Artwork of the Month, September 2022: Sailor by Josef Čapek (1917)

Exoticism. It is said that exoticism is not a Czech trait; that we cling to our country like dough to a hole. Certainly this is true; but have you gentlemen never read Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans, and Jules Verne, and have you not lived in Bohemia, and had friends like that, and is it a coincidence that one of them joined the Comedians, another perished in America, and a third was lost in the world as a sailor?[1]

In the text Krakonošova Zahrada (The Giant Mountains’ garden), a description of his adventurous youth along the Úpa river in Northern Bohemia, Josef Čapek (1887–1945) cannot deny the provinciality of life in Czechoslovakia. The heroes in the books by Jules Verne (1828–1905) seemed much more thrilling, as well as the famous French novelist himself, who sailed the seas as an avid sailor. Unfortunately, Bohemia does not lie by the sea, a fact that only Shakespeare (1564–1616) could change in The Winter’s Tale (1609–1611). The play is set in Sicily, in a pastoral fantasy world called Bohemia, which lies by the sea.

Josef Capek, Sailor, 1917

Josef Čapek: Sailor, 1917, National Gallery, Prague – photo: National Gallery, Prague

Undoubtedly, the longing for the sea has always been a staple of Czech culture.[2] The series of Sailors (Czech: Námořník) that Čapek  created during the 1910s seems to amplify this longing. There was a general fascination with images of distant lands in modern art. Čapek built on a wide range of visual material from exotic places during the time and from other primitivist tropes that spawned especially from the many colonial enterprises of the Western countries. By making sailors central characters of his paintings, he further enhanced the already established attraction to the ‘exotic’ in the modern era. As dense images of adventure, travel and escapism, they combine with the perennial search for origins and thus remain a treasure trove of motifs until the 1920s. This becomes evident when looking at the current presentation of the interwar period in the National Gallery in Prague. Numerous variants by Čapek, and other Czech painter such as Alois Wachsman (1898–1942) and Otakar Mrkvička (1898–1957) show that from towards the end of the First World War until the beginning of the 1920s, images of seafarers proliferated in Czech art. This was notable in modern elsewhere, too, in the work of, for example, Charles Demuth (1883–1935) or Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), which is why other examples in the article exemplify at least a little of the vastness of the material. In opposition to the nineteenth-century romanticism of adventure, Czech artists set a minimalist to primitivist visual language. Modernists elsewhere explored different directions, gauging for instance the sexual orientation and masculinity of the sailors. With Čapek’s series, rough seafarers quietly became dreamers, outsiders ironically mocking society. This article explores the question of what message these seafarers convey during that time. Are they role models for the artists, and in what way do they represent their self-image? A bride in every harbour, or the sailors on high seas only among men? How do they address the image of the sailors? The longing for departure and a simpler life away from the modern metropolis came together in the many pictures of the sailors.

Josef Čapek

Josef Čapek was born in 1887 in Hronov, but the family soon moved to Úpice, not far from Hradec Králové in eastern Bohemia, whose immediate surroundings along the Úpa river provided a sense of adventure and a retreat for him and his younger brother, the future writer Karel Čapek (1890–1938). After studying at the University of Applied Arts in Prague from 1904 to 1910, Josef went to Paris and encountered Cubism and other art movements there. He also studied the collections of the Trocadéro Ethnographic Museum.[3] In 1911, he returned to Prague and began working as a painter, graphic artist, book illustrator and writer. Because of his short-sightedness, Čapek was not called up for service in the First World War. His deep affection for people suffering, as well as the diminished cultural life in Prague, put him in a melancholic stance. With barely any opportunities in Prague, he found relief in his paintings, where he sought out other realities than the dreary present. One of these was his exotic imagery. Later, he was one of the co-founders of the Skupina výtvarných umělců (Group of fine artists), but mostly kept his distance from the avant-garde currents and various artist groups of the interwar period, although he and his brother Karel remained closer to the circle of intellectuals around president Tomáš G. Masaryk (1850–1937). Čapek frequently worked as an editor for the magazines Umělecký měsíčník (The art monthly, 1911–14) and Volné směry (Free directions, 1896–1949).[4] Texts from his early involvement with African art in the late 1910s were only published later in the collection Umění přírodních národů (Art of the primitive peoples, 1938), but they serve as an important reflection on primitivism in Czech modernism.[5] Čapek repeatedly explored theories and concepts of artistic creation, most notably in his collection of essays Nejskromnější umění (The humblest art, 1920).[6] In doing so, he took influences from spiritualism and the world of children to articulate his overall humanistic attitude, with which he also addressed social or proletarian art. Later, he achieved fame as a children’s book author, most famously for the fairy tales Povídání o pejskovi a kočičce (I had a dog and a cat, 1927). In 1939, shortly after the Nazi invasion, as a well-known intellectual, prolific caricaturist and left-leaning critic of society, he was arrested and sent to various concentration camps. He died in Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.


