Back to the East

Updated 2018-06-19 11:16:40

An illustration depicting the four protagonists in Journey to the West from Sklenar's Monkey King series.

Puppetry troupes from across China staged a performance in Beijing in 1955, and in the audience was the Czech artist Zdenek Sklenar, who passed away in 1986. He was enthralled by the show that centered around the Monkey King, the powerful protagonist from the 17th-century Chinese classic Journey to the West.

In the novel written by Wu Cheng'en, the Monkey King and his fellow disciples protect their master, Buddhist monk Xuanzang, on a hazardous undertaking to obtain sacred sutras.

Decades since its publication, the mythological book, as well as its theater and folk adaptations, have accumulated a huge following.

That April, after the puppet show, Sklenar had also watched a Peking Opera performance of the story. He drew several sketches as he enjoyed the show.

Months later, Sklenar returned to Prague where he taught at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design. He developed the sketches he had made in China into a complete album, with 24 colorful and 80 ink illustrations, in 1961. At the time, Chinese people knew little about Sklenar's interpretation of Journey to the West.

Monkey King: How Our Pilgrims Arrived in the Western Heaven and Got the Sutras, 1961.

Now, 14 pieces from this Monkey King series are on display at an ongoing exhibition at Prince Kung's Palace in Beijing. The exhibition is dedicated to Sklenar's drawings and lithographs from the 1930s to the '80s, and the exhibits are from the collection of the Zdenek Sklenar Gallery in Prague.

Sklenar's art made its China debut in 2009, when a retrospective exhibition was held at the National Art Museum of China, where the Monkey King illustrations were also shown. They were also part of the Czech national pavilion during the 2010 Shanghai Expo.

The Chinese audience, which is familiar with the figures and scenarios of Journey to the West, has found Sklenar's graffiti-style presentation of the story appealing.

Fan Di'an, who heads the Central Academy of Fine Arts, says the late artist's production embodies "a strong modern touch" by incorporating his impressions of Chinese culture with European visual traditions in a "smart and innovative" way. Fan had curated Sklenar's debut China exhibition.

Zdenek Sklenar and his collection of Asian antiques

One of the Monkey King's magical powers, as described in the novel, is his ability to transform into 72 creatures and objects.

Sklenar's series has been hailed in China as the "73rd transformation of the Monkey King".

But the Monkey King was not the only gain for Sklenar during his three-month stay in China in 1955.

As a member of a visiting delegation from former Czechoslovakia, Sklenar participated in an expo showing the achievements of socialist society in Beijing and Shanghai. He also seized the opportunity to explore the country's artistic and cultural heritage, something he had wanted to do even as a student.

In his memoir, Sklenar wrote that his professor, Karel Sourek, had ignited his interest in Chinese culture and suggested that he buy two books on Chinese art history, which cost him the bulk of his monthly living expenses back then. And while the books hit Sklenar's wallet, he wrote, they gave him much pleasure throughout his life.

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