Petr Wittlich: Made in English

For many years Petr Wittlich (born in 1932) has been the most respected art historian of his generation in the Czech lands. His first published studies date from the mid-1950s. Since that time he has been a lecturer at the Institute of Art History in the Philosophical Faculty in Prague. Wittlich is perhaps the most influential post-war art historian working in the Czech context. His books and studies on the art of the turn of the 19th century in particular are among the fundamental contributions on the subject out side of the Czech context, as well. An anthology entitled V mužském mozku (Inside a Man’s Brain) featuring articles by his colleagues and students, was published on the occasion of Wittlich’s 70th birthday._1 The publication was accompanied by a specialized bibliography of Wittlich’s works, listing several hundred items. His contribution to art discourse had been highly regarded for some time by his colleagues, the first notable mention of this esteem in print appearing in the journal Umění in 1992, in which the editors dedicated a special edition to the occasion of Wittlich’s 60th birthday._2 Wittlich’s professional contributions to the field were analyzed in a special study by Lenka Bydžovská.

Since the 1960s, Wittlich has also published in foreign languages. Poor conditions for publishing during the “normalization” period of the 1970s also become apparent if we take a glimpse at Wittlich’s bibliography. From the 1980s, however, opportunities became more widely available, and by the end of that decade this tendency was extended to foreign countries. The situation radically changed after 1989, when Wittlich’s bibliography, both domestic and foreign, dramatically increased. Wittlich’s works have appeared in German, French, Polish, Japanese and other translations. A collection of his books and studies translated into English is also significant. Wittlich’s English bibliography is quite extensive if we take into account the amount of individual items in regard to the objective conditions. It includes almost all of the fundamental texts, including comprehensive synthetic works, and exhibition catalogues. It gives a broad survey of the basic themes of Wittlich’s research and professional interests. It is also a remarkable example of a consistent scientific approach.

Wittlich’s texts do not only present new or less well-known information about the creation of art, and are not summaries of anecdotes or minor histories. Wittlich works towards one overall synthesis. Individual books, studies, sketches and reviews are included with regards to structuralized and methodologically clear unity. His approach is creative and open. As a researcher, he is not afraid to enter unknown areas of other arts or scientific fields. His opinion on the history of art are clear and well-arranged, and have a logical structure. New attitudes or interpretations do not exist outside the entirety, but are shown as a part, as enrichment and stratification.

In 1992, Wittlich published his fundamental monograph Česká secese (The Czech Art Nouveau)._3 The book is acknowledged still today as a crucial contribution to the understanding of the artistic period at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The author provides a comprehensive survey of the situation of visual arts in the Czech lands at that time. He also begins to analyze his older model of a graphic diagram depicting Art Nouveau as a triangle within a circle. Symbolism, Naturalism and decorative ornamentalism create the individual points of the triangle, within which the author draws the main morphological sign of Art Nouveau, a distinctive ornamental line. He characterizes this as a symbol of mutual exchange between the main points, achieved by critical knowledge and thoughts of the time._4 Wittlich also describe which important events had taken place within the short time frame, and had settled permanently in the visual arts of the Czech lands. Česká secese is a book synthesizing a variety of modern artistic approaches at the previous turn of the century into one mutually penetrating organism. Wittlich also refers to other arts, especially to the literature of the period, but to philosophy and science as well. On the whole, every subsequent work concerning modernism in the Czech lands had to deal with this book in a creative manner.

The essays “K metodologickým otázkám uměleckohistorické syntézy (On Methodological Questions of an Art Historical Synthesis)”_5 and especially the comprehensive study “Preislerovo Jaro. Slohová syntéza a vývojové tendence českého umění kolem 1900 (Preisler’s Spring. The Synthesis of Styles and Trends of Development in Czech Art circa 1900)”_6 are quite important in this connection. He returned later to a similar theme in the study “Paradox moderny (The Paradox of Modernism)”. His theses concerning Czech Art Nouveau are generally accepted, and univerally respected. To date, no consistent and objective criticism has yet appeared. In such a situation, we can speak about a kind of Wittlichian school of research. He has inspired and influenced topics of 19th century historicism, surrealism, and post-war and contemporary art through his contributions.

