12.11.14
Rick Poynor | Essays

Illustrations by Bohumil Štěpán for Crazy Fairy Tales


Praštěné pohádky (Crazy Fairy Tales) illustrated by Bohumil Štěpán, published by SNDK, Prague, 1965

I have written here a couple of times about books by Bohumil Štěpán, a Czech collagist and illustrator with a gift for surreal absurdity and humorous eroticism. On a recent trip to Prague, in a time-warp shop selling old publications, postcards, and memorabilia, I was lucky to find a copy of Praštěné pohádky (Crazy Fairy Tales) illustrated by Štěpán. Published in 1965 by SNDK in Prague, this delightful children’s book, which is clearly meant to appeal to adults as well, has had some exposure online, although the scans, crops, and selected images frequently fail to do it full justice. The illustrations are usually shown without any hint of the razor-sharp typography around which the images cavort and caper with great elan. The section at the end, with pages cut along their center line, so the young reader can fold them forward and back to create comical new characters, has also tended to be overlooked.


Praštěné pohádky, title page

Praštěné pohádky’s author, Ludvík Aškenazy (1921–1986), was a Czech journalist and storyteller. In the early 1950s, he worked in Prague as a radio reporter and commentator on foreign politics. Later, he became a popular and successful freelance writer, producing children’s stories, radio plays, and television and film scripts. In 1968, he emigrated to West Germany, as did Štěpán (1913–1985) the following year. In one of the book’s curious and irreverent visual jokes, Štěpán goes to the unusual length of deploying two cut-outs of Aškenazy’s head—presumably with the author’s agreement—to illustrate a story titled “Hlava” (Head). Floating against a patterned background that may literally be a piece of wallpaper, the hapless decapitated writer ends up looking like some well-fed, bow-tied Buddha of the bourgeois drawing room (see below).

Štěpán uses the graphic style familiar from later books such as Gulliverory cesty (Gulliver’s Travels) and Galerie, both from 1968. He builds the illustrations from cartoon-like drawings, with spindly lines of uniform thinness, and collage elements filetted from outdated engravings—hats, flowers, animals, umbrellas, binoculars, candlestick holders, and figures in historical costume. Empty paper usually forms the pictures’ backgrounds and the wispy illustrations seem to waft on gentle breezes through stories of no more than two or three pages, with eccentrically direct titles such as “Eye,” “Lemon,” “Light Bulb,” and “Bat” (the nocturnal variety).

Occasionally Štěpán includes an old packaging label, advertising a light bulb or sardines in pure oil, and he has a fondness in these crazy tales for sections of colorful antique maps and blocks of ready-made pattern, which can be cut up to form a strongman’s podium or some rolling hills. Artfully placed spots of bright color also enliven the pictures. A spirit of whimsical, kindergarten Surrealism hovers over the project, and sometimes, too, perhaps a hint of melancholia. Every so often the weirdness later given free rein in Galerie and Famielenalbum becomes more overt, as in the scene (below) where an elegantly attired huntsman takes aim at a levitating wheel sprouting a fine pair of wings. In another memorable picture, a small girl paints a lightning bolt while riding on the fuselage of an ancient flying machine, against a sky so dark and unsettling that it seems to have dropped on to the page from a different book.


See also:

Bohumil Štěpán’s Gallery of Erotic Humor
Bohumil Štěpán’s Family Album of Oddities


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Letter from Columbia”


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Paraplíčko”


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Ball Lightning”


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Light Bulb”


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Painted Lightning”


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Old Picture”


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Vasmut and the Goldfish”


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Bat”


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Head.” The head belongs to the author, Ludvík Aškenazy.


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Fragments of a CV.” The page is cut to allow different combinations


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Fragments of a CV.” The page is cut to allow different combinations


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the story “Fragments of a CV.” The page is cut to allow different combinations


Illustrations by Bohumil Štěpán for the endpaper glued to the inside back cover


Illustration by Bohumil Štěpán for the back cover

Posted in: Art, Books, Design History, Illustration, Literature


Comments [0]



Jobs | November 14