The romantic nostalgia of Moravia is perfectly captured in the art of Joža Uprka. He was the region's principal artistic chronicler. His art would shape the identity of the area and help define its culture across the world.
Uprka was inspired by his birthplace, Slovacko (Southeast Moravia). He was particularly interested in folk traditions, everyday life, and details of folk dress captured in a way that created a vivid, lively impression of the subjects. It is clear to see that Uprka intended to celebrate physical labor, traditions, and common people, even as modernization of the time pushed away from those ideas.
Uprka was born in the late 19th century, in 1861. His father was an amateur painter, but they were peasants. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, then transferred to the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. There he was one of the founders of a Czech student organization called Škréta (after Karel Škréta), a group that included artists Alfons Mucha, Antonín Slavíček, Pavel Socháň, and Luděk Marold. He returned to Moravia in 1888 and began painting scenes from everyday life. He studied in Paris from 1892 to 1893, where he had a showing at the Paris Salon, which was a very notable art event at the time. He would have his first major exhibition in 1897 in Prague.
|Joža Uprka, Woman Sitting in Field with a Religious Book at St. Anthony’s Pilgrimage, early 20th century, oil on board.||Joža Uprka, Woman with Headscarf, 1897, oil on canvas.|
Uprka's style is influenced by Impressionism. For the first part of his life, he would have been more familiar with the more neutral palette of Czech and German art. However, European tastes were influenced by Impressionists like Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Mary Cassatt over time. This style was considered modern by the time Uprka was working in Paris. Impressionists, as a whole, were interested in capturing a fleeting instant or sensory effect, thus getting the "impression" of their subject. Many had looser brushwork, and more intense color palettes. “Uprka dappled the surface of his paintings with bright flecks of color and bold, elongated strokes of the brush, and he developed a distinctively vibrant color palette that became increasingly characteristic of his work: a colorful array of warm reds and yellows, set against cooler blues and greens. These modern artistic techniques offered Uprka a new way of seeing and portraying the otherwise familiar, strongly rural subjects of his own youth,” wrote Dr. Nicholas Sawicki.
"Modern artistic techniques offered Uprka a new way of seeing and portraying the otherwise familiar, strongly rural subjects of his own youth."
He would paint in watercolor and oil, but also did drawings and etchings. In 1899, he was married, and lived and worked in a house/studio in Hroznová Lhota. In 1904, it was made into a two-story villa that became a meeting place for notable Czech artists, writers, and composers. Sadly, in the next year his wife needed care in a mental hospital in Kroměříž. From 1922 to 1937, he had a studio in the Slovakian countryside to inspire his work. When he died, he was buried in his birthplace. In 2011, a school in Hroznová Lhota was named after him.
It is worth noting that ethnographers (scientists who study people and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences) use Uprka's work to document folk life and traditions in that part of Moravia. The detailed kroje in the paintings are consistent with the same time period that he was working. Today, when we look at his paintings, drawings, and etchings, we can see the activities of his time as if they just happened yesterday. During much of his life, the Czech nations were in search of identity, and went through a lot of political change. Uprka's work became part of that identity then, and continues to be a source of pride today.
The opportunity to appreciate Uprka's work in person will be available at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (NCSML), Cedar Rapids, IA, through March 24. The exhibition is titled National Treasure: The Art of Joža Uprka from the George T. Drost Collection. The assembled collection is on loan from George T. Drost. Drost was born in Brno, Czech Republic, and at the age of three, he and his family had to flee Communist rule. He grew up in Chicago, IL, and had calendars with Uprka's paintings on them to remind the family of their homeland.
"It brings a certain sense of pride that there's an artist who has skillsets that were as good as any other European artists. This is a story that should be told."
In the 1990's, Drost started collecting the paintings as a way to connect with his homeland. He now owns about 120 pieces. Drost said that it is particularly important to him to share Uprka's artwork with people outside of the Czech Republic, who don't know the work as well. “It brings a certain sense of pride that there's an artist who has skillsets that were as good as any other European artists. This is a story that should be told,” he said.
Joža Uprka, The Young King, from the Ride of the Kings, 1897, oil on panel.
Special thanks to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library for providing information and images used in this article.
Upcoming Exhibitions at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library:
(February 9 –September 8, 2019)
In honor of the 30th anniversary, the NCSML presents an original exhibition telling the story of 1989’s Velvet Revolution. Film footage, eyewitness accounts, music, and artifacts will be featured. The exhibit will explore the year 1989 as communist regimes worldwide experienced major unrest, including stories from China, East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.
Lullaby: Babies in Slovak Folk Dress
(April 13 – October 6, 2019)
Slovak photographer Monika Klučiarová combines stunning Slovak folk dress with adorable babies to create spectacular portraits. The artist sees folk dress as a mosaic composed of many vital details. In addition to the cultural value and heritage value, Slovak kroje also offer the color and geometric patterns that form the basis of good photography.
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