A special type of perception: Responses · Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář

I first encountered the work of Jiří Kolář (1914-2002), one of the most important poet/visual artists in post-war Europe—a man for whom the two descriptors very often went hand in hand—through A User’s Manual, first published in English translation in 2019. This intentional pairing of his so-called “action poems” written in the 1950s and 60s with collages from the series “Weekly 1967” was originally published together in 1969 and reproduced handsomely by excellent Prague-based indie press Twisted Spoon. Now, with the release of Responses · Kafka’s Prague, another of the Czech artist‘s idiosyncratic pairings, an intriguing overview of his opinions and reflections on the intersection of literature and art is set against a collection of his distinct “crumplages.” Again it makes for an unusual yet beautifully presented volume which also speaks to his creative processing as displayed in both this and A User’s Manual.

Responses is a sort of one-sided investigation, or what Kolář called an “imaginary interview,” a set of seventy-one answers without questions. Compiled in Prague and Paris in 1973, the topics covered include the development of his artistic sensibility, the writers, artists and movements that had an influence on him, and a discussion of technique. It has a thoughtful, conversational, musing-out-loud sort of feel and a sense of direction that is not explicit or artificial but gives the work a natural flow.

From the outset,  Kolář makes it clear that he sees art as part of the “general drive toward universal knowledge” and as such there can be nothing extrinsically new that is not a departure from that which is already innate to the practice. Art and literature are disciplines that do not create anything new so much as they create new ways of looking at (and using) what is already there, a “special type of perception.” As in science, artists are engaged in exploration and investigation, and those he admires, such as Mallarmé and those who followed in his footsteps, are those who become dissatisfied with the status quo. For Kolář this leads him to analyze and reflect upon what various poets were doing with language, and ultimately realize he had to dismantle language itself:

For me the destruction of poetic language followed the same path and the same type of perception as did a new and different perception in other disciplines. As I’ve already said, this is primarily the case in [modern] music and the visual arts. I was speaking about a type of perception — what I mean is that I couldn’t keep seeking poetry in the written word. I had to go beyond the written word. It meant finding another, living language.

There is a distinct restlessness to Kolář’s self-described poetic and artistic evolution, accentuated by the casual style of this particular discourse, but then he was working in trying times. Deemed publicly undesirable by the Communist government in Czechoslovakia he spent time in prison, saw the publication of much of his work delayed, and would eventually end up living in exile. Responses, however, is not concerned with political revolution, but rather with his artistic interests and endeavours, past and current. As translator Ryan Scott points out in his Translator’s Note, this work “should not be read as Kolář’s final word but as capturing a particular moment in time amid his creative flux.” Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting look into an original creative mind.

Kolář’s international reputation rests largely on his innovative collage techniques. He is so fond of printed materials—newspapers, letters, tickets, receipts—not only as raw materials but for the moment-in-timeness captured in them that one wonders how he would have adapted artistically to our increasingly digital environment. The present volume contains a series of “cumplages” constructed from photographs of buildings and landmarks in Prague, paired with brief quotes from Kafka’s writings. In these images, the shapes and angles of the structures are distorted, twisted and bent out of shape. The effect is quite striking and perfectly “Kafkaesque.” The process follows a specific routine, starting with moistened paper:

Crumpling must be done fast and carefully, and it’s difficult to predict results with this technique because it’s always the brother of chance. Because the moist paper is crumpled and the work has to be finished fast, hardly any adjusting can be done.

Later on he mentions that his “best crumplages were created from reproductions that readers had coloured themselves.” He delights in the touches human hands have left behind coming through in his art. Among the thirty-four images employed in Kafka’s Prague are buildings directly associated with the writer’s life, and other structures Kafka would have known well. (You can get a sense of the book here.) To have this work so beautifully reproduced in this book is a treat in itself, together with Responses it is an enriched experience.

Responses · Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář is translated from the Czech by Ryan Scott and published by Twisted Spoon Press.

Instructions for interacting with the material world: A Users Manual by Jiři Kolář

You can always be assured that a hardcover release from Prague-based indie publisher Twisted Spoon Press will be something very special. All their books—dedicated to bringing both long neglected and contemporary writers to English audiences—offer work that is unique and engaging, but they really put a little extra effort into their beautifully presented, typically illustrated, hardcover texts.

Like Jiři Kolář‘s A User’s Manual.

One of the most important Central European poets/visual artists of the postwar era, Kolář (1914-2002) was best known internationally for his innovative collages, but within Czechoslovakia he was a aligned with other politically defiant artists. He was a member of the avant-garde Group 42 until it was disbanded after the Communists came to power and, when the police discovered the manuscript to his controversial collection Prometheus’ Liver, he was arrested and labelled an “enemy of the state.” His poetry and artwork reflects his view of the society he saw around him.

This most unusual—and handsome—volume pairs 52 “action poems”, written in the 1950s and 60s, with images from “Weekly 1967,” one of his  series of collages created as a running commentary on each week of a year. First published together in this form in 1969, the resulting book is not only very entertaining to look at, but characterized by a sly creative energy and a devious wit. Each poem in A User’s Manual presents itself a set of instructions, often nonsensical, that mimic the form of communist dicta. Week 13, “Path,” for example, directs the reader to:

on foot or by train
to a town
where you know no one
and spend three days there
When hungry
ask for bread
when thirsty
ask for water
Spend the night where possible
and every day ask
nine people about a person
with the same name as yours
with the same destiny as yours

The collages that accompany each poem are constructed from newspaper clippings, documents, cut outs, patterns formed with words or musical notation. Some are dedicated to individuals (sometimes presented as a profile portrait), others have a stark political feel, and yet others are abstract patterns. Together with his instructional verses, the effect is an elevation of the everyday and an imagining of a specific way of reacting to the world. As Ryan Scott explains in his Translator’s Note, in this work, Kolář is explicitly engaging with the materiality of language. He is inviting direct interaction with the immediate surroundings by calling attention to “the locus of speech, action and things.”

“Homage to T. S. E.” opposite an image titled To Michel Butor

As unusual as they are, many of the poems are oddly practical enough that they could serve as inspiration triggers. The language is spare, reasons and explanations are not offered, but therein lies the charm. Some are even strangely beautiful. Like Week 47, for instance, “Poem of Silence: For Emil Juliš”:

a pile of pebbles
and from them compose

and with a title
pebble by pebble
as word by word
line by line

as verse by verse
a poetry poem

Exiled to Paris in 1980, as were many artists of his generation, Kolář returned frequently to Prague  after the Velvet Revolution, and spent his final years in the city. But born of a response the restrictions imposed under Communist occupation, A User’s Manual stands as a creative act of rebelllion that seeks a certain dignity in absurdity.  It makes a wonderful read, a fascinating visual experience, and would be a fine gift for an artistic friend.

A User’s Manual by Jiři Kolář with illustrations by the author, is translated by Ryan Scott, and published by Twisted Spoon Press.