Michal Vitanovský
Michal Vitanovský a retrospect
Juliana Boublíková-Jahnová
The medal no. 35, 1999 / p.79 - 86

When surveying the last two decades of Czech medallic art, a marked shift is noticeable in the work produced by medallists now in their middle years compared to the output of preceding generations of artists. From the very beginning, one of these artists, Michal Vitanovský, has shone like a bright star in the Czech firmament, both on account of the originality of his approach and his abilities as an artist.

The name Vitanovský evokes memories of the Bohemian Baroque, for a portrait exists of a young aristocrat, Ignatius Vitanovský of Vlčkovice, by one of Bohemia's most famous painters of the time, Karel Skreta. Michal Vitanovský entered the profession of sculptor at the beginning of the l970s, after he had completed his studies at the College of Applied Art in Prague in l97l. He decided to devote his talents to medals after his work had been accepted both for the exhibition, The contemporary Bohemian medal, held in Prague in l974, and for the Czechoslovak contribution to the international FIDEM exhibition in Cracow one year later. In addition, cast medals and plaques were not subject to restrictions by the authorities as to their subject and expression to the same degree as larger sculptures, and even artists who were otherwise prevented from exhibiting usually had their works 'passed' for medallic exhibitions both at home and abroad.

l3 December l976 was another important moment in Vitanovský career. An investigation of the grave of Přemysl Otakar II, king of Bohemia, in St Vitus' cathedral in Prague revealed his royal insignia: the crown, the sceptre, and the orb. More than twelve years later Vitanovský was to write: 'It was at that time that I felt the need to seek my own and our common roots and rediscover the real content of the concepts of “Bohemia” and “Czecht”.2 It was also at this time that he embarked upon his lifelong programme of a gallery of personalities and events from Czech and European history from the ninth to the nineteenth century. The close focus on historical subjects was also a political refuge at a time when many contemporary subjects were tabooed for ideological reasons and the possibility of their being portrayed in art was negligible.

Vitanovský was only able to incorporate the twentieth century into his series after l989. After the events of that year, it became possible to apply what the old regime had previous1y forbidden and concealed, and Vitanovský, like other artists, could express his feelings more publicly. Moreover, official commissions came for subjects which were formerly only made for private consumption, and therefore in cast form. Accordingly, the artist began to prepare numerous designs for striking, and these began to influence his other work. His struck medals now began to prevai1 over cast works. The subjects of Vitanovský's recent works can be divided into several historical periods. Czech history is still represented most strong1y, with the medallist moving between the early period, represented by St Wenceslas, and the difficult times of the Thirty Years War, during which the Czech educationalist Comenius emerged as a personality of European standing. The period between these two is filled with such personalities as Jan Milíč of Kroměříž, the religious reformer who fought for moral reform. Vitanovský's cast medal of Milíč combines architectural elements and parts of his face. The empty form expressed only in outline, as if calling for completion, evokes Milíč's failure to complete his reforms. At the same time the arcade of stone blocks in which the fragment of Milíč's face is incorporated can be interpreted as an allusion to the foundations of church reform laid by the preacher, who became a model for John Hus.

A struck medal commissioned by the George of Poděbrady Foundation celebrates this king of Bohemia, who as early as the fifteenth century conceived of the idea of unifying Europe. On another official commission, St Agnes of Bohemia, canonised shortly before November l989, adorns the fifty crown coin. Her face is framed by a pointed arch, providing a stylised echo of the Gothic arches of the Na Františku convent, the foundation of which she inspired. The arch not only serves as an adornment for her head, but also suggests the physical and spiritual relationship between the building and the saint, who devoted her whole life to its construction and to the management of it and its infirmary.

Vitanovský has also portrayed other women, always selecting individuals who have escaped historical anonymity through some concrete act. These include the queens Judith, Cunigund, Elisabeth Rejčka, and Elisabeth of Pomerania. They represent an independent element in Vitanovský's oeuvre: resolute, emancipated in today's terms, they are represented as equal counterparts to the men.

The four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Comenius in l992 was commemorated not only by the striking of a commemorative five hundred crown coin. The personality of the 'Teacher of Nations' attracted Vitanovský so much that he created a whole series of cast meda1s represent2ng key moments in Comenius's life; these are depicted in a simplified and monumental way.

