František Skála and Other Works Zdeněk Freisleben

František Skála, in his exhibition at the Stone Bell House, is presenting his illustrations, created since the early 1980s, for the first time. After his exhibitions at Galerie Rudolfinum and the Wallenstein Riding School of the National Gallery, which were a great success with the public, we have an opportunity to see another aspect of Skála’s poetic, mysterious work, deeply ingrained in the natural world and always unpretentiously humorous.

František Skála, Rootabaga Stories, 1988
František Skála, Rootabaga Stories, 1988
František Skála, Life, 1987
František Skála, Life, 1987
František Skála, Life, 1987
František Skála, Life, 1987
František Skála, Forgotten Crafts, 1984
František Skála, Forgotten Crafts, 1984
František Skála, Baba Yaga Bony Legs, 2011
František Skála, Baba Yaga Bony Legs, 2011
František Skála, Baba Yaga Bony Legs, 2011
František Skála, Baba Yaga Bony Legs, 2011

Zdeněk Freisleben is a curator of contemporary art and a theorist of book culture. Since 2008, he has been the director of the Museum of Czech Literature. He is the author of a number of exhibition projects dealing with text and visual art overlaps: Cosi jako kniha, Obrazy slov, Karel Teige, Písmo a znak [Something Like a Book, Word Images, Karel Teige, Typeface and Sign] etc. He is a member of the directorate of the Most Beautiful Czech Book of the Year competition and chair of the Graphics of the Year jury. He has published a number of texts on fine art and on book design.

The exhibition does not just feature about 20 books, most of them for children, illustrated by one of the best known Czech artists of recent decades. It also provides insight into how closely Skála’s profession as an illustrator is connected with his paintings, prints and sculptures, how it winds through his oeuvre like a submerged river, reflecting his various creative periods and interests.  His  work  on the individual books, especially artist’s books, is always inextricably – and to a certain extent, inevitably –  connected  with  the  time of their inception. The illustrations reflect the artist’s view of the world, his carefully thought-out way of grasping a topic and the techniques to use, and his overall approach to creative work – being responsible, but at the same time having free rein. The exhibition begins with paintings created by Skála under his father’s guidance on the threshold between childhood and adulthood, goes through Skála’s search for himself during his studies and mature years, and ends with insight into his most recent work.

Z F            Although you are presented and known primarily as a sculptor, painter, musician, dancer and the like, not much is known about your illustrations. They blend inconspicuously into your entire artistic output. Your first book illustrations, which are quite different from each other, came into being between 1983 and 1985. In 1984 you won the award for the Most Beautiful Czech Book of the Year. What did that mean for you as a stepping away from producing animated film?

F S           Although I studied film, film is mostly teamwork. I prefer  doing  everything  myself and accounting for my own work. Without compromise. At the same time, I had to support my family, and the opportunity to do it in this beautiful way, by creating illustrations, was like a dream. At that time, such work was well paid. Today I would probably opt for training as a plumber, or typing into a “puter” to eke out a living.

Z F           As far as I know, you started with scientific illustrations.

F S           Of course, at first I got small trial commissions, for example for the Korálky [Beads] series of fairy tales from the Albatros publishing house, or an unbearable Soviet novel for girls. The graphic designer Milan Kopřiva asked me to illustrate that book for the Mladá Fronta publishing house with small drawings of girls’ faces. It was really a “touchstone”. When I complained to him about the poor quality of the text, which I had dutifully read three times, he told me, “You weren’t supposed to read it, Mr. Skála.”
Later, I was tested on producing lifeless scientific illustrations, such as various tables and maps, and only later, on the basis of the skills demonstrated, was I able to develop my talent. The graphic designer saw to it that popular science books such as Planet Earth or Life were artistically interesting. There were always several illustrators working on them, and I later fell into a special category, which I have called “Humor in Scientific Illustration”. My images of key evolutionary moments, which had the character of old lithographs, were hard for “drier” scientists to swallow. In addition to showing the necessary “development of a more progressive mollusk species”, a dramatic scene also takes place on the coast in the background, when a convict has just been thrown down from a high pier into the sea, while a dispatch about his innocence, brought by a messenger from the ship who is rushing up the path, arrives too late.

Z F           In 1984, Kopřiva and you also jointly produced the book Forgotten Crafts. Among other things, he used collages with ornamentation and characteristic lettering. For those who remember those times, let us mention that Kopřiva also did the interesting graphic design of the magazine 100 + 1 zahraniční zajímavost [“A Hundred and One Interesting Things from Abroad”].

