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Anna Zemรกnkovรก

Cavin-Morris Gallery New York, New York


Anna Zemánková - The Flowers of PASSION By Terezie Zemánková

Translated from the Czech by Jan Travniček The work of Czech artist Anna Zemánková is, paradoxically, better known in the United States than in her native Europe.1 The work of some art brut artists tends not to change a lot over time. Yet Zemánková’s work went through several evolutionary stages. If we want to understand what is hidden in the artist’s amphibious flowers, in thousands of filaments gathered into independent organisms, or diamonds stuck into a rough clutter of artificial fibers, we need to know something about the creator’s life and be able to understand her feelings. Anna Zemánková (née Veselá) was born on August 23, 1908, the second of four children in a Catholic family in the small Moravian village of Staré Hodolany, in the Czech Republic near Olomouc, the sumptuous cultural center detail: Untitled, c. 1970s, Pastel on paper, 23.62 x 15.75 in/60 x 40 cm of the region. From childhood, she responded strongly to the aesthetics of her environment. Her mother, Adolfa, ruled strictly over the family, whereas her father, Antonin, a hairdresser and popular musician, brought a free, bohemian spirit into the household. Both of their influences contributed to the development of Anna’s personality. She was also influenced by the social and political climate of her childhood, which was characterized by a strong patriotism that became even more powerful after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the birth of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918. This patriotic revival included a passionate preservation of traditions, including processions in folk costumes, folk songs, and fairy tales, as well as classes in ornamental drawing influenced by folk art. All of this was a natural part of the life of young Anna Veselá. She made her first attempts to paint during her adolescence. She based her realistic landscapes on postcards and showed a great sense for color. Even though she wished to study fine art, she never received any education of this kind. Her parents were strictly opposed to an artistic career for their daughter. She respected their wishes and studied to become a dentist instead. In 1931 she opened her own small practice, in Olomouc. Two years later she married Bohumír Zemánek, a lieutenant in the armed forces, and soon after that she set her work, and even her painting, aside, dedicating the next few decades of her life to her children. Maternity became for her a source of both happiness and deep desperation. Her firstborn, a son, died of cancer at the age of four, and the loss traumatized her for the rest of her life. She also had difficulty coping with several failed pregnancies. The world of children was the place where Anna found sanctuary. With great talent as a fabulist, she made up fairy tales; created toys (she even installed a talking gadget into a plush stork); crocheted pillows (embedded with music boxes); tailored fancy clothes; and decorated her children’s rooms. For her, the role of mother made it possible to flee from the unjust world of adults—the world her romantic soul could not accept. Yet she demanded absolute submission and respect from her children. She was building a cult of the “Big Mother” in her family.2 In 1948 Bohumír Zemánek was promoted to major and sent to Prague. The whole family, which by now


Untitled, c. 1960s, Pastel on paper, 23.62 x 31.5 in/60 x 80 cm

included three children, Slavomir, Bohumil, and Annynka, moved to a spacious apartment in a leafy and prestigious residential district of the capital city. This idyllic existence did not last for long, however. In the mid-1950s, Anna’s dream world slowly started to break down. Her husband, an introverted and disciplined soldier, never had much of an understanding of the dramatic manifestations of his romantic wife. Their conflicts slowly developed into a major crisis, further worsened by Anna’s difficult menopause. Her frustrations were intensified by the fact that her growing children were drifting away from her and establishing independence. This all led to overwhelming feelings of disgruntlement, disillusionment, and sadness. Although some theorists have speculated about Zemánková’s psychiatric diagnosis, she did not have any. Her declining social and physiological role as a woman and mother, however, caused her great insecurity. Her problems lived on in her heart, and grew monstrous. In 1960, when she was fifty-two years old, her sons encouraged her to resume painting after they found a suitcase full of her youthful drawings in the cellar. Creating her art allowed her to find a way out of her joyless mood. This became a channel that allowed her suppressed desires to come to the surface, liberating her. She started to draw flowers, which she had always loved. And from the beginning her works contained fantastical elements. Zemánková always started drawing at dawn, while her family was still asleep and before she had fully emerged from her dreams. In this state, she could be more spontaneous and allow her imagination to roam free. Excitedly, she would wait to see which image, coming from her dreams, impressions, and feelings of a previous day, would gather concrete forms: “It is like when a composer hears the first tone, for example a casserole falls on the ground, he hears the sound and catches its tone, which then carries on. It’s like catching a key to something, and that is what I feel when I draw.”3 She would return to the drawings later in the day when her husband and children were out, filling in details. Sometimes she spent up to eight hours a day at the drawing table. Generally sketched forms began to acquire more concrete details, which mostly resembled those of the floral world. They would grow, branch out, bloom, and bear fruit. 2