The creation of his own original theses and methodological approaches reflects Wittlich’s breadth of knowledge of visual art theory, and also of the history of art history. As early as the end of the 1960s, he prepared a textbook for his students “Texty současných historiků a teoretiků umění (Texts by Contemporary Art Historians and Art Theoreticians)” which was the only comparable publication on this theme for many years. He translated studies by Erwin Panofski, Ernst Hans Gombrich, Anton Sedlmayer and Arnold Hauser into Czech._8 In the following years he dealt with the theoretical work of Max Dvořák and Pierre Francastel in other texts._9

The first item in English to appear in Wittlich’s bibliography is a short study from 1965, Space in Modern Sculpture._10 The text reflects his opinions on modern sculpture at that time. Since his studies in art history at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University in Prague, he has shown a deep and concentrated interest in the modern plastic arts. His first book-length publication was the extensive study Kresby Jana Štursy (The Drawings of Jan Štursa)._11 At that time, most of his reviews and theoretical works were dedicated to sculpture. The plastic arts are also connected with his polemic with the art historian Vojtěch Volavka. The discussion arose after Wittlich’s review of Volavka’s book O soše (On Sculpture). The polemic took place in the journal Umění during the year 1962. Wittlich also published two short studies about Bohumil Kafka in the same year. Together with the studies about Štursa, these formed at the time the basic themes from which he elaborated on synthetic works in later years. The highlight of his interest in the modern plastic arts was his doctoral work, České sochařství ve 20. století (Czech sculpture in the 20th Century) from 1968._12

Due to his interest in theory, Wittlich was well acquainted with period literature concerning modern plastic art. From the end of the 1950s, but mainly during the 1960s, a number of important publications on modern sculpture appeared. Wittlich reviewed some of these in the pages of professional journals, for example in publications by Caroly Giedion-Welcker, Andrew Carnduff Ritchie, Werner Hofmann and Herbert Read. He perceived the problem of the plastic arts within the continuity of the general development of modern art._13 Although he became interested more and more in the art of the turn of the 19th century, he always followed the contemporary art scene. He dealt intensively with the work of the painters Pavel Nešleha and Václav Boštík, for instance.

In 1974, the Artia publishing house brought Wittlich’s book Art Nouveau Drawings to international readers._14 This introductory study presented, for the first time, Wittlich’s synthetic vision of the development of modern art at the turn of the 19th century, characterized by the triangular diagram representing the three basic pillars of the period art. The author dealt with the phenomenon of painting in individual monograph chapters. As a gateway for the knowledge and understanding of the internal motivations of an art work, Wittlich successfully compared works by internationally nearby unknown Czech artists with art works by well-known authors, for example Edvard Munch, Odilon Redon and August Rodin. Wittlich here displayed the importance of this approach, as not only the works of Alfons Mucha and František Kupka, which had already achieved wide international recognition, but also the drawings of František Bílek and Jan Preisler provided stimulating parallels to other works. The accentuation of closer Central European relationships in the chapters dedicated to Alfred Kubin, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele was also very important. Despite the fact that the book gained deserved attention, Wittlich experienced limited possibilities to publish in the following years. His next text to appear in English, Vase and Statue, was published more than ten years later._15 Here he dealt again with the problem of the plastic arts – respectively, with the formal relationship of Art Nouveau plastic arts and applied arts. Three years later, the text Art Nouveau in Czechoslovakia appeared, which was dedicated almost entirely to the subject of architecture._16

Even in Wittlich’s early texts, an interesting line of thought concerning the personality of an artist often appeared. Wittlich traced the transformations in the perception of an artistic individual, the constitution of the new forms of a personality, and his or her projection into their own work. He touched this question, from different points of view, in a number of texts, for example in the study The Self: Destruction or Synthesis, Two Problems of Czech Art at the Turn of the Century._17 Modern times articulated new questions in this sphere. The creator was no longer separated from his work but became its natural part, with the work itself often intentionally reflective of, or couched within, the artist’s personality. In this context, Wittlich could employ his knowledge of psychoanalytic approaches to the history and theory of art.

