Artwork of month
Josef Istler Composition, 1946

Josef Istler
Composition, 1946

monotype, paper
644 x 494 mm


Josef Istler (1919–2000) is an outstanding representative of Czech surrealism and informal art. It is less known, however, that he came to his artistic expression more or less as an autodidact: In the pre-war years (1938–39) he studied painting with the not very important painter Walter Höfner, but artistic contacts during the war, friendship with Karel Teige and Toyen and mainly belonging to the Ra edition circle, founded by Václav Zykmund. Artists such as Miloš Koreček, Ludvík Kundera, Bohdan Lacina, Zdeněk Lorenz, Vilém Reichmann, Václav Tikal and Václav Zykmund belonged to the Ra edition circle, which gradually formed from 1937 during the war and published surrealist literature – and Josef Istler became actively involved only since 1942.

July 2024

The fusion of surrealism and abstraction, geometry and lyricism, material and message was central to Josef Istler's work from the beginning. In his early works he was influenced by Max Ernst and Paul Klee, with a substantial part of his early work created during the Second World War. The surrealist approach provided Istler with the best way to express feelings of fear, anxiety and melancholy, with Istler transforming this horror of war into dark scenes depicting the ruins of buildings and human ghosts. Paintings and monotypes originated from the mid-1940s, foreshadowing later informal work, as well as geometrising compositions in which the boundary between the figurative and the abstract is important. Although Istler was one of the most prominent personalities of the Prague circle, his work during the war could not be presented anywhere other than in the closed circle of the Ra group. With the end of the war, possibilities opened up for Istler: From 1947, he was able to exhibit officially with the Ra group, there was an exhibition in Brno (1945) and in Prague (1946), and in 1947 he participated in the International Conference of Revolutionary Surrealism in Brussels, which started a lively artistic events and the formation of the COBRA group, of which Istler became a member and exhibited within it even after 1948, as several of his works remained abroad. After 1948, however, all foreign contacts were severed and the activity of the Ra group was also interrupted. Istler turns his attention to the circle of Karel Teige, and surrealist principles once again gain dominance in his work. Istler's work undergoes further changes at the end of the 1950s, when he responds to the inspiration of the Brussels style after Expo 58 in a cycle of paintings and monotypes entitled Heads, where the imaginative approach is replaced by a technically executed composition of colored surfaces and lines. After 1960, Istler's work changed again, Istler distanced himself from Effenberger's circle, became friends with Vladimír Boudník, Mikuláš Medek, with whom he found many points of contact in his new, abstract, informal expression, which lasted until the end of the 1960s and beyond does not vary much.

The composition represented by the July work of the month is thus a typical example of the aforementioned geometric compositions from the mid-1960s. It is made using the monotype technique, which was one of Istler's favorite graphic techniques and to which he often returned, perhaps because of its ease and because a print from a metal or glass plate cannot be repeated – and it belongs to the most painterly graphic techniques. Against the background of fine, unrepeatable prints, so much of his own technique, a simple composition is drawn, consisting of several white straight lines, a diagonal stroke in black and an arc of red, as if exploring their interrelationships, layering and depth. The background reveals the repeated use of the printing plate with traces of previous motifs, as is typical of the monotype technique. It is signed in the lower middle in pencil.

Lucie Nováčková