Biography (eng)


Josef Wagner, the vigilant guardian of Prague


     Josef Wagner was born on May 24, 1938, the year of the invasion of Bohemia.

     His father, who was also named Josef, and his mother, Marie Kulhánková-Wagnerová (1906-1984), were both sculptors. But sculpture was a very old family tradition, dating back to the 18th century with, as an ancestor, a certain Lorenzo Wagner, who worked in the entourage of the great baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun (1684-1738).

     Josef Wagner Sr (1901-1957), who was a pupil of sculptors Jan Štursa (1922-1925) and Otakar Španiel (1881-1955), also counted Otto Gutfreund (1889-1927) among his masters. He spent time in Italy (1924 and 1930), France (1926), and then in Greece (1932). In 1937, he obtained, with his work Poetry, the Grand Prize of Sculpture of the International Exhibition of Paris and became, in 1945, a professor at the Superior School of Applied Arts of Prague.

     Josef Wagner was the early admirer of the great sculptor that his father was. During the first part of his childhood, he lived in Prague in the unforgettable atmosphere of his father’s studio in Holešovice, a neighborhood nestled in a bend of the Vltava River, north of Staré Město (the Old Town). And it is to this District of Holešovice, in this suburb of Prague that he will paint so often, that Wagner will remain forever attached, as his entire work attests, with dozens of paintings entitled Banlieue, Lonely House in Suburbs or simply House; all these titles refer more or less explicitly to the building of the Jateční Street at the top of which was his father’s studio. 

     For a future painter, the banks of the Vltava River littered with scrap metal and debris of all kinds, the Hološovice Railway Yard and the Hološovice port are, in the post-war period, privileged places of exploration with their cranes, and above all, that tower in the port, from which the system of winches and trolleys mounted on rails is controlled, which enables the boats to be dry-docked for maintenance work. All this fascinates a child who will find in this port tower the model of his future Guard Tower, Watchtower, Tower of rescue, Tower of Babel, Port and Watchtower or Port

     In 1949, the Wagner family, who felt a bit less desired in Prague since the Prague Coup in February 1948, decided to settle in Hořice, in the Art Nouveau house of the maternal grandfather, Josef Kulhánek (1876-1945), who had also been a sculptor.

     The small town of Hořice is located 115 km east from Prague, at the foot of the Giant Mountains (Krkonoše), where Sněžka («The Snowcapped», 1603 m, the highest point of the Czech Republic) straddles the border with Poland.

     This region, the cradle of the Wagner family, is a high place of Czech baroque sculpture, as evidenced by the Kuks [1] Hospice, where one can admire a series of allegorical statues representing the eleven vices and the eleven virtues, whose author is the great sculptor Mathyáš Bernard Braun (1684-1738). The generous sponsor of this expensive affair, Count František Antonín Šporck (1662-1738), was a great Jansenist (and publisher at times), whose appetite for the baroque was not satisfied by the construction of this complex – which, at the time, included, in addition to the hospice, a theatre, a house of the Philosophers, a racetrack and, facing the other bank of the Elbe, a spa, and a castle. He went on to spend more money a bit further in the New Forest (Nový Les) where he asked Braun to carve out the sandstone outcrops into the most singular sanctifying outdoor gallery. He had about forty figures sculpted in the rock emerging from the thickets. They included a Jacob’s Well, an imposing Bethlehem, a Vision of St Hubert and two colossal hermits: Onufrius and, equally impressive, Juan Garinus, who, according to a legend, had confused prayer, fornication and murder, before inflicting upon himself as a penance to crawl head down on the ground until a sign from God showed him that he was forgiven. This was a source of eternal displeasure to Jesuit neighbors, who did not share what, next to their domain of Žireč, was a little too provocative. That theory of grace was rather questionable in their eyes.