F S           I must say I owe him a lot. At the crucial age when a man begins his career, he needs to get a chance to show what he can do, and if someone can appreciate it, that will encourage him to perform even better. Our collaboration was based on trust and responsibility. I think I was not under contract at first. Although I had only just completed my studies, Kopřiva treated me like a professional, and I always came away from meeting him with a sense of deep meaning. He was a kind of editor who conceived these visually attractive membership bonuses that were published in the astronomical number of 135,000 copies.
I worked on the first part of Forgotten Crafts for about seven months, three of which I spent studying in libraries. In the Museum of Czech Literature I browsed through Gothic books. The Songbook of Žlutice had just been brought there from Žlutice, where tourists had leafed through it and some of the pages were quite scuffed. I also visited old craftspeople and picked their brains, such as the saddler or the cooper in a brewery in Krušovice. I have fond memories of that. For your information, for each drawn figure of the craftsperson, of which there are about 140 in the book, I received CZK 600 in 1984.

Z F           What did illustrating fairy tales actually mean to you? In a way, it also means meeting a number of interesting authors. Was that your motivation?

F S           It was not my motivation. At first I had no choice, but I was lucky that, with a few exceptions, I always illustrated excellent literature. When you look at the list, the books I have illustrated are really substantial works that have always resonated with my attitude toward life. As an old hippie and a “mop top” who was constantly being checked by the police, I truly enjoyed the Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg, a forerunner of the Beat generation. Those fairy tales are full of various vagabonds and characters on the fringes of society, rag men, beggars like the Potato Face Blind Man, and they are very poetic – simply the best of American culture. Then there is Michael Ende’s book Momo: Or the Curious Story about the Time Thieves and the Child Who Returned the People’s Stolen Time, in which, as early as the 1970s, the author predicted the danger towards which society is heading. That should be compulsory reading at school. There is also The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren – an adventure book in which the two child protagonists die at the beginning of the book and the rest takes place in a land beyond death, Nangijala.

František Skála, The Meeting of Two Worlds from The Giants series, 2013

Z F           In 1989, your comic strip book The Great Travels of Hair and Chin was published, which has become legendary ever since. How did this happen?

F S           It was the coincidence of several circumstances. In the circle  of  my  friends, we adored the character of the Devil Doctor, a romantic villain who, as a character in comic strips or movies, existed a long time ago and still exists in many variations as the personification of evil. He lives in vampire castles, old factories, or sanatoriums like a mad scientist who wants to destroy the world, etc. Later, I realized that for us, he was also a likeable representative of supernatural forces that the comrades couldn’t compete with. I created a lithograph at school in which these devilish doctors, in an American, flashy car, are taking our “big cheeses” away in handcuffs. At the same time, however, I was fully into the deep forests, “old world creatures” and adventures with my good friends. It was at the time of the emergence of  Postmodernism  and  the  establishment of the art group Tvrdohlaví [The Stubborn Ones] that I returned to the basic sources of my inspiration in childhood. My freelance work had long since become separated from illustration, and the political situation within the framework of perestroika was ripe enough that, together with my classmate, who was an art editor at Albatros, I ventured to offer that hitherto forbidden “western” form of children’s book for publication.
The series featured creatures that I had previously  created  as  freeform  sculptures and presented at exhibitions (Big Woodpecker, Butterfly on a Flower – Škuran). The statue of Lesojan [Forest John], on the other hand, was created on the basis of his occurrence in the “Blue Forest”. In the mid-1990s, I worked for two years on its adaptation for a full-length animated film, but unfortunately it was not realized for financial reasons. The Great Travels of Hair and Chin, republished on the occasion of the exhibition, is a luxurious edition enriched with all the preparatory drawings for that film. There is a lot of new information and samples from the script.

Z F           You also illustrated Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose; before that, the Czech edition of this book had been illustrated by Jiří Trnka. How did that feel?

F S           It is always hard to do something after someone has already done it beautifully and we like it. If one feels that it’s not possible because the illustrations are  already  an integral part of the work (for example, Adolf Kašpar’s illustrations of The Grandmother), then one should not do it at all. This is generally true. If the change is for the worse, then why bother? I illustrated Perrault with great gusto, though. His fairy tales may be set in history, but they leave space for one to be a bit inventive. In the case of Russian fairy tales, it’s more difficult. One has to study a lot of materials, contemporary life, institutions, and also to see the Russian illustrations. I should probably mention that my father was a painter and an illustrator in particular, and as a child I could see how much he cared in his work about the credibility of details, human types and the like. Japanese fairy tales cannot look like those from the Chodsko region [Chodenland]. When I was working on Jindřich Šimon Baar’s short stories, I went on a two-week hike to Chodsko. Some remnants of folk architecture were still to be found there.

