Artwork of the Month, June 2021: Spa Fountain by Zdeněk Pešánek (1936)

The Spa Fountain made its first appearance in the section on Tourism of the Czechoslovak pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937. The Fountain was one of three works displayed in this space by the Czech artist Zdeněk Pešánek (1896–1965), the other two being a set of free standing sculptures celebrating Electricity and a neon advertisement for the Bohemian spa town of Jáchymov, entitled Radium. The Fountain, as well as the other works by Pešánek, were light-kinetic sculptures; they used light, sound and movement in combination with different, and often novel materials. As an artistic movement, kinetism was established in central Europe in the 1920s. Yet, for artists like Erika Giovanna Klien (1900–1957) or František Kupka (1871–1957) the primary medium of kinetism was painting, which allowed them to explore movement and rhythm through colour, shapes and compositions. It was the Russian constructivists Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956) and the multimedia artists Alexander Calder (1898–1976) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) who then translated these effects into sculpture, bringing either controlled or unpredictable movement to an otherwise static medium.

Zdeněk Pešánek, Spa Fountain, 1936

Zdeněk Pešánek: Spa Fountain, 1936, author’s model replica from 1959, The Benedikt Rejt Gallery, Louny

Pešánek was also a multifaceted artist and theorist who worked in various media, but mainly in sculpture. For his new art techniques and approaches, we might consider him one of the most innovative representatives of the avant-garde, whose oeuvre, paradoxically, is not widely known. It is only recently that some of his works invite attention or are recreated by contemporary artists. This article looks at Pešánek’s Fountain as a highly original, yet somewhat neglected work of abstract art of the interwar period. Focusing on the sculptor’s use of unorthodox materials and his employment of electricity will also provide an opportunity to examine the relationship between modern art on the one hand and more traditional design and craft on the other. Even though the two may often stand in opposition or negation, in many instances they informed each other and were displayed together as part of the narrative of ‘national art’. And interwar Czechoslovak pavilions at world’s fairs were a classic example of this convergence of opposed currents.

The Fountain

The Czechoslovak pavilion for the 1937 exhibition was designed by Jaromír Krejcar (1895–1950), Zdeněk Kejř (1889–?), Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976) and Bohuslav Soumar. The two-floor building was a cubic construction of reinforced glass on steel pylons described as a ‘fairy tale of steel and glass’ with a dominant, slim and tall tower.[1] Critics often praised Czechoslovak pavilions at interwar world’s fairs for the embrace of modernity and progress that they displayed through the latest machinery, achievements in social life, and design. If we dig a bit deeper, though, more traditional and conservative works could be revealed. To name just one example: the tapestries and glass of the designer František Kysela (1881–1941) featured in many official Czechoslovak displays throughout the interwar period. They indicate that local traditions of handicraft and decorativism that persisted in the applied arts were habitually included in national pavilions as part of the national culture. In 1937, Kysela’s large printed textile Starry Night in the First Hours of our Liberty on 28 October 1918, was displayed in the Textiles section of the pavilion and depicted the constellations in the skies on the night of foundation of Czechoslovakia. The image with its didactic representation of figures and symbols of the star signs evokes mediaeval and early Renaissance tapestries and classical mosaics.

František Kysela: Starry Night in the First Hours of our Liberty on 28 October 1918

František Kysela: Starry Night in the First Hours of our Liberty on 28 October 1918, reprint, The City Museum Dvůr Králové nad Labem

National pavilions and the entire grounds of world’s fairs were usually a mixture of traditionalism and modernity and the decision to include a fountain within the pavilion could also be seen as rather conventional. Fountains, as dominant, richly decorated centrepieces of exhibition gounds, had been a frequent addition to their exteriors and interiors. The most famous is probably the Crystal Fountain at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, designed by Follett Osler, and the crystal glass fountain with colour light effects by René Lalique at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris. Pešánek could also draw on local traditions of fountains as a major feature of fairs. In Prague, at the Jubilee Exhibition of 1891, the electrical engineer František Křižík (1847–1941) used coloured light sources under the glass at the bottom of his fountain. In Paris of 1937, fountains were a prominent feature across the exhibition grounds and became more experimental; some played music and featured light shows while, for example, the Fountain of Mercury designed for the Spanish pavilion by Alexander Calder also included kinetic features. Like Picasso’s Guernica, the Calder’s fountain was a protest against the Spanish Civil War in which the American artist employed a mobile spatula, circle and troughs put into motion by circulation of liquid mercury.

Zdeněk Pešánek's design for the Spa Fountain

Zdeněk Pešánek: Design of the Spa Fountain, The Architecture Archive, National Technical Museum, f.136.

In his Spa Fountain, Pešánek adopted light as a formative element that shaped the image of the work. The Fountain had a round basin of about two meters in diameter, surrounded by an irregularly shaped grass lawn with a railing. Originally, the basin was going to be structurally embedded in the floor, but this turned out to be impossible on the site. It was therefore raised above ground level. In the centre of the basin were sculptures of human torsos, an intertwined vertical male and female and one horizontal female. The torsos were adopted from paintings by Josef Šíma (1891–1971) of body fragments placed in landscapes. Both artists were familiar with each other’s work and used similar idioms of bodies floating in a dreamy environment.