     Czech baroque, great History (of a long Thirty Years post-war period) and history of a family of artists came together in those places of Eastern Bohemia, where quarries continued to be exploited. In 1935, Josef Wagner Sr had built a log cabin in the New Forest where, two centuries after Braun, he also carved sandstone. Then the cabin was destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War, and the Wagner family retreated to the Art Nouveau family home in Hořice, about twenty kilometers from Kuks. This proximity allowed Josef Wagner Sr to devote much of his time to restore the originals of the famous statues representing the eleven vices and the eleven virtues, which are stored in a wing of the hospice (today a lapidary museum), since the front is now graced with copies. Until his death (1957), Josef Wagner Sr and his brother, the sculptor, architect and restorer Antonín Wagner (1904-1978), made every effort to save the sculptures of Nový Les, which had remained exposed to rain and frost during the post-war period.[2]

     At the same time, Josef Wagner Jr, could wander from the hospice to the New Forest and soak up all those wings, crosses or skulls that adorn baroque sculpture, before turning them into themes in his painting. 

     Such was the setting of an unforgettable childhood for a painter who later will conjure it up in his Souvenirs in 1985.

     After graduating from school in Hořice High School, Josef Wagner Jr was admitted to the Higher School of Applied Arts in Prague (UmPrum, 1957), where he attended courses in the Architecture Section.

     After graduating as an architect (1962), he returned to Hořice, where he taught at the School of Sculptors and Stonemasons (1962-1965). He also worked there as an architect (housing and garden projects).

     In 1965, Wagner returned to Prague, where he held the post of Museum Architect. In this capacity, he worked in the National Gallery of Prague (Narodní Gallery) and became Chief Architect, responsible for exhibitions within the Union of Czech Visual Artists. Gothic sculpture, tombstones of medieval Bosnia, there will be dozens of events he will be responsible for, starting in 1966 with the exhibition Picasso, Recent Works, organized in Prague, at the Mánes Exhibition Hall [3], in collaboration with the Galerie Louise Leiris in Paris and the great art dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler.

     Wagner’s work developed all along, but more privately. Until the major exhibition in Athens in 1988, there was no exhibition of his own work which includes sculpture, drawings, and engravings, but the oil paintings, which adopt a multi-layered [4] technique inherited from the Gothic, are predominant. There are about 1000 paintings that can be divided into six periods.

1 - From 1957 to 1966: abandonment, destruction, rebirth. 

     Abandonment is first and foremost Josef Wagner’s feelings after the death of his father. Distress becomes the first theme of his painting that was, he says, “my only consolation”[5]. It is a new form of painting, for it will entail the destruction of the work of his youth. The new beginning takes place in 1965 with a cycle of paintings devoted to the line, the cut, the square and the cube. Wagner, who choses painting, renounces sculpture and architecture. 

     Initially, architecture, sculpture and painting coexisted. Until 1963, sculpture held an important place with a predilection for stone, whose secrets were passed on by his mother and father (cf. Window, Capitals, Head). As for architecture, it’s an object of study before being practiced for some time; then it becomes a profession in the   museum business. But this title is deceiving: «architect» hides in fact a painter and paintings that will stay in the closet for more than twenty years, a strange case of Doctor Architect and Mister Painter. With an official job as a smoke-screen, Mister Wagner will paint whatever he wants, which he will not show. And finally, the official job will have been a good system of protection - the third after the paternal studio of Holešovice and the house in Hořice.

     Josef Wagner, who was born with a pencil in one hand, quickly seized brushes found at home with the other. But after 1957, his early paintings no longer satisfied him. Their prettiness continued to be the senseless reflection of a family happiness that ended with the death of a father.  It was no longer possible to keep painting that kind of sweet fantasy:

- "I was told: « Oh, what lovely paintings! »"[6]

These compliments eventually became unbearable and two hundred paintings will end up in the family furnace. Some will be saved (cf. Squares, 1958). 

     This destruction of early works was not a prerequisite but a process that spread over time, quite the opposite of a stroke of madness, a thoughtful selection. Sorting out began in 1958 and will continue until 1963. At this rate, an early work disappears into the flames at the same time as a new one begins, and the balance will never be null. Instead of imagining a great auto-da-fe, one must remember that the artist will prefer to talk about a “rebirth[7].

