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Material for the whole life

Václav Kautman (1922 – 1981)

by Ľubica Hustá

Václav Kautman’s creations are internally connected to wood. He devoted his whole life to this material and rarely used any other material. If we were to define his work, probably the most pertinent word would be accord – a sensitive connection of the natural features of the living material with his own creativity, understanding of shape and artistic feeling. The result was not bombastic or designer objects, but rather a number of small utilitarian objects and later his own topic – indoor sculptures of animals, fish, birds and female torsos. Even in the small format, these were able to exceptionally and inventively extract the shape observed from nature.

He was born in Brno in 1922, the second most important centre of progressive opinions on architecture, design and art after Prague. Brno is one of the main centres of Czech functionalistic architecture, and at the same time questions on the new domestic culture emerging from the real needs of modern man and questions on the relationship between art design and industrial production were being solved here with the same intensity. This environment surely also influenced the adolescent Kautman.

He studied at the Secondary School of Artistic Craft where Josef Vydra, a recognized pedagogue and propagator of new opinions on design and utilitarian art as well as specialist on folk art, worked from 1939.

He specialized in art carving under the leadership of the master wood carver Heřman Kotrba. Then he studied in Prague at UMPRUM in the sculpting studio of Karel Dvořák (student of Myslbek and Štursa).

After leaving school, he came to Bratislava and started as an artist specialising in wood processing in Ústredie ľudovej umeleckej výroby (ÚĽUV). From the very beginning, Václav Kautman maintained direct and intensive contact with folk producers. He gradually acquired all the techniques for wood processing by hand, and he uses them in new shape contexts. He belonged to that generation of artists who most influenced the artistic direction of ÚĽUV’s production at that time. His works are examples of a master connection of tradition and period requests for a modern shape for utilitarian object. One example are his shades for night lamps, where he used the technology of splitting wooden splints.

A typical feature of Kautman’s work is the natural shape reduction adapted to the object’s function and an immense feeling for the material. From 1954 he was ÚĽUV’s main artist. From 1951 he was an active member of the Section of Utilitarian Art and Industrial Art, a branch of the Slovak Association of Artists.

Along with small utilitarian objects, he started to create his collection of birds. Even though these are only small figures intended for interior use, his ability to connect sculpture and designer senses is probably expressed here most intensively. This theme was gradually getting large, and Kautman began to investigate the various possibilities of giving form to individual bird species in wood. His other main theme is fish. This theme is also repeated in various versions and various surface finishes and technologies, either as solitaires, hanging objects or interior sculptures. It was a new era in his creation.

From 1954, Kautman started to work as a specialist assistant at the University of Fine Arts (VŠVU). In 1961 he left ÚĽUV to become a pedagogue. Although he departed from the design of utilitarian objects in his creations, he started to devote his time more intensively to free creation. The main topic is figural sculpture inspired by nature and the female body, and the main material is still wood. In 1966 he founded a department at VŠVU for shaping industrial products, which later became the design department.

Kautman’s work was honoured at many foreign exhibitions on nearly all of the world’s continents. He was creative till the end of his life. Jozef Kotík perhaps best characterized his work as that which “cultivates our senses”.




Further articles in the magazine Craft, Art, Design 02/2001:


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