More than two-thirds of Wittlich’s English bibliography was published after 1989. This began symbolically with the English and French publication of the book Česká secese under the title Prague, Fin-de-siècle._18 However, the foreign language versions differ significantly from the original Czech, and in general can be considered completely new books. The book was not rewritten as a whole, but some chapters were supplemented or slightly changed. The basic structure of the book was completely different._19 The entirety is divided into three long chapters: The 1890s, The Emotive Style, and Modernism. The reproductions were also different. Much more space was dedicated to architecture and to the applied arts.

The short study Arts and Politics – Experiences from Czechoslovakia_20 dates from the beginning of the 1990s. The text reflects the situation in Czech art after 1968. At that time, Wittlich was intensively engaged in the work of Alfons Mucha. During the 1990s, he published a number of texts on this theme, including original contributions in English: The Message of Mucha, Alfons Mucha – His Work as a Whole, and Alphons Mucha: The Person and his Work._21 Mucha’s work enabled Wittlich to organically connect the Parisian art situation with events in Prague, and created different possibilities for a synthetic view of the pluralism of art at the turn of the 19th century. Wittlich was interested not only in Mucha’s poster designs, from which he determined the basic values important for the next formal changes in modernist depiction, but also dealt with a number of remarkable pastels and large-scale realizations, including the decorations of the Prague Municipal House._22

During the 1990s, Wittlich dealt intensively with sculptural themes. Besides the above-mentioned Rodin, he contiuned to return to the Czech sculptors of the turn of the century. In an anthology devoted to the 150th anniversary of the death of the composer Antonín Dvořák, he published the study “A Message from the Depths: An interpretation of Antonín Dvořák’s Bust by Josef Mařatka.”_23 In 1995, he published his study on sculpture within a German synthesis, “Bohmen im 19. Jahrhundert. Vom Klassicizismus zur Moderne.”_24 From the end of the 1970s he had also worked on an extensive text concerning the sculpture of Czech Art Nouveau. The resultant book, Sochařství české secese (Sculpture of the Czech Art Nouveau) was published in 2001 in several languages, including English, as Sculpture of the Czech Art Nouveau._25 The book is divided into two parts. The first one bears the title Umělecký vývoj (Artistic development) and contains four extensive chapters, in which the author consdiers the key moments in the development of the modern plastic arts at the turn of the 19th century. The second part is dedicated to portraits of individual sculptors ranging from František Bílek, Stanislav Sucharda, Ladislav Šaloun, Quido Kocian, Josef Mařatka, to Bohumil Kafka and Jan Štursa. The reproductions that accompany the book are very representative and comprise several hundred black-and-white reproductions of high quality.

In 1995, the extensive exhibition Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe took place in Montreal. It was dedicated to the problem of Symbolism within a wider interdisciplinary relationship. It was one of the first significant exhibition projects where the art of Symbolism was newly presented in a substantially wider context. The catalogue also presented a number of art works by lesser known artists, from areas which were up to that point ignored by the majority of Western researchers. For the first time, Czech art presented itself in an international context through the works of many artists. Besides well-known authors such as František Kupka amd Alfons Mucha, there appeared works by Josef Váchal, František Kobliha, František Bílek, Jan Preisler and others. The catalogue, full of representative texts, also brought a new study by Petr Wittlich, “Closed Eyes, Symbolism and the New Shapes of Suffering,”_26 which was included into the part titlled The Self beyond Recovery. The study followed the older above-mentioned text, “A Message from the Depths. An Interpretation of Antonín Dvořák’s Bust by Josef Mařatka.”

