František Gellner (1881-1914): Ex libris (before 1914)
Woodcut on paper, 135 x 98 mm
Pasted into an unprofessionally made envelope, dimensions 212 x 151 mm, signed in typescript on the front side: Franta Gellner, rk. 190[?]
Provenance: acquisition by the JMP in 2004
June 19 of this year marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of poet, prose writer, illustrator, caricaturist, and staunch anarchist František Gellner. The Object of the Month series commemorates this with a small, incidental print, a personal ex libris Gellner made for himself in his typically sarcastic frame of mind: an unsightly woman in black, a spinster’s attire (a publican) shouts abuse over an overturned bottle of wine on the café table. This entire “lamento” is framed by an art-nouveau embellishment, the upper part of which forms the name of the ex-libris’s owner and creator. “Franta Gelner” appears with a single “l,” though a white mouse, the unmistakable sign of alcoholic delirium, sneaks in between the bohemian’s first and last names. It’s as if we could hear hovering over all Gellner’s creed as embodied in a nearly popularized quatrain from a small poem pastiching a pub ditty that was published in the collection Po ná ať přijde potopa (After Us, the Deluge):
singing to myself, it’s me to the bone
as the wine chases care out of my dome
my life quickly running down the drain
nothing to lose and nothing to gain
František Gellner was born in Mladá Boleslav to the family of a Jewish shopkeeper, who was described by poet and translator Josef Mach, Gellner’s friend and classmate at the town’s gymnasium, in his retrospectives published in the late 1920s to the early 1930s in the daily Lidové noviny as a “class conscious socialist.” Gellner rather quickly developed into a rebel himself, fulminating against philistinism and convention of all types. He took a liking to Decadence and anarchism, reading about them in such magazines as Moderní revue (Modern Review) and Nový kult (New Cult), which he ordered still as a gymnasium student in the notoriously stormy 1890s. Josef Mach recalled: “When you visited the Gellners’ you had to walk through the shop. Every 9th or 10th day of the month sitting on old Mr. Gellner’s ancient desk would be the new issue of Moderní revue and sometimes also Nový kult and other publications that had just come out. Several students chipped in for the subscriptions, and at the end of the school year we divvied them up.”
After graduating Gellner left home. First he studied at the Polytechnical University in Vienna, but he did not finish his degree as he was more interested in the city’s nightlife than his studies. He later attended the Mining Academy in Příbram “with an international student body renowned for their alcoholic extravagance and wildness.” His friend, the anarchist poet S.K. Neumann characterized Gellner’s unbridled bohemianism: “… the problem Gellner had with life during this period was at its core the same problem of all those called to art who have common vocations alien to their natures and desires. He should have studied in Vienna and in Příbram even, but he was a member of the “famous Farniente family”: a do-nothing, unless drinking and loafing are work too, unless a few poems and small caricatures are enough for one to be considered a working man.” One should not take Neumann’s description of Gellner’s idleness literally, at least not when it comes to his literary output. During this period Gellner began to contribute to New Cult while actively cultivating relationships with the anarchist poets clustered around Neumann: Fráňa Šrámek, Karel Toman, Josef Mach, and Leo Freimuth, as well as with the writers Marie Majerová and Helena Malířová.
He served a year of compulsory military service (1904) in Litoměřice and was discharged after a year of being constantly bullied. From 1905 to 1908 he studied painting, first in Munich and then in Paris, and in 1909 he entered the Art Academy in Dresden, only to return to Paris for a short time a year later. From mid-1911 he lived in Brno where he spent most of his time reporting for Lidové noviny and writing poetry and prose, his visual art filling the Saturday illustrated supplement of the newspaper Večery (Evenings). He was active in politics, serving as secretary to the Civic Club of the People’s Progressive Party.
Despite his many ailments caused by his raucous lifestyle, and despite the fact that his health was failing, when World War I broke out he was sent in August 1914 to the Eastern Front in Galicia. After not even a month had passed, his unit was ordered to undertake a quick retreat, and not having enough strength to keep up, Gellner remained behind bundled up in a tarpaulin and lying by the side of the road somewhere around Gródek. Once again it was Josef Mach who delivered the news of his friend’s demise: “Gellner was already deathly tired by the long march and could hardly stay on his feet. At the moment they were ordered to march back he could barely move from the spot. He declared he couldn’t go on and would stay where he was. And he stayed. He lay on the side of the road wrapped in a tent canvas and awaiting his fate. … This is the last we heard of him. Since then no one has seen him either dead or alive, at least no one who would know that this is Gellner the poet.”