George Drost left Czechoslovakia when he was just three years old — his family fled Communist rule there as political refugees. Growing up in Chicago, he remembers his parents having calendars with paintings of life back in the land they left behind.
The paintings were by painter Joza Uprka, who dedicated his artistic life to documenting scenes from Moravia, a region in the eastern part of the Czech lands, bordering Slovakia. Born in 1861, Uprka died in 1940, and his paintings depict the time he lived in. Their scenes of Moravian festivals and rural life spoke to Drost.
“I wanted to connect and have some sort of identity with the land of my birth,” he said. “I went back (to the Czech Republic) in 1990 and found the first painting.”
He kept collecting from there, and now owns about 120 pieces of Uprka’s art. Now, he has loaned many of those paintings to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library for an exhibition of Uprka’s work.
Drost, who is chairman of the museum’s board and is a lawyer in Arlington Heights, Ill., has loaned paintings to the museum in the past in connection with other exhibits. This will be the first solo exhibition of Uprka’s paintings from Drost’s collection.
The exhibition opens today and continues through March 24, 2019. The paintings, which combine elements of Romanticism and Art Nouveau, show women, men and children in brightly colored traditional Moravian costumes doing everything from farming to kneeling in prayer to celebrating at festivals. Women in bright red headdresses and skirts dominate many of the scenes.
“I like the colors of them. And though they are ethnic, they have a transcendental style, a European style, based on French Impressionism,” Drost said. “Because they have this sort of flair, this exuberance, it makes them pretty exciting to see. These humble, modest people in everyday situations look pretty exciting with the colors Uprka applied to their lives. For the most part, not all of them, they’re joyful, they’re happy, they’re positive.”
Museum curator Stefanie Kohn said the paintings hold more than artistic value.
“Ethnographers use his work,” she said. “He was documenting the folk life and traditions in that part of Moravia.”
She said many of the folk costumes in the paintings date to the same time period as the traditional garb, known as kroj, in the museum’s own collection.
Kohn said, to her knowledge, this is a unique chance for American audiences to view so many of Uprka’s works in one place. To mark the occasion, Drost is publishing a 137-page monograph, “National Treasure: The Art of Joza Uprka from the George T. Drost Collection,” which documents his collection.
“The people who lived in this area of the Czech Republic had a promoter who gave them international recognition,” Drost said. “It wasn’t just kept under a bushel basket, it was circulated and publicized, especially in the Czech lands and Austria and all throughout Europe. It became a way to show the way central European people lived.”
If you go
• What: National Treasure: The Art of Joza Uprka from the George T. Drost Collection
• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
• When: Today through March 24, 2019
• Details: (319) 362-8500, ncsml.org/exhibits/uprka
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