In photographs, Adolf Hoffmeister looks like an English lord: in one taken at a Paris cafe on a very rainy day, in family pictures, in one of him in his study and another from when he was an ambassador. It's the same in earlier pictures, too: at 18, with a fashionable pipe and a white pocket square in his jacket, and later as a young man with his parents. All except for one, the one with a cigar at the UN General Assembly. In the picture with the cigar, the corner of Hoffmeister's mouth is lifted in a slight smile. A nearly imperceptible smile. But his provocative gaze hints at another nationality altogether. A nationality that prides itself, among other things, on its sense of humor. A sly Schweikian outlook that laughs all the way to the jailhouse. Like the brave soldier who laughs and cries at the world all at once. Such is Hoffmeister. Sad and hurting one moment, gay and cheerful the next.
Hoffmeister was a classic Renaissance man. Lawyer, artist, author, poet, diplomat, caricaturist, playwright, ideologue, art school professor and dedicated freedom fighter who aided Jewish refugees. A worldly man who was acquainted with many key players in European art and politics in the interwar period. He was born in Prague in 1902 to a wealthy, aristocratic family. He completed law school and interned but never worked in the profession, according to his son, Martin, "instead, he painted and wrote poetry. He was a self-taught artist and his life was divided between Prague and Paris, which exerted a magical pull on him."
He went to Paris for the first time in 1922, with his mother. Hoffmeister returned to Prague from this encounter with the city and some of its artists - Man Ray, the Romanian-French writer Tristan Tzara and the Russian-French-Jewish sculptor Osip Zadkine - resolved not to become a lawyer, as was expected of him. He would be an artist. He returned to Paris many times, doing what everyone did there: sat in Left Bank cafes; drank coffee and absinthe; got drunk; was captivated by Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism; tried out different ideologies, argued their hearts out, loved their hearts out, painted, wrote manifestos, believed they were changing the world.
In Paris, Hoffmeister met many intellectuals who became his friends. "He had an amazing ability to connect with people," says Martin. "He wasn't shy - he had a booming voice, he was a gifted orator and he had a positive attitude toward people."
This positive attitude and the good connections he created eventually resulted in about 800 works - paintings, drawings, portraits and caricatures. He drew and painted friends and acquaintances, including Pablo Picasso, Franz Kafka, Ilya Ehrenburg, Arnold Zweig, Franz Werfel, Jean Cocteau, Tomas Masaryk, Alberto Moravia, Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, George Bernard Shaw, John Steinbeck, Georges Braque, Ernest Hemingway, Bertolt Brecht, Maxim Gorky, Alberto Giacometti, Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Max Ernst and many, many more. His subjects were almost exclusively male.
"My father hardly painted any women," confirms Martin, who was in Israel last month for the opening of an exhibition of his father's work, "Drawings & Collages," at Tel Aviv's Minotaure Gallery. It was originally mounted two years ago, at Minotaure's sister gallery in Paris, which is located in the prestigious Sixth Arrondissement. "My father was a very polite and discreet man and it's hard to be polite and a caricaturist of women. That's what he used to say because caricaturists always seek to highlight certain personality traits and he had a problem doing to women what he did to men," Martin said. Among his few female subjects were Virginia Woolf and Josephine Baker.
Ever since that first visit to Paris, Hoffmeister lived a peripatetic life. Prague was home, the city to which he always returned from his many travels, but he was not genuinely connected to any specific place. "He had a wanderer's soul and a passion for traveling," says Martin. "He traveled the world, and like all the prewar intellectuals, he had leftist tendencies."
Hoffmeister was a founder of the avant-garde Czech art association Devetsil, which consisted of artists from a variety of disciplines in the early 1920s. The organization was active for about a decade, during which time Hoffmeister mainly wrote poetry but also painted. Devetsil's first exhibition, in Prague, included some of his paintings. He wrote and illustrated his first book, "Cambridge-Prague," when he spent a semester studying law at Cambridge University.
He published his first cartoons in the Czech daily newspaper Lidove noviny, which gave him entree to key figures in the culture and art world. In 1928, Parisian friends organized an exhibition of 113 of his works at a gallery of modern art. The exhibition attracted the city's politicians and culture-lovers, who came to view Hoffmeister's drawings. The head of Prague's Aventinum Publishers hired him to travel the Continent interviewing cultural figures and then to illustrate the finished articles for the publisher's arts and culture journal.
This dream job suited Hoffmeister's restless personality perfectly, and in 1929 he had his first exhibition of portraits in Prague. "The portraits are based less on facial expression and more on the subject's psychology, portraits that couldn't have been created without his deep and probing observation, his cultural richness and his talent as a graphic artist," wrote the Czech artist Karel Teige in the exhibition catalog.
It was during this period that Hoffmeister was exposed to Surrealism, and participated in a Prague exhibition of Surrealist artists such as Andre Breton, Dali, Ernst, Miro and Giacometti. In 1931 he went to the Soviet Union, where he remained for an extended period. He interviewed many figures, including two architects who were briefly enraptured by Soviet socialism, Le Corbusier and Hans Meier.
