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Jan Zrzavy’s Valley of Sorrow

December 19, 2007

At Prague’s National Gallery the rooms of paintings and sculptures stretch on and on. Each time you turn a corner you find another massive room of art that was not expected.

While wandering through the Czech symbolist, expressionist and cubist wing in this museum I thought we had reached the end of the Czech artists of these movements yet there was more to see. This room featured the paintings of Czech artist Jan Zrzavy. I was compelled by the odd nature of his paintings. Each one I could tell was painted by the same artist because similar shapes were used and each had a very dark or creepy aura to them, but there was a change in the colors from earlier works to later works from what I could see.

The one painting that drew me in the most was called The Valley of Sorrow in which a lone woman stands in the foreground of a landscape of a mountain range. While the subject matter is simple the shapes and colors that the landscape and the woman are painted emit an early avant-garde feeling.

The woman’s face is the same pasty pale color of cream that her floor length dress is. Her white figure stands out among the darker shades of the landscape. She is like a specter in the night of the painting. Her figure is shapely yet very thin at the same time. Her face is triangular and her features are elongated. She stares directly ahead and out of the painting at the viewer. This figure reminds me of a figure in a Munch painting because of her stretched figures and featureless face. Zrzavy was probably influenced by Munch since the Munch exhibition came to Prague in 1907 which is around the time when this painting was created I am guessing.

Her neck blends into her non-existent shoulders where the long line of her arm leads to the branch she is holding in her left hand. She wields it as if she is using it to guide or direct the view into or through the rest of the painting. To her right stands a tree that is equally as thin and elongated as she. The branch she is holding must come from this tree.

She wears a blue wide-brimmed hat even though there is no sun shining outside that needs to be blocked by a hat. A long red feather is stuck into the brim of the dull blue hat. The red of the feather matches the red flowers in the tree. I feel that the red feathers and flowers symbolize something, but I do not know what. But these very out of place elements in the scene make me think that they are there on purpose to represent something. Because of this I think that Zrzavy is a symbolist painter with some expressionist influences.

The trees leafs are long and spiny. In a way it looks vaguely like a palm tree but the scene is not tropical enough for it to actually be a palm tree. Perhaps Zrzavy made up this type of tree in his head because I have never seen a tree that looks like this before.

The ground she stands on is a grey-blue shade that nearly matches the color of her hat. The entire painting is permeated by this grey-blue color that is very dream-like and surreal. The dull colors of this painting induce feelings of sadness and depression. There are no bright happy colors that other modern Czech artists, like Kupka, used.

On the left side of the painting a thin road winds its way into the mountain range in the distance. Two similar looking trees dot the side of the road. You cannot see how far the road extends into the mountain range. It disappears before you can see it end at a defined point.

In the foothills of the mountains you can see a small village. There is barely any detail but small buildings can be made out in the distance. On the top of the hill above the town is a structure that looks like a church with a tall skinny spire that emulates the pointed peaks of the mountains behind it.

While the entire painting is very surreal and dreamlike the mountain range is possibly the most unreal part about the work of art. Eleven tall peaks shoot up out of nowhere to impossible heights. There are the same dull grey-blue as most of the painting. There are no rolling hills or soft slopes in this mountain range, but instead acute angles that point sharply skyward. The sky behind the mountains looks hazy as if the sun has just set or it may also be the break of dawn. There is no sun to be seen.

I believe this painting to be from the early part of the 20th century. While there are many modern shapes and angles to this painting that there are also some elements that are reminiscent of impressionist paintings to me. The brush strokes and the soft application of color remind me almost of a Monet painting. However the triangular shape of the face and the mountains tell me that this was painted after that movement. While the angles the mountains created are sharp and diagonal this is not yet cubism either.

This painting is definitely an earlier work than the other painting that caught my eye of Zrzavy’s in this gallery called Cleopatra. In this painting a very unrealistically shaped woman who is entirely red and bald relaxes on a lime green couch in front of two grey pyramids and two golden marijuana leaves. The colors are much more vibrant and modern than The Valley of Sorrow. The shapes in this are much more inclined toward to the later cubist artists of the century. The shape of the couch and her body also remind me of art deco artwork. While The Valley of Sorrow is dark and creates a slightly unnerving feeling while looking at it, Cleopatra is downright creepy because of the unnatural angle that her body relaxes in and her expressionless, hairless head.

Zrzavy was born in 1890 and died in 1977. He was a prominent member of the Czech avant-garde movement of the early 20th century, studied at the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague and helped found the art group Sursum. He is considered by many to be an expressionist who often used symbolist themes. He painted The Valley of Sorrow in 1908, early in the 20th century like I had thought.

After a trip to Paris in 1907, Zrzavy came back to Prague depressed that he could not find work there but full of fresh ideas from seeing the art in the Louvre and various modern French art galleries. This is when he first made The Valley of Sorrow, which was originally drawn with pastels. The next year he painted over it with oil colors.

In a 1969 interview, Zrzavy explained this painting:

“At that time, I didn’t think of how the painting was made. It was all strange to me, and I was happy because that was my first painting, a real one. Only much later, when people were talking about it and about the influences and how things came about, I knew that there was Munch, above all. The landscape and the mountains are from the Mona Lisa I had seen before in Paris. That brown landscape, the small hills, the trees were from Bavaria I rode through on the train, and the girl, well, girls were like that then. They wore long skirts and those hats.”

The Valley of Sorrow was painted in the earliest part of his career like I thought and was influenced by renaissance painters like da Vinci, which I did not realize, but also newer painters like Munch like I had guessed. Looking at the Mona Lisa, I can see how the mountain ranges in the background of that painting influenced the mountain ranges in Zrzavy’s painting.

I was correct in guessing that Cleopatra was a later work of his because in the 1930s Zrzavy began to exchange the muted tones of his earlier paintings for dark rich colors. Cleopatra was painted between 1942 and 1957. In addition to the renaissance and Munch influences, The Valley of Sorrow was also characteristic of the blending of the symbolism of the Czech Art Nouveau movement with expressionism and certain cubistic elements.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2007 12:35 pm

    It reminds me of one Tolkien’s illustration of the Middle-Earth. Do you remember his Misty Mountains? And the woman has a kind of the First-Republic aura around her. For me the picture evokes the dreams of ‘good old times’ of Bohemia, at the same time real and unreal, as time passes by, becoming more unreal as it goes more far by the road of time…

  2. May 6, 2008 5:27 pm

    I enjoyed your writing on Jan Zrzavy. I loved seeing his paintings at the National in Prague 6 weeks ago. There were so many wonderful Czech painters that I had never heard of.
    I was so disappointed to find there was no book with pictures of these paintings! Have you ever seen one?
    Carrie Haddad Hudson NY

  3. May 21, 2011 7:42 pm

    Thank you for this inspiring writing. I just met w. Jan Zrzavy and Czech painting. And start with your blog. ..

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