Initially, real flowers inspired Zemánková’s early period. At the same time, she resuscitated basic elements of decorative ornaments of Moravian folk design (mostly fabric patterns and embroideries), art nouveau, art deco, and elements of Czech baroque.4 All these served only as holding points, however. Her vast imagination transferred the decorative elements into distinctive floral configurations. Soon the external reality was absorbed by her imaginative world. She descended to the kingdom of her subconscious. Her suppressed desires and passions were the spawn of her creativity; but her feelings were never explicitly rendered. Her floral designs worked as a mask for real content. Zemánková attempted to endow her flowers with human qualities, experiences, and feelings. They are—especially in her early period— upholders of internal dramas. Many of them show aggressive arrangements of blossoms, which are contradictory to each other in shape and color. The contrast between a beautiful flower and its spitefully colored and deformed and repellent form recalls the eternal conflict of good and evil. It also reflects the true feelings of the artist. Using the language of psychoanalysis, Zemánková needed to relive her trauma. In the sense of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s conception, Zemánková’s imagination would be called “material.”5 Her creative dreaming Untitled, c. 1960s, Pastel on paper, 31.5 x 23.62 in/80 x 60 cm obeys the rules of symbolism and the poetics of matter. A personal cosmogony—the connecting of essential elements inspired by a theory of the origin of the universe—reoccurs in her creations. In the world’s mythology, cosmogony is symbolized by a combination of four elements.6 The mixing of soil and water represents conception, because the blending of solid material into liquid creates a new plastic, soft, and sensual matter.7 The Materia Prima, which is symbolically connected with the cult of Big Mother, is being born. This combination is particularly characteristic of Zemánková’s early period. Her pictures show dynamic, boiling shapes that swell like dough. It seems to us they have a life of their own. We can see in her work heavy, nutrient, amniotic water. Pulpy, juicy flowers are tumbling at the bottom of still waters. They are floating unchained, as a fetus in a mother’s womb.8 Her images could be interpreted as a kind of intrauterine memory. They resemble the body’s organs, or acts of creation and conception. They evoke the moisture of sexuality. Aggressive masculine shapes penetrate fleshy volumes. They envelope, swallow, and expel one another. (There are several similarities to Georgia O’Keeffe’s symbolic blossoms, which also use the language of the freed libido.) The miracle of conception and nativity and the ability to raise new beings from the deepness of the body remained highly mystical acts for the artist. “Rising from deepness”—the fragment of a poem by Czech symbolist poet Otokar Bøezina that Zemánková used for one of her pictures—could become the motto of her entire body of work. The desire to reach transcendence, liberate the spirit, and free it from the chaos of ordinary existence is obvious in much of the drawings. They indicate a tendency to drift upward toward light. Symbolic pictures of births combine organic shapes, resembling mucus and organs, with fragile details and gushes of rising light. 3