     Josef Wagner, we said, always painted but he really started as a painter when he started again, in a specific context: after the death of his father, which occurs in February 1957. For Josef Wagner Jr., who is 19 years old, a whole system of protection collapses. That father, who mastered the stone, was its keystone and his disappearance results in a collapse. The Czechoslovakian post-war reality brutally rushes into the breach opened into the family rampart. Despondency, invasion, not much to build upon, but yet, in this unpleasant context, painting will become - Fall and salvation, as he will point out: “my only point of perspective[8]

     In 1957, Josef Wagner has just been admitted to the University of Applied Arts in Prague. He attends lectures, but his curriculum is rapidly overshadowed by mourning. He surrenders to his memories, he remembers the time spent at the window, and the view from the top of the House in Holešovice. The nostalgia for a family happiness brutally shortened brings him back to the child’s drawings he made during the Second War, “sitting next to my father”, some drawings from 1942, such as Scheme of the House, Suburbs or Head of Smoker, of which he draws new versions. The student that he has become does not forget either the child who was hanging out in the port at the end of the war, which will give us, at the same time, a series of eleven etchings and dry points realized between 1958 and 1960: View of the City through the Window, Suburbs, Houses and Boats, November in Holešovice... Prague saved him from despair and the painter will remain faithful to her, guardian of the City of a Hundred Towers, plus another one in Holešovice.

     As for painting itself, the "real thing", i.e. oil, things really start over again in 1963 with a singular Point and line to plan [9], a reflection on the essential constituents of painting: the line, in Line, the square with Two squares (which follows Squares from 1958), the cube (Jointed Cubes), plus an Ellipse to crown the set. An architect turned painter seems to want to release these figures from what could be their coding in the field of architecture.

     The plan also requires a redefinition. It is what the painter must first re-appropriate by removing it from the use that the architect could make of it. In Ground Plan of the Town (1964), the technique of collage is still used, but, with Cross Section of the House (an oil on canvas from 1963), Wagner had just reached a milestone a few months earlier. Colours gain the upper hand and what now appears is not, in its form, without recalling the Head in sandstone sculpted the same year, continuity in rupture and the passage from sculpture to painting which forebodes many other skulls.

     It’s the end of a beginning: the fundamentals of the plan and the line have been sifted and, on the canvas, freed from the «pretty», Two squares appears, then two Jointed Cubes, a robotic-looking silhouette: that of a painter? Or, it may be the same, that of a smoker, a great smoker, whose portrait Wagner soon paints. 

2 - From 1966 to 1970: War after the War

     A few premises: a Fortification (in 1962), End of the Second World War (in 1963), an Atlantic Wall (in 1965), then x two Plan[s] of fortification, in 1966. No wonder, it will be said: an architect turned painter is obviously interested in war, it’s another form of art in space, after all. Moreover, since all those ancient mountain walls, which surround the basin of Bohemia, do not stop two great and greedy neighbors, whose troops tend to run off as far as Prague, isn’t it always time to raise other walls? Hence, one fortification plan for the East, another for the West.

     From 1967, however, things begin to take on unexpected proportions. The artist is literally obsessed by fortifications, and defenses invade the whole space: [re]Fortification, Defense System, new Atlantic Wall, Bunker, Cannon of Sevastopol... More than twenty years after the end of the War, it becomes the only theme addressed by the painter, which will surprise many in the West but probably less in Prague, where the Second World War remained very present. The Czechs were not, like other peoples, diverted by reconstruction and the contribution of a Marshall [10] plan that would have initiated thirty glorious years. And, in this Czechoslovakian Post-war, the word «war» was not re-encoded either with, as for other nations summoned to decolonize, wars of independence: Indonesian revolution, wars in Indochina, Algeria or Angola. 

     In 1967, «war» continues, in Bohemia, to be associated with the Second World War, which remains the source of all evils for the Czechs, a «broader » war including the Munich Agreement, the invasion of 1938, and, last but not least, the partition of Europe at the Yalta Conference (1945) which, amplifying the disaster, made the rest of the world admit the Prague Coup in February 1948 and the installation of the communist regime.

     With Maginot Line and Atlantic Wall, Wagner is first and foremost a painter who testifies to this obsessive presence of the war in Czechoslovakian Post-war. The Second War, that occupies a prominent place on the canvas, is still in all minds. It remains current and continues to be the fatal episode that paved the way for the “communist monolith”[11].

