who introduced order and systematic work there. However, we had to start from scratch again. Jiri Trnka emphasised the importance of craftsmanship beginning with properly mastered drawing. He considered that to be the very foundations on which he has built his mastery of expression. As a teacher he had the reputation of being honest and thorough. His plans were ambitious. We all were looking forward to turn them into reality. It is only a man of genius who is endowed with the ability to capture the very essence of things. And Jiri Trnka mastered that both in the field of illustrations and films and he also was an excellent teacher. All that ended abruptly during the Christmas of 1969. All of us felt that as a tremendous loss the bitterness of which I still feel...

Nevertheless the life at school went on. Thanks to good luck the orphaned class was taken care of by Zdenek Sklenar who had prior to that, for a short period of time, tutored the special course of painting. Professor Sklenar, a distinctive artist, great colorist who through his fantasy created a noble world with its own rules - was a man who was connected with Jiri Trnka not only through their frienship, but also through some sort of mysterious origin. As if they had known each other from the period of Renaissance. Their works suggest that they were on familiar terms with Italian but also Dutch masters and of course they were present at the court of Rudolf II. Before that, however, Jiri Trnka had been familiar with ancient Slavs and following the example of Premysl Orac he even sported a moustache. Zdenek Sklenar, on the other hand, tended to make friends with calligraphists at the court of Chinese mandarins which is somewhat reflected in his looks.

Jiri Anderle also became a teacher at the College as Jiri Trnka's assistant. Together with professor Sklenar he contributed to the highly inspiring and stimulating atmosphere. Jiri Anderle also shares a common denominator with both the professors namely in the classical origin of his imaginary training (with one of the masters of mannerism perhaps) and in perfect craftsmanship. His all-embracing graphic art and almost maniacal diligence was enrapturing.

The Sklenar School Since once I graduated from the class of professor Zdenek Sklenar I was classified as a member of what is today commonly called "the Sklenar School" (the legend suggests that this jinn was let out of the bottle by dr. Frantisek Dvorak), I may try to offer my own interpretation of this concept. Well, it is not about the students who would in a specific way apply their knowledge and creative principles of their teacher in their own work. It is neither about an association that would have some kind of a common program. It can be said as a matter of fact that a group of people came together from several different courses across the school. These were people who were capable of perceiving the inspiring atmosphere in a specific way and of letting it cultivate them. Moreover they managed to influence each other - even after they had left the college...
Graphic Arts as a Craft The way people imagine the artistic education of a graphic artist differs a lot from reality. The most frequent idea is that there is some kind of a guild graphic workshop where the novice is gradually initiated into all the secrets of the craft. It would not be detrimental to return to such a practice to a certain degree. I have got the feeling that the current system of education has a tendency to divert the attention of a young person from the object of his interest. In reality the student has to acquire the knowledge of most techniques through spying from his more experienced peers and from those few books which are available. To work with a graphic plate, especially making etchings or its modifications, is a true alchemy. One can learn that only through experience and experiments. Work of an artist is closely connected with craftsmanship. That is automatically reckoned with when artistic ideas are being born. The best is to draw lessons from a ready print made by a good master - graphic artist of the past or present days.
Poetry For me poetry is multifaceted. It is not merely literature. The canvases by Giorgione are also poetry. Josef Sima was good at painting poetry. Poetry simply exists on its own, in space. I know the poetry of landscape. Even town has its own poetry. Bohumil Hrabal discovers poetry even in the middle of waste paper. Poetry is a way of seeing and perceiving.
What Fills Me with Admiration Forests and meadows generally, and those in Sumava region in particular. Beautiful women. Period architecture. Budding plants. Innocent glance of a child. Thoughts recorded in books. Good pictures. Ant-heaps. Performances of good actors. South Bohemian ponds. Man of wisdom. Sandstone rocks. Good red wine. People who can sing and play. And a lot of other things ...
What Concerns Me And Makes Me Mad There is a lot, but especially ruthlesness and uncouthness of people. Selfishness and shortsightedness with which most people approach the world they are living in. Sometimes we treat the nature cruelly, we become consumers only. As if we could dispose of it after use and buy ourselves a new one. For the sake of our convenience we sometimes destroy nature like an enemy and we do not want to admit that we ourselves are a part of nature. We feel to be winners and do not realize that our victory is very much like that of Napoleon by Moscow.
What I Strive for It is up to you to say...