The early 20th century naïve painter and sketch artist Robert Guttmann, in whose honour the exhibition gallery of the Jewish Museum in Prague is named, was famous in his day. Mainly due to his striking appearance, eccentric manner and extensive travels – often on foot – in promotion of the nascent Zionist movement. A fixture in Prague cafés and bars, where he sold his art for pocket change, “the Professor”, as he was known, was among the most photographed and caricatured personalities in Czechoslovakia. Yet few know his story today.
It’s the summer of 1924, and Robert Guttmann is in France for a bit of adventure and to meet kindred spirits from the world of art and Jewish politics. A press photo captures the flamboyant figure in all his glory – his curly, long dark hair cut in a bob and parted in the middle, exposing his ample forehead; his handlebar moustache sprouting from a narrow gap between his sloping nose and protruding lower lip; his intense gaze focused on a thick book in his lap; his lanky frame enveloped in a velvet jacket from an earlier age. (Think Oscar Wilde meets William Shakespeare).
CZECHO-SLOVAKIAN GLOBE TROTTER ARRIVES IN PARIS EN ROUTE TO UNITED STATES.
HE HAS BEEN ON THE GO FOR TWENTY-SIX YEARS.
Mr. Robert Guttmann, artist, art critic, journalist, film actor and traveller has arrived in Paris and is attracting great curiosity among the artists and bohemians of the Latin Quarter and Montmartre. The most caricatured man in his native city of Prague (there is hardly a paper that has not published his portrait), he bids fair to become subject for the caustic pencil of Parisian caricaturists. Guttmann is 44 years old and has been on the go for 26 years.
—Press photo service caption, July 1924
Robert Guttmann was not in fact from Prague originally. But he would become as much a part of the city’s lore as “the Charles Bridge, Golem, Kampa Park or the apostles of Old Town’s Astronomical Clock”, as The Jewish Yearbook (Židovská ročenka) wrote of him in 1965.
I asked Dr Arno Pařík, curator of the exhibition ‘Robert Guttmann: The Prague Wanderer’ now at the eponymous gallery of the Jewish Museum, to tell me about the extraordinary life of the naïve painter and globetrotting Zionist.
“We have quite a large art collection in the museum – more than 35 or 40 artists especially from the beginning of the last century and between the wars. But Guttmann is something special for us, and different than everything else. A completely different personality and completely different art, which is good because you can remember it.
“He came to Prague from Sušice, in south Bohemia near Šumava, when he was 16, and he immediately was in touch with young Jewish students and the Bar Kochba University Students’ Association. Of course everyone was very excited to read Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland (The Old New Land) and The Jewish State, especially.
“And he immediately became a dedicated Zionist – because in his childhood in his village, he knew what anti-Semitism was very well, especially because of his special appearance. His schoolmates made fun of him very often.
“He understood that it was impossible to hide himself. Since his childhood, everybody noticed him. He attracted so much attention that he tried to do something with it, in different ways. And I think he succeeded – we have more documentation on him than of many famous people.”
“It was an exhilarating hike, sheer ecstasy!” he wrote. “I was 17 years old at the time, and the journey took 14 and a half weeks. I had some money on me, but apart from that, I sold my hand-painted postcards and especially my self-caricatures.” Dr Arno Pařík again:
“He liked to walk and was also a good sportsman, surprisingly. And he walked on foot to the first Zionist Congress, to see the people and be there for such a big occasion.”
So he really walked from Prague all the way to Switzerland…
“Yes! Or at least I believe it. And later, he walked to many other Zionist congresses before the First World War and even after – until 1925. Later, he also visited many such big Jewish events, but by train or different ways.
“But he was also used to walking across the Czechoslovak Republic. After 1920, he welcomed [Tomáš Garrigue] Masaryk as president – because he was known as a supporter of Jews and because he fought for [Leopold] Hilsner also in 1900.”
The infamous case of a Jewish man accused of a murder he didn’t commit…
“Yes. And Guttmann identified himself with this new Czechoslovak state because it was probably something a little bit similar to the desire for a Jewish state, a new identity which didn’t yet exist.”
Robert Guttmann was a man of deep convictions and many talents, the merits of which were not always universally recognised, to put it kindly. Due to his dreamy nature, he was known in Sušice as “the village poet”, and after moving to Prague, he offered his literary works to theatres and publishers, though without any success.
He is said to have had a surprisingly good baritone singing voice, and for a time sought to become a synagogue cantor – after failing to make the 1896 Summer Olympics in fencing.
“He wanted to do so many things, and he was gifted. On the other hand, he had some handicaps. He had a very special face and figure – long legs and a small torso, and a big head with a lot of curly hair.
In this painting here, I see he’s fashioned himself as Hamlet from the Shakespeare play.