The mood is relaxed, a balmy day by the sea. The formal design is delicate and seems effortless. Čapek’s Sailor (1917) is the result of simply composed surfaces that reveal echoes of Cubism. However, his design is much simpler. The sailor is at one with his element, the sea, transparent blue, as if floating. Čapek builds his figure from rectangles and trapezoidal shapes. The sailor’s arms form a kind of rhombus with the torso, which also bears the emblem of the sea, an anchor and the number of his unit. The horizon is visible at the shoulder level, and the ship’s rail is located where the hull meets the legs. The indifferent gaze of the sailor accompanies this highly captivating design, and he seems nonchalant, as if no wave were rippling, as if there were no danger. The painting shows the graphically constructed idea of a sailor, an ideal body that presents an idea. Čapek’s series of sailors on the other hand, comprising at least six known paintings in total, presents abstract sailors who exemplify the iconography of the oceans and seafarers symbolically rather than through brute muscular strength. This is a two-dimensional compositional pattern that is typical of Čapek’s work from this period, which, influenced by Cubism, he used from the Harmonica player (1913) until the African King (1920).

Josef Čapek: Sailor, 1913

Josef Čapek: Sailor, 1913, Gallery of West Bohemia, Plzeň – photo: Gallery of West Bohemia, Plzeň

Čapek’s first Sailor (1913, which is composed in a more fragmented manner, makes his relationship to Cubism more obvious. In this regard it is similar to a painting by Bohumil Kubišta (1884–1918), also called Sailor (1913), from the same year, which is formally much more stylised through its scattered linear style. Unlike Kubišta, who served in the war and was stationed at the Habsburg navy base in Pula (now in Croatia), Čapek turned to these images while in Prague and without any direct contact with the army.

Bohumil Kubišta: Sailor, 1913

Bohumil Kubišta: Sailor, 1913, Gallery of West Bohemia, Plzeň – photo: Gallery of West Bohemia, Plzeň

Most of Čapek’s other images of sailors date from 1917, during the war, and are similarly minimalist in design. They are not recognisably concerned with the battles or the role of the navy soldiers. The works differ in the colourful design of the clothes and the surfaces behind the sailor, as a print in the collection of the Moravian Gallery and another example from 1917 shows. Being stuck in Prague and derived of the ability to travel, Čapek’s series reached its artistic height, astonishingly, during the gruesome late war years. This can be seen as mere escapism, because with the images he avoided any direct commentary on the war, but rather offered an appealing dream, an escape from the dreary atmosphere. They were also a result of his engagement with Cubism. Čapek thus seems to have stimulated a development that anticipates the primitivist pictorial language of the early 1920s. He continued producing studies of sailors sporadically in the 1920s, but the motif had by then lost its significance for him.

