Jiří Šalamoun, artist, illustrator and longtime head of the illustration and book design studio at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, died Thursday at the age of 86. We bring you his latest interview, which premiered for Týdeník Echo last summer.
Jiří Šalamoun was a classic of modern book illustration with an instantly recognizable handwriting. His Maxipes Fík can successfully be among the most popular mythological creatures of the Czech sky together with Ferda Mravenc from Sekor, Švejk from Lad, Rumcajs from Pilař and Manka. The extent of its scope was extraordinary, even if it always aimed at one thing: a fantasy that was not sucked out of the finger, but aimed at the center of knowledge and meaning. The interview took place in Vinohrady, Prague, where Jiří Šalamoun lived among his Czech and German characters, books and puppets, which he had collected since his youth.
Professor, how did your ancestors find the biblical name Solomon?
Then I do not know. I have relatives in Slánsko, it’s called Uherce, and they’re called Solomon. But I don’t know how they got there. Solomon’s ancestors have been buried there since the 19th century. But how it started, I don’t know, the name is Jewish, but we are not of Jewish origin. I would not survive the war.
How was your childhood?
Fairly well, but of course the war, I am in 1935. I had two grandfathers, one in the Louny region, in those of Uherce near Panenský Týnec, there was a farm, there I learned to drive a tractor. The other, on the mother’s side, in Nový Bydžov. He was a glass merchant, he had a big store on the square and two houses, after 1948 everything was taken from him, he died after six months. Thus, one grandfather was in the west of Prague, the other in the east. We lived in Prague in Vinohrady. I have been both sides for vacation.
Did you have artists in your family?
No, I don’t know.
Did this artistic talent come to you?
I had an uncle Antoš from Nový Bydžov on my mother’s side. He may not have guided me, but he influenced me. I doodle a lot since I was a child. I always had a yellow sketchbook with me. Jiří’s parents said: Jiříček will be a painter! Somewhere in the catalog you might find the designs.
Has your style already manifested itself there?
I don’t know if you could say that. These are drawings I made during the war, a long time ago. I lost a lot of it when they demolished the barracks on Za Poříčskou branou street, where I had my first studio, and it remained in the basement.
In 1953, you began to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, it was at the time of harsh socialist realism. How did you fix that?
The worst years were then over. Stalin died that year and instead switched to such progressive socialist impressionism. I joined Professor Vladimír Pukl’s graphic studio and there was no politics. I thought I would make books, that I would live off of them. I didn’t want to stay on my parents’ neck. They were both pretty sick…
How did you manage the classical disciplines there? Figurative painting, drapery, realistic drawing, portrait…
It didn’t bother me in the least, I could draw realistically. You can see it in the catalog.
In 1957 you moved to Leipzig and started your studies at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst. Did you choose it yourself?
Yes, there was a possibility, so I went. I spoke German quite well, because we learned German during the war in the first year. And I also said to myself that I had to try something else and elsewhere. I knew the school was good, so I went.
It was only twelve years after the war. It was East Germany, but still Germany… Aren’t you the first Czechoslovakian student to go there?
Maybe yes… You know that these relations with the Germans were disturbed, there was a long taste in people. And Germany was still very broken, shops with prostheses, everywhere behind the windows wooden legs, glass eyes… Raw surrealism. Almost women in the street. Well, I stayed there for three years. There was something interesting to be found in bookstores and booksellers. I met the German Expressionists and Paul Klee there. We didn’t know much about them.
Were there courses only in Prague?
Everything there was marked by the war. Most of the young people taught there, the older ones either dropped out or couldn’t teach because they had already been with the Nazis. There was also still misery, almost hunger, we had more rations as foreign students, but there weren’t many. I bought a lot of horse meat there, which was not at all a habit in our country. It was not eaten even during the war.
You brought your wife, Eva Natus, from Leipzig, also an artist. Was it clear that you would go to Prague together?
Of course, where else?
Well, that you stay in Leipzig…
No, we opted for Prague. At that time, it was not possible to move freely here and there. You just had to decide to live somewhere. And Prague prevailed.
Read the full interview with artist Jiří Šalamoun on ECHOPRIME. Weekly echo you you can subscribe already from 249 crowns per month here.