Hlinsko – Betlém is a prime painting from Slavíček’s best period, as noted by his friend Miloš Jiránek: “It was only over the course of many years, as I learned to appreciate the artist, that I also began to discover Slavíček – the man; our meetings, walks and trips, though never occurring with any regularity, instilled in me beautiful memories, including that of our visit to Kameničky, during his best period.”
The composition focuses on several cottages in the village of Betlém near Hlinsko (at present an open-air folk architecture museum), which the artist captured exactly in accordance with his own intentions, as reflected on several times in letters to his friends. “I witnessed the poor regions outside Hlinsko. Everything is somehow stunted, huddled, poor, strikingly poor. And the sky suspended above, as if to reconcile the poverty and the misery and poverty of the weavers in those tiny houses. I saw the people themselves plough the hard, stony soil without the help of draught animals. These sights truly fill one’s heart with sorrow.” (Exceprt from a letter to K. B. Mádl).
Slavíček’s visit to the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands was inspired by Západ (1899), a novel by his friend Karel Václav Rais, who arranged an autumn stay in Kameničky for him in April 1903. Slavíček went on to intermittently live in Kameničky with his family, using the village as a base for exploring the Highlands in search of new themes. He was also frequently visited by friends there (in addition to the above-mentioned K. V. Rais also by e.g. J. Herben, H. Masaryk, M. Jiránek, O. Nejedlý and J. Goll. The region clearly fascinated the artist, and especially the interrelationship between the landscape and the hard life of the local folk. His paintings comprise something of a quest in search of the roots of an authentic, untarnished culture, i.e. a tendency which may be observed e.g. in the culture of ruralism. As witnessed by the artist’s friends, the Kameničky period (1903–1905) was his happiest; coincidentally, it also bore fruit, producing his most famous painting, entitled Our Kameničky.
Following his death, Antonín Slavíček attracted an unexpected admirer: the poet and writer Vítězslav Nezval even dedicated an extensive monograph about the artist (published in 1955) to Jan Slavíček, the painter’s son. When compiling the monograph, Nezval abstained from any ideological overtones, producing a volume which constitutes the very first scholarly synthesis of Slavíček’s oeuvre. It includes a number of colour plates, featuring, among others, a rendering of Hlinsko – Betlém. At a time when most books were printed without costly colour plates, the inclusion of full-colour reproductions highlights the importance ascribed to the work by the poet. In Nezval’s monograph, the painting is dated to around 1903, which indicates that it is likely one of the compositions created during the artist’s first stay in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nezval also made use of the possibility to include a reproduction of a work he owned, and which – some years before – he had authenticated by Slavíček’s daughter and art historian Anna Masaryková and the painter Maxmilián Švabinský: “I confirm the authenticity of the original by Ant. Slavíček, A. Masaryková-Slavíčková 1941” and “Ant. Slavíček, authentic, very beautiful, in very good condition. 31. May 51 M. Švabinský”. Nezval himself described Slavíček’s intimate formats as “small masterpieces”.
A similar work of analogous size, a painting entitled From Hlinsko (1903) was obtained from the artist in 1910 e.g. by Slavíček’s most important collector August Švagrovský (current provenance: Gallery of Modern Art in Roudnice nad Labem, O 37). In addition to their own inherent charm, the significance of such compositions lies in their anticipation of Slavíček’s approach to paintings of old Prague, in which the author captured the disappearing city in the coming years.
Antonín Slavíček was born on 16 May 1870 in Prague. In 1887 he was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague where he began to study landscape painting with Julius Mařák. In the late 1880s he considered pursuing priesthood, which led him to briefly become a monk at the Benedictine monastery in Rajhrad, but returned to the Academy in 1889. In 1892 he became a member of Umělecká beseda, a society of Czech artists, and participated in its activities until 1897. However, in the following year, he was already exhibiting under the auspices of the Mánes Union of Fine Arts. After the death of Julius Mařák, Slavíček spent some time in his mentor’s position, expecting to be appointed professor in his stead, which, much to his chagrin, never happened. He perceived his failure to accomplish this as a lifelong injustice, as did those members of the younger generation who considered Slavíček to be their leader. For a long time, the issue continued to polarise the artistic community while also leading to frequent disputes. In 1900, Slavíček rented a studio in the Old Town and started to produce paintings featuring Prague motifs. In 1903 he began to paint in Kameničky, a location which would become a recurring theme in his work. In 1909, he suffered a stroke while bathing in a river. The right side of his body became paralysed as a result. While he did attempt to paint using his left hand for a short time, he ultimately decided to resolve the hopeless situation for good and committed suicide the very next year.
Antonín Slavíček, National Gallery in Prague (Prague Castle Riding School), 1961
Antonín Slavíček – Kameničky, Karlovy Vary Art Gallery, 2014
Antonín Slavíček – Kameničky, East Bohemian Gallery in Pardubice, 2014
Vítězslav Nezval, Antonín Slavíček, Prague 1955 (fig. VI, in colour).
Collection of Vítězslav Nezval (subsequently in possession of Františka Nezvalová).