Sigmoids, spirals, and ovoid shapes that absorb, expel, and overgrow one another are the typical outcome of the automatic movements of her unblocked hand. Zemánková’s “creative automatism” is one of the modes she had in common with drawing mediums, though she never took part in this spiritualist movement.9 As did the drawing mediums, Zemánková worked in some kind of creative trance, freed of intellectual/ conscious actions. She used music as a device to help her remain in this state, listening to Bach, Beethoven, Janácek, and jazz musician Charles Lloyd, among others, from the moment her day began. With the help of tones, she interpreted the pictures in her mind. It is possible to say that Zemánková was setting her feelings to music: Once, when I came back from a Bach concert, his Great Mass, I was so excited and touched by the music, I sat down at the table and began to paint. I painted for the whole week until I finished the painting. I hung it up on the wall and thought to myself: Good God, will there by anyone able to understand what I felt, what I wanted to express…? After some time we had a visitor coming around. This man was a well-known musician. He stopped in front of that picture. And then he told me: I can feel the organ and the singing. It was one of my nicest days.10 Zemánková’s work shows principles similar to those of music. A central motif unwinds into narrow details, which often repeat and create altogether independent motifs. The automatic motion of her hand, which generated endless miniature details, was nourished by the music she listened to, as if she had been vibrating on its waves.11 The artist had to feel electrified, as if she had been charged by an energy whose origin and activities were unknown in the normal world. Eventually she titled some drawings created through this method Electric Blossom. The contrast of loosely sketched forms with diminutive detail, creating vibrant tension, is very characteristic of Zemánková’s work. In one period, obsessively repeated motifs, such as thousands of tiny dots or lines, flood the entire surface. Microcosmos became representative of macrocosmos.12 Big, simply shaped leaves covered by tiny pistils, stigmas, and veins were transformed by the artist into a stylized visual language. It almost seems as if she were looking at her floral creations under a kaleidoscope, if not a microscope. The compositions resemble a Untitled, c. 1960s, Pastel on paper, 23.62 x 31.5 in/60 x 80 cm section of cell tissue, the detail of a fly’s eye, or an insect’s wing. It appears that the artist penetrated into the inner structure of flowers and freed their hidden beauty. Zemánková easily proceeded from drawing to manipulating the paper surface to further articulate her visions. She began to make indentations or pierce the paper, sometimes encircling the tiny holes with pencil. This 4

method led to two new and essential factors in her work: luminous lampshades and very tactile mixed-media appliqué, using crocheting, embroidery, and collages of paper and fabrics, most often satin. These new materials and techniques infused the artist with a new vigor. She started painting on plywood, boards and discs found in her basement, and with these she constructed a double-sided screen divider for her home. The appliqués, embroideries, and satin collages—often embellished with beads, sequins, and glass gems—appear in her later work frequently. In 1964 Zemánková organized a private exhibition, her first, in her apartment, calling it “The Open House Day.” Two years later, her work was displayed in the foyer of Prague’s Na Zábradlí theater. Her work subsequently appeared in several exhibitions of naïve and folk art. The definition of art brut, however, did not fit into the cultural politics of the communist government of the time. The quality of Zemánková’s life was drastically limited by obesity and serious diabetes toward the end of the 1970s. She could not leave her apartment and became dependent on her children. Only her creative activities fulfilled her days. Artmaking became an obsession, a necessity: “Creation gives me a direction. I never felt like I feel these days. I used to be aggressive and unstable. Now, I’m calm, composed. I never get angry anymore… I have to draw a lot!”13 Even while living in a rest home, where she moved after her left leg had to be amputated in 1984, Zemánková continued working on miniature satin collages. It gave her great satisfaction to learn that her work was accepted into the Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne, Switzerland. She died on January 15, 1986.

