HELLA GUTH: Dissolved Figures
From 07. 02. 2008 to 27. 04. 2008
The Jewish Museum in Prague, Robert Guttmann Gallery, Prague 1, U Staré školy 3
From February 7 until April 27, 2008 open daily except Saturdays and Jewish holidays
February 7 – March 28 from 9 a.m. until 4.30 p.m., Marc
Hella Guth was born on the 16th of February 1908 in Kostelní Bříza (Kirchenbirk) near Sokolov (Falkenau) in western Bohemia. At the outset, Hella Guth had almost ideal conditions for launching an independent career as an artist
She was interested in art since her youth and was brought up in a supportive and cultivated environment. While still at secondary school she took art lessons with Truda Sandmann and later with a private tutor from the Bauhaus. In the autumn of 1926, after completing secondary school, Guth left to study at the School of Applied Arts in Vienna, where she attended Wilhelm Müller-Hofmann’s painting studio for three years. In addition to drawing and painting, students there learnt about applied graphics, advertising design and printing techniques. Guth made her first linocuts at the school workshop.
In 1930 Guth returned to Prague. In the autumn of 1930 she enrolled in Prof. Willi Nowak’s painting studio at the Prague Academy, which was attended mainly by Slovak and Jewish students. After just one year, however, she broke off her studies, preferring an independent path. She went round the editorial offices, offering her services as an advertising draughtswoman and illustrator for various magazines. In 1933–38 she provided illustrations for (among others) Prager Presse, Prager Tagblatt, Lidové noviny, České slovo, Svobodné slovo, Ženské slovo, ABC, Vilímek’s Humoristické listy and a children’s magazine.
At the turn of 1932/33, Guth made her supreme graphic work – a series of woodcuts for ten songs from Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. Six months after its Berlin premiere, the opera was shown for the first time at Raimund Theatre in Vienna on the 6th of March 1929, with the composer Kurt Weill in attendance. Greatly impressed by the work, Guth set about carving and engraving five double-sided blocks over the course of several months and, at the beginning of January 1933, had them printed at her own cost at the Becker & Co. Printing House in Ústí nad Labem. The publication of her album of woodcuts was praised by several Czech and German newspapers. Her graphic images are not mere illustrations, but independent compositions on the given literary and musical motifs.
Shortly after the Nazis took power in Germany in January 1933, the first involuntary refugees from Nazi oppression started to gather in Prague. Guth organized supportive events, published a series of protest postcards and co-operated with the anti-Fascist satirical weekly Simplikus (later Der Simpl) and with John Heartfield. At the turn of 1933/34 Guth joined the German theatre troupe Studio 34, which in the first years of exile was the most important anti-Fascist theatre company in Prague. She designed posters and stage sets for this group and occasionally appeared as an actor; as she spoke Czech well, she also dealt with their official business. They were also known as Voice Band, as their productions involved the use of various objects as musical instruments, in addition to vocals. In June and July 1934, Guth provided refuge to the Hamburg-based journalist Willi Bredel in her studio, where in a short time he wrote a documentary novel, which became the first authentic testimony to the actual conditions in Nazi concentration camps.
From the mid-1930s Hella Guth focused mainly on painting. Around this time she painted several vivid portraits of her friends but mainly still lifes with cubist features.
After the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands on the 15th of March 1939, Guth was in immediate danger and so had to leave quickly. She joined the ‘Thomas Mann Gruppe’, which helped illegal refugees get to England via Poland. At the start of May, she left Prague without any luggage and stayed in Ostrava, from where in late May 1939 she crossed the Polish border. Several months later she sailed to England.
In 1942 she received a scholarship from the Cultural Office of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, which enabled her to focus more on painting. In June 1943 she had her first one-person show at the Czechoslovak Institute in London, where she exhibited over 30 works – drawings, watercolours, gouaches and several large surrealistic oil paintings. This was praised by the Čechoslovák newspaper: “… There are several sharply individual and well executed paintings here that would have attracted interest even in a good exhibition in pre-war Prague – for example, Coat of Arms and in particular The Triumphant Mouse, in which the dramatization of the motif is artfully transformed into a monstrosity with great technical mastery…” Also worthy of acclaim were “the wonderful landscape with a wind rose in the painting Intimate Conversation and the dream-like sculptural landscape in the painting Tea and the Infinite.”
In 1945 she met Frank Popper (later a famous theoretician of modern art) whom she married in 1947. Popper came from Prague and, like Guth, had studied in Vienna. On their way to Vienna they also visited Bohemia, where Guth learned that her mother and her sister Hana had both perished (her mother probably in Auschwitz, her sister in Lodz).
In 1951 she moved to Paris and in 1954 acquired a small studio in the courtyard of a house at 34 Boulevard de Clichy, near Montmartre, where she lived and worked for the rest of her life.
She had immediate success with her first Paris exhibition in 1951. In 1952 she was visited by the Paris gallery owner Jeanette Vivet who offered to organize a show for her in the same year; this also met with an enthusiastic response and marked the beginning of the most successful period in Guth’s art career. Between 1954 and 1959 she had regular exhibitions at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles; in 1957 she was mentioned in Michel Seuphors’ dictionary of abstract painting; in 1958 she was awarded the silver medal Prix Suisse de Peinture Abstraite. She also began to sell her artwork to museums. Participation in group shows and collaborations and friendships with artists such as Sonya Delaunay, Marcelle Cahn and Nicolas Schöffer and thecritic Claude Riviére provided a creative environment in which she had more freedom than ever before.
The early paintings from Guth’s Paris period clearly reveal her tendency towards linear graphic art. From 1954 onwards these linear structures gradually loosen up, which is particularly evident in her pastels. Her paintings from this period are now in many private and public collections in France, England, Switzerland, Germany and Israel.
Surprisingly, from about the mid-60s to the mid-70s, figurative elements began appearing once again in Guth’s paintings, as if emerging from the depths of the dark layers of paint or from the apparent chaos of colour and shape. At the end of 1970s, Guth moved towards a completely loose gestural style, although she retained her characteristic graphic expression.
At the end of the 70s, an eye disease forced Guth to give up painting for a while. In 1981, after recovering from her illness, she began a new creative period in which she focused on drawing and collage with various mixed media. She later exhibited again at the Jacques Barbier Gallery in Paris (1986), at the Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Kiel (1989) and in Soest (1990). In 1991 an exhibition of her work was shown at David Gallery in Lyon. In 1992 Hella Guth died in Paris at the age of 84. She remained creative until the last weeks of her life.
This is the first ever solo exhibition in Prague of this uniquely talented and daring artist, most of whose work was created in the difficult conditions of exile. Thanks to her diligence and talent, however, Guth managed to achieve relatively widespread acclaim not only in the 1950s and 60s but also in recent times, which have seen a rediscovery of her work in several galleries in France and Germany.