The small Emil Filla exhibition (1882–1953) with the title Heracles Fights the Bull presents the painter’s graphic work from the 1930s and 1940s, namely the cycle Fights and Struggles (1937) and the album Heracles (1945) reflecting Filla’s fight against the demons of his time through the Greek mythological hero Heracles, who – in the words of poet František Halas – “chose the virtue of responsibility and sacrifice” to fight oppression against the fate.
Emil Filla (1882–1953) was a leading Czech figure of the first half of the 20th century. Besides a broad range of artistic work encompassing drawing, painting, graphic art and sculpture, he was also an art theorist. He was a member of the expressionist group Osma (Eight; 1907) and initiated the founding of the cubism-oriented Group of Fine Artists (1911). Later Filla drew inspiration from the mythological themes of surrealism.
The motif of the fight appeared in Filla’s work in the second half of the 1930s, when aggressive Nazi ideology grew considerably stronger in Europe. During World War I, he had joined the foreign resistance in Holland, where he stayed in 1914–1920. Being aware of the immediate threat to freedom, he symbolically expressed it in the ancient Greek hero Heracles, son of the god Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. Heracles became the central figure in Filla’s 1937 graphic cycle Fights and Struggles. In drypoint, etching and aquatint, Filla captured man’s struggle with the dark mythical forces whose defeat is a starting point for the birth of freedom. Using the ancient Greek myth of Heracles, he depicted his breathtaking fights with the Cretan bull, Nemean lion, Erymanthian boar and Diomedes’ horses, and continued with fighting among animals.
Filla was one of the first European artists to warn against the dangers of Fascism. Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) burst onto the public scene with his monumental painting Guernica (1937), a response to the Nazi bombardment of this Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. Picasso also commented on the current political situation in his native country in caricature prints called The Dream and Lie of Franco (1937) that are housed in the National Gallery Prague’s Collection of Prints and Drawings and displayed at this exhibition. The Czech artistic milieu promptly reacted to these events in 1936. To enhance his work’s appeal, Filla began creating not only fight-themed drawings and paintings, but also prints, sculptures and reliefs.
As a prominent figure on the Czech cultural scene, Emil Filla was arrested by the Gestapo at the very beginning of World War II, on September 1, 1939, and sent to the Dachauconcentration camp, and later to Buchenwald. Even there, however, he did not lose faith in man and the victory of humanity over the frenzy of war. He managed to rescue his philosophical contemplations from the time of his imprisonment in texts that he published after the war under the title On Freedom (1947). He returned to the motif of Heracles and did an album in drypoint that was accompanied with text by his friend, the poet František Halas. This time, he conceived his artworks as a memento of the hero, who is victorious regardless of the hardship and arduousness of his fight.