Jan Matulka Abstract Painting - Surrealist Arrangement
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Jan Matulka
Surrealist Arrangement

circa 1934


Presented in a custom frame, outer dimensions measure 27 ¾ x 31 ¾ x 1 ½ inches. Image size is 19 ¾ x 24 ¼ inches. Provenance: Estate of Jan Matulka Exhibited: Avampato Discovery Museum, Jan 14 - March 26, 2006 Georgia Museum of Art, Aug. 27 - Nov. 27, 2005 Lowe Art Museum, June 18 - July 24, 2005 Greenville County Museum of Art, March 1 - May 1, 2005 Montclair Art Museum, Sept. 19, 2004 - Jan. 16, 2005 By maintaining his Czech birthright and European ties, Jan Matulka played a distinctive role in the development of American modernism. Participating in significant artistic circles in this country and France, he was an enthusiastic emissary of Cubism and Surrealism to both colleagues and students. His independent spirit worked against a successful art career, and personal misfortune and deafness increasingly cut him off from the emerging avant-garde scene. While Matulka experienced a renewed interest in his work before his death, his legacy as an inexhaustible creative force is only now appreciated. Born on a dairy farm in South Bohemia in 1890, Matulka first pursued his artistic ambitions in Prague, an advanced cultural center that quickly embraced Cubist art and architecture. The intellectual vanguard supported a national revival, which included an interest in folk tales and traditions. For the young Czech artist, the simplified yet dynamic forms of Cubism and folk arts would become a liberating vocabulary, one he could apply to the sturdy underpinnings of traditional education. Throughout the many turns of his artwork, Matulka always brought a firm sense of design and command of drawing to his imaginative musings. Arriving in the Bronx with his family in 1907, he began studies the following year at the conservative National Academy of Design, winning the $1500 Joseph Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship upon graduation. Because of the war, his artistic pilgrimage to Picasso’s Spain was stymied. So he traveled to those areas of the US that were settled by the Spanish, such as Florida, Arizona and New Mexico. While in the Southwest, he found a contemporary equivalent of the “primitive” in pueblo, living for a time with the Hopi. Along with naturalistic watercolors, his work stemming from this period is considered among the first modernist interpretations of Southwestern Indian customs. Some of these works were finished from sketches upon his return to New York, where he started to fully express the formalist experimentation of Cubism. In the summer of 1920, Matulka exhibited abstract paintings at Katherine Dreier’s Societe Anonyme along with Patrick Bruce, James Daugherty and Jay Van Everen. Through her largesse, he would have a one-man show in 1926 at the Art Center, 65 East 56th Street, but his thoughtless behavior led to her losing interest in his fortunes. Also upon his return to New York, he married Lida Jirouskova, a librarian whose literary connections led to illustration projects for Matulka. Studying lithography at the Art Students League in the mid-twenties solidified his understanding of graphic principles, and about half of his prints date from between 1925 and 1928. Working in black and white, Matulka developed an understanding of compositions based in shifting relationships of tonality – of contrast of dimension and design. This balance of the linear and the roughhewn characterize even the most colorful of his paintings. Matulka and his wife traveled to Paris in late 1919 or early 1920, and he established a studio in Paris that he kept until 1934. Meeting with the likes of Gertrude Stein, he stayed current with the tastes of the aesthetic elite, such as Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe. Many of his works from this time are reminiscent of Picasso’s mix of neo-classical monumental nudes, harlequins, and late Cubist landscapes. Like Picasso, who drew sustenance from his native Spain, Matulka also returned to Czechoslovakia to visit the old family farm and the village of Turi Pole. Back in the States, the change from city to country –- typical of the artistic “bohemia” -- was enacted in his trips from New York to vacation spots such as Gloucester, Provincetown, Lake George, Westport and other New England vacation locales, and this wandering is reflected in the difference between precisionist cityscapes and sensually vibrant coastal scenes. Both modes of working inspired more abstracted works similar to those of his friends John Graham, Arshille Gorky, and Stuart Davis. Matulka taught at the Art Students League (1924-1925, 1929-1932), where he brought an animated awareness of contemporary European art movements to a generation of younger artists such as Dorothy Dehner, George McNeil, Irene Rice Pereira and, most notably, David Smith. Although the school was run by artists, many of them Social Realists, Matulka found himself out of step with his colleagues. The loss of this teaching job was the beginning of his despondency, which was intensified by his sister’s suicide in 1936. While his de Chirico-like canvases and biomorphic abstractions share in the Surrealist pursuit of the 1930s, Matulka’s horizons began to diminish while his peers would herald the beginning of Abstract Expressionism. One of his last public hurrahs was exhibiting with the American Abstract Artists in 1940. Matulka’s biggest opportunity during the 30s was employment with the WPA for a mural in the Williamsburg Housing Project in Brooklyn, but unfortunately this work is now lost. In 1934, he gave up his Paris studio to Josef Sima, who took Matulka’s works to Fontainebleau where they were all lost in WWII. In the last decades of his life, Matulka resorted to reusing canvases. So what we are left with is but a fraction of a highly prolific, protean career. With a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1979, Matulka’s assumed his place in American art history, and more recent exhibitions of his work re-introduced what the scholar Henry Adams has deemed “one of the most masterful draftsmen who ever worked in the United States.” Expedited and International Shipping is available; please contact us for an estimate.


  • Movement & Style
  • Condition
  • Dimensions

    H 27.75 in. x W 31.75 in. x D 1.5 in.

    H 70.49 cm x W 80.65 cm x D 3.81 cm

  • Gallery location
    Denver, CO
  • Reference number
  • Seller reference number
    DCG 13684

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