Čapek‘s Primitivism

If we look at Čapek’s work of the early 1920s, we often encounter figures of the demimonde: gangsters, thieves and prostitutes. He worked on these types alongside the sailors, so that both worlds overlapped in his development. The worlds of the fairground, the circus and the showmen are very prominent in modernism, when figures like the Pierrot became popular, clowns and jokers who allowed a demarcation from the bourgeois and the duties of life in the metropolis. Artists used the subject to reflect on the ridiculousness of their own position, as sad clowns who were not heard by the public, reduced to performing amusing jokes for the sake of entertainment. Similar to ideas in Čapek’s Nejskromnější umění (The humblest art, 1920), many artists turned to the ordinary life and visual culture of the everyday, not only to access the many popular images, but also as a way of undertaking social critique. The costume of the pierrot or adopting the persona of the sailors allowed artists to escape civilisation and feel innocent and free. Besides his interest in everyday life and, later, the world of children, Čapek was unique in his enthusiasm for Robinsonades. The term Robinsonade refers to literature that deals with the motif of involuntary isolation on an island or in a remote area. By reading works by Jules Verne or a novel like Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), as well as other classics of adventure literature, he could escape contemporary problems. It is precisely this reading that is central to his preoccupation with ‘the exotic’. During the creation of the seafarer images, he commented on this sentiment in the collection of short stories Zářivé hlubiny (Shining depths, 1916):

I have more of my native landscapes in the Czechoslovakia, in whose forests the leaves of the ungulate shine and ivy grows among the stones. Landscapes that have their charms and their secrets. Landscapes of some kinship, some understanding. And there are spiritual native landscapes. I grew up behind the fence of our garden in Úpica, but also in all the continents of Verne’s novels; I was a proud Indian, a cold-blooded Englishman, a sailor in a storm.[7]

Here the artist imagines himself as a seafarer, a true adventurer, in contrast to the Bohemian landscape, which appears no less magical. As a reader of Jules Verne, he found his alter ego in the explorers and pioneers of the latter’s novels, figures such as Captain Nemo or Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who are still popular today. During the war, he deliberately did not want to address the fighting and suffering in the trenches, but spoke about his youth, the local landscape and his reading. For him, the adventures in literature always lived on, and the figure of the sailor exemplified this desire best.

Sailors as Ciphers of the Modern Artist

Čapek’s series of sailors inspired a remarkable number of comparisons in Czech art. Otakar Mrkvička’s seafarer (1921) feels more realistic at first, but presents the sailor in a primitive, almost childlike pictorial language in front of a southern island, thus following Čapek’s trend. The sailor stands larger than life in the picture, holding a pipe, with the town to his left and the ship to his right as his two natural surroundings. This is more reminiscent of the traditional adventurous image of a seafarer, derived from the visual in book illustrations and kitsch images. In addition, echoes of the primitivism of Henri Rousseau, whose work also came to be known in Czechoslovakia at the time, are evident here.[8]

Otakar Mrkvička: Sailor, 1921

Otakar Mrkvička: Sailor, 1921, National Gallery, Prague – photo: National Gallery, Prague

Adolf Hoffmeister also became preoccupied with nautical themes in the early 1920s, as the work Columbus’s ship (1921–1922) shows.[9] They are similar to Čapek in their simple style, but ultimately differ greatly in their approach, since some of Hoffmeister’s paintings, such as the iconic Angel over the Water (1922) or Noah’s Ark (1923), present religious themes. While keeping the exotic tone, Hoffmeister didn’t explore the male figure of the sailor. In this respect, the longing for departure and adventure, especially after the long war, but also for a simpler life away from the modern big city came together in the many pictures of the sailors.

Adolf Hoffmeister: Columbus’s Ship, 1921–1922

Adolf Hoffmeister: Columbus’s Ship, 1921–1922, Olomouc Museum of Art, Olomouc – photo: Olomouc Museum of Art

Alois Wachsman also employs a minimalist style in his variant of the seafarer (around 1921). His bulky yet moody sailor and the auspicious ship on the horizon, however, again show greater similarity to Čapek than to Hoffmeister.

