FROM IDYLL TO LANDSCAPE OF DARKNESS AND SPECTRES: THE CESKÉ STREDOHORI IN THE WORK OF EMIL FILLA
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The paintings of the Ceské stredohori (Czech low mountain range), a hilly region of volcanic origin in north-western Bohemia, occupy a special position in the work of the painter and sculptor Emil Filla. They were made at the very end of the artist's life, in 1947-1952. Because of the subject matter of the paintings and the shift towards a more realistic form of depiction, certain theorists tended to classify them as socialist realist, the trend that dominated Czech plastic arts in the 1950s. This classification is no longer tenable, considering the wider historical context and the formal qualities of the works in question. These paintings do not represent a fundamental revolution in Filla's work; rather, they develop on his earlier landscape pieces. In the first half of the 1920s, he drew motifs from the Turnov region; the landscapes from the area of Máchovo jezero (Mácha's Lake) date from 1929. Moreover, after 1948 the painter was personally affected by a number of events. The official ideological rejection of Cubism as 'formalism' had a tragic culmination for Filla in the so-called trial: in June 1951, the members of the 3rd regional centre of the Union of Czechoslovak Artists Mánes discussed the artist's cycle Songs. The outcome of the 'trial' was that Filla was forbidden to exhibit anything but landscapes of the Ceské stredohori. These circumstances were reflected in the painter's works. After 1951, he no longer presented the landscape as an idyllic place, a closed hortus conclusus. The dramatic and expressive qualities of the works were heightened; at the same time, the influence of the paintings of Jan van Goyen and Chinese landscapes was apparent. Shortly before that, Filla had treated them in a theoretical study. He interpreted the Chinese landscape as a timeless, static place of 'absolute emptiness' and introduced these qualities into his paintings of the Ceské stredohori. This sort of conception of the landscape was at odds with the demands of socialist realism. Thus, in this phase, one can interpret the infiltration of forms of Chinese art in Filla's landscape work as a deepening of the universal dimension of the landscape, as well as an act of resistance against the dominant ideology. In the 1951 discussion of Filla's cycle Songs, some of those present had objected in particular to the inspiration of Chinese art that was manifest both in the format of the works, derived from the Chinese or the Japanese kakemono, as the case may be, and in the stylisation, based on Chinese models. Thus, in Filla's case, the forms of old Chinese painting ended up in the same position as Cubism. From the socialist realist point of view, these forms were undesirable, in particular in treatments of the Czech landscape and other 'national' themes. Thus, the introduction of the style of Chinese painting to pictures of the mountain range was not a dodging manoeuvre or a humiliating concession, but rather a provocative challenge to the stagnant ruling ideology. This was so even though Chinese artwork was admired by representatives of official circles in Czechoslovakia after 1952. It is clear that even at the end of his life, Filla was true to his reputation as a defender of freedom and the autonomy of art. Idyllic landscapes became landscapes of the spectres that pursued the artist in difficult times and oppressed his psyche.
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