The concise survey Transformation of Modern Style – Czech Art in the European Context dates from 1999._27 In the same year, a more comprehensive study, “Towards a New Synthesis” was published in the catalogue of the exhibition Prague 1900. Poetry and Ecstasy._28 Similar synthetic tendencies were also typical of other exhibition and publication projects of that time. The exhibition and publication reflected international interest in the art of Modernism in the Czech lands. However, among the titles of English publications, the most often mentioned and cited to date is the publication Czech Modernism: 1900–1945, prepared and edited by Jaroslav Anděl. Nevertheless, Wittlich’s approach differs substantially from Anděl’s in some regards, primarily in the division into periods. In Anděl’s concept, the art of the 1890s was a point of origin for subsequent events, the peak of which he located in the interwar avant-garde of the 1920s and the 1930s. Alternatively, Wittlich placed stress on links between Modernism and the avant-garde. He found that the beginnings of modern art were already manifest in the artistic developments of the late 1880s. During the following decade, a modern art scene fully established itself and created its own important institutions. The tendencies of the end of the century (Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Impressionism etc.) did not disappear with the coming of the new century, and in a number of cases even continued to exist for many years. This synthesizing approach of Wittlich’s also characterized the subsequent large-scale exhibition projects from the 1990s of which he was the author or main curator.

From the mid-1990s, Wittlich worked on a project for the programmatic exhibition Důvěrný prostor/Nová dálka. Umění pražské secese (Intimate Space/New Distance: The Art of the Prague Art Nouveau)._29 The title is shared by an anthology published on the occasion of the exhibition. Wittlich opens the anthology with the extensive study “Česká dálka (Czech horizon).”_30 After a long period of time he returned with an extensive text on the theme of Czech Art Nouveau. The study “Towards a New Synthesis” follows this text. An important place, especially in the number of reproductions, was occupied by the sculptor František Bílek and the painter Jan Preisler. Wittlich dealt extensively with the works of both artists during the following years, reflecting the continuity of his deep professional interest. Namely, the work of Jan Preisler belongs among his life-long themes._31

In 2000, a comprehensive retrospective exhibition dedicated to the sculptor František Bílek was held in Prague. An anthology entitled František Bílek, 1872–1941 was published for the occasion. This was the first extensive monograph of not only Bílek’s sculptures but also of his drawings, graphic work, ceramics and architectural projects. For the Czech visual arts at the turn of 19th century, Bílek’s work had a crucial importance. Bílek was already perceived in the 1890s as the first modern artist in terms of his program. Petr Wittlich wrote for the catalogue the introductary study, entitled “Chvíle blesku. František Bílek a české umění (Moments of Lightning. František Bílek and Czech Art).”_32 His contribution formulated for other authors the basic quotes of Bilek’s place within Czech art, and beyond it to a wider European context. Wittlich showed Bílek not merely as a mystical solitary figure but as the creator and founder of a certain wider line of opinion, an exceptional founding personality.

For the time being, the last big project of Petr Wittlich, from the period of the recent turn of the century, is an exhibition and monograph of the painter Jan Preisler. The accompanying monograph is also published under the same title, Jan Preisler, in English._33 The contribution of the Preisler monograph is directly important in several ways. The book brings forth the most widely published anthology of reproductions, drawn from the whole spectrum of Preisler’s work from pictures and drawings to monumental plans for architecture. For the first time, visitors have the literature and a survey of exhibitions at hand. Individual studies, apart from that of Petr Wittlich, provided by Lenka Bydžovská and Karel Srp, achieve a combination of differing approaches through a preservation of the entire text.

In spite of the collection of generally representative English translations, Wittlich’s fundamental studies of August Rodin, Edvard Munch, František Kupka and Alfred Kubin remains unasailible._34 Wittlich has paid close attention to these figures since the 1960s and has published several studies about their work._35 For Wittlich Munch was the key foreign artist who deeply influenced the face of art in the Czech lands with his seminal exhibition._36 In the period of the beginning of Czech modern sculpture, Wittlich had seen a similar influence in the work of August Rodin, who like Munch exhibited his work at a highly successful retrospective exhibition in Prague.

