The Depth of a Surface / posters, serigraphs, collages

Jan Rajlich Sr., painter, graphic artist, designer, educator and journalist, was born on April 10, 1920 in Dírná near Tábor. His professional life was linked to the Moravian cities of Zlín and Brno. While the former served as a refuge during his early years as an artist and his adolescence, the latter first served for him as a transfer station between home and school and as a terminal station since the 1950s. It was in Brno where he later created a number of important works, which justly defined him into as one of the leading figures in the history of Czech graphic design.

 During his studies at the Zlín School of Arts, Jan Rajlich‘s expression as a painter and graphic artist was cultivated by none other than Jan Sládek, painter, graphic artist and set designer, Eduard Milén, art editor of the Lidové noviny daily, the landscape painter Vladimír Hroch, or the figural painter and portraitist Richard Wiesner. It is therefore understandable that his early works were characterized by preoccupation not only with the landscape, but also with the city and its people. Besides modern cities like Zlín, he also depicted historic sites in Czechoslovakia (especially in the Cieszyn area, Bohemian Forest, the environs of Vyškov and Tábor, Brno, or his native Dírná) and abroad (in Poland, France and Romania), which he had the opportunity to see during his study trips.

Over the years, however, his view of the landscape and the way in which he captured it in his drawings and paintings changed. The period after his graduation from the School of Arts is characterized especially by lyrical and rather abstract views of the countryside. Later they were followed by intensely expressive drawings and in the 1950s by poignantly realistic scenes. Due to his nature of an experimenter, the fact Jan Rajlich abandoned the technique of oil painting, which he practically exhausted during the 1940s and 1950s, seems to have been a logical step. A greater inclination to graphic techniques and collage in the early 1960s opened to the painter new, almost limitless horizons for the development of his artistic creativity.

Apart from creating free art, Jan Rajlich began in the 1950s increasingly manifest a disposition for applied graphics – poster designs as well as small works (such as cheese labels). Rajlich‘s careful study of the material world and efforts to transfer spatial relationships into two-dimensional media with the use of concise visual shortcuts reached their peak in the 1970s and 1980s with a series of exhibition and theatrical posters, assignments for the Brno Trade Fairs and Exhibitions, and signage systems for shopping centres in new housing estates in Brno.

While in his poster designs Rajlich sought for rational, clear and constructive expression of ideas through a composition of visual and textual elements, the cycle of serigraphs “Surface, Shape, Change” from the late 1960s and early 1970s, followed by a set of original prints titled Reverse Sides (Ruby) in the 1980s, are examples of works with ambiguous, almost covert meanings. Despite the fact the artist works with similar means – simple coloured surfaces, combined with fragments of written or printed letters - their perceptions and interpretations are far more difficult. He works in a similar way in a series of collages, some of which are very close to the poetics of visual poetry from the interwar period.

Jan Rajlich‘s overall work focused almost exclusively on the issue of the surface and its treatment. Yet, in a number of posters, serigraphs, collages or drawings he managed to find solutions which, regardless of whether using a composition letters or picture elements, created the illusion of depth and plasticity. In his graphic works, surface gained its imaginary third dimension also by means of urgent messages, particularly with posters reflecting the current social situation. In this regard, his probably most prominent poster is “Vietnam is Bleeding” from 1966, the raw expressiveness of which enhances the depth of its communication.

Besides his activity as an artist, he was also an important populariser of graphic design. He did this both through his extensive writing about the nature and mission of promotional work, posters and advertising, as well as his role of initiator of the establishing of the tradition of the Biennial of Applied Graphics in Brno, a leading international exhibition of contemporary graphic design. With the help of his son, he summarized his memories of work as artist and designer in the autobiographical books Clipped Wings (2005) and Brno - Black White (2015).

The limited space that is available does not allow us to cover the entire scope of the multifaceted work of Jan Rajlich, which reaches from poster designs, through layout of books and catalogues, to architectural works and free art. The aim of the exhibition The Depth of a Surface is therefore to describe the dominant tendencies marking his entire artistic career. The first part is focused on experimental free art, featuring especially collages, a cycle of serigraphs, and the series titled Reverse Sides. The second part of the exhibition presents the topic of promotional graphics and posters, with which Jan Rajlich became more closely acquainted during his studies at Baťa’s School of Arts.

Vít Jakubíček