“Yes because he has a big reader, also. He knew literature well, and Hamlet of course is a significant figure in world literature and he liked to go to Maškarní ples – masked balls. He was very different than anybody else, and people liked him to be part of such balls, which were very common in Prague, in Jewish society.
“On the other hand, he was quite serious and thought a lot about his own life, human life, so he preferred to go as Hamlet – with the skull of Yorick – and recite the famous monologue.”
‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him…’
In the gallery exhibit at the Jewish Museum, there are quite few paintings, photos and caricatures of Robert Guttmann with his long flowing curly hair, wearing a giant cravat and a Star of David on the lapel of his velvet jacket.
So, was he walking around Czechoslovakia and through Europe like that already in the 1920s to promote Zionism?
“Yes. He wanted to do something for this common Jewish goal, and so he started to collect and save small amounts of money for the Jewish National Fund in Vienna. The fund’s chief was his friend, so maybe that was also an inspiration.
“On one hand, he was very much a loner and liked to walk alone for long distances, to think and dream about things. On the other hand, he wanted very much to be a part of the Jewish community, the Jewish nation, and also he identified with Czechoslovak society – because Czechoslovakia was a strange place.”
A budding journalist and fellow Czechoslovak patriot named Karel Čapek, then working for the newspaper Lidové noviny and not yet a famous writer and playwright, filed a striking and quite unsympathetic report from the World Zionist Congress in Prague on 15 July 1921, featuring Guttmann:
‘There is one typical Prague Jew who no doubt is not to be found among the functionaries and stars of the Zionist Congress in Prague, even though he has been a most spectacular and ardent Zionist for years.
‘The people in Prague know this slightly ridiculous figure with the remarkable jutting chin and Habsburg lower lip, with a high Star of David in his buttonhole, now and then with a paper medal on his chest and with his flowing cravat, a figure hurrying grotesquely through the streets as if chasing after a star.
‘One day an advertising wagon, drawn by a wise donkey, comes to a stop on Wenceslas Square. And all of a sudden this little man with the Star of David throws his arms around the donkey’s neck and kisses the animal.
‘Immediately a crowd gathers, and people laugh until they have tears in their eyes. And the good Jew turns round, sees them laughing and, without removing his arms from the donkey’s neck, joins in their laughter, a little gladdened, a bit surprised, but at that moment extraordinarily pitiful. There, at the Congress, he no doubt sits somewhere in a corner, unknown, but believing most passionately.’
One reason that Robert Guttmann himself is so little known today is due to his politics.
“The oldest Zionist in Prague, not in age but in the perseverance of my convictions”, as he once put it, was sent on the very first transport from Prague to the Łódź Ghetto established by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. There, he died of exhaustion and starvation. After the war, the Communists tried to suppress the memory of Guttmann, due to his ostentatious Zionism and fervent support of Masaryk’s democracy. But he remained in people’s hearts, says Dr Arno Pařík.
“Everybody who lived in Prague before the war knew him, especially the Jews, because he was such a part of society, part of Wenceslas Square. Interesting also is that people who knew said that he walked very proudly – always – through the Prague streets.
“Every morning, he woke up, got dressed in his special costume – which was an artistic costume like a painter from the 16th or 17th century with his big romantic green scarf – a black hat and blue jacket, white hosiery. And he would walk.
“He’d walk very purposely to Můstek, Na Příkopě or Old Town Square, visit several cafés, have a talk, some coffee and get something to eat, make a drawing, probably, or try to sell some of the drawings which he had all the time in his folder.
“He went to banks, also, or to newspaper editorial offices, and everywhere someone was interested to look in his folder and maybe buy something. He was always accepted because he brought something – he brought amusement, or information, about what’s new in Prague, in Vienna, in the Zionist movement.
“He was very strange, but he was very interesting also. He knew how to amuse people, I think, and so I’m sure he had a lot of relationships and that his life was not as poor as it looks. He was much richer in experience. Some poet wrote after the war: Mr Guttmann was the happiest person who I ever met in Prague.”
The exhibit ‘Robert Guttmann: The Prague Wanderer’ provides an insight into this eccentric, sensitive man with the soul and passion of a true artist, and a profound faith and wanderlust, who changed addresses virtually every year of his adult life – settling in to a friend of patron’s flat over for the winter, then travelling all summer.
Life in the Łódź Ghetto must have been especially unbearable for a man who had criss-crossed half of Europe on foot, says Dr. Arno Pařík:
“He wasn’t able to adapt to conditions in Łódź. We have some witness [testimony] that in Łódź he would just stand holding his folder with his drawings, as he used to do on Prague streets, looking nowhere... And within five months he died from hunger. It was difficult to survive in Łódź – you had to be very active to get something to eat – and he wasn’t able to accept his situation in life.”
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