Notes 1. Recently, all the phases of Zemánková’s works were represented in “Vernacular Visionaries: International Outsider Art,” at the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, N.Mex.. (Oct 31, 2003-Aug 29 2004). See Annie Carlano, “Five Vernacular Visionaries: International Outsider Art in Context,” Folk Art 28, no. 3 (fall 2003): 3037, and Carlano, ed., Vernacular Visionaries: International Outsider Art (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press in association with the Museum of International Folk Art, 2003). 2. See Terezie Zemánková, Anna Zemánková (Prague: ABCD, 2003), p. 10. 3. Anna Zemánková, interview by Pavel Konečný, 1980, audio. 4. Jo Farb Hernandez, “The Dawn Drawings of Anna Zemánková,” Raw Vision 14 (spring 1996): 43: “It is tempting to suggest that these intriguing parallels might have been the result of an internalized communal design sense.” 5. Gaston Bachelard, L’eau et les réves, (Paris: José Corti, 1942) 6. Ibid. 7. Gilbert Durand, Les structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire (Paris: Dunod, 1992), p. 261. 8. Zemánková, op. cit., p. 12 9. Alena Nádvorníková, L’art brut, umĕní v původním: surovém stavu (art brut: raw art) (Prague: GHMP, 1998). Although spiritualism was an important cultural phenomenon in Bohemia and Moravia at the beginning of the twentieth century, it almost disappeared after the communist putsch in 1948. 10. Konečný interview, op. cit. 11. Jiri Vykoukal, Paní Zemánková (Cheb, Czech Republic: GVU, 1990), p. 7. 12. Arsen Pohribny, Oinirické vize Anny Zemánkové (Olomouc, Czech Republic: Muzeum Umĕní, 1998). 13. Konečný interview, op. cit.



The Exalted Lark: Excerpts from an Essay on Anna Zemankova By Randall Morris There are some rare and fortunate times in one’s life when one is allowed by intent sometimes, yet most often by fluke or by luck, to witness on some sensual level a beauty that is completely unadulterated and heartpiercingly direct. Mankind has never invented an adequate eschatology of words to match those moments. They have no laws, they are limited to no locality. They are the times when something outside you comes inside you on an aesthetic joyride whether it be witnessing a helix of homing pigeons in a trick of afternoon light, a sounding whale in a wine-dark sea, a string plucked on a moonlit kora in a moment just before it is joined by a voice singing the glorious history of ancestors, a sonata, an orgasm, the first laugh in a new human being, a mark made by light on a sun-spattered wall or firelight on a perfect skin in a midnight dance, or on a piece of paper held in place by a turned-on sentient being in an empty room before dawn. This is beauty that inspires awe. This is beauty that is terrible in its grandeur, beauty that is bladed, a razor sharp knife. The chuff of a tigress. The sibilant hiss of something unknown in a forest thicket, the beautiful but dangerous warning of a wasp. I am not sure that Anna Zemánková deliberately set out to make this kind of beauty. I am more sure that it represents the outcome of a struggle for some kind of inner balance, a way of bursting out of the cage of her physical and emotional body, a way of thinking about things,of attempting to will an equilibrium. It was certainly a way of personally re-ordering the world. Life had drawn boundaries for her, shackling her spirit with age, a feeling of abandonment and disease and she reacted first with frustration, then anger and finally with this ancient ululation of art-making that lasted her till the end and continues now beyond the physical. Her life was ultimately successful then. She took a chance, dared to tap into something eternal and succeeded. Zemánková had put aside her earliest art-making desires in reluctant deference to a lucrative career; dentistry. She was good at whatever she chose to do. Ultimately she left dentistry to raise her family. An ascending stairway of sidetracks followed her; she left the dream of art to further a career, left the career to further her family; the family grew up and dispersed in a natural series of rites of passage and she was left with no art, no household to be the matriarch over, no need then for her nurturing senses, no career and a body beginning to sense the coming on of its own Autumn. We look at the drawings and think we might see references to things we recognize, say perhaps insects, flowers, plants, birds, butterflies etc. They are ancestral, cultural, popular, and most importantly they are intuited and reinvented. The moment is shaped and caressed from the non-evident. Each line is pulled thin like the nerve in a tooth, each mark repeated often to soothe and assuage and achieve the bulk of a prayer, a mantra, or end as a question sometimes answered, sometimes not…a koan . Undoubtedly these things are there but it must be understood that there are also references there to so much we don’t see. They aren’t solipsistic. They aren’t closed to us. We can feel the pain or the joy without necessarily dissecting the specifics of the circumstances. When such art transcends the immediate personal and flies like an exaltation of larks with the universally numinous it is no longer merely a physical process. Synaesthesia is creating a Babel from the languages of the senses all manifesting at once. To see sound and to hear sight, would be examples. Her work is deeply synaesthetic. It will come as no surprise when she tells us that music provided a catalyst to her creating. Music was a fellow force her art-making met in the interstices of Nature and she used it to explore the eroticism of known and unknown forms. She listened to Bach, Beethoven, she listened to Janacek, and she listened to Charles Lloyd. At that time Lloyd was also seeking light with a horn sound that could whisper of the sublime or scream in the positive rage he had been freed to express by the tone 7

