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VAVRO ORAVEC - A Painter of Soul


Spanish Synagogue, 18 January - 30 April 2001


Self-portrait, 1990Vavro Oravec was born in the Slovakian town of Tvrdošín in 1915. He studied medicine in Bratislava (1933-38) and then worked in hospitals in Bardejov and Nitra. After the establishment of the State of Slovakia (1939) he helped out in the Jewish Council’s office in Bratislava and taught Jewish children who had been expelled from school. He never took any lessons in painting. The only art education he received was a three-month retraining course in ceramics (run by J. Horová and S. Fischerová) in Bratislava in 1940, which he attended after being prohibited from practising medicine. He was arrested in Autumn 1944 and deported to Auschwitz, from where he was sent to the concentration camps Gross Rosen and Blechhammer.

Dybbuk, 1992  After the end of the war Vavro Oravec left for Prague where he studied stomatology at Charles University. In 1948 he began to work as a dentist in a health centre in Prague. In his free time he tried his hand at painting, attending a course of drawing lessons under Jan Bauch. He later sought out the advice of friends from the May 57 group of painters (R .Fremund, R. Piesen, J. Kolínská,
J. Balcar, Z. Sekal and others). He first exhibited his work together with a group of doctor painters in 1955 in the E. F. Burian Theatre. It was at this time that he began to paint in a more systematic way. Helped on by a natural talent, he was soon to master the basics of painting, but never lost his original naiveté, unique sensibility and distinctness of expression.

   Three one-man shows in 1959, 1962 and 1965 came about as a result of his own artistic development and personal outlook . He painted slowly, patiently, with great focus and intensity. He never acquired the technical assuredness and skill of a professional painter, a shortcoming he turned to his advantage. He was forced to explore and discover everything for himself, to contemplate with a sense of humility and an awareness of life. His work does not reveal any marked development or dramatic change; it is as if he keeps returning to a narrow yet focused range of themes, while using new means to discover qualities that until now have been hidden. Jaromír Pecirka said of Vavro Oravec’s work in 1959: “There is something mysterious in his paintings...as if the remnants or echoes of some ancient culture were hidden within...the patina of something that is not new, something that was experienced and cherished not only by the artist but by his ancestors...”. Portrait of Franz Kafka, 1998
   For a long time, his work was almost exclusively centred around portraits. These are imaginary portraits, based on a deep sense of affinity. The sorrowful faces of children and young girls reflect his war-time experiences. After the occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 he emigrated to Bern, Switzerland. In exile new themes emerged in his paintings recalling the terrifying experience from Auschwitz and the death marches. He created portraits of his ancestors, relatives and friends, as well as stylised self-portraits that seem to depict mental states rather than outward appearances. From the very beginning, however, his portraits of his kindred spirit Franz Kafka were predominant. These were later followed by portraits of other authors, such as Marcel Proust, Robert Walser, Hermann Hesse and Ernst Troller, as well as his favourite artists Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee and Karel Černý. Hanukkah candle-strick, 1999
   His work is created in privacy, in an enclosed space, in isolation and concentration, as the result of an ever deepening experience and awareness. His paintings take form slowly, emerging in silence from oblivion, revealing hidden faces and objects that seemed to be lost. Colours are layered in a similar way to human experience, memories and dreams. His paintings radiate an indefinable magic sensibility, evocative of dreams and a silent immersion into a world either long since past or existing somewhere on the other side of our consciousness. They focus on simple things and incorporate childhood memories, moments of despair and happiness forever fixed. They are a reflection of his soul and his life. Through his art he seeks a pathway to himself, to forgotten events, people and objects, to their hidden meanings and significance which are hopelessly eluding the rest of us in the hustle and bustle of life.


Biographical details:

22.6.1915 Born in Tvrdošín, Slovakia
1933-38 Studied medicine in Bratislava and worked in hospitals in Bardejov a Nitra
1940 Attended a ceramics course run by J. Horová and S. Fischerová in Bratislava
1941-42 Helped out in the Jewish Council’s office in Bratislava and taught Jewish children
1944 Arrested in Autumn, deported to Auschwitz, Gross Rosen and Blech- hammer concentration camps
1945 Worked as a doctor in hospitals in Košice and Bratislava
1945-47 Studied at the Medical Faculty of Charles University in Prague
1948-68 Dentist in a health centre in Prague
1955 Began to paint systematically
1963 Member of May 57 Group
1968 Emigrated in September to Bern, Switzerland
1969-76 Worked as a dentist in a health centre in Bern
1976 Went into retirement, devoting himself to art

One-man shows:

1955, 1956 Prague, E. F. Burian Theatre
1959 Prague, Rokoko Theatre Foyer
1961 Prague, Na zábradlí Theatre Foyer
1962 Prague, Komorní Theatre Foyer
1965 Prague, Charles Square Gallery
1966 Prague, Malá galerie Čs. spisovatele
1967 Munich, Neue Müncher Galerie
1967 Paris, La Nouvelle Galerie
1967 Linz, Galerie am Taubenmarkt
1969 Bern, Galerie Schindler
1970 Bern, Zähringer Galerie
1970 Würzburg, Galerie Radegundis Villinger
1970 London, Gallery Petit
1971 Laufen, Galerie Brauereikeller
1972 Gstaad, Kunstverein
1973 Bern, Atelier Elisabeth Röthlisberger
1974 Curych, Galerie Walchenturm
1975 Würzburg, Galerie Radegundis Villinger
1976 Schloss Jegensdorf; Naters, Junkerhof
1977 Münsingen, Galerie Wagerad
1977, 1980 Bern, Zähringer Galerie
1981 Burgdorf, Galerie Schlossberg
1984, 1986 Bern, Zähringer Galerie
1987 Bern, Galerie Papillon
1992, 1995, 1996 Bern, Zähringer Galerie
1999 Prague, Franz Kafka Gallery
1999 Bern, Kälim & S.Ramsayer Galerie

Exhibition curator:PhDr. Arno Parik
Installation: Pavel Brach


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