Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Josef Čapek - The Robot Inventor

 Josef Capek, Mr. Myself, 1920

Josef Čapek (1887-1945) was born in Hronov, Bohemia (Austria-Hungary, now Czech Republic). He was three years older than his brother Karel Čapek (1890-1938), who was to become one of the most influential Czech writers of the 20th century. Josef Čapek at first studied weaving (1901–3) at a craft school in Vrchlabí, but soon it became obvious that his talents for painting and designing called for more intensive training. For the next 6 years he studied decorative painting at the School of Applied Arts in Prague. 

 Josef Čapek, Prostitute, 1917

Like František Kupka and some other modernist Czech artists, Josef Čapek found himself in the right place at the right time - the place being Paris and the time the year 1910. He stayed in Paris together with his brother for about twelve months, while he studied at the Académie Colarossi. Both brothers at that time became friends with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who through his essays was one of the strongest driving forces behind several streams of modern art, including Cubism. Karel Čapek later became the Czech translator of Apollinaire's poetry. After the brothers' return to Bohemia, for some time Josef Čapek continued to paint essentially in the Cubist style, while gradually modifying Cubism with some elements of Expressionism and Symbolism.

 Josef Čapek, c. 1935

As talented as his brother Karel, though perhaps never quite so well known, Josef Čapek was not only active as a painter, but he was also successful as playwright, graphic artist, illustrator, scenic designer, novelist, writer of children’s books, non-fiction writer, journalist and art critic. Several of his works - notably The Insect Play - were written in collaboration with Karel, who also credits him with inventing the word robot, which made Karel Čapek instantly famous, after he wrote the stage play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). In a humorous little article, Karel Čapek told the story of how the word Robot (the czech noun "robota" meaning "labor") was born:

The author of the play R.U.R. did not, in fact, invent that word; he merely ushered it into existence. It was like this: the idea for the play came to said author in a single, unguarded moment. And while it was still warm he rushed immediately to his brother Josef, the painter, who was standing before an easel and painting away at a canvas till it rustled. "Listen, Josef," the author began, "I think I have an idea for a play." "What kind," the painter mumbled (he really did mumble, because at the moment he was holding a brush in his mouth). The author told him as briefly as he could. "Then write it," the painter remarked, without taking the brush from his mouth or halting work on the canvas. The indifference was quite insulting. "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, brush in mouth, and went on painting. And that's how it was. Thus the word Robot was born; let this acknowledge its true creator. (Lidove noviny, 24.12.1933)

 Josef Čapek, Fantomas, 1918

From about the late 1920s, Josef Čapek became much influenced by the Bohemian folk art, which resulted in a series of paintings, lithographs and pastels inspired by country life and children's plays. Another area of activity in Čapek's life was childrens' books, for which he wrote the stories and drew pictures. Well known became his charming book  The Tales of Doggie and Moggie, nine stories about a dog and a cat, who want to do things the way the humans do, quite inevitably with mixed success. It was previously published by Methuen as Harum Scarum (the dreadful film of the same name with Elvis Presley released about the same time in the early 1960s must have swayed the publishers towards using this title, which has not much to do with the stories).

 One of Čapek'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). He was sent to different concentration camps (Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen). Josef Čapek nearly survived to see the end of the war, but sadly he died in 1945, apparently of pneumonia, only a few days before the prisoners of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were freed by the Allied Armies.

 Josef Čapek, Harmonikár, 1919

More than 60 years after his death, Čapek is regarded as one of the best Czech visual artists ever. Some of his paintings have sold at art auctions for amounts approaching one million US dollars each. You can see more of Josef Čapek's work in Calypsospot's Flickr set.


  1. Dobry den,
    Velice mne zaujal Vas prispevek na blogu o Josefu Capkovi. Moc se mi libi ukazky jeho dila, kterymi jste clanek doprovodil. Rad by jsem se zeptal, zda nemate nejake fotogorafie ve vysokem rozlliseni, protoze bych si je rad vytiskl ve vetsim formatu jako dekoraci sveho studentskeho bytu.
    Dekuji Vam.
    s pozdravem,

    rkranda. r.kranda@dundee.ac.uk