Zdeněk Pešánek: Vertical Torso for the Spa Fountain, 1936

Zdeněk Pešánek: Vertical Torso for the Spa Fountain, 1936, National Gallery Prague.

Pešánek’s Fountain torsos were made of translucent plastic, through which neon tubes and colour bulbs pulsed with coloured light. The artist never fully explained the work, but this could be interpreted as suggesting the healing effects of water going through and around the bodies. Or, as later accounts have it, the vertical male and female bodies could represent an androgynous person or a light carrier.[2] Rectangular eternit sheets placed over the horizontal torso, covered in expressive paint, provided a background for the light effects. To further increase them, Pešánek also wanted to include a mirror at the bottom of the basin, while jets on the rim would spray or jetstream water. Due to spatial and technical limitations, these ideas were, again, not executed.

The Spa Fountain won a competition staged by the Ministry of Education for a work of art that would showcase glass, a key export commodity for Czechoslovakia, as well as the richness and healing effects of the Czechoslovak balneological and spa industry. While Pešánek met the latter requirement, his choice of material bypassed the emphasis on glass in favour of a combination of fibreglass (synthetic resin), light bulbs and neon tubes. Fibreglass seemed to have similar qualities to glass but was more elastic and less fragile. In Pešánek’s own words, the work captured ‘the best the main ideas of the 1937 World Exhibition’ focused on a combination of art and technology. ‘For the first time in (the history of) art, it uses electrical power not as a supplement but as a new, equally formative element.’[3] Together with the wires, tubes and bulbs, the translucent resin created colourful effects on the water, emphasising the role of electricity as natural force but also as a motif evoking myths and ancient archetypes.

There does not seem to be any photographic documentation of the fountain from the pavilion and today it is known only from sketches, Pešánek’s model and his descriptions, as well as the torsos kept in the National Gallery in Prague. As a result, it is quite difficult to imagine what it looked like in the context of the pavilion and other exhibits. The Electricity series, entitled One Hundred Years of Electricity, was located in close proximity and consisted of four sculptures on the themes of (1) the Transformer; (2) Ampère’s law; (3) the Electric Motor and (4) Electric power since the invention of the light bulb. The series is also only known from photographs and Pešánek’s descriptions, according to which movement and sound were important elements in the 2,5 meter high works. In terms of material, they were also made of synthetic resin with bulbs and neon tubes with various colours creating a dematerialised effect, apparently on the advice of the Czech art historian Antonín Matějček (1889–1950).[4]

Sound

Electricity allowed for another crucial feature of Pešánek’s kinetic sculptures, and that was sound. It had an important role in both the Fountain and the Electricity series, as well as in many other sculptures he completed. The Electricity series, for instance, played a piano piece by the composers Alois Hába (1893–1973) and Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942), the latter of whom had already worked with Pešánek and performed for him on the colour piano, the so-called Spectrophone. The sculptor devised and perfected the colour piano between 1924 and 1930 as an amalgamation of form, light and sound. He considered sound to be an important constituent of his sculptures but as preservation of sound sculptures is even more difficult than preservation of fibreglass or neon sculptures, his work – apart from the Spectrophone – is nowadays often considered without the sound dimension.

We can, nevertheless, get an idea of how sound was used from a short film by the Czech director Otakar Vávra (1911–2011), Light Penetrates the Dark (Světlo proniká tmou) from 1931, which was inspired by a kinetic light sculpture by Pešánek for the Edison Transformation Station in Prague. The film could be seen as a response to the general fascination with abstraction in avant-garde films but especially to Moholy-Nagy’s Lightplay: Black, White, Gray (Ein Lichtspiel: Schwarz, Weiss, Grau) created a year earlier, about the effects of shadows created by light and movement. There are many parallels between the interests of Moholy-Nagy and Pešánek too, especially as regards the use of unorthodox materials, movement, light and sound.

Kinetism

Pešánek explained the content of many of his works alongside his theoretical ideas in a treatise, Kinetismus, published in 1941. He tried to have a version of it published as early as 1924, but only found a publisher and the necessary support some fifteen years later in the founder and director of the School of Arts and Crafts in Bratislava Josef Vydra (1884–1959), the painter and theorist František Viktor Mokrý (1892–1975), and the architect František Kalivoda (1913–1971), who wrote a preface to the book. Pešánek explained here the importance of light in various spheres of life, ranging from artistic to commercial. The basic premise is the belief that art can be applied to industrial and commercial purposes through new technologies. The book also contains descriptions of the technical details of some specific works and considerations of musical scores, colour, sound and spatial theories, as well as thoughts about the psychological effects of these works.