     To favour it, to the point of making it his only theme in painting, is nevertheless to withdraw into the past. By depicting a war that ended 30 years ago, Wagner mostly paints “on” a present that he erases. The war, which goes on on the canvas repels the actuality of an unpleasant post-war regime, and using it as a theme is also a way to escape this bad reality, which brutally burst into his life after the death of a father. 

     In order to find a suitable refuge in the past however, one must make sure that the rejected present does not come back through the back door, and also that, if the post-war "present” bursts in, for example, that past of a war in which the painter looks for shelter should not be in turn a past of invasion. 

     But that is precisely what happened in 1938 with the three-step invasion of the country after the Munich Agreement. Retreating, withdrawing into the past to paint only the war and escape the invading post-war period finally leads to the return of the invasion with which everything had begun. The pictorial retreat seems doomed to failure. 

     Except that there is painting, which, even when it is realistic, is not meant to show the present or past reality. Wagner’s pictorial strategy will therefore be simple. By showing the conflict, he relegates it into the far distance: Atlantic Wall, Maginot Line, Disaster on the Aircraft Carrier, Memory of Elblag, Kamikaze... The war no longer concerns Czechoslovakia. The disaster takes place in the West, in France, on the coast or on the ocean, in Northern Poland and, further even, in Asia, but never in Bohemia. Wagner expels the conflict beyond borders. That distance is required. If the past is to serve as a refuge from the present, Bohemia can no longer have been invaded, it must have remained the haven of peace that it never was. Painting must therefore free it from the evils that afflicted it; painting must «undepict» all Bohemia altered by the war. 

     Wagner scotomizes the country that was invaded and only frames a distant war. Between the painting, which exiles a conflict limited by its frame, and the painter (or the spectator, who will take his place), a sublimated Bohemia finds itself liberated. Painting creates in front of him an off-screen battle, a space no longer threatened by this framed war. In this area, which served as his refuge, the painter was finally sheltered from the bad post-war period, as a child could be at the top of a Lonely house in suburbs. And look at the scattering of objects in Elblag Memories, that gun the same size as a submarine and that airsock, whose height is as long as a destroyer. The war has caused incredible damage with parts that have become as big as the whole… The Second War is of no concern anymore!

     Instead, it is this universe that no longer respects the proportions that does and everyone can experience it. A child just needs to empty a bag of toys at your feet. It’s his way to create a mess in which he can pick out enough to start telling a story. By digging into it for the knife of a plastic pirate, the child can, like a painter, go on the offensive on the Atlantic Wall, armed with the knife that his maternal grandfather had promised to bequeath to him, or he can invent a naval battle, because a 12 cm wooden giraffe becomes a real threat to an aircraft carrier the size of a pencil. All this, of course, while an unforgettable father draws, sitting at his desk. 

     With the frame, which delimits the battlefield and prevents any extension of the conflict, the painter, away from the horrors, is also the one who can show its colours: in Canon in Sevastopol, a mauve dawn struggles to rise on a bloody land, and, in Defense System (1970), the golden-brown atmosphere of a day irradiates the sky filled with smoke by cannon fire, but the war continues to be elsewhere.

     The objective of the painter-general Wagner is first of all to liberate the past of a country. In the Fortification[s] of 1967 and 1969, there is hardly any trace of war. The invasion certainly took place, but it was pushed back, there, behind the horizon line that divides the canvas. In the foreground, we have the outline of the liberated country. Beyond, there is an invisible enemy who left, however, with threats that he might return. The painter stands guard, as, later, he will not cease to do from the top of his towers.

     Wagner often takes even more of an overview. The ground becomes a carpet of abstract surfaces with, above, a squadron of objects and volumes more or less identifiable that float in space: a pipe, a cube or tubes cruising around, seemingly and durably put into orbit by a tornado. From that height, nothing can escape the watchful guard, whatever happens, and all the more so since Wagner knows something about aerial view: he practiced gliding and, for a short time, motor aviation. So, he knows what he paints, watches and he confidently pilots his brush [12], which can in turn appear on the canvas. In a Fortification (1969), it hovers over the cannons ready to go into action.