poems of John Coltrane. In addition to his saxophone his flute playing was not about the formalism of the instrument but about the sensing of multi-cultural sunlit essences of the sublime art can convey. She would have loved Don Cherry’s music as well had she heard him. She was drawn to how artists made choices that skirted dangerous chasms and reached for exhilarating heights. At that time Charles Lloyd had that great channeler of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart filtered through the blues and Semitic clarity; Keith Jarrett. Together with the multi-rhythmic intelligence of Jack Dejohnette on drums they were juggling new musical ideas like animated fireflies. Untitled, c. 1970s, Pastel on paper, 6 x 8 in/15 x 20 cm I can see the music rising from the speakers like electrified bees, hovering around her head, traveling through her heart and hands and taking deliciously structured form on her on her papers where, like the music, she she threw large powdery forms down as a bass line and then contrasted improvisation, color, texture, femininity vs. masculinity, whisper versus shouts or just sugary dark iridescence against the strong backgrounds. Funk or fugue she allowed improvisation to always hold hands with stark control. You can hear her drawings if you open up enough to them. But she added things to the music, her own instrumentation, the sounds of insects magnified to distortion, the sounds of thorns and spines, the sounds of air as it fuses like nuclear energy with color. Her art, her music, her muses aren’t a steady stream of predictable imagery, either. So often we have watched people approach it with that ‘why are you showing me florals’ look of weariness and then we watch their nostrils dilate as the impact hits them; that they are, in reality, looking at something for which few precedents exist. Meeting Terezie, her granddaughter, and knowing of the closeness of the family one imagines one can feel some of Anna Zemánková’s spice in the grand-daughter’s quick mind and movements. For Terezie’s sense of nurturing art, commitment to the idea of home, of place, of family but always especially her excitement by what Art is. The granddaughter inspired her and shares her dedication to the edge of ideas, to wild and deep music, to the art of the self-taught, to Art Brut, that neighborhood of Art which moves backward, laterally and forward all at the same time. It is easy to see how she might have inspired her grandmother in the following quote from that interview: “I watch how my granddaughter draws. And nobody tells her what to do, she wouldn’t listen. They leave her alone. And that’s right. She can’t help herself from saying, ”Grandma! Look what I made! Isn’t it good?” And I know from my own experience, that it is good. I would hate for someone to tell me…put that flower on the other side! No, never!” Zemánková’s work is a cry sent out to and from ancestors who came before her and are here now. If you read the interview with her by Pavel Konechny you can see how through the drawings she interacted with her family. This is no surprise, really, they were all artists. This family spoke in art as well as words and so there were all these extra paths of communication. They understood and deeply respected the songs she drew. They understood better than anyone that the art making was Anna Zemánková’s wild song of health.


