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Jack van Peer, Boekmerk 46/2014, Antwerpen, Belgium

From celebrated book illustrator to promising ex-libris designer: Oldrich Jelen

An ex-libris collector always takes pleasure in conquering rare, artistically refined or technically perfect creations. However, the discovery of a new promising artist with a clear ex-libris potential provides even more satisfaction. In the autumn of 2013 such a rare phenomenon crossed my path in Epreuve d 'Artiste, the exquisite Antwerp gallery run by Chris and Lucienne Verheyen. They asked me to make a speech at the opening of Laughing at graphic art allowed?, an exhibition of humorous prints. When I visited the gallery in order to prepare this speech, I was impressed by the work of the Prague artist Oldrich Jelen (1961). To my surprise, the artist and his charming wife were present at the opening, and I took the opportunity to get acquainted.

Although Epreuve d 'Artiste has a long tradition of cooperation with Czech and Slovak artists, it is hardly understandable that the artist was unknown to most of the visitors. The only possible explanation is the fact that Jelen is quite a modest artist and more concerned with his work than with promotion. In view of his wide and varied oeuvre though, Jelen can hardly be called a beginner. Both in Antwerp and in Bodio Lomnago I had an interesting conversation about his work with his wife Veronika, who patiently and dutifully translated my English questions into Czech.

Oldrich - his friends call him Olda - grew up in a rural town in Central Bohemia, in the shadow of a hill with a striking medieval castle. This geographical circumstance has remained an essential part of his imagery: romantic landscapes, picturesque hills and mysterious forests appear in many of his works.

Even as a child he had a passion for books and drawings. So it is only logical that initially he was trained to become a bookbinder, a profession in which he could combine his love of art and literature; a profession that has undoubtedly formed the basis of his conscientiousness, patience and attention to detail. During his education he was given private drawing and painting lessons, and to be able to afford those, he had to do all kinds of jobs.

At the age of twenty-three he left his home town and settled in Prague, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, first in the painting department, then in the drawing workshop. Also in Prague he had to do a few jobs to earn his living: he worked as an illustrator for several magazines and publishers. Initially, his assignments remained limited to some individual illustrations, but soon he obtained more extensive jobs and more creative freedom. Eventually he became so successful that he decided to leave the academy before finishing his education. His wanted artistic freedom and found the academic structures oppressive and confining. Jelen was hired by important Czech newspapers and magazines, but also by Playboy, Penthouse and Quo. Especially his close cooperation with KMIT, the journal of the Centre for Independent Journalism, was of great importance to him, since this journal unconditionally supported his illustration concepts. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, there were hardly any barriers left that stood in the way of his great talent.

In 1998 he signed a contract with the prestigious publishing house ALBATROSS. Two years in a row he was given a special award for his illustrations in novels by Jostein Gaarder and at the end of 2003 he had illustrated a few dozens of books. He also made his name abroad by illustrating the English edition of Bairbre McCarthy's The Keeper of the Crock of Gold. In 2009 this book was given to President Obama by the Irish Prime Minister.

Oldrich Jelen is a gifted artist who combines observations from his childhood with imagined situations. Often his illustrations seem to surpass the literary texts they illustrate: most of the time they are individual stories and as such lead independent lives. It would not surprise me that the books are purchased mainly for the eye-catching illustrations rather than for the original text (as might be the case for Belgian publications illustrated by Jan Bosschaert or Jan de Maesschalck).

Precisely because of Jelen’s great drawing skills, lithography is the perfect technique for him. He has decided not to do the printing himself though, but to rely on Petr Korbelar, a specialist he can trust blindly.

Indisputably Oldrich Jelen has become an important name in the modern Czech art world. This smiling optimist, more a listener than a talker, is modesty itself. Exactly his unpretentiousness makes him an outsider in an artistic universe that is increasingly characterized by opportunism and defined by marketing strategies that put perception on a higher level than content and quality. His optimism and clear sense of humour are often reflected in his work, even in prints with a rather morbid atmosphere, in which, for example, shadows seem to come alive, dark figures hide away under large hats or limbs start to lead a life of their own. Also his fairy-tale scenes frequently show this clear sense of humour, but it is more poignant in his social criticism, for example when he denounces alcohol abuse or reacts against pollution. Studying these prints, often caricatures of everyday life, it amazes me that Jelen has not started making cartoons yet.

Thanks to his friend Karel Scherzer (read the interview in Boekmerk 45), and to Rudolf Broulim, the Czech printing specialist living in Antwerp (who was interviewed in Boekmerk 33), Jelen’s graphic work was exhibited at the Antwerp gallery Epreuve d'Artiste. During the exhibition I talked to the artist, and we discussed the similarities between book illustrations and bookplates: both contain a visual story, a message or a description. The skill and the imagination that Olda Jelen shows in his illustrations, will certainly make him a cherished exlibris designer. Furthermore, he is used to working for commissioners and more than willing to start a dialogue with them. I was delighted when he agreed to design a bookplate for me and my partner Anita Thys, and glad to see that a series of orders from other Graphia members followed. In fact Olda was so enthusiastic about designing bookplates that he appeared at the ex-libris meeting in Bodio Lomnago last spring, a presence that resulted in quite a few new bookplate commissions.

For an association promoting the ex-libris and the artists making them, the discovery of a great talent is an encouraging event. At a time when the future of the bookplate seems to be threatened by the lack of interested artists, the appearance of Oldrich Jelen is no less than a relief!

Jack van Peer, Graphia vzw, president