     The invasion? Gone, evaporated, sublimated into a Defense system, The Tartar Steppe [13] in Bohemia without any dream of glory exhausted by the tedious longing for a battle. The impatience to fight and the wish that an army of barbarians finally cross the horizon is really not Wagner’s trick. On the contrary, the invasion is what must at all costs not happen. The painter is in charge of reducing its occurrence. He must erase that such an event has already happened and, at the same time, must prevent its return. 

     Prevention is not an easy task. One runs into metaontological problems with the nonfact that there is always the pure possibility, a big problem for Wagner who wants to be sure that it will not happen again, and he must, on top of that, settle the question in a two-dimensional world. The fortifications that overwhelm the visible cancel the invasion, but those omnipresent bunkers betray a compelling need for defense, which means that there is a serious threat from what painting is meant to erase. One is back to square one, so to speak. An abstract threat even more real than a visible invasion continues to lurk. It torments the painter who must add a bastion to counter the risk that a previous painting poses, but the next one only shifts the problem.

     Even with a guardian perched on top of the most imposing fortress, the sublated, ablolished-preserved invasion remains the threat that a single painting cannot counter. To exhaust its very possibility is an endless task. If one is to be up to the challenge, it is necessary to elevate, enlarge and add a fort. The unimaginable invasion becomes what a painter cannot stop forclosing. It is the real of the painting, its unrepresentable, which a repeated show of defenses of all kinds cannot erase.

     The painter is a prisoner of what he created. He is chained to the painting that requires another equally inadequate painting, but secretly he is happy slave: while he completes his system of defence, he paints in his studio where he enjoys a safe space comparable to that of a childhood.

     In Wagner’s work, there is no painting entitled Invasion, nor is there any real depiction of it, but there are two drawings in pen on paper in 1968: Invasion [14] and Invasion Boat [15].

     But then, it remains visible!

     What does it mean after so many efforts that invasion still finds a way to sneack in?

     Let’s set aside Invasion Boat, which keeps the war at bay. One country, if not two, is enough to buffer and protect a coastless Bohemia which is not, in this case, concerned. 

     But what about Invasion? By itself! It had to remain confined beyond the horizon, to play the structural role of absent cause, which a magician made disappear in the defenses that itself had provoked. Then, all of a sudden, here it appears out the black! How can a drawing claim to show what the paintings are meant to erase?

     Perhaps we should not only take into account the work and its title, but also the date of this drawing: 1968. In Czechoslovakia, it is not, as we know, a year like any other. The invasion is no longer what can disappear by a pictorial magic trick. What takes again place on the night of 20 to 21 August, when the troops of the Warsaw Pact invade Czechoslovakia, is very real. We cannot seriously consider that a drawing titled Invasion simply refers paradoxically to its disappearance and its simultaneous transmutation into a system of defense in the paintings of the war.

     This new invasion forced a painter to name the event which, since 1968, invalidated the strategy of withdrawal that Wagner had carefully elaborated. He knows, without being able to admit it otherwise that by drawing it, that he will have to give it up. It will take him some time, for lack of being able to replace at short notice one pictorial strategy with another, but Wagner can’t ignore that Wall Atlantic painted in oil and Defense System on cotton canvas have had it. All the more so when the Soviet tanks are a few steps away from his studio?

     Wagner, who chooses not to leave Prague, continues his war, but he must invent a new way of painting, he has to change themes. It’s right there: if there is new invasion, then there must be new system of defense! This time, no furnace, Wagner just invented painting as a shield. Now, he must deck it out with a new motif.

3 - From 1970 to 1973: a voiceless painting

     The Prague Spring ends with The Warsaw with the intervention of the troops of the Warsaw Pact troops; it is the beginning of the so-called «normalization» period. 