In l997 the millennial celebrations of the patron saint of Bohemia, St Adalbert, who has appeared in works of art from the Middle Ages to the present day, aroused the interest of several institutions, and resulted in two struck medals and one sculpture by Vitanovský. The sculpture, Which shows the saint as a child, is iconographically unique. Vitanovský enjoys introducing new conceptions of his subjects, which differ from those that have become petrified in our minds through iconographies that often originated several centuries ago. This is also the case with his medal of St Wenceslas. The pensive, hard facial expression seems to corresponds with the Slavonic legends of St Wenceslas, as reported by the historian Ferdinand Seibt.3 Emperor Rudolf II also appears differently from the standard representations of him. His expression is firm and self-assured, and he does not appear to be a man suffering from melancholy and retreating into the solitude of his collections, as he has ofen been presented. His features on the medal suggest a man purposefully building a centre of European art and culture, not only through a love of art itself, but also for reasons of diplomacy and self-promotion. The attributes accompanying him on the medal - a palm branch and a laurel wreath, symbol of martyrdom and victory - express the victories and defeats of his life. The artist's intended donation to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg of a series of ten medals (five of which are finished) on the subject of Luxembourg is an original and magnanimous act. Four of the five members of the ruling Luxembourg family portrayed so far have close connections with the territories of the crown of Bohemia: John Henry, Jošt, Wenceslas IV, and Sigismund. The fifth and most recent medal is of the daughter of Charles IV, Anne the Good, who became the wife of Richard II of England. These medals illustrate well the role played by the combination of the head and the symbolic attribute in expressing the unique character of the depicted person. By close positioning, sometimes even by overlapping the face and the symbol, Vitanovský creates a novel and yet highly logical unity.

The characteristic marks of the artist's style remain visible also in the struck medals. These are structured and expressive, and the subjects, traditionally treated in a more moderate classical form, acquire a rougher, more 'medieval' expression in Vitanovský's hands. The form is not only a means to express content, but also enables experiment, as, for example, in the medal depicting Rudolf II. In his cast works the medallist often contrasts blank areas with strongly modelled masses, Empty spaces in the compositions always have meaning. Defined by their outlines, they are part of a dramatic and integral whole expressive of the unity of antitheses. The relief is determined by the demands of structure and contrasting surfaces.

As Vitanovský proceeded from the early Middle Ages to the period of Protestantism, through humanism and the artistic high point of the end of the fifteenth century to the great and tragic personality of Comenius, he began to consider the further direction of his historical works. He realised that, for himself and those who knew his work, the eighteenth century was not considered primarily for its political history or the development of its visual arts, but as a century enriched by Czech music of great originality. Rather than selecting one individual personality or event, it was music itself that was his principal subject in a series of works that evokes the notion of eighteenth-century Bohemia as the conservatoire of Europe. He created a gallery of men whose faces were little known, but whose compositions have enchanted many audiences: F.J.A. Tůma, Pavel Vranický, Bohuslav Matěj Černohorský, František Xaver Richter, Jan Ladislav Dusík, J.V. Stamitz, Jiří Antonín Benda, and, last but not least, Josef Mysliveček, il Divino Boemo. All are presented in a novel and unexpected form. The sculptor's intellect, his tendency to experiment, and his call to the emotions transform Baroque and Rococo morphology into something new. Conservative viewers will take longer to appreciate these medals, which are impressive for their combination of Vitanovský's various creative processes. The unconventionality of the works not only refreshed Czech medallic art, but also paradoxically introduced new ideas by using old techniques, such as the stamping of punches. His forms are also eighteenth-century revivals, with their Baroque cartouches and rocailles, but the old boundaries are destroyed and the designs are informed by the present. The lines multiply as if to create a musical rhythm; slender and distinct, they, together with the overall composition, invite the questions of how the medallist has brought them to life, and why they give such an unusual impression. With his musical subjects Vitanovský arrived at the threshold of the nineteenth century. Just as the nineteenth century was generally more moderate and sober than the preceding century, both in its way of life and in its artistic expression, so also Vitanovský's medals dealing with this period are more moderate and sober. Their more traditional form is due also to the fact that they are commissioned works.

