Jewish Museum in Prague


Robert Guttmann - Painter and Traveller of Prague


Robert Guttmann Gallery, U Stare skoly 3, Prague 1
12 April - 19 June 2001


   The Jewish Museum in Prague is opening its new exhibition venue, the Robert Guttmann Gallery, with an exhibition of pictures by the popular Prague painter Robert Guttmann. Following the Orlická Gallery exhibition in the Rychnově nad Kněžnou Chateau in 1994, this is the largest exhibition to date of the work of this famous naive artist from the First Republic. This show features virtually all of Guttmann’s pictures from the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague, as well as numerous pictures and caricatures of Guttmann by other artists, period photographs and documents which the Museum has managed to collect over the years. The Museum would also like to ask the public for help in its search for other pictures, sketches and photographs of or by Robert Guttmann or any other material relating to this artist.
   Robert Guttmann was born on 22 April 1880 in Sušice, South Bohemia. His paternal ancestors came from Central Bohemia and his mother’s family, the Fischers, were from Moravia. Guttmann spent his childhood in Sušice and attended primary school in Planá nad Lužnicí. He went to secondary school in České Budějovice but after two troublesome years was sent home to learn the family business. He preferred to roam around the countryside, having loved flowers and animals (especially horses) since his childhood. Because of his dreamy nature he became known as “the village poet”.
   Guttmann came to Prague in 1895, attending the Bergmann Business School. Having developed a fine baritone voice he wanted to become a cantor. As a keen athlete he also dreamt of being in the Olympics. For several years he attended a private art school run by the landscape painter Alois Kirnig. But all these interests were pushed aside by Guttmann’s first encounter with the burgeoning Jewish national movement which proved to be the most important experience of his life. He went to lectures held by the Maccabi Students’ Association (1893) and in 1896 read Herzl’s book, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). In 1897 he walked all the way to the First Zionist Congress in Basle: “It was an exhilarating march—sheer ecstasy! I was 17 years old at the time and the march took 14 and a half weeks. I had some money on me, but apart from that, I sold my hand-painted postcards and mainly caricatures…”, he later recalled. By 1925 he had visited most of the Zionist congresses in various cities of Europe. But not everyone understood Guttmann’s devotion to the Zionist movement: “The local [Prague] Jews repaid me with the worst gratitude you can imagine... they told me not to appear in public as a Zionist because that would only hurt the movement... As a result of the personal animosity and antipathy I came across in Zionist circles I began to focus more intensively on painting.”
   In the inter-war period Guttmann was better known in Prague for his distinct appearance than for his pictures. His opinions, photographs, caricatures and reproductions were occasionally featured in a number of Prague newspapers. In summer he would set out on long hikes to Zionist Congresses abroad or would travel throughout the country on foot. He often visited spa towns where he would sketch the guests or sell his own caricatures. But he preferred to visit Zionist organizations in Slovakia and traditional Jewish communities in Subcarpathian Ruthenia.
   Guttmann’s paintings are unconventional and unclassifiable, and therefore unsettling. According to Dr. Arthur Heller, a Prague psychiatrist, they share similar traits to the works of schizophrenics, children, primitive people and certain Expressionists. They afford an insight into a secluded, sensitive soul which was drawn to nature, to the integrity of childhood and to a profound faith. Guttmann’s eccentricity and defiance may have been a way of protecting his fragile, sensitive world from outside encroachment. As an artist, he refused to be a mere reproducer of reality and defended his right to his own creative self-expression. “I am completely independent and happy that I have escaped the pedantry of the academic world and that I am free to live and rage!”. 
   After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, Guttman’s lost the genial world in which he had been accustomed to live. He could go only to the ‘Jewish’ Café Roxy in Dlouhá Street, but he spent most of his time on his own in his tiny room where his newspaper clippings and pictures reminded him of better times. His last paintings (1939-41) were based on these memories, all in vivid bright colours; apart from a few earlier pictures, these are the only ones to have survived. On 16 October 1941 Guttmann was put on the first transport that left Prague for the Lodz ghetto. Ghetto life must have been incomprehensible and unbearable for such a globetrotter who had criss-crossed half of Europe on foot. He became completely apathetic and silent. He just stared into space with a hopeless, faraway look in his eyes, clutching his folder in his arms. He died at Lodz on 12 March 1942.


Biography of Robert Guttmann 

1880 Born in Sušice, Southern Bohemia (20 April).
1886 Attends a Czech school in Planá nad Lužnicí; learns Hebrew and German at home.
1895 His family moves to Prague. Attends a business school on his father’s wishes. Keen to become cantor in a Synagogue. Active in sport.
1896 Discovers Theodor Herzl’s book, Der Judenstaat. Participates in lectures and discussions at the Maccabi Club. Attends an academy of art run by Alois Kirnig Makes a 102-day pilgrimage on foot to the 1st Zionist Congress in Basle, selling hand-painted postcards on the way. 1898 His father’s death prevents his participation in the 2nd Zionist Congress in Basle.
1899 Co-founds a Czech branch of the ”Zion” association. Visits the 3rd Zionist Congress in Basle.
1900 Participates in the 4th Zionist Congress in London.
1903 Participates in the 6th Zionist Congress in Basle.
1907 Participates in the 8th Zionist Congress in The Hague. In the following years visits all Zionist Congresses until 1925. Devotes himself to painting as the main source of income.
1908- 1938 A period of intense creativity, spending time in his favourite Prague cafés and travelling. Makes further journeys to France, Austria, Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia. Involved in all events connected to the Zionist movement at home and abroad. Becomes a popular subject for Prague newspapers and magazines due to his unconventional life-style and appearance.
1923 Dedicates a series of his work to President T.G.Masaryk.
1925 Completes an allegorical honorary diploma for President T.G.Masaryk. His wedding is announced in the Prague press. Has disagreements with Prague Zionists. Devotes more time to painting. Sends a donation for the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
1926 Travels across Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.
1928 Lays a wreath on the grave of Charlotte G.Masaryk; goes on a pilgrimage to Lány. On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia (28 October), his first complete exhibition of artwork (40 oil paintings, water-colours and pastels) is held with the support of Hugo Kalista at the Monopol Publishing House on Charles Square
1930 Exhibition in Zikmund Reach’s second-hand bookshop in Skořepka Street, Prague. The Jewish Community of Prague finds him a permanent place in Lämml’s poor people’s shelter on Na Bojišti Street.
1931 Travels through Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and France.
1932 Arthur Heller publishes a monograph entitled ”Guttmann. Eine psychologische Studie über den Maler Robert Guttmann”, Litevna, Prague.
1936 -1939 Spends time in U Karasů snack bar in Žižkov where he sketches a number of pictures.
1941 (16 October) Put on the first transport (A) from Prague to Lodz ghetto
1942 Dies of hunger in the Lodz ghetto (14 March)

Exhibition curator: Dr. Arno Parik

Installation: Pavel Brach


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