Pešánek understood the combination of electricity, light and movement to be the products of a new kind of artistic industry and, in fact, a new kind of art, which included film, fireworks, coloured piano, light-kinetic sculptures and fountains. For instance in advertising, he claimed, light lost its primary function of illuminating a space and became an independent, formative medium that created new kinds of images. ‘Illuminated advertising also proved that kinetics could have a role both in the visual arts and in the artistic industries.’ As a member of the avant-garde group Devětsil and as a promoter of its programme, Poetism, that aimed to merge all arts and unite art and life, Pešánek saw the achievements of electricity as a ‘poem of modern life.’[5] Electricity brought light, heating, power, and transportation to the modern metropolis and it also enabled other symbols of modernity: the neon sign, illuminated adverting, department stores and companies were all the poetic images of the modern metropolises.

Reception

Pešánek’s sculptures at the 1937 Exhibition were received with mixed sentiments, however. The discrepancy between the original idea and the actual execution had severe consequences for the final look of the work and its understanding. The works were also very abstract and combined unusual materials and techniques and, as such, required extensive explanation of the content and artist’s intention on labels, something not ideal for the quick consumption of content that was common at a world’s fair. Moreover, both the Electricity series and the Fountain suffered from faults in the power supply and engines that had to replaced, as a result of which the fountain lights failed to work for several weeks. According to one Czech critic, the Fountain came across as a ‘beginner’s attempt of such limited artistic value that it had no right to appear in front of an international audience.’[6] And as the painter Josef Čapek (1887–1945) noted in relation to an earlier exhibition of Pešánek’s work in the Museum of Applied Arts in Prague, the sculptures made of harsh, unusual materials, were not very flattering in the daylight when the light pulsing in the neon tubes was not visible.

Despite the criticism, the Fountain and the Electricity series received a golden medal at the Exhibition (but, then, so did Kysela’s Starry Night). And while some saw Pešánek’s sculptures as too avant-garde and remote from works showcasing more traditional artistic skills, such as Kysela’s decorative textiles, Pešánek himself understood his sculptures to be embedded in artistic tradition. He acknowledged the importance of skills and craftsmanship and believed that ‘an artist must also be a good technician or at least craftsman.’ After all, he was a classically trained sculptor who had studied with Jan Štursa (1880–1925) at the Academy of Fine Arts and had taken private lessons with the architect Jan Kotěra (1871–1923). Being a good craftsman who knew how to work a material was, in Pešánek’s view, the first step in an artist’s career. That was why, he believed, would-be sculptors should be taught to work with bronze, stone, ceramics and and should learn all the techniques in the workshops. It was also why, he held, there were not only schools of drawing and modelling but also schools of stone-sculpting, ceramics, and metal-working. He also predicted that in the future there would be schools of illuminating techniques, specialised in making neon signs and sculptures.

Detail of Zdeněk Pešánek's Spa Fountain

Zdeněk Pešánek: The Spa Fountain, 1936, author’s model replica from 1959, detail, The Benedikt Rejt Gallery, Louny

Pešánek’s introduction of electricity into sculpture could therefore be seen as a logical step in the development of modern art, especially the art that other protagonists of Poetism tried to see as inseparable from modern life. But where Devětsil and its main spokesperson Karel Teige abandoned handicraft and manual work in favour of machine-made art, Pešánek persisted in propagating traditional sculpting techniques, but just in new materials. The Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life therefore indeed provided a suitable platform for his work for its amalgamation of modern and decorative, industrial and handmade.

Pešánek’s efforts, nevertheless, did not have much impact in Czechoslovakia. The work derived from the traditional sculpting techniques may not have been progressive enough for some. There may be a few other reasons for the lack of attention to the light-kinetic sculptures. One of them is the difficulty of understanding them without extensive explanation, which was exarcebated by the technical faults of the display. The installation which was not done according to the original plans, could therefore not do justice to the novel material and ideas. On top of that, the sculptures returned to Prague broken or destroyed and eventually fell victim to the German occupation, as they could not be immediately reinstalled.

Detail of Zdeněk Pešánek's Spa Fountain

Zdeněk Pešánek: The Spa Fountain, 1936, author’s model replica from 1959, detail, The Benedikt Rejt Gallery, Louny

The Fountain was never put together in its original form and nowadays we are limited to seeing Pešánek’s later model of the Fountain in the Benedikt Rejt Gallery in Louny, while the torsos are located in the National Gallery. And although lost in its original form, the Fountain still represents a fascinating work that unexpectedly unites novel materials and technology with a degree of traditionalism in the concept and form.

Marta Filipová

[1] ‘Jako skvělá pohádka z oceli a sklad bude zářit skleněný čs. pavilon na světové výstavě v Paříži,’ Venkov 32, 7 February 1937, p. 8.

[2] Jiří Zemánek, Zdeněk Pešánek 1896–1965 (Prague, 1996), p. 322.

[3] Zdeněk Pešánek, untitled document with inscriptions for the displays, Archives of the National Technical Museum, MAS NTM, f. 136 Pešánek.

[4] Zdeněk Pešánek, Kinetismus. Kinetika ve výtvarnictví – barevná hudba (Prague, 1941), p. 96.

[5] Pešánek, Kinetismus, 92.

[6] Vojtěch Krch, ‘Československý pavilon v Paříži,’ Architekt SIA: Měsíčník pro architekturu, stavbu měst, bytovou péči a umění 36.9 (1937), p. 143.

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