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F r a n t i š e k J a n u l a The Czech artist from Paris

The children playing hide-and-seek do not have the slightest idea that since 1974 the last floor in their house in ALLÉE DES LILAS in Anbervilliers has been occupied by an artist named Janula, his wife and four cats. They don't even know who the man with a cigarette, whom they meet every morning on the way to school, is. And they don't have a clue that he goes to his studio, the attic above the not very distant Portuguese shop, hired from the owner along with two cellar rooms. This is the place where he works and stores his paintings and sculptures. Unobtrusiveness and simplicity. This is the way to go. Janula's idea of comfort is exclusively and definitely spiritual. In 1967 he arrived in Paris with week's visa in order to visit the Picasso retrospective exhibition - and some time later, in 1968, he stayed in France. At the beginning, he would sleep under the bridge or in cheap hotels. Later, he stayed in servant's rooms, lived on occasional jobs, and painted watercolours on his knees. "At that time Paris was very kind and caring," the artist recalls. "I used to sketch markets in Les Halles and the prostitutes in the Rue Saint-Denis." A hard life? That was nothing new. He had already lived that way back in Prague. He has never been a communist, hence he had no support - despite the early success of his figurative, expressive paintings among artists and intellectuals. At that time, in addition to the exhibitions, his displays were presented in the Na Zábradlí Theatre on the invitation of Václav Havel, then a promising young playwright. To be able to create on his own, Janula worked in a mine for several months in the year. In 1968, frustrated by the totalitarian regime introduced by the government under the pressure of Moscow, Janula, supported by the cultural counsellor at the French Embassy in Prague, left his mother country. Before his departure, he rolled up several canvases to take away - but most of his sketches and paintings ended up in the oven, the former chocolate factory and his studio. "I preferred to destroy them myself rather than leave them to the secret police!" In Paris, he was awarded a Beaux-Arts scholarship in the studio headed by Professor Chapelain Midy. Having been shaped by the University of Arts and Industry in Prague, Janula made such a good impression on the experienced master that he recommended skipping the lessons, as he could not teach Janula anything new. It is true that Janula, aged 14, perfectly painted and decorated vases in the school of glassmaking. That was in 1946. It was the same year he told his mother (a seamstress), and his father (a gardener) that he would be an artist - and a free artist. No cages! No discipline! "Paris...it was terrible loneliness. I had thought that I would be living in a group of painters in Montmartre or Montparnasse - as depicted in the books about Impressionist and Cubist artists. In fact, the French language isn't easy at all, and artists are individualists. Nevertheless - I was there. I was in the correct place, I was where life was real and bustling as it used to be in Prague in the Gothic and Baroque times." Only one of the French artists, Gillet, opened the door of his studio to Janula to let him produce his prints. The Czech community in Paris was rather small. Only one of the Czechs, the old painter Šíma, was responsive and cordial. He came to the opening of Janula's first exhibition in the Françoise Besnard Gallery. You just have to take care of yourself, on your own. "At that time, many artists came to Paris from eastern countries. Not many of them were good enough, like František or Theimer. The others became Sunday painters or left to seek an American, Swiss or Australian dream... It was still better than being trapped in Czechoslovakia, from which catastrophic news would arrive again and again. Some of the intellectuals - if they didn't end up homeless or alcoholics - committed suicide or suffered in jail. The border was closed tight again and the young people who tried to escape were found caught under the train." Janula insists, "It was the hard work that kept me from losing my head. Painting let me get involved in my imaginary space."

Now, he develops symbolic works, rhapsodizing, comprising agravic elements that resemble ancient halos, primordial cores flooded with streams of escapes and ascents. Slavic onirisme, the heritage of the refined geometry produced by Kupka and Kubišta? Janula also creates collages with female faces and figures partially hidden in transparent paint. Janula, as a young man, showed his works to Paul Facchetti, the famous gallerist, who prepared a one-man exhibition for him in 1973. Then José Pierre, surrealistic writer and art critic, wrote text in the catalogue to celebrate the potential of the artist to invent - with a secret, hidden, great, and longing fantasy, to create a picture that had never been seen, yet more impressive than anything you could ever catch sight of. Facchetti wasn't afraid of anything. When he first presented the master artists from New York in France, in particular Montherwello and Pollock, he didn't sell a thing. Janula's one-man exhibitions followed one after another - to date, there have been more than a hundred. The pieces are still sold for relatively low prices. In 1980, Janula presented his work in the ABCD Gallery together with Hartung, Soulages, Vieira da Silva and former members of the COBRA Movement. His pieces are increasingly airy, vibrating with soaring light. He works at a stretch - with momentum and enthusiasm on various series of more than 20 paintings. Large formats are created, sometimes painted on moquette, windows, panels or screens, happily grouped compositions, transparent and luminous objects. "I'm always surprised that people are able to buy these things. I create them to amuse them." Since 2000 the exhibitions have held in the Czech Republic as well. After the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the subsequent Velvet Revolution, when the country was liberated from Soviet pressure, the Czechs re-discovered Janula - by the way, through TV films produced in Aubervilliers and Paris as well. The Czech art critics and the gallerists monitor the development of Janula's creation, as do the publishers. Not long ago, Janula's poems were published. Some are recited in literary cafés. "I've always written. About painting, about life. I'm no writer but I have always needed to write." Despitethis, Janula keeps a level head. "I've always known that it takes at least 40 years of hard work before an artist really starts to exist."

Françoise Monnin

Paris, 19 December 2008

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