9 > 1960s


1960s < 10

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 33 x 23.5 in/83.8 x 59.7 cm AZe 405 11 > 1960s

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 24 x 17 in/61 x 43.2 cm AZe 409 1960s < 12

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 34.5 x 24.5 in/87.6 x 62.2 cm AZe 386 13 > 1960s

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel and ink on paper 24.5 x 34.75 in/62.2 x 88.3 cm AZe 387 1960s < 14

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 24 x 17 in/61 x 43.2 cm AZe 442 15 > 1960s

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 33 x 23.5 in/83.8 x 59.7 cm AZe 444 1960s < 16

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 31.5 x 23.62 in/80 x 60 cm AZe 524 17 > 1960s

1960s < 18

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 31.5 x 23.62 in/80 x 60 cm AZe 526 19 > 1960s

1960s < 20

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 24.5 x 34.75 in/62.2 x 88.3 cm AZe 445 21 > 1960s

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก Untitled, c. 1966 Pastel on paper 31.5 x 23.62 in/80 x 60 cm AZe 521 1960s < 22

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 23.62 x 31.5 in/60 x 80 cm AZe 523 23 > 1960s

1960s < 24

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 31.5 x 23.62 in/80 x 60 cm AZe 519 25 > 1960s

1960s < 26

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 23.62 x 31.5 in/60 x 80 cm AZe 527 27 > 1960s

1960s < 28

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 34.5 x 24.5 in/87.6 x 62.2 cm AZe 383 29 > 1960s

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 31.5 x 23.62 in/80 x 60 cm AZe 522 1960s < 30

Untitled, c. 1960s Pastel on paper 23.62 x 31.5 in/60 x 80 cm AZe 528 31 > 1960s

1960s < 32

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก

33 > 1970s


1970s < 34

Untitled, c. 1970s Pastel on paper 24.5 x 34.5 in/62.2 x 87.6 cm AZe 385 35 > 1970s

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก Untitled, c. 1970s Pastel, ink, and embroidery on paper 24.61 x 17.72 in/62.5 x 45 cm AZe 466 1970s < 36

Untitled, c. 1970s Pastel on paper 24.25 x 17.5 in/61.6 x 44.5 cm AZe 315 37 > 1970s

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก Untitled, c. 1970s Pastel and ink on paper 24.61 x 34.65 in/62.5 x 88 cm AZe 476 1970s < 38

Untitled, c. 1970s Paper collage, pastel, and ink on paper 23.62 x 15.75 in/60 x 40 cm AZe 525 39 > 1970s

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก Untitled, c. 1970s Paper collage, pastel, and ink on paper 31.5 x 23.62 in/80 x 60 in AZe 518 1970s < 40

Untitled, c. 1970s Pastel, ink, and embroidery on paper 24.61 x 17.72 in/62.5 x 45 cm AZe 468 41 > 1970s

1970s < 42

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก

Untitled, c. 1970s Paper collage, pastel, ink on paper 23.62 x 15.75 in/60 x 40 cm AZe 520 43 > 1970s

1970s < 44

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก

Untitled, c. 1970s Pastel on paper 23.62 x 15.75 in/60 x 40 cm AZe 532 45 > 1970s

1970s < 46

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก

Untitled, c. 1970s Pastel, ink on paper 5.91 x 7.87 in/ 15 x 20 cm AZe 529 47 > 1970s

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก Untitled, c. 1970s Pastel, ink on paper 5.91 x 7.87 in/ 15 x 20 cm AZe 530 1970s < 48

Untitled, c. 1970s Pastel on paper 23.62 x 15.75 in/60 x 40 cm AZe 533 49 > 1970s

1970s < 50

A nn a Z e m รกnk ovรก

Untitled, c. 1970s Pastel, ink on paper 23.62 x 15.75 in/ 60 x 40 cm AZe 531 51 > 1970s

Copyright Š 2013 Cavin-Morris Gallery Cavin-Morris Gallery 210 Eleventh Ave, Ste. 201 New York, NY 10001 t. 212 226 3768 Catalogue design: Mimi Kano & Marissa Levien Photography: Jurate Veceraite

Anna Zemankova  

Cavin-Morris Gallery was pleased to have 17 drawings by the visionary artist Anna Zemankova exhibited in the Venice Biennale, specifically a...

Anna Zemankova  

Cavin-Morris Gallery was pleased to have 17 drawings by the visionary artist Anna Zemankova exhibited in the Venice Biennale, specifically a...