Václav Sokol / Drawings and 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)
Translation from Czech Craig Cravens