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Václav Sokol / Drawings a Nativity Scenes

From the drawing of symbols to distinctive images

We live within a long-standing tradition in which the symbol — the sign — serves as the language of explication. What we see in it, we sense and understand emotionally as if it were meant to complete what the word has presented to us for reflection. The symbol illustrates the act of speech. The meaning of the depicted symbol can be taken apart, and we can use it to refer to all manner of things. But might it occur that someone draws a symbol in such a way that it enters into the image in the full sense of the word, and thereby ceases to be a reference that can be interpreted? Indeed it might, but only if it develops organically from the essence of the motif and is thereby firmly embedded within and connected to all the threads that bind the entirety of the image. From here it can no longer be borrowed. This is how the symbol — the image — the illustration in the hands of the teacher differs from the genuine work of an artist who speaks via the sketch — the symbol, which is once again brought back to life.

 

Several years ago Václav Sokol provided the illustrations for a book by the Ukrainian poet and thinker Grigory Skovoroda Discourse on Wisdom (Vyšehrad 1985). In his own way he recreated old symbols from a baroque book that was very popular from Lisbon to Moscow (Simvoly i emblemata, Amsterdam 1705). Like many similar books of the time, its illustrations served the needs of educating broad layers in the collective European tradition. Skovoroda himself also recreated the symbols to aid his interpretation of the basis of life and the world, the soul, the Creator, in the same spirit and repertoire as the poets Dylan and Cohen do today. The connection of the motifs and their composition into a single whole brought the image closer to what Skovoroda wanted to say in his text or lecture. Václav Sokol embraced these symbols from Skovoroda’s time and over the years recreated them in his own work — a heart on the waves, house (of God), rain (of grace), a boat on the sea’s horizon, the circle of a ring and the crown of a gemstone, a laurel wreath raised to the heavens, knot above a jagged shore, the wheel of the sun in a perfect circle.

 

More expressive and profound work with symbols demands even greater distinctiveness [osobitost] and, at the same time, a deeper intelligibility. Here nothing concrete is presented, no examples. Nevertheless it is necessary to express oneself precisely and distinctively so that the viewer remembers both the image and the moral. Like when a fairground narrator of instructive stories provides commentary for his series of drawings. For centuries, images from the “Bible of the Poor” served preachers, which decorated cathedral walls and ceilings. Now people use images via PowerPoint presentations for the most varied purposes.

The pitfalls of using symbols are of course numerous. Let us take only a few examples: Most often one falls prey to the literalness of precise illustrations, as did Gustav Doré and Jacques-Louis David. This leads to such nonsense as we find in various popular Bibles, the Watchtower or the Book of Mormon. On the other hand you might empty yourself out with inept abstraction, divest your figures and scenes of any sort of internal characteristics so that they become completely schematic, something Zdirad Čech has been doing for years in his holy images, which are all the same. In this popular church illustrator’s work one sees yet extreme on the gamut of self-indulgence. Čech represents tasteless amateurishness in his service to one type of Catholic mentality: he simply illustrates idiocy and ideology. At the opposite end we find the learned braggadocio and amalgamation of traditional and mythological themes by Jiří Anderle, who apparently gets along without content, message or even thought. He kneads a skillfully executed record of perceptions and rank humankind to which nothing base is foreign.

The drawing of a symbolum is not at all without risks. And we must point out emphatically that so far we have in mind only the drawing of symbols of the radiant face of reality…. but back to the “white magic”.

In his drawings, Václav Sokol approaches the same motif, the basis of the symbolum, and the symbolum in his rendering appears in the changes of expression as a whole, which can no longer serve as an aid in the language of expression, but rather already speaks without it. The picture has become an image.

In perhaps a similar context, the poet William Carlos Williams wrote about the criteria belonging the language of the artistic work: “This seemed to me to be what a poem was for, to speak for us in a language we can understand. But first before we can understand it the language must be recognizable. We must know it as our own, we must be satisfied that it speaks for us. And yet it must remain a language like all languages, a symbol of communication.” (Patterson 1951)
David Bartoň