Z F           You once said that Karel Šiktanc considers you his “court artist”. How did your collaboration start?

F S           I was assigned his first fairy tales, which he wrote during the totalitarian regime, by Albatros in about 1993. My fascination with Alén Diviš and Bohuslav Reynek at that time was probably reflected in the way I illustrated them. Karel Šiktanc is a living witness of the old world he experienced as a child. This means that what he writes about he knows firsthand, he does not fabricate things. He is a master of words and a guardian of the beautiful Czech language. After all, he is an outstanding poet. It is a delight to illustrate Šiktanc’s books because they are full of images that he presents so convincingly it’s possible to perceive them with all your senses, even hearing and smell. I always wonder why no director has yet made one of his fairy tales into a film. The thing is that they are almost screenplays already. Picture – dialogue – sound. Perhaps it’s easier just to shoot a hodgepodge because that pays more.
I prefer to illustrate strong atmospheres, and you have to know the situation from personal experience – to have been in the woods when the wind rises and branches fall, or to sit at night with friends around a campfire at a site of old ruins. That is something that cannot be googled.
Šiktanc’s language is sometimes difficult for young parents today, because they already speak differently. It sounds a bit outlandish to them. I’m not a supporter of “aggiornamento”, though – of adapting to the present at all cost. Children need to absorb beautiful words because then they will be able to coin their own. Z F    In 2006, your extensive photographic comic strip The True Story of Cílek [Cecil] and Lída was published, photographed in a real forest environment, and it was preceded by a small book, How Cecil Found Lída [Cecil’s Quest]. As far as I know, this comic strip was the inspiration for Jan Svěrák’s film Kooky Returns [Kooky].

F S            Oh yes, Kooky is Pepion, who was made by my son František Antonín for his sister Alžběta to take with her to France, but we’d better not talk about it. It was an unpleasant but valuable experience of real capitalism. On the last page of Hair and Chin there are several photos taken by the penguin Michal. These are my sculptures in a real environment where I worked with the illusion of scale. From that moment I kept thinking that I should make such a story. As far as I know, no one had done anything like that until then, and afterward I understood why, because it is terrible work. I started with the Meander publishing house, but after half a year of work we could not reach an agreement, so a kind of prelude to the big book was created. As happened several times before, I was saved by Martin Souček from the Arbor vitae publishing house and was able to finish the job in due course, professionally. The book was also published in English and exhibitions of it took place in Prague, Tokyo, New York, Vienna and the Comics Museum in Brussels. I photographed the puppets in nature using an analog Nikon camera, and it was actually like making a film, with all the professions that entails, except for the fact that I did all the work myself.
I probably wouldn’t be able to do it again today because it was physically demanding, like Special Forces training. “To the bushes! Get down! Get up! Get down! Get up!” etc. I have never since experienced a season in the open air, from spring to the first frost of the fall, with such intensity, though.

Z F           Is there any one book that gave you extraordinary pleasure to make?

F S           I’ve made each book with extraordinary pleasure. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t do it. The important thing is that I’m not the type of artist who finds a signature style and then illustrates whatever comes that way. I approach each book as a new task. It takes me a long time to figure out how to do it, and the illustrations are always a little different. Because I’m doing a lot of other things in the meantime, I have to throw the switch and get on the right track. I set time aside for the first reading, during which I make notes about where to place illustrations, and it’s ideal to work on a book all in one go while in the countryside. One can’t go to the post office or have appointments in the meantime. When I was illustrating Baba Yaga Bony Legs, I was locked up in an isolated cottage in the snow. Just the work, some food, wood for the stove and my cat. Well, spending two years creating an artist’s book is a great pleasure, but I can only afford it because I make my living from my fine art.

František Skála, Borrowers, 2013

Z F           Vratislav Brabenec is the author of much of the lyrics for the group Plastic People of the Universe. He also edited, for example, texts from the Old and New Testaments and texts by Ladislav Klíma. He collaborated with you on his book Legends and Lines.