     Thirty years after the entry of the German troops into Prague, history, which never repeats itself exactly, reoccurred from the East. A new invasion took place. A blanket of lead has fallen on the country, which leaves people speechless and the painter themeless. The canvas becomes empty and, in the absence of a subject, large flat tints appear. The titles? A series of disembodied genres: Landscape, Still life, Interior… The artist depicts in his own way this “cessation of history” that Vaclav Havel speaks of when he remembers the period: “In a sense the government has nationalized time.”[16] Take a look at the 1972 Great Still Life and see that watch embedded in a greenish prairie glaze, a symbol of a country on the brink of despair. Time really seems to have frozen. 

4 - From 1973 to 1981: Heads and Towers.

     Head of guard, Head of professor, Inspector K., Inspector L., Deserter, Prisoner or Head of executor of police orders...  aren’t all these Heads that bloom after 1973 comforting? The painter seems to have found the right answer that should be addressed to Gustav [17].

     Wagner’s Heads will first bear witness to that “strange social and historical nihilisation[18], which Vaclav Havel, for his part, describes when he talks about the “asthma” of an entire people and the “stress of people exposed to the negating radiation of totalitarianism”[19]. Grey should be the inevitable colour. But no: “Life, of course, goes on. […] The struggle of the story and of history to resist their own nihilisation is in itself a story and as such belongs to history. It is our special metahistory.[20]  

     In the colours of Wagner’s Heads, I see the solitary work of an artist who seeks to trace our way through the “dirty grey” of which Havel was speaking. In fact, the theme that clearly emerges is that of the Mask, which the Wagner’s Skulls, modern vanities, will unfold after 1979. All these Heads and Skulls are a macabre dance addressed in response to the tyrant, a carnival parade that will last more than fifteen years in the shade of the Castle.

     After 1975 and the purchase of a baroque house (a suitable fort that Wagner will have restored with care), the Towers come out, as so many self-portraits in which an artist shows up as the one who stayed in Prague and stood at the top of that Watchtower that he will paint so often, as the guardian who watches over the city of the hundred towers, plus one in the port of Holešovice.

     The lighthouse is one of the most valued cornices. The comical genius of the artist will be to make use of it in a country without a coast. This neglected theme contains an unexpected richness: from the top, a signal can be sent!  That is a freedom for Wagner and a way of using anything as a Sign: banner, lantern or gonfalon... 

     An entire country is locked up and the borders of what can come under surveillance shifted from political parties to pigeon-fanciers[21]? It doesn’t not matter! The painter sets sail and, when he raises his colours, Bohemia gets hers back, an unforeseen System of signals. But few people have the opportunity, at that time, to raise their heads and look at all those pictures which look somewhat like kites.

5 - From 1981 to 1989: He who makes the beast can act the angel.

     A book can be a form of encounter and this is what happens to Wagner, when he discovers, in 1981, Erwin Panofsky’s Defense of the ivory tower! In this study, which traces the history of a theme since the Renaissance, the author explains:

     « The man on the tower has the power to see but not the power to act; the only thing he can do is to warn. And here we touch upon what amounts to a kind of “social responsibility” after all, a responsibility which devolves upon the tower dweller, not in spite but because of the fact that he dwells in a tower. The tower of seclusion, the tower of "selfish bliss”, the tower of meditation, the tower of equanimity, this tower is also a watchtower. Whenever the occupant perceives a danger to life or liberty, he has the opportunity, even the duty, not only to "signal along the line from summit to summit" but also to yell, on the slim chance of being heard, to those on the ground.”[22]»

     For Wagner, five years of painting are suddenly analysed. It is as if the code of the tower had, from the beginning, been deciphered, which will produce three effects:

- He will first pay tribute to Erwin Panofsky and this will give Tower for E.P. then Tower Detail for E.P., “a thank you from the painter.”[23]

- But these two particular Towers will constitute a stopping point and, from then on, the artist will stop representing the lighthouse and its guarding or watchkeeping cousins. Wagner feels he has been caught up by the historian’s knowledge which seems to exhaust what had become his favourite theme for the last five years; it is mortifying. Morever, Panofsky’s insight also represents the gaze of the Other who can, at any time, penetrate the dungeons that a painter had elaborated as a new defense system. The Tower era seems really over. So it’s time to act, to paint something else.

