Bringing an Artist to Light
Tucked away above the main gallery halls, the library at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is filled with its own variety of treasures: rare books, research texts, and yes, even artwork. On May 12, the library will open a small exhibit on Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová (1894-1980), a Czech painter, illustrator, and graphic artist who was the first woman to create a wordless novel, a genre that emerged in 1920s Europe and presaged the contemporary graphic novel.
Although her work is in the collections of a number of Czech museums, Bochořáková-Dittrichová remains relatively unknown in the United States. It was only a matter of chance that she came to the attention of Heather Slania, the director of NMWA’s library and research center. When a rare book dealer approached Slania with an unpublished manuscript with original woodcuts by Bochořáková-Dittrichová, she knew she had stumbled upon a hidden gem. The 52-woodcut manuscript, called Malířka Na Cestách (The Artist on Her Journey), tells the story of a young woman who moves to Paris to study art on a government scholarship—a trajectory Bochořáková-Dittrichová herself followed. Several of the woodcuts will be on display as part of the exhibition.
“Once I saw the works, I said, ‘I need to have this for our collection,’” said Slania. “If it stayed hidden, no one would know about it.” Although Bochořáková-Dittrichová will occasionally receive a brief mention in books about printmaking, “her existence is sort of this footnote,” Slania said. “Now we’re playing catch-up.”
Here’s what we do know: Bochořáková-Dittrichová first discovered woodcut novels while studying in Paris, where she came across the work of Belgian artist Frans Masereel, who created some 20 wordless, woodcut novels throughout his career. Inspired by Masereel, Bochořáková-Dittrichová began creating woodcuts of her own, and published the gorgeous, light-filled Z Mého Dětství (From My Childhood) in 1929. Though many early wordless novels focused on oppression, capitalism, and the general plight of man, From My Childhood was an impressionistic narrative of a sheltered, middle-class upbringing that resembled the artist’s own. Her subsequent work further expanded the genre’s scope, focusing on history, religion, and impressions of other cultures. As a result, Bochořáková-Dittrichová quietly strengthened the case for topics such as domestic life to be seen as legitimate art subjects rather than as easily dismissed female fodder.
Slania is hoping the exhibit will renew interest in the artist, and consequentially, bring new works or scholarship to light. Although wordless novels never became a mainstream medium, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s pioneering place within the art form is still noteworthy, and bears testament to the power of women to shape a developing genre.
“This was a burgeoning art form when she discovered it,” said Slania. “It's great that there's proof that there were women who were working in this very early art form. I'm hoping people will recognize her place, and the place of women at the beginning of things.”