Nineteenth-century Czech music is represented by a medal commemorating Antonín Dvořák, who travelled to America at a time when that country was much more distant from Bohemia than it is today. This struck medal is a serious study devoid of experimental features. The portrait of another famous nineteenth-century Czech, the physiologist Jan Evangelista Purkyně, forms part of the insignia of the J.E. Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem, and has an emphatic structure that gives the impression of a cast medal. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century subjects include also the historian and writer Zikmund Winter, and Karel Čapek, who needs no introduction, a fact expressed on the reverse of his medal by a row of the writer's books inserted into a g1obe, thereby forming a respected part of world literature.

Vitanovský's treatment of twentieth-century subjects is an eloquent testimony of the way in which the artist has dealt with modern history and those personalities who were officially disapproved of in socialist Czechoslovakia. They include Jan Masaryk, the Czech diplomat and minister, whose life ended in mysterious circumstances at the beginning of totalitarian rule in l948. He was the son of the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic, a cosmopolitan who loved his country, and whose life and work would have developed differently in another political situation. His medal also shows the planet and incorporates the silhouette of Prague and the Charles Bridge. The motif of the globe binds the two men, suggesting a close relationship in their attitudes and also in their significance for Czech history in the twentieth century. As representatives of the development of the intellectual capacity of the nation since time immemoria1, universities have also attracted the active, ever-seeking spirit of Vitanovský. This is exemplified by the medal (once again a part of an insignia) of the Economic and Administrative Faculty of Masaryk University in Brno, which bears a likeness of its former professor, the economist, politician and philosopher Karel Engliš. Vitanovský has also made a student prize medal for the Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University, which bears a portrait of Jan Pa1ach, the modern Czech hero, whose act of defiance of the Soviet invasion of August l968 became a symbol of hope for a nation in a hopeless situation. Further works for universities form a self-contained group, including, for example, a gold commemorative coin featuring medieval students listening to a lecture given by a learned master and the seal of the university showing the institution's founder, Emperor Charles IV, and the patron saint of Bohemia, St Wenceslas.

Since the Second World War the world has had to learn to cope with the terrible events that took place, in particular that most terrifying manifestation of the contempt of man for man, the Holocaust. Whether they were living behind the Iron Curtain, separated from the rest of the world, or in the free world, where information was not denied, people wished to learn about this nightmare, this sleep of reason. This was especially true in Bohemia, for at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century its capital, Prague, had been a centre of Jewish culture, and gave the world a number of great individuals. Several medals produced by Vitanovský show that the artist's interest in this subject is, like that of many of his fellow Czech medallists, profound and not the result of a merely fashionable interest in Jewish matters. His Jewish medals were heralded in the lq80s by his medal of Isaac Babel, an important Jewish writer living in the Soviet Union between the two world wars. We see Kafka's head gripped on both sides by wounding, thorny forms, as if it is being enclosed by ideas developed in the writer's remarkable work. A medal on the deportation of the Jews from Kolín recalls a tragic page of more recent history, and acts as a warning against the excesses of megalomaniacs. A medal with the portrait of the first director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, Salomon Hugo Lieben, documents the existence of this institution, which has preserved rare monuments of Jewish culture.

It would be premature to sum up Vitanovský's work. An artist of his indomitable energy has a great deal of work ahead of him, and his nature makes it difficult to predict the paths along which he will travel, or the new and revived processes with which he will enrich his art. Moreover, such an evaluation would require much more space than is possib1e here. Having glimpsed at his work of recent years, we can conclude that Michal Vitanovský is an artist who experiments with old forms in a new manner and exploits tradition, treating it with great inventiveness. He confronts the classical Renaissance concept of the medal, which has decisively innfluenced the development of the art, with medieva1 inspiration. His roots in the Middle Ages can be seen not only in many of his subjects (so far the richest field of his work) but also in his forms. In spite of certain contemporary modern and post-modern features, his works have a timeless character, with their freedom of form and inventiveness balancing their evocation of tradition and history.

1/ V. Procházka, 'Michal Vitanovský: fenomén současného českého medailérství'('Michal Vitanovský: a phenomenon of contemporary Czech medallic art'), 5/6, Numismatické listy, LI, 5/6, p. l57.
2/ See Michal Vitanovský, Velké postavy českých dějin (medaile, plastiky, kresby) (Great personalities of Czech history (medals, sculptures, drawings)), exhibition catalogue (Znojmo, l989).
3/ F. Seibt, Německo a Češi: dějiny jednoho sousedství uprostřed Evropy (Germany and the Czechs: history of a neighbourhood in the centre of Europe) (Prague, l996), p. 48 ff.