- Painting differently? It seems that the artist devoted himself to it already in 1982. He finishes the crenellation in progress (Rescue of the Rescue tower...) but is also heading towards other themes. And that’s when the deployment of his bestiary takes place. 

     Goodbye to the tower, that unsecure cocoon, and there you are: Abracadabra, pipistrelles on the mill, ribs of the kite! The painter metamorphoses into lucanus cervus or Scarab, child’s play for this djinn of colours. Through this bestiary, we have the answer of a painter magician, whose towers have been reveiled: lobster claw renamed Fish, Hedgehog protected by its spines, chitinous armoured Beetle... An artist, in one turn, finds refuge in zoomorphism and, like an hermit crab, sends us back the image of that hostile world to which he borrows his finery. 

     All those monsters, produced, as we know it since Goya “by the sleep of reason[24], allow him to draw for us the striking picture of an omnipresent cruelty: sterile and stupid Games of beasts! Wagner will have time to complete his gallery of animals, to which he will remain faithful as evidenced by later works: Dragon and Castle or Castle and Dragon..., the least of the metamorphoses in the land of Kafka. 

     Horns and spouts, legs or... Wing! Because we can also (Daedalus Project) escape from the top of the Tower. But beware (Fall of Icarus), we must not identify too much with the angel: Fall of the angel, Broken wing, but also Saving Wing.

6 - From 1989 to the present.

     After the Velvet Revolution and the end of the communist regime (Salvation in 1990), the borders open. Wagner can travel: in France, in Italy, after Greece, in 1988, which had given him a taste of freedom with the great exhibition in Athens (Josef Wagner, 172 works) organized on the initiative of Melina Mercouri, Ministry of Culture of Greece from 1981 to 1989.

     The painter then gives us his travel diary: Memories of Acropolis, Memory of Italy or Memories III, IV and V of Prehistory after visiting Dordogne region and its chasms...

     Wagner, however, remains the vigilant guardian of Prague and this is the end of an eclipse: new Towers appear. They are always on guard, with, a little further, The Lonely house in Suburbs, this faithful outpost of the city. Their majesty is a negation of time and the new Signal System[s] celebrate the unexpected course of history. The artist is at one with Prague: the city repaints his palaces, he restores his Towers. 

     From the top of those modernized machicolations, the painter will be able to shoot new Heads at us and revert, if necessary, to the proven tactic of boiling oil painting: Portrait of a Leader (in order, in 1993, to go along with some revival of populism at the time of a new partition with Slovakia) or Head of Small State III, IV and V, a wise and tasty comparative study of the ministerial cabinets that complete Head I and II of Big State, a little larger, of course, and that’s all! 

     But we are in the country of Karel Teige [25]. The “fear of being ‹ dada ›”[26] (to take oneself seriously) compels anyone who jeers and mocks to laugh at himself as well. A virtuoso of pigments will be perfectly at ease painting himself as an Animal and let us understand by the subtitle (Self-Portrait from 1992 to 1996) that a single painting for those four years is enough, because “there are, he will tell us, several layers of animals.”[27]

     Fortifications with the theme of the Second World War, protective epidermis or masks with the Heads and Skulls, then carapaces of the bestiary or life-saving wing when it comes to abandoning a tower besieged by the knowledge of the historian... Faced with repeated invasions, the urgency is always to invent some new defense system. But we must also keep watch, hence the multitude of Warning system[s] and Signals system[s], that a painter must constantly improve, for it’s all about protecting and prolonging life in the grip of a strange process of annihilation. The artist will be a witness by painting an illuminated Head to immortalize the last breath. Otherwise, he will invent new forms with a semaphore at the top of his bastions, unless a Saving Wing taming all those intrusive beaks, which burst into the canvas, finally comes to win over the black angel.

     Such was, in one of the darkest periods, the renewed truth of Wagner’s work after Prague had saved him. He always remained faithful to her as his most recent paintings prove: Suburbs XVII, royal title for the city! He makes her succeed herself: Suburb XVIII, a golden dawn on this district of Holešovice where everything will have started again. 

     Josef Wagner died on April 6, 2016 in Prague. 