Alois Wachsman: Sailor, c. 1921

Alois Wachsman: Sailor, c. 1921, National Gallery, Prague – photo: National Gallery, Prague

In this way, the Czech artists added variety to a theme that experienced a renewed interest in art in the early twentieth century. The German painter Otto Dix, for example, depicted sailors as rough and aggressively masculine, and as sexually promiscuous.[10] Somewhat like Čapek, the iconography of Dix’s painting was inspired by that of bandits and adventure and Wild West novels. Lascivious and strong, the sailor grabs everything he desires. In addition, the American artists Hartley and Demuth both emphasised the idea of the sailor as a deviant figure on the margins of society to explore homosexual desire.[11] In their work it was not the martial image of the seafarer or marine infantryman, but his uniform that became the focus of interest. Despite the difference of emphasis, both sides seem to converge on the idea that the sailor was an outsider of society. That made him possibly a symbolic figure with which the artist could identify, regardless of sexual orientation. Čapek’s writings highlight his identification with the sailor as an adventurer and explorer, in a similar way that the avant-garde showed sympathy with those on the margins such as prostitutes, dancers or thieves. The mutability of the visual language provided many possibilities for elaboration, from the remnants of the tough soldierly seafarer, conspiring in a masculine way and often described in adventure literature, or homosexual or queer connotations of the close-knit communities at sea, which were also increasingly lived out in the harbour communities at the beginning of the twentieth century. The frequent change of location, the free life and deviant sexuality, all this could be taken up in many forms in art. The versions by Czech artists and not the least Čapek didn’t necessarily follow the sexual tropes but leaned towards the demimonde while focusing on images of a longing for distant worlds and an unaltered life, in and outside of Bohemia.

Christian Drobe

[1] ‘Exotismus. Říká se, že exotismus není českou vlastností; že lpíme na své zemi jako těsto na díži. Jistě je to pravda; ale což vy, pánové, jste nikdy nečetli Robinsona Crusoe, Posledního Mohykána a Jules Vernea a což jsi nežil v Čechách, neměl jsi kamarádů, jako jsi ty sám, což je to náhoda, že jeden z nich se dal ke komediantům, druhý zahynul v Americe a třetí se ztratil ve světě jako námořník?‘ – Josef and Karel Čapek, Krakonošova zahrada, Zářivé hlubiny, Juvenilie (Prague, 1957) p. 12.

[2] Derek Sayer, The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (Princeton, NJ, 1998).

[3] Pavla Pečinková, ‘Josef Čapek’s Interpretation of Primitivism,‘ in Estetika: The European Journal of Aesthetics, 49.1 (2012) pp. 71–108.

[4] Roman Prahl and Lenka Bydžovská, Volné směry – časopis secese a moderny [Volné směry – a periodical of Secession and modernism] (Prague, 1993) p. 80.

[5] Josef Čapek, Umění přírodních národů [The art of natural peoples] (Prague, 1938).

[6] Josef Čapek, Nejskromnější umění [The humblest art] (Prague, 1920), see also Alena Pomajzlová, Josef Čapek: Nejskromnější umění (Prague, 2003).

[7] Mám v ČSR více svých rodných krajin, v jejichž lesích se leskne jadrné listí kopytníku a mezi kameny roste břečťan. Krajiny, které mají svá kouzla a svá tajemství. Krajiny nějakého spříznění, nějakého srozumění. A jsou duchovní rodné krajiny. Rostl jsem za plotem naší zahrady v Úpici, ale také ve všech světadílech Verneových románů; byl jsem hrdým Indiánem, chladnokrevným Angličanem, námořníkem v bouři.‘ – Josef Čapek, Rodné krajiny [Native landscapes] (Prague, 1985) p. 250.

[8] Marta Filipová, Modernity, History, and Politics in Czech Art (London, 2020) pp. 101–103; Tomáš Winter, Palmy na Vltavě: Primitivismus, mimoevropské kultury a české výtvarné umění 1850–1950 [Palm trees on the Vltava: Primitivism, non-European cultures and Czech fine art 1850–1950] (Prague, 2013).

[9] Nikolaj Savický, Henri Rousseau aneb Složitá Celníkova cesta do Čech [Henri Rousseau, or the Douanier’s complicated journey to Bohemia] (Prague, 2018) p. 109.

[10] Änne Söll, Neue Männlichkeit: Die Matrosenbilder von Otto Dix, in Ilka Voermann ed., Das Auge der Welt: Otto Dix und die Neue Sachlichkeit (Ostfildern, 2012) pp. 48–60.

[11] Jonathan Weinberg, Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley and the First American Avant-garde (New Haven, 1995).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/ST7EU

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