After the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, the character of Hoffmeister's drawings changed. He loathed Hitler and Fascism, joined a leftist movement of Czech intellectuals and he lectured, wrote, signed manifestos and drew cartoons with social and political messages. In 1934 he organized an international anti-fascist exhibition of caricatures and humorous drawings at the Manes Exhibition Hall in Prague. "[It] was so provocative," says his son Martin, "that the German ambassador in Prague wrote to the Czech foreign minister and threatened to create a diplomatic incident if it wasn't closed down." The Czech police raided but did not close the exhibition, which only increased public interest in it.
In French prison
In 1938, Hoffmeister directed his opposition to Fascism positions toward aiding Jews who had fled the Sudetenland for Prague. "That's how he met my mother," says Martin. "She was one of these refugees. His family was quite well-off, and he used the money to save Jews."
Also in 1938, Hoffmeister wrote the libretto for "Brundibar," a children's opera composed by Hans Krasa, for a state-sponsored competition. But the contest was called off and the opera was never performed in Prague. In the wake of the German occupation, Krasa, like many other Czech Jews, was deported to the Terezin (Theresienstadt ) concentration camp. "He took the libretto with him," says Martin, "and the opera was performed at Theresienstadt 55 times."
In 1944, a special performance of "Brundibar" was staged for representatives of the Red Cross who came to inspect the camp; they later wrote a positive report about the camp. "They even have opera there," they wrote.
"Brundibar" has since been staged in many places, including Israel, and last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel attended a performance in Germany. "When I was in high school in Prague," Martin recalls, "the principal came to me one day and said: 'Give my regards to your father. I was the opera director in Terezin and I taught the children to sing.'"
A brief marriage in the early 1920s ended in divorce. Hoffmeister and Lily, who was to become Martin's mother, were together but had not wed when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia. "My father was on the Gestapo's blacklist, because of the anti-Nazi exhibition, and he fled to Paris. My mother managed to escape with her sister Loni to London. Loni was married to the poet and translator Rudolf Fuchs, a friend of Kafka's. Their eldest daughter came to Palestine before the war, and I've had family here ever since."
But in Paris, his beloved city of refuge, Hoffmeister was persecuted. Because of his leftist tendencies he was suspected of being a Soviet agent, and after the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty of nonaggression between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, he was also suspected of aiding Hitler. He was arrested and sent to prison. "He wrote a chronicle of his experiences," says Martin, "and illustrated it using crumbs of wet tobacco." The book was later translated into French.
"After six months in prison, he was transferred to southern France, and then, as the war kept advancing southward, to Morocco. From there he managed to escape and board a smugglers' ship that took him to Lisbon, and from there he sailed to New York. My mother followed him to New York, where they married and remained for the duration [of the war]. My father worked for the Voice of America, which during the war was called Radio Liberty, broadcasting to countries under Nazi occupation, especially Czechoslovakia. His anti-fascist drawings were shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art in the same period. After the war, my parents returned to Czechoslovakia, where I was born."
End of the world
After the war Hoffmeister was appointed director of international cultural contacts for Czechoslovakia. He attended the first UNESCO meeting in Paris and became his country's permanent representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In 1948, he was appointed Czech ambassador to France and returned to his beloved Paris for three years. He renewed his ties with his friends there from before the war and organized exhibitions of Czech art.
In 1951, Hoffmeister was suddenly recalled to Prague. He was thought to be cultivating overly close ties with the West. Suddenly, his life was in danger. The hysteria that gripped the Communist bloc leaders, with the show trials and executions, swept the Czech Communist Party as well. About a year later, 14 senior officials, most of them Jews, were tried for "a Zionist conspiracy in the service of imperialism." Eleven of them were executed, including party secretary Rudolf Slansky and foreign minister Vladimir "Vlado" Klementis - Hoffmeister's boss.
"My father had to return to Prague immediately. My mother, who was pregnant, stayed in Paris to pack and take care of things," says Martin. "Because of the stress, she lost the baby. The Russian ambassador, who was a friend of my parents' from before the war, visited her in the hospital, and that's what saved my father's life in Prague. The authorities didn't know what to make of it, they thought maybe my father had a special status with the Russians. If not for that visit, they would have executed him."
Hoffmeister's life was spared but his diplomatic career was over. "My father became a professor in the Academy of the Arts. He taught animation and puppet theater. For a while he couldn't travel anywhere and was quite miserable as a result. Then a friend from his Paris days, the painter and caricaturist Jean Effel, who wanted to make an animated film, asked for my father's help because it was a lot cheaper to make a film like that in Czechoslovakia, and the Czechs were known for having the best animation studios. Thanks to Effel, my father obtained a passport and could travel again.
"Later he became president of International PEN (the worldwide association of writers and poets ), a position he maintained for the rest of his life. This, and as Czechoslovakia's permanent representative to UNESCO, enabled him to renew his ties with the world. He was often chosen to represent the country at cultural events because of his broad knowledge, his connections and his knowledge of languages. He went to China, Egypt, Japan, North and South America. Wherever he went, he drew. He drew and painted everyone he met - Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, all the artists of the time. His students would wait excitedly for him to return and tell them what was happening in the West and what was new in modern art."
