Remembering Jiří Kolář’s beautiful mess.

At the time of his death last year, Jiří Kolář had acquired a reputation as one of the more inventive 20th-century Czech artists. He was a member of Group 42 and the first Czech Group of Experimental Poetry, and he helped develop the collage techniques of froissage and confrontage.

As writing poems and crumpling up pieces of paper were considered subversive activities under the communist regime, Kolář was continuously harassed and jailed by the authorities. After he signed Charter 77, life became unbearable in his native country. The artist emigrated to France, where he continued to work and was finally able to attain some international renown.

The exhibit of Kolář’s work currently at the French Institute’s modest gallery couldn’t possibly represent the entirety of his oeuvre. Instead, the curators have chosen to focus on three random strains of Kolář’s long career: confrontages from the early ‘50s, a couple of rollages from the early ‘60s, and a series of froissages probably dating from 1977. (Oddly enough, none of the work in the current exhibit dates from Kolář’s years in France.)

Froissage is a method developed by Kolář’s friend Ladislav Novák in which the lines made by crumpling up a piece of paper are used to create a drawing. The clear highlight of the exhibit, Kolář’s froissages utilize previously existing works, in this case 17th-century French drawings, to form new, abstract pictures. The results occasionally resemble early Cubist efforts to capture several different movements within a single image. Entire cities crumble into themselves; pieces of ornate buildings collide into one another and coalesce into chaotic anti-structures; noblemen are transformed into grotesque, retarded machines.

Like most great artists of the past century, Kolář was both an anarchist and a reactionary. In order to “make it new,” the artist must systematically reject every aesthetic tendency that’s come before; the artist can either accomplish this task via exclusion or destruction. Witnessing first-hand the steady self-destruction of European civilization throughout his life, it seems only natural that Kolář would go the latter route – picking through the debris and disfiguring all that he came across, granting his objects a novel significance that certainly would’ve baffled their original creators.

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