Moravian (Czech Republic)
Working in the pre-dawn hours between four and seven o’clock, Anna Zemánková found solace in art, creating floral and botanical drawings that served as a brief respite from the duties of her regular life. It was during these hours of solitude that she created, as she said, “I am growing flowers that are not grown anywhere else.”(1)
She was born Anna Velelá on August 23, 1908 in Olomouc, Moravia (present-day Czech Republic). As a young girl, she enjoyed drawing but her father, a hairdresser, encouraged her to instead pursue other interests and a more lucrative career path. She studied dentistry from 1923 until 1926, becoming a dental technician. She worked in this profession until 1933 when she married Bohumir Zmanek, a military officer. According to common practice of the day, she no longer worked after her marriage, and gave birth to four children – three sons and one daughter. However, one son died at the age of four years old.
Zemánková and her family moved to Prague in 1948. She took care of her family, and in her spare time loved to read and listen to classical music. As she approached menopause, there was a change in her demeanor. She became depressed and temperamental, perhaps due to hormonal changes.(2) Her son, Bohumil, who was a sculptor, gave his mother some art materials and encouraged her to pursue creative work as an outlet for her depression. He made her a drawing table that she would work at every morning during the early hours. A friend of the family recounts that she “spent all day caring and ‘doing’ for them; night was the only time she could concentrate and ‘be at peace’.”(3) While Zemánková has been likened to visionary artists because of the trance-like state she worked in, she would occasionally go back to finished pieces and add or enhance her drawings.
Looking at the body of Zemánková’s work, distinct periods can be seen. Her early drawings were done on large sheets of paper, featuring botanical or organically inspired pieces, often done in pastel or oil pastel.
After 1969, she began to develop new techniques of working with the surface of the paper by piercing holes into it, and in 1971, began to create raised textures in her work by crimping and producing a raised surface on areas of her drawings. Instead of the larger pieces she made during her early artistic endeavors, these were small pictures, some measuring only inches in size.
This interest in three-dimensional qualities was further explored in her textile or bricolage work, as she called this art she produced in the mid-1970s, introducing textile techniques and collage to her work which incorporated beads, threads and other materials to the surface of the paper. Zemánková was skilled in decorative arts, and also made lampshades and a room divider constructed from plywood and beads. Unfortunately, none of these items are known to exist anymore, but the divider screen will be recreated for an exhibition at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2003.(4)
Between 1979 until her death in 1986, Zemánková was very ill with diabetes. Even through this, she continued to create, making black drawings on paper instead of her more well known colorful images. These later works were destroyed by one of her children.(5) As a result of diabetes, she developed a paralysis and underwent the subsequent amputation of her legs in the early 1980s.
Zemánková did receive some recognition for her art during her lifetime. Under the Communist government, it was difficult for artists to exhibit in galleries, and so they would hold an “open house” to sell their work. Her son helped her to organize a private exhibition like this for her every two years, beginning in 1964. Interestingly, the first person she sold a picture to is now the President of the Czech Republic.(6) Other early patrons included visiting Viennese and Austrian collectors, and through her son’s efforts, her work was included by Jean Dubuffet in the Collection de l’Art Brut.
Eventually, Zemánková did see herself in terms of being an artist, but felt that her gifts were reflective of a divine source. According to curator Annie Carlano, it does seem likely that she was channeling some sort of spirit or energy in her work, and the Moravian culture Zemánková is from is steeped in folklore and traditional beliefs concerned with spirits and otherworldly beings that are conducive to this mindset. During the time that she was active in her drawing, there were spiritualist enclaves in the areas around Prague, but it does not seem that Zemánková was aware of them.
While the spiritualistic environment may not have influenced her work, elements of traditional Czech culture can be compared to her motifs and techniques. Many traditional painted decorations have some affinity to her drawings and patterning, and cubist elements seen in modern Czech architecture are mirrored in some of her works, particularly her series of drawings that incorporate towering structures with these elements. In contrast to these modern impulses, the styling of the Baroque architecture reflects the spiral and curvilinear forms often seen in her botanical shapes. She was interested in textiles, and crocheted items for her family. Her hometown was particularly known for textiles as well. The textural quality of these things may be related to the crimping and raised surfaces seen in some of her pieces.
Zemánková’s work became better known after a 1979 exhibition of outsider art at the Hayward Gallery in London. Selections of her large early works are included in Intuitive Design, presented by the Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught and Outsider Art, and her work can also be seen at the Chicago Cultural Center from April 26, 2003 - June 29, 2003 as part of the collection of abcd: art connaissance et diffusion, as well as the aforementioned upcoming exhibition by the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe.
1) Hernandez, pg. 44
2) According to Annie Carlano, Curator of European and North American Collections of the Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe. Ms. Carlano gave a lecture about Anna Zemánková and her work on February 22, 2003 at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outside Art in Chicago, Illinois.
3) As quoted by Pavel Opocensky to Jo Farb Hernandez in her article “The Dawn Drawings of Anna Zemánková” which appeared in the Spring, 1996 issue of Raw Vision, #14.
4) Information given during Ms. Carlano’s lecture, February 22, 2003 (see 2 above)
6) ibid. Current president of Czech Republic is Vaclav Havel.
Carlano, Annie. Lecture on Anna Zemánková at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago, Illinois on February 22, 2003.
Hernandez, Jo Farb. "The Dawn Drawings of Anna Zemánková" in Raw Vision, No. 14, Spring 1996. 40-45.
Petullo, Anthony. Self-Taught and Outsider Art: The Anthony Petullo Collection. (Urbana, 2001)
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