In 1968, shortly before the Soviet invasion of Prague, Hoffmeister served as president of the film festival in Karlovy Vary. The atmosphere was so open that he invited stars like Claudia Cardinale, Elia Kazan and Henry Fonda, who agreed to come. "The festival was a huge success and everyone believed something good was about to happen in Czechoslovakia," says Martin.
But nothing good happened in Czechoslovakia, and Hoffmeister, like many others, realized that his world was destroyed. "His life was ruined," says Martin. "For him, it was a terrible disaster, because he understood only then that he'd been worshipping the wrong god his whole life; that he'd devoted his life to something that turned out to be a terrible mistake."
Up until 1968 he believed in the Communist way?
"He was a leftist, a social democrat, and he believed in Communism up to a certain level. He believed in equality. When he visited India, for instance, he was appalled by the horrible poverty there and couldn't bring himself to write about it. When Dubcek came to power, my father supported him wholeheartedly, he believed that a historic justice had been done at last, but when the Soviet tanks entered Prague he saw it as a disaster in every sense. He thought he'd lost his way and that his life was over. He made a lot of collages then with allusions to the end of the world - Judgment Day and so on, and he was very depressed. He wrote a long letter to his friend Louis Aragon in Paris, and asked him what he thought would happen, and Aragon answered him: I don't traffic in hopes.
"After '68, my father was banned and ostracized, for one thing because he illustrated books by Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera and all the banned authors, and also expressed his opinion about the Soviet invasion. After that, he was more or less under house arrest. Not a single book of his was published, they put a stop to his work in academia and wouldn't permit him to mount exhibitions. He felt like an exile in his own country and his own home. He was in a catastrophic state, mentally speaking, and he had several heart attacks. His last show took place at his house, a month before he died in 1973. He died of sorrow, disappointment and frustration. To the show at his house he was allowed to invite no more than 25 people at a time. The works were very pessimistic collages that heralded the end of the world."
A billy goat sketch
Martin Hoffmeister, 63, recalls meeting prominent intellectuals all over the world. "In the early Sixties I went with my father to a big exhibition of his work in Moscow. We met Rachmaninoff, Yevtushenko and others. One evening he took me to see Ilya Ehrenburg at his home. It was an incredible home in one of those huge and dirty Moscow apartment buildings. But in his small apartment there were paintings by Chagall, Picasso and all the great artists.
"At our home in Prague we hosted many of the important people of the time. I remember John Steinbeck coming to see my father, and Francois Mitterand, before he was elected president. He was the head of the Socialist Party and no politician in Prague wanted to meet him officially, because he was considered a controversial politician. And none of them spoke French, so they asked my father to host a dinner at our home and invite Mitterand and the heads of the Communist Party.
"I was also at a meeting with Picasso in Paris. He drew a billy goat and gave it to me as a gift. My father met him again when he headed the judges' panel at the Cannes Film Festival, and Picasso came from Antibes to see him. I think the portrait of him in the exhibition is from that meeting. One of the last famous people who came to see my father at our home, after the Russian invasion, was Graham Greene."
Martin studied at the Film Academy in Prague and made documentaries and musicals that were aired primarily on Slovakian television. The authorities wouldn't allow him to make feature films because of "a lack of ideological depth," and in good part because of his last name as well. Despite having a Jewish mother with family in Israel, Martin's education at home was more secular than Jewish. His brother, who owns a gallery of modern art in Prague, raised his children as Jews and they have also become more observant.
In his lifetime Hoffmeister was recognized by Poland's Communist government and was awarded France's highest literary honors. The family has about 100 of his works. Most of his works are in museums, galleries and private collections. One of the biggest collectors of Hoffmeister is Arturo Schwarz of Milan, who donated several pieces to the Israel Museum.
Hoffmeister is a familiar name in Prague these days, less because of the artist than because of the hotel that bears his name and is owned by Martin. The five-star boutique hotel, located in the picturesque and historic Mala Strana quarter on the left bank of the Vltava River, has a permanent display of Hoffmeister's works. "When Havel was president, we catered more than 30 state visits," says Martin. "For [former Israeli] President Ezer Weizman we made everything kosher, for Queen Elizabeth we did a reception for 300 guests in the main hall of the Prague Citadel and we cooked everything. Yeltsin, Rabin's wife Leah, Empress Farah Pahlavi,the widow of the Shah of Iran, Milosz Forman, lots of diplomats, Henry Kissinger, Baryshnikov, Milan Kundera - all the world's greats who came to Prague."
The Prague trials
Mordechai Oren, a Mapam leader, spent several days in Prague in late 1951 on behalf of Al Hamishmar (the Mapam-affiliated newspaper), and then disappeared. In late March 1952 it was revealed that he had been arrested and charged with spying against Czechoslovakia and other Communist states. Facing the same charges was Shimon Orenstein, a former Israeli trade attache in Prague who had returned to the city as a tourist.
Both men confessed and testified against Communist leaders charged with treason. Oren was sentenced to 15 years in prison, Orenstein to a life term. Orenstein was freed in 1954, Oren in 1956. After their release both said they had been framed and had been tortured into confessing and perjuring themselves.