Translation from Czech Craig Cravens



Václav Sokol

19. 9. 1938

As a young boy I used to go with my parents to a gallery of gothic art. Then at home I would paint pictures of Madonnas and castles based on the work of August Sedláček. According to instructions by painter Cennino Cennini I mashed up berries from the Virginia creeper plant to create a beautiful color for the mantle of my Madonnas. My father was an architect and designed beautiful cathedrals which, however, were never built. I loved El Greco and wanted to devote myself to religious art, but the period thought otherwise. When I became an adult I was in danger of being arrested for parasitism. So I accepted a job (as a librarian and later a commercial graphic artist) and, among other things, began to devote myself to various artistic activities. I installed exhibits, painted posters, carved nativity scenes, glued together and calculated letters/type [lepil a pocital pismenka]. I assumed that here I would be able to apply all of my abilities. After all, gothic and antiquated art was clearly applied art, created for someone and with a clear objective, where the “artist” could remain anonymous. But after a time I started to realize that all of my activity had a certain limitation. Metaphorically one could say that it did not nourish the soul. I could never completely forget that at one time a person was alone with his pen and pencil and that this was more nutritious fare.  At times, whenever possible I would return to my subjects which in various ways would become transformed and influence one another. Seas, structures, objects, human figures. I kept drawing them over and over, and often the drawings served simply as a confirmation that this was not the way to go. Often, however, this led me upon the proper path, which was for me always the most important. Sometimes I would wander for a long time in the dark, but then the joy was all the greater when I came upon it. It seemed to me to make sense.
Václav Sokol

 

The draughtsman, illustrator, typographer and graphic artist Václav Sokol was born in 1938 in Prague. He studied at the High Art School of Václav Hollar and trained under Professor Jaroslav Vodrážka at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. He was rejected from university five times for ideological reasons. In the 1960s he worked as a librarian at the Museum of Literature at the Strahov Library, and from 1971 to 1990 he worked in the promotional department of the Department of Roads and Railways. In 1978 he signed Charter 77 and of course “achieved” the position of doorman only ten years later. From 1993 to 1999 he worked as a graphic artist for the bi-weekly Architekt. He has published articles on graphic art in the journals Katolický týdeník, Perspektivy, Čmelák a svět and Revolver Revue. He currently works on graphic book design for Triáda Publishers and the Arts and Theatre Institute.

 

Among other books he has illustrated the The Message of Jesus (a retelling of the New Testament by Jan Sokol, 1969), Discourse on Wisdom by Gregory Skovoroda (under the pseudonym Miloš Ševčík, 1983) and Readings from the Bible (the most well known and beautiful stories from the Old and New Testaments, selected and interpreted by Jan Sokol, 1996). He is the creator of the nativity scene in the church at Odolena Voda (1985–1988).


 

Selected artworks

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From the drawing of symbols to distinctive images


We live within a long-standing tradition in which the symbol — the sign — serves as the language of explication. What we see in it, we sense and understand emotionally as if it were meant to complete what the word has presented to us for reflection. The symbol illustrates the ... more

The Sun
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The Sun, 1983

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The Sunset, 2007

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The Sun, 2015

The Sea
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The Sea, 2010

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The Sea, 2010

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Oh the Shore, 2014

The Ship
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The Ship, 1983

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The Ship in the Harbour, 2007

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The Ship, 2012

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The Ship, 2015

In the Mountains
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Mountains, 1983

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In the Mountains, 2007

The Bouquet
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The Bouquet, 1983

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The Bouquet, 2007

The Ring
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The Ring, 1983

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The Ring, 2005

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The Ring, 2007

The Heart
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The Heart, 1983

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The Heart in the Waves, 2007

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The Heart, 2016

The Rain
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The Rain, 1983

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The Rain, 2014

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The Rain, 2014

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Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire, 2014

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The Rain, 2014

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The Rain, 2014

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The Rain, 2015

The Aquarium
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God's House, 2011

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The Aquarium, 2014

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The Aquarium, 2015

The Cup
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The Cup, 2007

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The Cup, 2013

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The Cup, 2013

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Milk for Melting, 2015

The Glass
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The Glass, 2006

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Glasses on the Table, 2006

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Glasses on the Table, 2007

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The Glass, 2007

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The Glass, 2012

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The Glass, 2012

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The Glass, 2013

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The Glass, 2013

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Glasses on the Table, 2014

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Two Glasses, 2014

The Fruits
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The Compote, 2009

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Pears on the Table, 2015

Nativity
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Nativity, 1950

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Nativity, 1950

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Nativity, 1955

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Maria with new born baby, 1955

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The Holy Family, 1956

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Nativity (cow house in framstead Spiritka)

Pan děkan Boštík miloval umění (k historii Betlému v Ústí nad Orlicí)

Pan děkan Boštík miloval umění (k historii Betlému v Ústí nad Orlicí)

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Nativity for Ústí nad Orlicí, 1960

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Nativity for Ústí nad Orlicí, 1960

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Advent, 1966

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Nativity, 1980

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Nativity, 1981

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Holy Night, 1985

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Nativity, 1987

Obchozí betlém v Odolena Vodě

Obchozí betlém v Odolena Vodě

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Draft for the Nativity scene in Odolena Voda, 1985

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Nativity for Odolena Voda, 1985-88

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Nativity in Odolena Voda, 1985-88

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Nativity in Odolena Voda, 1985-88

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Nativity in Odolena Voda, 1985-88

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Nativity, 2007

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Maria with new born baby, 2010

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Nativity, 2012

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Nativity, 2016

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The Holy Family, 2016

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The Holy Family, 2016

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Nativity, 2017

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On the Road, 2018

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