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Karel Čapek, the photographer

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Čapek: On the occasion of the MuVIM exhibit, Dashenka was published in Spanish for the first time. (Lenka Scheuflerová)On the occasion of the MuVIM exhibit, Dashenka was published in
Spanish for the first time. (Lenka Scheuflerová)
Only a few people know that Karel Čapek, one of the most famous Czech writers and the inventor of the word “robot”, was a photography enthusiast, even though his active involvement in photography lasted for a short period of time. An exhibition of Čapek’s photographs in Valencia marks the 70th anniversary of the artist’s death.

“Taking the first picture is one of the most thrilling moments in one’s life,” Čapek said in his column Man and Camera, published in October 1930.

Karel Čapek, who was born in 1890 and died in 1938, was involved in photography for a some period of time, just as he was fascinated by gardening for some time, by cacti, by Persian carpets or by the mystery of wine.

As an amateur photographer, Čapek wanted to explore the joy of pushing the shutter button and the excitement of the possibility to capture the world around him on a sensitive material, and to experience the special feeling that always came during the development process. The photographic camera, the new technical challenge, was there, and Čapek wanted to take control of the piece of equipment. To learn “how it is all done inside”.

Writer, dramatist, poet, translator, critic, journalist, philosopher and aesthete, Karel Čapek started to photograph in 1930 and pursued the photographic process, including image enlargement, intensively for two years. What drove him in his efforts was the desire to acquire basic photographic skills, to understand why people photograph and to record his findings.

Čapek’s ability to view his surroundings in a perceptive way, which is so typical for his books, is also obvious in the way he photographed. His refined eye became promptly acquainted with the specific (photographic) way of looking at things, and Čapek was soon able not only to perceive as a photographer, but also to use his camera in a creative way. As an exceptionally intelligent human being, he produced images some of which can be described as extraordinary. After gaining first experience in the art of photography, he was able to provide an ironic view of himself as an amateur photographer in his column Man and Camera:

“A tripod, if it does not get used to you, performs a great deal of malicious tricks. For example: surprisingly, one of its legs is longer than the others; or it trips you up; or it resolutely refuses to allow you to fold it.”

Čapek’s most famous work in the field of photography is Dashenka, Or The Life Of A Puppy, that was first published at the end of 1932. Images are an integral part of the children’s book and the visual side has the equal value as the text. Thanks to the book that was a unique piece of photographic art when it was first published, Karel Čapek became the best known amateur photographer of the 1930s.

To mark the approaching 70th anniversary of Čapek’s death, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague (Uměleckoprůmyslové muzeum) and the Valencia Museum of the

Enlightenment and Modernity (Museu Valenciá de la Il-lustració i de la Modernitat, MuVIM) in Spain have come up with an exhibition presenting all major areas of Čapek’s photographic work.

The organisers found inspiration for the exhibition in the drawings that Čapek produced for his book Letters from Spain as well as in Čapek’s visit to the city of Valencia.

On the occasion of the exhibition, held in MuVIM, Valencia, the book Dashenka has been published for the first time in Spanish, Eva Farrez of the MuVIM said. The Valencia museum staff were excited by Dashenka and by the drawings describing the everyday life of the puppy in a sophisticated way, she added.

Besides photos of Dashenka, still lifes and documentary photographs, the exhibition shows Čapek’s portraits, which are regarded as his most remarkable legacy as a photographer. Portraits of the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk play a special role there.

The museum staff chose red as the background colour for the black-and-white photographs. Together with huge figures of Čapek and Dashenka installed in the exhibition space, it represents children’s playfulness and humour, a typical feature of Čapek’s personality. The exhibition would be incomplete without these details, as confirmed by children visitors, who, before anything else, admired the large Dashenka.

Roughly 500 people came for the exhibition opening. “This is a common situation. Sometimes even more people come,” Ferraz said.

The exhibition of Čapek’s photographs in MuVIM, which runs until December 7, 2008, is part of the biennial Fotógraphica, a set of exhibitions of photographs held in different places of Valencia, she added.

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