It is difficult for generalisations to be completely objective and therefore they are also rarely wise. Perhaps their only priority is that they represent an attempt to collect and summarise facts seen as a whole from a subjective view-point and they are therefore of value as an overall subjective opinion which can be a good starting-point for the exchange of standpoints and polemic correction. Aware of this risk of generalisation, I shall permit myself to formulate my present, quite personal feeling concerning the mutual relationship of art historians and restorers. This feeling is the result and the reflection of the practice and experience of 40 years of gallery activity. We entered this practice when the more or less harmonious balance of these two components was nearing its end. When the foundation influence of the close and fruitful cooperation of V. Kramář and B. Slánský was still in living memory and, so to speak, still accessible, and the so-called Czech School of Restoration constituted institutionally and personally Slánský´s first pupils. In the following four decades the focal point of the »decisive vote« in the gallery empire practically shifted gradually and then increasingly strongly to the side of the restorers. This was caused on the one hand by the striking development of specific technical and technological knowledge, methods of investigation and activity which shifted the field of restoration beyond the boundary across which art historians with only a classical academic education could no longer follow. A part was probably played also by the fact that in a period which ideologised, twisted and falsified the interpretation of the history of art to the same extent as all the other intellectual sciences, the activity of restorers, due to its natural-science, chemical and physical inaccessibility, remained more or less untouched. And finally it appears that in the present – there are appearing at least signs of formerly unwonted polemic tones – the restorers´hegemony has begun to be judged by art history with somewhat greater scepticism and with greater courage to express general and partial doubts.

At this moment it would be useful to mention a few small points. The personality of Vincenc Kramář, who was the true founder and creator of the institutional prerequisites for systematic restorers' activity realised at a scientific level comparable to the rest of Europe, has already been mentioned and is today also generally recognised. Some of his followers in the function of gallery directors or scientific representatives managed in the forties and fifties to maintain the absolutely necessary interest, the required amount of knowledge and thus also keep step with the theory and practice of restoration work. Examples of such persons were J. Cibulka,
J. Pěšina and V. Novotný.

In the gallery of university teachers of my generation there was, however, at the beginning of the fifties still one personality, a personality in the full and profound sense of the word, who should be far better known in this connection and especially recognised. This personality is Vojtěch Volavka. The curriculum vitae of Volavka, who lived from 1899 to 1985, is in many aspects an example of the tragic fate of a Czech scientist and intellectual, an intellectual in the pure sense of the word. In his life is the outstanding and amazing entry and flight of one of the most gifted pupils of V. Birnbaum at Prague University and there is here too his lifelong and vain struggle for appropriate recognition in Czech university or gallery structures and at a certain time also in the Slovak academic community. There is here a year in a concentration camp during the war and there is here for us an immense loss in the form of many years and the close of his life in political emigration in the period after the occupation. Volavka is a classical example of the existence of that constantly repeated domestic dream of »Czech world standard« and also of the fact that in this country it is unpardonable to achieve this standard.

The history of Volavka's unique pioneering work in the field of the brushwork of painters and sculptors is, in its way, a scientific analogy of the »fate of talent in the Czech Lands«. It was once said, quite rightly, (by B. Mráz) that Volavka »...was one of the few Czech art historians who contributed to the wide spreading of the methods of his scientific discipline...«

After his doctorate (1924), Volavka worked as a specialist of the Modern Gallery and, apart from many other texts, one of the results of his daily practice as a curator of the gallery was the article The Painter´s Handwriting in Modern French Painting (1934). As an external collaborator of the Scientific Laboratory in the Louvre (1936-37) he extended his research intentions and scope to the entire sphere of painting and the result was the basic and important publication Painting and the Painter´s Handwriting (1939).

 

The foreign-language editions of his works on the brushwork of painters won the author wide international scientific recognition. His lectures on the technology of painting and sculpture had a profound influence on his university students at home in the first half of the fifties and the same applied to subsequent publications on the brushwork of sculptors and the publications How a Statue Comes into Being and About a Statue. At the end of 1968 he again returned to the Louvre laboratories and later continued his research work in emigration in the USA. What was quitted on the international forum of specialists with recognition and admiration was kept quiet at home for years and removed from libraries; Volavka's project for the establishment of a laboratory for the technology of both art fields was always rejected anew.

It must, of course, be stated expressly that – however penetrating and technically expertly grounded – Volavka´s articles and texts are not a special-purpose auxiliary discipline or even some kind of restorer's propedeutica. In Volavka's concept, complete, developed over decades and well-thought-out, it is a matter of a collective theory of the material base of a work of art. This is a purely historically and methodically originally formulated system of art history knowledge sui generis.

On this path there were many dangers and noone was more aware of them than the author himself, an extremely severe judge of methodical purity, which used to be the axiom of Birnbaum´s seminars. In one place in his pioneering work on painters´brushwork he characterizes the paste on Rembrandťs composition of David and Saul as being as scrambled as the king's heart. And in an explanatory note we can read the author´s credo »... We are aware that here in our conclusions we are moving on territory which is difficult to check and that we are working with concepts difficult to impart scientifically. The difficulties of our work and also their limits are, in the end, mapped out by the possibilities of rationally perceiving and explaining phenomena which do not originate in a rational field. We try to penetrate the most delicate folds of a work of art...«. The reading and study of Volavka's works on the brushwork of painters and sculptors (and also all his other publications) are still valid, interesting and extremely enriching in all their intentions, perception and methodical processing of material, in the immense amount of observations and the penetration of observation. And this applies both to art historians and equally to restorers.

To those of his pupils who had the good fortune to know V. Volavka personally and more intimately this always recalls anew his unforgettable activity as a teacher. Allow me a personal mention in conclusion of how, on the litde mini-excursions within the range of his ancient car, he would explain, perhaps while gazing at the confluence of the Elbe and the Vltava, the traits and character of Mánes´s brushwork on his Elbe motifs. For how many art historians, restorers, painters and others were his interpretations of the painting of Rembrandt and Van Gogh on the famous trip to Holland in 1956 a vision and a great experience.

Perhaps these side notes will recall the still unpaid debt of Czech art history and Czech culture to this scholar and teacher, who died in emigration on 16th September 1985 in Toronto, Canada.

  Selected bibliography
Malířský rukopis ve francouzském obraze nové doby, Praha 1934
Malba a malířský rukopis, Praha 1939
Josef Navrátil, Praha 1940
Karel Purkyně, Praha 1942
Malířství 19. století, Praha 1941
Sochařství 19. století, Praha 1942
Josef Václav Myslbek, Praha 1942
Jak vzniká socha, Praha 1956
O soše
Úvod do historie, technologie a teorie sochařství, Praha 1959
O moderním umění. Selected papers, ed. Václav Richter and Bohumil Mráz, Praha 1961
Pouť Prahou, Praha 1967
České malířství a sochařství 19. století, Praha 1968

  author
Ladislav Kesner Snr., AHVT A 045