Wittlich’s theoretical studies and texts about contemporary art have not yet been translated, one exception being his monograph of the painter and draftsman Pavel Nešleha, published in English._37 Wittlich has carefully observed the whole of Nešleha’s artistic career, which unfortunately ended too early. The book presents the painter’s development from his figurative work of the end of the 1950s through the Informel paintings of the 1960s, the return to figure and drawing in the 1970s, and installations and photography from the 1990s.

Despite the number of texts Petr Wittlich has published on the theme on Czech Art Nouveau, his work still remains somehow exotic, and foreign researchers tend to ignore it. If we look for example at the recently published book Modern Art in Eastern Europe,_38 we neither find Wittlich’s name in the bibliography nor in the notes, although his texts from the 1980s to present are easily accessible. Many similar examples of careless approach to Czech art exist, due to a certain inertia on the part of foreign researchers, the majority of whom continue to ignore the art of “the Far East.” If there are any exceptions, it is thanks to the texts of Petr Wittlich.


Lenka Bydžovská–Roman Prahl (ed.): V mužském mozku (sborník k 70. narozeninám Petra Wittlicha). Scriptorium, Praha 2002.

Lenka Bydžovská: K šedesátinám Petra Wittlicha. Umění 40, 1992, No. 1, pp. 75–77. In the same issue: Otto M. Urban, Petr Wittlich. Výběrová bibliografie. pp. 78–79.

Česká secese. Odeon, Praha 1982, 379 p. (2. edition 1985)

Ibid, pp. 13–14.

Umění XXVIII, 1980, No. 2, pp. 97–100.

Umění XXVIII, 1980, No. 5, pp. 401–424.

Paradox moderny. In: Luboš Merhaut, Otto M. Urban (ed.), Moderní revue, 1894–1925. Torst, Praha 1995, pp. 77–88.

Texty současných historiků a teoretiků umění. Selected and translated by P. W., Univerzita Karlova, Praha 1968, 95 p.

Max Dvořák. Umění XIX, 1971, č. 6, pp. 615–617, Francastelova sociologie umění. In: Pierre Francastel, Figura a místo. Vizuální řád v italském malířství 15. století. Odeon, Praha 1984, pp. 307–317.

Space in Modern Sculpture. Acta Universitatis Carolinae, Philosophica et Historica 1965, 1 (Sborník k sedmdesátinám Jana Květa), pp. 43–47.

Kresby Jana Štursy. Nakladatelství československých výtvarných umělců, Praha 1959, 83 p. The book was based on the author’s thesis of 1956.

Published in a shortened version only in 1978: České sochařství ve XX. století (1890–1945). Státní pedagogické nakladatelství, Praha 1978, 246 p.

E.g. the essay: Otázka kontinuity v českém moderním sochařství. Výtvarná práce XI, 1963, No. 10, pp. 1, 6–8.

Art Nouveau Drawings. Octopus Books, London 1975, 197 p. It has not been published in Czech.

Vase and Statue. In: Tomáš Vlček (ed.), České secesní sklo. Ústav teorie a dějin umění ČSAV, Praha 1985, pp. 25–38.

Art Nouveau in Czechoslovakia. In: Art Nouveau/Jugendstil Architecture in Europe. B. m., German Commision for UNESCO 1988, pp. 37–46.

The Self: Destruction or Synthesis, Two Problems of Czech Art at the Turn of the Century. In: Robert Pynsent (ed.) Decadence and Innovation. Austro-Hungarian Life and Art at the Turn of the Century. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1989, pp. 82–87.

Prague, fin de siècle. Flammarion, Paris 1992, 278 p. (English and French version). Second edition: Prague, fin de siècle. Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Köln 1999, 278 p. (English, French, German version)

The text drew also on another important book on the turn of the century by Wittlich: Umění a život – Doba secese. Artia, Praha 1987, 206 p.

Arts and Politics – Experiences from Czechoslovakia in: Kim Levin (ed.), Beyond Walls and Wars. Art, Politics, and Multiculturalism. Midmarch Arts Press, New York 1992, pp. 61–65.

