Czech artist's exhibition moves from jail to banks

CHICAGO (Reuters Life!) - Czech artist Oldrich Kulhanek’s career has taken some bizarre twists, from time in a Communist jail to designing banknotes for the new Czech Republic which are part of a new U.S. exhibition of his work.

Works by Czech artist Oldrich Kulhanek are on display at the John David Mooney Foundation in Chicago with the 67-year-old artist photographed here by Reuters correspondent Nick Carey in the foundation's International Currents Gallery on July 10. REUTERS/Handout

The gifted draughtsman and printmaker is one of the most prominent contemporary artists from the Czech Republic with his career dating back to the 1960s and years when his artistic expression landed him in jail and banned from exhibiting.

“It’s been an interesting journey, from being a criminal to a bit of fame,” said Kulhanek, 67, with a gentle laugh while touring his exhibition at the John David Mooney Foundation.

The exhibition includes the first display of his prints for the current Czech banknotes he designed in the early 1990s, large lithographs of nude figures, and a series of works devoted to Czech-born writer Franz Kafka who wrote about a nightmarish world of isolated and troubled individuals.

The exhibition is one of the attractions in “Prague Days in Chicago,” a series of events this summer to mark Chicago and the Czech capital’s pairing up as sister cities back in 1990.

Some of the works mark what Kulhanek calls the “evil times” in his and his country’s past -- from Czechoslovakia’s years as a Community state, to the 1993 division of the country into the Czech and Slovak republics.

As an artist, he said you needed humor, preferably black, to survive.

In 1971 Kulhanek was arrested by the secret police for disgracing representatives of the communist countries, in particular his images of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, and spent a month in jail and was subsequently interrogated every two weeks for two years. Exhibitions of his works were banned.

“I have always had an affinity for Kafka because so many of my own experiences with the old (Communist) regime were Kafkaesque,” said Kulhanek who lives and works in Prague.

He recounted how his wife joked in a letter to him during his ordeal that he would not be able to see Hieronymous Bosch -- meaning the works of the 15th century Dutch artist -- while in jail.

“The police wanted to know who this Bosch was, where he lived and how to contact him,” Kulhanek said.

“I tried to explain Bosch had been dead for more than 400 years, but they wouldn’t listen. It’s funny now, but it was deadly serious then.”

His Kafka drawings and others devoted to that period of his life contain written excerpts from his interrogations and many of his drawings focus on the human body.

But some pictures reflect what Kulhanek calls his “bizarre sense of humor” such as “Symmetry of Obesity” featuring two identical fat men.

“My drawings are not all focused on depressing subjects. I like to have a laugh whenever possible,” Kulhanek said.

The exhibition "Oldrich Kulhanek - drawings and prints" runs to July 31 at the International Currents Gallery of the John David Mooney Foundation at 114 West Kinzie Street, Chicago. The gallery is open Tuesday to Thursday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., or by appointment. Tel. 312 822 0483,