Portrait of a caricaturist

The Minotaure Gallery in Tel Aviv exhibits the drawings of famed Czech artist Adolf Hoffmeister.

Hoffmeister 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hoffmeister 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Growing up in the home of a cultural giant, with the likes of Jean- Paul Sartre, Luis Aragon and Franz Kafka populating your childhood, can be quite a burden, although Martin Hoffmeister describes the experience as “amusing.”
But while a photograph of his father, the remarkable Czech portrait artist/caricaturist and writer Adolf Hoffmeister, at the Deux Magots cafe in Paris in 1968 shows a jovial, outgoing, rotund figure, the younger Hoffmeister seems austere and reflective.
An artist in his own right, Hoffmeister, fittingly perhaps, chose photography and filmmaking as his mode of expression.
He gives the impression that sheltering behind the camera, where he got his start shooting his father’s distinguished friends, he feels more at ease than with the intimate, laid-bare style of his father where the observer is exposed and the subject is stripped to his essence.
Now a hotelier in Prague, where he owns and runs the eponymous Hoffmeister Hotel, which also serves as a permanent gallery for his father’s works, Hoffmeister was here earlier this month to attend an exhibition of his father’s portraits at the Minotaure Gallery in Tel Aviv.
A lawyer by training, Adolf Hoffmeister, 1902-1973, was an artist, writer, critic, diplomat and professor. His artistic involvement began in the 1920s when he became part of Devetsil, an avant garde group influenced by Dadaism. He pursued his law studies though and, while at Cambridge University, published an illustrated book of his experiences and at the same time began to publish his caricatures for a Czech daily newspaper, Lidove Noviny, opening the door for him to meet with important and famous figures, particularly from the world of culture.
An exhibition of his works in Paris in 1927 catapulted him to fame, and he was hired to do a series of interviews and portraits.
Among his subjects were James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, Le Corbusier, George Bernard Shaw and Andre Gide. He continued with his caricatures for almost the next five decades, capturing many of Europe’s most well known cultural figures.
His portraits, or visages, as Martin Hoffmeister calls them, were renowned for their penetrating analysis – “stenograms of the personality” they were labeled in a 1929 catalog to a Prague exhibition. “He had a certain humor,” Hoffmeister says of his father. “He wasn’t cruel to people like many caricaturists are. He was gentle in his expression, he always tried to express the soul and not just the physiognomy.”
Hoffmeister comments that the personalities drawn by his father can today mostly be seen only in black-and-white photos, and adds that “you can see that these portraits, which have only one line, express the personalities of their subjects better than photographs.”
He also notes his father’s ability not just to make contact with people, but also to foresee what would be interesting in the future. “He was one of the first who made portraits of Kafka at a time when Kafka wasn’t really known,” Hoffmeister says.
“He had a certain ability to be sensitive to what would be the next fad. He wrote some really prophetic articles that were one or two steps ahead.”
As the shadow of fascism began to rise over Europe, Adolf Hoffmeister became engaged in politics. “Like all the modern artists of the time, he was Left oriented,” says Martin Hoffmeister. “When Hitlerism started he was very active in the battle against it. He organized an exhibition of caricatures in Prague that was targeted against Nazism, and the German ambassador sent a note to the Czech government that the exhibition was harmful to Germany and should be shut down.”
Adolf Hoffmeister also joined Luis Aragon in the Congress of Antifascist Writers and tried to draw attention to the Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty.
“Of course, he was on the Gestapo blacklist and when the Germans arrived he had to escape,” says Martin Hoffmeister.
Adolf Hoffmeister found refuge in Paris and continued to work with a group of Czech artists against Nazism, but when the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was signed he was arrested by the French government as an agent of Moscow and was interned in Paris and then in a concentration camp in the south of France. He escaped and went to Morocco, where he was jailed, but again he escaped and succeeded in boarding a smugglers’ boat to Lisbon. There he got a visa to the US where he became head of Radio Liberty Czechoslovakia.
The end of the war though wasn’t the end of Adolf Hoffmeister’s travails, explains the younger Hoffmeister. “After the war he came back to Prague and he was appointed Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to Paris. Of course in Paris he was very active in meeting Picasso again and renewed all his contacts from before the war. But unfortunately Stalinism started in Czechoslovakia and he was called back from France [in 1951] and was even in jail for a few months. His diplomatic era was finished he became a professor of applied art and was head of the faculty of animated film [at the School of Decorative Arts].”
Even from behind the Iron Curtain, Adolf Hoffmeister continued to be an ambassador of Czechoslovak culture. As a member of the jury at film festivals like Cannes, he again had the opportunity to meet up with Picasso and to remain in contact with modern art. “But,” says Martin Hoffmeister, “it became more difficult because Czechoslovakia fell more and more under the influence of socialism of a very different type than my father had imagined.”
Then, in 1968, Soviet troops invaded to crush the Prague Spring. “My father publicly declared that it was a crime and from that time he was practically under house arrest,” says Hoffmeister. “For him it was not only a catastrophe, it was the end. It practically killed him, and in 1973 he died.”
Hoffmeister explains that his father was struck by despair. “He made a very big collection of collages with a very pessimistic view of the future,” he says. “He transferred his unhappiness with the Russian invasion with a view of a very pessimistic future of mankind.”
Late in the conversation it transpires that Martin Hoffmeister’s connection to Israel is not limited to the exhibition. His mother was Jewish and he has relatives on Kibbutz Hulata and Kibbutz Mizra in the North. Hoffmeister recounts that his father, who came from a wealthy family, supported German Jews coming to Prague and was in contact with groups from the German-speaking theater, many of whose actors were Jewish, among them his mother, who originally came from Gablonz in the Sudetenland and had studied acting at the Max Reinhardt seminar in Vienna.
Like his father, Hoffmeister’s mother was able to escape in time. The rest of his family were not so lucky. “My mother fortunately went to England at the beginning of the occupation,” he recalls, “and from there she went to the US and they were reunited and then came back, and I was born in Czechoslovakia after the war.
My mother had six siblings; her eldest sister came to Palestine before the war and I also have relatives here descended from my grandmother’s sister in Hulata and in Mizra. Unfortunately the rest of the family went to Theresienstadt and Treblinka and they died.”
The connection with Theresienstadt does not end there. Adolf Hoffmeister also wrote the libretto for Brundibar, a children’s opera by Hans Krása, the Czech Jewish composer. The opera was performed some 30 times in Theresienstadt.
Krása and most of his cast were murdered in Auschwitz.
Adolf Hoffmeister, Drawings and Collages, runs through August 31 at the Minotaure Gallery in Tel Aviv.