Sunday, February 26, 2006

Once Is Never Enough

In doing historical research, it is apparently never sufficient to read anything just once. Somehow, no matter how carefully you read and take notes, there will invariably be something that later proves significant, but which meant little or nothing to you the first (second, third, tenth) time around.
A case in point: awhile back I ran across a mention of a couple of interwar journals that sounded like something I ought to look up someday, although perhaps not immediately. The name of the writer Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic was also mentioned, although I think not in direction relation to the journals (although he edited at least one of them).
When I met Nathan, he said he was working on the Decadent Moderní Revue, edited by Procházka and Karásek, and that the latter was especially interested in issues of gender and sexuality. It hit me that I had encountered Karásek’s name before; fortunately I actually remembered where and why it was of interest. (I had, in fact, encountered it in a more extended fashion elsewhere, but at that point I was merely intrigued that Prague had a Decadent journal whose editors were in touch with Munch’s friend Przybyszewski. Karásek’s name had not stuck with me.)
At this stage, it occurred to me that perhaps it would behoove me to investigate Karásek and the Moderní Revue a bit, as perhaps there was some connection between them and Toyen and Štyrský (or even the whole Prague surrealist group, although that seemed a bit much to ask).
Examination of late issues of the Moderní Revue showed that Jarmil Krecar (subsequently a member of Devětsil, but otherwise not a writer well known to me) contributed frequently. This did not tell me all that much, especially as I wasn’t ready to sit there and read all his poems and articles.
Since I spend a fair amount of time at the Pamàtník nàrodního písemnictví, I checked their finding aids for Karásek and discovered a thick booklet devoted to his papers. Moreover, the archive’s website informed me that he had left an enormous quantity of papers and art, which form a significant part of their collection and are still in the process of being catalogued (although, it seemed, Karásek had catalogued them himself and one could use those records).
At this point, I dragged Nathan to the archive. He found the card catalog for Karásek’s personal library, so I promptly looked up Toyen and Štyrský, with the gratifying result that Karásek had owned a good many books and pamphlets relating to them. (I promptly ordered these, in the hopes that they would tell me more than the card catalog entries had.)
For the most part, these books merely showed that Karásek liked to collect bibliophile editions, which was not news as I knew he had edited a journal devoted to this sort of thing. I was not sure why he had bothered to collect certain of these titles, as their bibliophilic interest was pretty much nil apart from that Toyen or Štyrský had designed the cover, but if he had acquired them for the sake of their designers, then why hadn’t he collected more of Toyen and Štyrský’s work? Toyen alone had worked on over 500 titles during Karásek’s lifetime, and I suspect Štyrský was just as prolific.
More interestingly, Karásek had quite a stack of the artists’ exhibition catalogs, at least one of which he had written notes in. This looked more promising, and I will be examining these more closely next week. Clearly he had at least attended the exhibitions; but did he know the artists personally and had his ideas had any effect on theirs?
This seemed like something that I might not be able to confirm in any decisive manner. I turned my attention to other matters for the weekend, like going through various old notes and transcriptions.
And so, this morning, there it was: in 1921, Štyrský wrote his friend Karel Michl that during his military service he had often gone to Prague to visit Karásek.
I had probably looked at this letter several times since transcribing it a year and a half ago, but the reference to Karásek had meant absolutely nothing to me because I didn’t remember who he was. It may be that every other art historian working on the Prague surrealist group has known for ages that Štyrský visited Karásek, but any reference to it had obviously not stuck in my mind. One generally only remembers facts that seem in some way interesting or useful.
I shudder, however, to think of all the material that I need to read and reread to answer the various questions that come to mind. Pretty much every time I reread something dissertation-related, I see something important that was previously meaningless to me.


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