Monday, 18 May 2009

Váchal's Portmoneum in Litomyšl

Litomyšl is among Bohemia’s most attractive and interesting towns, and one of its best features is that so many prominent artists lived there and left their work behind for people to enjoy.

Composer Bedřich Smetana was born in Litomyšl and his music can be enjoyed on a visit to his original home, at the musical fountain in the monastery gardens or during the annual opera festival in the renaissance chateau. Similarly, the sculptures of Olbram Zoubek are displayed at several locations across town; the main square, the monastery gardens, the chateau cellars and even in the local cemetery.

Josef Váchal is another prominent artist who worked in Litomyšl. As well as being a painter and illustrator, multitalented Váchal was also an author, woodcarver, typeface creator, and bookbinder. In the newly-independent Czechoslovakia of the 1920’s he was open to a wide spectrum of influences and combined art-nouveau symbolism, expressionism and futurism with his technical skills to create a unique style of artistic expression. Some of his designs have been reproduced as sgraffito murals along a lane named in his honour, and the Portmoneum museum on a modest Litomyšl back street is dedicated to his life and work.

The Portmoneum is the former home of Litomyšl native Josef Portman, who inherited a love of printing, graphic art and literature from his typographer father and became an avid collector of original prints and books of the Czechoslovakian avant-garde, especially the verse of Otakar Březina and woodcut prints by Josef Váchal.

Portman regularly corresponded with Váchal to purchase artwork. After several years they became friends and Váchal agreed to decorate the interior of Portman’s house in Litomyšl.

Portman had requests like “with that statue in the alcove, for that 600 crowns, carve out something devilish, grimacing…. let him have glass eyes which could be given a coat of that luminous paint…Just imagine how diabolic it would look in that recess, as if the eyes were glowing”. In small bursts between August 1920 and July 1924, almost the entire interior of the house was covered with Váchal’s primitive and demonic murals, creating a claustrophobic effect something like a cave of nightmares.

During those years, tensions developed between demanding Portman and erratic Váchal, and the friendship suffered further when Portman chose not to purchase a copy of Váchal’s new novel; Murder Story, which was set in a thinly disguised Litomyšl (the local town of L.) and featured Portman as one of the main characters (Count Portmon). The last straw for the friendship was when the artist sold a unique and irreplaceable copy of Otakar Březina’s verse, which had been lent to him by Portman for illustration.

Portman tried repeatedly to mend the relationship but was always rebuffed. After the communists came to power in the late 1940’s, Váchal found it increasingly difficult to work and grew gradually more isolated until his death 40 years ago this month (10.5.1969) at Studěnany near Jičín. Portman died in Litomyšl in 1968 and his house of murals at Ul. Terézy Novákové 75 gradually fell into such disrepair that it was eventually used only for storage.

By the fall of communism in 1989 the murals had either been painted over or were in atrocious condition. After a long, technically demanding and skillful reconstruction funded by Paseka Publishing, the house opened to the public as the Portmoneum museum in June 1993.

It’s now open Tuesday through Sunday from May to September for an admission fee of 40Kč and is one of Litomyšl’s not-to-be-missed attractions.

No comments: