Pavel Laška - Life and Work

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Pavel Laška (1907-1983) belongs to the generation of artists who began their solo careers in about 1930. He received his training in painting at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts between 1925 and 1931. From the 1930s right through to the 1980s, his work retained a highly independent character, never adapting itself to ready-made views, styles or trends. All the same, it emerged in continual contact with Czech and international art. The work of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse served as a significant source of initial inspiration for Pavel Laška, as did the work of František Kupka later on. At the end of 1964 and beginning of 1965 he absorbed a series of impulses from the work of the American artists Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Between 1937 and 1967 he worked as a secondary school teacher, first of all at schools in southern Bohemia, and from 1948 in Prague. As a result of this, his pictures have 'the authenticity of creative work arising out of an inner need' (M. Lamač). This quality linked him with several major personalities of Czech art whom he most respected. These included above all Jan Zrzavý, František Tichý, Josef Šíma and František Hudeček. At the last collected exhibition of his work, the leading Czech art critic Miroslav Lamač wrote that 'Many of his pictures rank among the major works of Czech post-war art, and with their inner integrity as well as their artistic quality they are the equal of works by much better-known artists...' and that '...he never hesitated surrender an opinion he had made his own, one that he could have easily profited from; he remained open to everything new, entering uncharted territories at a time when other people his age had long since abandoned all risk and only repeated and multiplied what they had already achieved...'
   The first pictures that Pavel Laška painted in 1931 were a recollection of his earlier stay in Dinard and confirm that the young artist set himself a kind of personal goal for his artistic career. This meant avoiding a conventional perception of reality and conventional means of painting, making sure that the work's content corresponded to some significant experience, profound cognition of the senses and true emotion. In addition, he endeavoured each time to begin 'anew', seeking free forms, colours and lines for this content in order to express his experience in the most convincing way. He didn't want to start out from a predetermined style and simply adapt the work's content to that style. Pavel Laška's work of the 1930s thus belongs only loosely to the broader context of late lyrical Cubism. It later touched on Surrealism, which in the second half of the 1930s was the most important form of expression, reflecting the dramatic situation of the day. An important chapter is Laška's work of the 1940s. Following a series of works in which he reacted to the period of the German occupation through legible visual allegory, he created a cycle of pictures whose theme was an event in the landscape that was mainly dramatic. To express it, he found an original means of painting based on an effective iconic sign of landscapes and landscape elements, as well as objects and sometimes also people incorporated into the landscape. To achieve a greater emotional effect, Laška used a deliberately contrasting element, a kind of alien form, in the picture's composition. This could be a solitary structural patch of paint or a striking painted form that, in comparison with the rest of the painting, radiated a certain aggressiveness. These paintings were Laška's personal contribution to Czech landscape painting in the 1940s, expressing that period's oppressive atmosphere through great feeling for the effect made by individual colours in terms of their meaning and emotive qualities. A fresh, unusual and powerful colour composition is another characteristic feature of Laška's work.
   After 1948, when the aesthetics of Socialist Realism were enforced by the Czechoslovak regime, Pavel Laška, like many other artists, retreated with his art into personal privacy. In small-scale studies of still lifes and landscapes he explored the new possibilities of modern artistic media. Czech art only began to flourish once more at the end of the 1950s. In the confused situation which emerged out of a common need to swiftly come to terms with new trends in the development of Western art concerning which there existed only scraps of information, artists turned most often to nature and the sensual perception of reality. The means of portraying this reality featured above all an expressive deformation of shapes and colour execution, which then served a wide range of expressing man's reactions to the surrounding world. The emerging generation of young artists not so heavily burdened by artistic experience quickly adopted the newly discovered trends of Western art - Art Informel, the abstraction of the Parisian school of the 1950s - and with the language of these trends they identified their feelings and meanings in life. Pavel Laška belonged to the mature generation of artists and couldn't therefore put problems of form before authentic content. The world as he felt it was full of unease, evoking a feeling of latent threat and mild chaos. To express such things, Laška made original use of expressive form and gestural abbreviation, then more often the principle of colour contrast. This was frequently also the contradiction of black and white parts of a single area or the contrast of a threatening form 'alien' to the rest of the colour area which plays host to the town as a sign of the presence of people, the town symbolised by wandering broken lines. The perception of the unity of a worldwide whole through several of its microparts such as the still life presumes the ability to intuitively understand the irrational content of certain 'deformations' of the depicted object in terms of meaning, colour and form. Laška's still life worked towards this kind of arrangement with a particular Matisse-like monumentality of colour intonation or a gradual simplification of the expressive form to the point of an almost abstract colour sign such as in the cycle Plakánek Forest.
   Between 1960 and 1964 Czech art adopted the full range of expressive media used by modern European art at that time. This enabled it to actively participate in dealing with topical questions of international art as well as finding an artistic understanding of the world in its complexity. It was here that Pavel Laška made an original contribution. In his work of the mid-1960s there gradually appeared a happier image of the world in contrast to international experience that otherwise remained dramatic. In his pictures of that period, dynamism of form is reinforced to the point of exceptional intensity. In the composition of a spatial grid of colour areas, especially in several pictures from his 'countryside' cycle, perfect use is made of the capability of colour contrast to evoke emotions and poetic ideas. In certain works one can feel a distant echo of Paul Klee, something quite rare in Czech art. This area also includes the serious work Warrior / GMU and Mysterious Garden. In his pictures L'apres-midi d'un Faune and Encounter the urgency of the visual communication is achieved by an original comprehension of abstract expressionism. At that time, Laška's work grew in both quantity and quality. In 1962 he staged his first post-war exhibition of pictures from 1942 to 1962 and in 1965 a retrospective of his work from the period 1930-1965, prepared by a former pupil and later friend of his, the leading art historian and modern art critic Jiří Padrta.
   Pavel Laška's work to that point featured many qualifications and potential values that were only developed after 1965. These especially included a profound feeling for the values of colour, a feeling for the meaning of geometry in the composition of elementary areas in the picture, and a lifelong understanding for the picture as an independent object. At the level of meaning, it was primarily an understanding of objects and phenomena within major worldwide upheavals. He came to realise his new ideas in connection with visits to two major exhibitions that took place in 1964 - Documenta III in Kassel and American painting in Ghent. A series of Pavel Laška's pictures of the second half of the 1960s rank among important works of Czech art, in particular his compositions with relief areas based on a gently geometrical composition pattern, whose deeper meaning was the discovery of great 'classical' balance and harmony through modern sensibility. In their time quite unique in Czech art, his pictures composed of colour areas represented a personal artistic interpretation of 'philosophical' abstraction whose leading figures included Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. In these works, Laška touched on absolute values of the intuitive understanding of the world, doing so in a way that reflected 'new poetic wonder' (J. Padrta). In 1969-1970, Laška's work was deservedly included in a series of Czechoslovak modern artworks chosen for an international exhibition in Italy (Bologne), the German Federal Republic (West Berlin) and Yugoslavia. In the concluding stage of his work, the late 1970s and early '80s, Laška used free poetic imagination with which he focused mainly on the landscape of his childhood.
   If we look objectively at the results of fifty years of Laška's work and at its place in Czech art as a whole, it is clear that he ranks among a group of artists who, despite being closely involved with the topical issues of their day, managed to retain their individual mark. The course of inward changes and direction Laška's work belongs to the main process of development undergone by Czech art between 1930 and 1980, which, in addition, it enhanced with a special and original contribution.

Translation Richard Drury