     May all Bohemia celebrate its painter.

                                                                                                                   Louis Mossot (Traduction Dominique Rosse et L.M.)                          


[1] - Kuks is located about 130 km east from Prague, between Jaroměř in the south and Dvůr Králové in the north.

[2] - Cf. Jiří Kaše, Petr Kolík, Braunův Betlém, Paseka, Praha, 1999, p. 52 à 161.

[3] - Cf. Picasso, současná tvorba, catalogue of the exhibition organized in collaboration with the Louise Leiris Gallery of Paris and the National Gallery of Prague (Mánes Exhibition Hall, december-january 1967).

[4] - The multilayer painting, which is comparable to the Gothic painting, the one I practice here, reflects the energy invested, an energy that cannot be lost. If, indeed, it happens, even once, that you are unfaithful to yourself in your work or if you pass the slightest compromise, it inevitably turns against you. In this sense, painting is for me the only right thing in the world because the energy invested is reflected in the result.” (Josef Wagner, My Parthenon is Holešovice)

[5] - Josef Wagner, Memories, 1985.

[6] - Josef Wagner, My Parthenon is Holešovice (documentary by Rudolf Adler, Česka Televize, 1997).

[7] - Ibidem.

[8] - Josef Wagner, Memories, 1985.

[9] - Vassily Kandinsky, Point and line to plan, 1926.

[10] - Following pressure from Stalin, the reconstruction aid proposed to Europe by US Secretary of State George Marshall was refused by Clement Gottwald, Communist Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia, who, on 11 July 1947, called on his government to take a unanimous decision not to attend the European Economic Cooperation Conference in Paris on 12 July 1947 (Cf. Henri Dunajewskky, Le plan Marshall et les pays de l’Europe de Est, Revue d’études comparatives Est-Ouest, vol. 14, 1983, n°1).

[11] - Antoine Marès, Histoire des Pays tchèques et slovaque, Hatier, 1975.

[12] - Cf. Landscape with Ancient Towers. It’s like we are sitting in the cockpit of an airplane about to land. You can see what really looks like an aerodrome runway.

[13] - Dino Buzzati, The Tartar Steppe, 1940.

[14] - Josef Wagner, Invasion, pen drawing on paper, 65,5 x 50 cm, 1968, Narodní Galerie (NGP), Prague.

[15] - Josef Wagner, Invasion Boat, pen drawing on paper, 46 x 65 cm, 1968, Narodní Galerie (NGP), Prague.

[16] - Vaclav Havel, Stories and Totalitarianism, 1987 (translated by Paul Wilson).

[17] - Gustáv Husák (1913-1991), Slovak politician who was President of Czechoslovak Socialist Republic from 1975 to 1989.

[18] - Vaclav Havel, Stories and Totalitarianism, 1987 (translated by Paul Wilson).

[19] - Ibidem.

[20] - Ibidem.

[21] - Ibidem.

[22] - Erwin Panofsky, Meaning in The Visual Art, Doubleday Anchor Books, New York, 1957.

[23] - Jan Marius Tomeš, Josef Wagner, catalogue of the exhibition Josef Wagner (Athènes, 1988), Ballantine Books, New York, 1988.

[24] - El sueño de la razon produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), set of 80 prints in aquatint and etching created by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya in 1797-1798, and published as an album in 1799.

[25] - Karel Teige (1900-1951) : Czech artist and critic who was particularly interested in typography and architecture. Marxist, close to the French surrealists (André Breton and Paul Éluard) and leader of the Czech avant-garde, notably the Devětsil group (of which he was founder in 1920) and Léva Fronta (The Left Front, founded in 1929), he was an important theoretician of art in Czechoslovakia: he thus wrote the manifesto of poetism and a manifesto of constructivism (Constructivism or the Liquidation of Art). He also founded the review ReD. In the late 1920s, Karel Teige taught the sociology of architecture at the Bauhaus.” (Wikipedia).

[26] - Vaclav Havel, Anatomy of a reticence, 1985.

[27] - Josef Wagner, My Parthenon is Holešovice (documentary by Rudolf Adler, Česka Televize, 1997).