Karel Novák. Modern Classic 2015

Article  /  Artists   History
Published: 02.03.2015
Alena Křížová
Edited by:
Handwerkskammer für München und Oberbayern
Edited at:
Edited on:
Vratislav Karel Novák. Piece: Mask, 1985. stainless steel, plexiglass. Photo by: Pavel Baňka. Vratislav Karel Novák
Piece: Mask, 1985
stainless steel, plexiglass
Photo by: Pavel Baňka
© By the author. Read Copyright.

Vratislav Karel Novák, Czech Republic - a master of kinetic scultures, objects & jewellery - honored as The Modern Classic of Schmuck 2015.
The long march of Karel Novák's life has come to an end (Dec. 12, 1942 – Feb. 12, 2014). During half a century of devoted activity, we had the opportunity to view his work both in interiors and exteriors, and enjoy its presentation in dozens of exhibitions and essays. This is not to say that we have entirely understood Novák's intellectual world and the traces it has left in his art and the thinking of his students. This uncertainty may worry us, but at the same time it is capable of spurring us on to a continuing concern with his legacy.
Vratislav Karel Novák enjoyed a wide-ranging education. The middle school he attended in Jablonec specialized in the manufacture of bijouterie; the metal class of Prof. Nušl at the College of Decorative Arts in Prague (now Academy of Art, Architecture and Design) included monumental sculpture, useful and decorative objects, and jewellery. Over the years. an equilibrium developed in Novák's oeuvre. Rather than adhering to the conventional categories governing works of art, his first urge was to express his ideas, no matter whether this ultimately involved creating a sculpture, an object or a piece of jewellery.
Many of his sculptures and objects in space emerged from commissions for particular sites, whether outdoors or in enclosed spaces. Other pieces, mobiles and cyklotes (wagons with two trailing wheels) were done independently. Every work, however, had two traits in common – variability and a kinetic element. This made him a spiritual father, a designer, constructor and creator. At the same time, Novák held a clearly defined idea of how his works were to be presented, the possibilities of using them, and ultimately of their effect on the viewer.

      Vratislav Karel Novák. Touching by Light 2, 1984, set mirror. Photo by Pavel Baňka

Novák's first jewellery emerged as early as 1973. Yet the need to express himself intensively in this medium did not develop until the turn of the 1970s to 80s, at the moment he arrived at a lucid conception of the configuration of pieces, their character, function and ways of wearing them.
According to Novák, the primary task of a piece of jewellery was not to adorn a woman or augment her beauty – not, in other words, to create traditional aesthetic values in the guise of current typologies. Encoded in his jewellery was the presence of a philosophical, mystical, magical or erotic context, transforming each piece into a non-verbal means of communication that expressed the relationship between author and wearer, the author's ideas and the ability of the wearer to accept and disseminate them.

Vratislav Karel Novák. Headband with Vertical Glass Shard, 1988. Steinless steel, steel sprimg, plexiglass.
Photo by Tono Stano

 Vratislav Karel Novák's jewellery of the 1970s and 80s is largely characterized by a constructivist tendency, combined with a movable element. The simple geometric forms of circle, oval, square or cube consist of sheet stainless steel, accompanied by nickel-plated wire, spiral springs, and brass bolts, and in exceptional cases by perforations or accents of color, in red or white lacquer. Gradually the pieces began to reflect minimalistic tendencies, to grow decreasingly corporeal and actual in shape, becoming well-nigh imaginary objects, as, for instance, a feather suspended from a woven steel wire.

Vratislav Karel Novák. Creature With Proboscis and Tipped Wings (model 1:20) 1988. Steel, igelit, 27x45x23 cm.
Photo by  Jiří Jiroutek

Vratislav Karel Novák.  Cube/Reassembling, Hommage a Naoki Yoshimoto, Mask, Eyes Shut, 1995.
Photograph, polystyrene, leather. Photo by Josef Honzík

The author forsook the real world and began to view the created work as a mental conception whose aim was not to take on actual, objective shape. He concerned himself with the play of light and shadow on the human figure, began to focus on wrapping the body with steel wire and on installations based on shards of glass, which gave the impression of symbols of violence, injury and victimization. These conceptions of a mystical, arcane moment were captured in photographs, in which the substance appears to be the human being rather than the jewellery.
In his final years, Novák allowed himself to be restricted neither by conventional notions of how a piece of jewellery should look nor by norms regarding its dimensions or wearability. Comparatively small wire cubes with kinetic elements, in particular, became imaginatively constructed objects, made to handle, play with, and observe their movement.

Vratislav Karel Novák.  Rock, ring, 1996. Steel, steinless steel, rubber, chicken egg shell.
Photo by Bohumil Jakoubě

A free, unbiased perception of jewellery was something Novák also instilled in his students. The range of his studio activities -from making sculptures through practical and decorative objects, constructivist, minimalist, post-modern and body jewellery, down to conceptual projects- became a unique attribute of his teaching activity at the Prague Academy of Art, Architecture and Design, and later at the Western Bohemian University in Pilsen. Through his example, Novák led his students to adopt a “constructive skepticism” based on creative responsibility.

About the author

PhDr. Alena Křížová is an art historian specialized in jewellery and has written extensively on the work of Vratislav Karel Novák. Křížová is author of the book Metamorphoses of Czech Jewellery at the End of the 20th Century, published by house Academia, Czech Republic. Alena Křížová is currently a professor at the Masaryk University, Faculty of Arts in Brno.  

Vratislav Karel Novák. Piece: Forehead Windmill (Self Portrait), 2004. Stainless  steel, pigeon feather. Vratislav Karel Novák
Piece: Forehead Windmill (Self Portrait), 2004
Stainless steel, pigeon feather
© By the author. Read Copyright.