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The Forgotten Works of Miroslav Šašek

The Czech illustrator is finally published in his homeland over 30 years after his death

by Adam Stech in Culture on 07 July 2014

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Miroslav Šašek (1916–1980) is an all but forgotten figure in the history of Czech illustration. While the artist has had books published from Japan to the US (in huge print runs) and even had his work adapted for film, his books had never been published in his homeland—until now. Last year, small Czech publishing house Baobab—helmed by graphic artist and illustrator Juraj Horváth—began to publish Šašek's books in his native tongue for the very first time; finally presenting his work to his hometown audience.

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Šašek trained originally as an architect and finished his studies at Prague Polytechnic in 1938. This architectural background is reflected in his passion for city landscapes, which appear often in his children's books. His talent for the dynamic colorful shapes, visual vibrations and simple drafts was inspired by periodical painting of abstract expressionism and Art Concret. The result is his signature constructive and poetic and naive style in the same time. He usually painted canvases using classical oil techniques or watercolors, then reproduced them for his book illustrations, which were complemented by his own short facts about the visited places.

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Toward the end of the '30s, he traveled a lot and often—to the UK, France, Germany, Netherlands and Belgium. In 1947 he left Prague for an extended period to study at Paris' Ecole des Beaux Arts and—after the 1948 Communist Revolution in Czechoslovakia—he decided to stay there.

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In 1957 Šašek began to illustrate traveling books for children starting with his debut title "This is Paris," first published by Allen in London. This marked the beginning of his 18 volume series dedicated to world-famous places including New York, Rome, Munich, Israel, Hong Kong and more. Many books from the series were published in print runs of hundreds of thousands, from France to the US to Japan and four were adapted for film. Though he received awards including Best Illustrated Children's Book of the Year by New York Times magazine in 1959 and the Boys' Club of America Junior Books Award in 1961, Šašek was still largely unknown in his native Czech Republic.

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His books are visually rich, funny and elegantly document reality. These charming and popular works "This is Paris" and "This is London" have already been published in Czech, and next Horváth plans to release "This is Rome," This is Australia" and perhaps a very special "This is M. Šašek"—a tome of his complete works—finally giving the talented artist the recognition he deserves in his homeland.

Images courtesy of Baobab and Miroslav Šašek Foundation

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