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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Josef Capek

Prostitute, 1917, Josef Capek,
For those with way too much time on their hands, it's interesting to investigate how new words come into our language. Since BlogSpot is a Google enterprise, let's just take that word as an example. It was suggested by the nephew of Columbia University mathematics professor, Edward Kasner, in the late 1930s. He had been challenged to devise a name for a very large number, (ten to the hundredth power). As a whim, he asked his nine-year-old nephew, to suggest a word. The youth was obviously a reader of the comics page, as he told Kasner to use "Google" (as in "Barney Google") at a time when the comic strip was at a peak of popularity. Kasner changed it slightly and in 1940 he introduced the words "googol" and "googolplex" in a new book he was writing. This is the term that Larry Page and Sergey Brin had in mind when they named their company in 1998. However, they inadvertently misspelled "googol" as "google," bringing it in a full circle back to its comic strip origin. Interesting, but what has all that to do with art?

Karel (left), and Josef Capek
Josef Capek was a Czech painter born in 1887. His younger brother, Karel, was a writer of plays, an essayist, a publisher, a literary reviewer, photographer, and art critic. He was, in fact, a somewhat better writer than his brother was a painter. Karel Capek is best known for his science fiction of the 1920s and 30s. He and his brother often collaborated on literary efforts. Despite being a painter of some repute in various Expressionist and Cubist styles, Josef Capek is best remembered for the fact that he invented the word "robot." Karel Capek is best remembered as the author of the play R.U.R. (short for Rossum's Universal Robots), thus one might expect that he'd actually invented the word. In fact, he merely ushered it into existence.
The more famous of the Capek brothers.
The brothers explain that the idea for a play came to author, Karel Capek, in a single, unguarded moment. And, while it was still warm, he rushed immediately to his painting brother, Josef, who was standing before an easel working on a canvas. "Listen, Josef," the author began, "I think I have an idea for a play."
"What kind?" the painter mumbled holding a brush in his mouth. The author told him as briefly as he could. "Then write it," Josef replied, without taking the brush from his mouth or halting work on the painting.
"But," the author said, "I don't know what to call these artificial workers. I could call them "Labori," but that strikes me as a bit bookish."
"Then call them robots," the painter muttered, despite the brush still in mouth, then went on painting. (The Czech noun "robota" means "labor".)
One can almost imagine the younger brother's shrugging acceptance, "Sounds good to me." In any case, that seems to be how the word "robot" was born.

Josef Capek--playwright, graphic artist, illustrator, set designer, novelist, writer of children’s books and non-fiction tomes,
journalist, and art critic.
Josef Čapek (1887-1945) was born in Hronov, Bohemia (Austria-Hungary then, but now the Czech Republic). He was three years older than his brother Karel, who was to become one of the most influential Czech writers of the 20th century. Josef Čapek at first studied weaving at a craft school, but soon decided that his talents for painting and designing called for more intensive training. For the next six years he studied decorative painting at the School of Applied Arts in Prague. Around 1910 Josef Capek set up shop in Paris. He stayed in Paris, along with his brother for about a year while he studying at the Académie Colarossi. Both brothers met and became friends with the poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, who was one of the strongest proponents of all aspects of modern art at the time, including Cubism. Karel Čapek worked translating Apollinaire's poetry into Czech. Once the Capek brothers' return to Bohemia, Josef Čapek continued to paint more or less in a Cubist style, though he gradually modified it with some elements of Expressionism and Symbolism.
The Insect Play costumes by Chelsea Kerl​
Though never quite so well known as his brother, Josef Capek was not only active as a painter, but was also successful as a playwright, graphic artist, illustrator, set designer, novelist, writer of children’s books and non-fiction tomes, journalist, and art critic. Several of Josef Capek's works, such as The Insect Play (above), were written in collaboration with Karel. Another area of activity in Capek's career was children's' books, for which he wrote the stories and drew illustrations. From about the late 1920s, Josef Čapek was heavily influenced by Bohemian folk art, resulting in a series of paintings, lithographs and pastels inspired by country life and children's plays.
One of Capek's last paintings (1939)--a dire vision of things to come.
When Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Nazis in March of 1939, Josef Čapek, who was very well known for his anti-Hitler stance, was immediately arrested. (His brother was already dead by this time.) Josef was sent to several different concentration camps (Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen). He nearly survived to see the end of the war; but in April, 1945, he died, apparently of pneumonia, only a few short days before the Allied Armies freed the prisoners of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.

The R.U.R. robot.
They sold for $150 each in the play.


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