F S           Vratislav’s writing is great. There is a lot of lived wisdom and humor in it. Vratislav and Richard Pecha, who publishes his texts at the Vršovice 2016 publishing house, wanted me to create eight drawings, but I made about 40 to choose from. In the end, they used almost all of them. Often they just touch on the text, forming a funny connection with it. This is how we proceeded, for example, in the poetry anthology Kaloty by the B. K. S. group (acronym for “The End of the World is Coming”), published in Revolver Revue. I made a bunch of proposals, which we then assigned to the poems as we saw fit. In the book The Great Guardian by the Commander of the Order of the Green Ladybird, Jiří Olič, I was just given defined thematic areas – about actors, jazz, firefighters, Native Americans, teachers, etc. Z F You have also participated in bibliophile editions.

F S           The bibliophile editions are a continuation of the work on the original prints. A few years ago, I returned to this kind of graphic art after taking a break from it for 20 years, and I made 16 dry points in six months. I could have continued, but something else attracted my attention. Endless, enticing horizons open up everywhere.

Z F           I will go back to Jostein Gaarder’s Frog Castle, which you created using unusual collages. Was that because of the nature of the book?

F S           The Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder wrote the bestseller Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy for teenagers, for which I made the cover. The Frog Castle is a surreal story with perfect knowledge of the child’s soul. The mixed media with collages was a suitable technique. At that time I was intensely involved in the beauty of autumn leaves, which were reflected both in my noncommissioned art and in this book. There is a scan of a frog’s real skin on the cover, and inside the book are the pancakes that are talked about there.

Z F           From your illustrations it is obvious that you have read the books and subordinated the character of the illustrations accordingly.

F S           Yes – for example, for The Borrowers by Mary Norton, a book set in Victorian England, I learned to do cross-hatching with a pen for black and white illustrations in order to approximate the techniques used in those days. It’s like when responsible actors prepare for their roles.

Z F           I should probably have asked this question at the beginning, but I believe it has its place at the end as well. In your illustrations, you use a number of artistic techniques. Which are they? Which do you prefer?

F S           I opt for a technique based on the topic and nature of the illustrations. The most common is probably watercolor in combination with crayons. Sometimes it’s totally mixed media, as in Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, where I used everything – watercolor, oil, pencil, crayon and collage. In Šiktanc’s Candlestick Castle it’s watercolor, charcoal and oil. Or just the charcoal wash technique, such as for his Royal Fairy Tales. Black and white illustrations, on the other hand, can be done in pen and ink, pencil, or ink wash. Or maybe using frottage, like in Momo. The original technique of scurography, where the negative is drawn in pencil on tracing paper and subsequently developed like a photograph, was appropriate for The Brothers Lionheart.

Z F           So far I have not mentioned your diaries, excerpts from which have also been published. In fact, they are contemporary illustrations of your life. Do you still keep a diary?

F S           I started keeping diaries, of which there are currently at least 90, in the 1990s, starting with the Venetian Diary at the 1993 Venice Biennale. However, my very first diary is from 1992, when at the Expo in Seville, Michal Cihlář and I found a notebook that we divided in half between the two of us. He was constantly writing down something at the time, and because he got on my nerves by doing that, I started doing the same.
The travel diaries are, of course, more artistically attractive, full of collected materials and experiences. The everyday ones are practical, because by the end of the week you don’t remember what you were doing anymore, let alone 10 years afterwards. What I am working on is also reflected there. The enthusiasm and disappointment. If someone makes me angry, I give them a piece of my mind there. What I like the most, though, is how the cover of these little books becomes gradually decorated and patinated over the course of about a month.
Other illustrations of my life are the photos taken with my favorite little Lumix camera. However, I try not to take too many of them.

Z F           The exhibition begins with your early paintings, on the threshold between childhood and adulthood, and ends with examples of your current work. Have you ever published your beginning works before?

F S           Most artists do not do this, so as not to “reveal themselves”. I, on the contrary, like best to see the marginal or the “pajama” drawings of the masters, not the artworks that just reproduce their “brand”, which can be recognized by any yokel. Of course, I have selected the palatable ones. Under the motto “the master is searching for himself”, I needed to deal with different styles. These works were exhibited in the 1970s at the exhibitions in our back room at home, and there are hand-made samizdat catalogues accompanying them. I have to say that it is only when I see them together that I realize the connections between them.
My current work  represents  my  passion  of the last three years – paintings made mostly using natural pigments that I collected in the countryside. It will be interesting to see my different approach in comparison with that of Jan Jedlička, who is exhibiting in the Municipal Library and has been intensively involved in this since the 1970s.

Translated by Vladimíra Šefranka Žáková