Fotograf Magazine

Out hunting mermaids

These texts, illuminating the ideological background of the artist Jindřich Štyrský (1899–1942), were edited by Karel Srp with the assistance of Lenka Bydžovská. What is already the second book-form edition of insights previously scattered in magazines or altogether unknown, provides an extraordinary treat for the reader.

 The first edition of these occasional sketches and criticism was brought out in 1996 by Thyrsus, with the support of the Ministry of Culture, and entitled Každý z nás stopuje svoji ropuchu. [Texty 1923–40] – (Each One of Us Tails His Toad). The 2007 version by Argo Publishers is an expanded one, and also brings another very visible improvement: one no longer needs to decipher its typography. The contents are organized chronologically, doubtless a more sensible consideration than organization by theme, since with a minimum of commentary the full scope of the subversive nature of the opinions expressed here stands out more. At the same time, this chronological ordering leads to unforeseen encounters. The medley of statements, written for pragmatic as well as artistic purposes (prose poems, essays, criticism, polemics and lampoons, manifestos, lectures and also fragments of manuscripts) is furnished with an index of names, thus expanding the linear dimension of the setting so that the feeling of illuminating flashes emerging between various texts is not confined to sporadic sparks. The combination of manuscript sketches and finalized articles naturally cannot avoid echoes of haunting phrases. Particularly haunting is his horror of the rampant spread of all manner of kitsch.

 This reading may be entertaining and yet the primacy of its cognitive value is not lost. Thus it is revealed to us how Czech Surrealism inherited the congruity of a dual understanding of photography, which was appreciated by the visionary Devětsil group partly for its lifelike documentary reproduction of the model, and partly as a medium for poetic projection.

 Aside from the revelation of the author’s mental outlook, as well as his paranoia, one is struck by his portrayals of his contemporaries. Fifty years ahead of Jaroslav Seifert’s Songs of Childhood, Štyrský jibes at the future Nobel Prize laureate for literature: “Should at any time Seifert find himself at Pantheon’s gallery and stumble for balance, he is sure to remember his first childhood steps.” The power of Karel Teige, both as theoretician and doctrinaire of the avant-garde, is taken measure of in “the portrait of our little jack-of-all-trades”. Štyrský’s literary talent was of the sort that does not mince words, and his thrusts were delivered with great relish. He comes across here as an ironist impervious to pathos. He welcomed the Liberated Theatre of Voskovec and Werich and its magazine Vest Pocket Revue (Žurnál Osvobozeného divadla Vest Pocket Revue) as follows: “the editorial board was farsighted in opting for costly coated paper, for luxury impresses imbeciles and snobs of all classes.” Thirteen years before Vítězslav Nezval’s official decoration with the title of National Artist, Štyrský conferred upon the poet a rather more downto- earth title – “You piece of shit!” he teased his erstwhile friend, with the playful pathos of the fragments of his wartime writing surviving in his estate. It goes without saying that during the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, Nezval was blacklisted as a degenerate artist, and the oft-cited document is a mere echo of the slap in the face actually dealt to Nezval on March 7, 1938 in the wine bar U locha, in response to the his attempt to bind the Prague Surrealists with obedience to the policies of the Soviet Union, which in the context of the times was the equivalent of condoning judicial murders.

 Certainly the influence of Štyrský’s tract is not enough for the vast majority of Czechs to realize that long years of silence and changing coats has merely served to further blunt the language inherited from our forefathers. At most, quite a few can be once again identified with their erstwhile invectives: “The absurdity of their life lies in the fact that their true value is not up to their reputation.” Even when Štyrský himself raises doubts (as in “Picasso Plowed the Parquet Floor”), still his involvement is far more engaging than any obsequious sycophantism. In short, this is writing by an inspired pen: “Tis fall again, the time when a poet takes down his harpoon from the wall and goes out hunting mermaids…”


Štyrský J., Texty. Praha: Argo 2007, 248 pages, ISBN 978-80-7203-885-5.     

Josef Moucha