The Message of Mucha. In: Sarah Muchová (ed.) Alphonse Mucha. Pastels, Posters, Drawings and Photographs. Mucha Foundation, London 1994, pp. 12–20. Alfons Mucha – his work as a whole. In: Alfons Mucha. His life and art. The Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo 1995, pp. 21–26. Alphonse Mucha. The person and his work. In: Alphonse Mucha and the spirit of Art Nouveau. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon 1997, pp. 25–36.

Alfons Mucha in the Municipal House. Obecní dům, Praha 2000, 94 p., English text: pp. 33–53.

A message from the Depths. An interpretation of Antonín Dvořák’s Bust by Josef Mařatka. In: Milan Pospíšil, Marta Ottlová (ed.), Antonín Dvořák 1841–1991. Praha 1994, pp. 193–207.

Plastik. In: Ferdinand Seibt, Böhmen im 19. Jahrhundert. Vom Klassicizismus zur Moderne, Propylen, Frankfurt am Main 1995, pp. 273–294.

Sculpture of the Czech Art Nouveau. Karolinum, Praha 2001, 427 p.

Closed Eyes, Symbolism and the New Shapes of Suffering. In: Jean Clair (ed.), Lost paradise. Symbolist Europe. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal 1995, pp. 235–241.

Transformation of Modern Style – Czech Art in the European Kontext. In: Czech Art 1890–1930: From Art Nouveau to Art Deco. Setagaya Art Museum, Setagaya 1999, pp. 241–243.

Towards new synthesis. In: E. Bercker, R. Prahl, P. Wittlich, Prague 1900. Poetry and ecstasy. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam 1999, pp. 59–99.

In the same year Jaroslav Anděl organized an exhibition Prague, 1900–1938. Capitale secréte des avant-gardes. Petr Wittlich wrote the introductory essay for the catalogue: Sécession pragoise: les débuts de la modernité. In: Jaroslav Anděl (ed.), Prague, 1900–1938. Capitale secréte des avant-gardes. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon 1997, pp. 21–32.

Česká dálka. In: Petr Wittlich (ed.), Důvěrný prostor/Nová dálka. Obecní dům, Praha 1997, pp. 9–122. English summary.

Wittlich wrote on Preisler also in other works, such as: Jan Preisler. Kresby. Praha, Odeon 1988, 204 p., Preislerova zrcadla. In: Marta Ottlová (ed.), Proudy české umělecké tvorby 19. století. Sen a ideál. Praha, Ústav teorie a dějin umění ČSAV 1990, pp. 160–167, Preislerovo putování krajinami duše. In: Jan Preisler. Putování krajinami duše. (1872–1918), Západočeská galerie, Plzeň 1994, pp. 3–8.

Chvíle blesku. František Bílek a české umění. Praha, Galerie hlavního města Prahy 2000. This essay was published also in French: František Bílek et l’art tcheque: un éclair de lumiere. In: František Bílek. Musée Bourdelle, Paris 2002, pp. 12–27.

Bitter Grace. In: Petr Wittlich (ed.), Jan Preisler. Obecní dům, Praha 2003, pp. 111–206.

An exception is a shorter essay De-allegorization of Motion in the Work of František Kupka. Review of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Akadémia Kiado, Budapest 1968, pp. 475–478 and chapters in the book Art Nouveau Drawings.

E.g.: Břemeno snu. In: Otto M. Urban (ed.): Alfred Kubin. Rytmus a konstrukce. Egon Schiele Art Centrum, Český Krumlov 2003, pp. 71–93. At the moment Petr Wittlich is working on a monograph on August Rodin, and is participating on a Munch–Rodin project.

Edvard Munch a české umění. Umění XXX, 1982, č. 5, pp. 422–447, Edvard Munch. Odeon, Praha 1985, 83 p., 2nd edition 1988, in Swedish 1987.

Pavel Nešleha. Praha, Gallery 2004, 351 p. (Czech-English version)

S. A. Mansbach, Modern Art in Eastern Europe. From Blatic to the Balkans, ca. 1890–1939, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999, 384 p.