Jiří Valenta and the Mystery of Artistic Rebirth / Art Informel Tendencies in the 1950’s and 1960’s

October 18, 2016 – January, 15 2017

Painter –master of paper and words – painter – sculptor – artists of different generations, focus, experience, and artistic creations. Nevertheless, their combined exhibition is more than logical. Due to the political atmosphere after 1948, the situation in the Czech art scene was not easy. The new regime commenced to appropriate the right to supervise the cultural life of the population in Czechoslovakia. Socialist Realism became the official doctrine and many artists had a problem accepting this situation, especially the younger generation emerging on the artistic scene in the fifties. In addition to conformist artists that were unequivocally supported by the state, several pluralistic movements started to appear. The basis for their own art was mostly searched for in the coloristic tradition of the Avant-garde, imaginative Surrealism, grotesque, and most importantly Art Informel, which is currently maybe the most recognizable echo of that time.

Jiří Valenta was born in 1936 in Prague and studied at the School of Applied Arts and the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Mikuláš Medek was an important inspiration for Valenta, who was familiar with his work, which probably opened new horizons while trying to tackle certain themes. In March 1960, Valenta initiated a one-day long exhibition entitled Confrontation, which took place at his atelier in Libeň. His art was presented together with works by Zdeněk Beran, Quido Biasi, Vladimír Boudník, Čestmír Janošek, Jan Koblasa, Antonín Málek, Antonín Tomalík and Aleš Veselý. The most interesting of Valenta’s works are his early abstract compositions, where he searches for a deeper spiritual dimension within. The intensified despair of the materialistic and intentionally atheist Czechoslovakia, was reflected in works such as Triptych, or in the cycle of collages and compositions created in short succession in 1960. Since the information vacuum of the time was penetrated only by pieces of information concerning foreign progressive art, Czechs searched for answers to their creative questions also in tradition. Medieval art played an important role in forming the Czech Art Informel scene, which was almost impossible to rid of all spiritual content, despite attempts made by Marxist methodology, whose mystery and message was even more attractive to artists, because it was bound to the authenticity and inwardness of the sacred experience. In this sense, the concept of Czech Art Informel is autonomously original even in a world context. The Gothic period became a great source of inspiration because of its stylized, abstract formulation of spatial relationships and spiritual strength. After the end of the Second World War, medieval art became once again topical, especially in the spiritual wasteland of the fifties, when the intellectual environment created an alternative perspective on the artistic and existential questions that could not be answered within the then university environment. The philosophical literature of catholic modernism played a particularly important role, especially in circles around Mikuláš Medek. There were other artists that worked with spiritual categories, such as Christianity (for example Antonín Málek) or Judaism (for example Robert Piesen), and perceived them as the basis for their own work. Here, spirituality is the archetype of perfection standing in stark contrast to a historically determined concept of realism, where the requirement of spirituality within artwork is the search for a higher meaning of art as such. Valenta’s unequivocal identification with medieval art is obvious from the fact that in the sixties, the artist referred to some of his works as “panel paintings” (in the seventies, he referred to his works as “votive paintings”), and in the creation of the semi-abstract cycle Tribute to Master Theodoric in the time of his emigration. Above all, Czech Art Informel artists were interested in issues of internal logic, beauty and immanence of an artwork. In Valenta’s case, this aesthetic category was first and foremost connected with the qualities of light and colour, where beauty is connected with light and emanation on a spiritual level. Hence Valenta creates monochrome symbol compositions that are structurally similar to gothic altarpieces, and strives to achieve the identical illuminative effect. Through the transformation of raw material, such as sand or fabric, not only is sought a return to the material’s roots, but creates a meditative work of a spiritual intensity despite the obvious harmoniously timeless materiality and dematerialization. A similar manifestation of artistic freedom was appealing to other artists, especially within the circle of Valenta’s friends. Artists of this type of structural abstraction usually rejected any agreement with the ruling regime. Their criticism found an audience particularly after 1964. At that time, the changes in the leadership of the Union of Czechoslovak Artists led to an overall diminution of the strong censorship, and the release made room for freer artistic expression and most importantly, for public presentation.


The exhibition presents one of its the key acquisitions of Museum Kampa, Jiří Valenta’s Collage II that was purchased last year from a private owner. The presentation of the aesthetic potential of the unique combination of authentic medieval artefacts is meant to show the possibilities of interpretation of Art Informel from the late fifties and the sixties. The exhibition also includes a display of works of Valenta’s contemporaries, which will present Collage II in the relevant context.

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