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JOSEF ČAPEK

(1887 – 1945) 

 

The Čapek brothers - Josef (right), Karel (left)

Josef Čapek was his brother Karel’s senior by about three years. These days, more than 60 years after his death, he is regarded as one of the best Czech visual artists ever. Some of his paintings, including “Dívka v růžových šatech” – Girl in the Pink Dress (1916) – and “Koupel nohou” – Foot Bath (1921) both shown here, have sold in 2007 at art auctions in the Czech Republic for the amounts approaching one million US dollars each. That, amongst the Czech artists, is second only to František Kupka’s Elevation IV, which in 2007 had fetched about 1 ½ million dollars.

Josef Capek - Dívka v rùžových šatech (Girl in the Pink Dress), 1916     Josef Capek: Foot Bath

Josef Čapek at first studied weaving (1901–3) at a craft school in Vrchlabí, but soon it became obvious that his talents for painting and designing called for more intensive training than this school could offer. For the next 6 years he found himself in Prague, where he studied decorative painting at the School of Applied Arts. Like Kupka and some other Czech artists of the modern school, Josef Čapek too found himself in the right place at the right time - the place being Paris and the time the year 1910. He stayed in Paris together with his brother for about twelve months, while he studied at the Académie Colarossi. Both brothers at that time became friends with the poet Gillaume Apollinaire, who through his essays at the time was turning into a very influential figure, and who was one of the strongest driving forces behind several streams of modern art, including Cubism. (Karel Čapek later became the Czech translator of Apollinaire's poetry.) After the brothers' return to Bohemia, for some time Josef Čapek continued to paint essentially in the Cubist style, while gradually introducing and modifying Cubism with some elements of Expressionism and Symbolism, some of which have become very recognisably his own, like the triangular female shapes and faces, or faces in the shape of mandorla, also known as Vesica Pisces (right).

Toaleta (1916)    Josef Capek: Toaleta

Josef Capek - Chuda zena (A Poor Woman)    Josef Capek - Zeny (Women)

Equally as talented as his brother Karel, and probably even more versatile, though perhaps never quite so well known, Josef Čapek has not only been active as a painter, but during the various phases of his life he had also been successful as playwright, graphic artist, illustrator, scenic designer, novelist, writer of children’s books, non-fiction writer, journalist and art critic; all of these activities being seriously conceived, not only some side ventures. Several of his works, such as some stage plays - notably The Insect Play,were written in collaboration with his brother Karel, who also credits him with inventing the word robot, which had taken the world by storm, and made Karel Čapek instantly famous, after he wrote the stage play R.U.R.

In a humorous little article, Karel Čapek tells the story of how the word “ROBOT” was born.

Josef Capek: The Harmonica Player    Josef Capek: Man in a Hat

Another area of activity in Josef Čapek's creative life was childrens' books, for which he wrote the stories as well as drew pictures. Available from Booksplendour now is the charming book for primary school age children The Tales of Doggie and Moggie (Povídání o pejskovi a kočičce).
Also available as an Ebook here. The book was prerviously published in the English language by Methuen as Harum Scarum. The dreadful film of the same name with Elvis Presley released about the same time in the early 1960s must have swayed the publishers towards using this title, which has not much to do with the stories. There are nine stories (Harum Scarum only had eight), about a dog and a cat, who want to do things the way the humans do, quite inevitably with a mixed success.

The artist's feelings of social consciousness, which were particularly intensied during the times of world wide economic crisis in the early 1930s, are particularly evident in his paintings "Desire" and "Hard Times" (right).  

Later in his artistic life, from about the late 1920s, Josef Čapek became much influenced by the Bohemian folk art, which resulted in a series of paintings, lithographs and pastels inspired by the suburban and country life, children's plays, etc. 

When Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Nazis in 1939, Josef Čapek, who was very well known for his anti-war stance, was soon arrested (his brother was already dead by this time). He very nearly survived to see the end of the war, but sadly he died in 1945, apparently of pneumonia, only a few days before the prisoners of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were freed by the Allied Armies.

Josef Capek: Mr Myself    Josef Capek: Grind-Organ Player

Josef Capek: desire

Josef Capek: Hard Times

Josef Capek: Childern Playing, 1935  Josef Capek: An Airplane, c.1935

     Josef Capek: In the Mountains

Josef Capek - Sedici devce (A Sitting Girl), 1921    Josef Capek: Boy with the Lantern