Monday 9 July 2018
Ales Mertl is one of the Czech Republic’s best-known carvers and produces some of the most distinctive and singular works to be found in Europe today. At 37, he is part of a new generation of woodcarvers that has emerged since the fall of Communism who, along with a great many amateur carvers, seeks to preserve the old traditions and explore artistic possibilities of the craft.
Before the Communist takeover in 1948, Czechoslovakia had a strong tradition of carving but in the years that followed the Second World War, the craft and its stylistic development was in stasis. In addition to there being little demand for carving during this time, the craft was not being taught to a younger generation, and so it was not until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that things started to change for the better.
Only a few good carvers who trained before World War II survived into this period of flux, but those which did, passed on their lifetime’s skills and now most Czech carvers are involved in restoration work, with some specialising in marionettes.
There are two or three schools in the Czech Republic where young professional carvers are trained, although most graduates become designers, managers or dealers of carvings. In recent years, however, courses for hobby carvers have become increasingly popular, and there is now an emerging amateur carving community.
Born in Prague, Ales’ family moved several times between the city and the country during his childhood, with his happiest memories in the small village of Jiloviste, where between the ages of 9-17 he spent most of his time biking around the forests.
Ales, his wife and children now live in the small town of Jilove – about a 30-minute drive from Prague. Set amongst the town’s Gothic architecture and looking onto the surrounding hills and forests, Ales works from a one-room studio in the family house where he is currently carving a commissioned marionette – a Pierrot – for a French puppet-collector.
Ales’ involvement with woodwork, and particularly carving, started at a young age when he helped his father and grandfather in the family business restoring high-class furniture. As Ales recalls, “I don’t remember exactly when I started carving but it must have been when I was seven or eight – I tried to make little boats from pine bark. At the same time, I was also fascinated by my father’s scrollsaw, so he sometimes helped me to make a simple piece like a flower or a figure from plywood.”
His training began in earnest at a secondary school of applied arts. “I still remember how my hands didn’t want to obey… there was plenty of spoiled wood and stripped screws during my adolescence.” However, despite his early difficulties, Ales found a lot of inspiration in his home city of Prague. “You can see great ‘trade carvings’ and sculptures from masters of previous ages at every step. This is a special kind of permanent inspiration.”
After graduation, Ales’ ambitions drew him to two significant jobs: firstly with the renowned ornamental carver Vaclav Novak, and then to the lure of puppet-making when he shared a workshop with Mikulas Havlik – a master puppeteer and renovator of puppets for the National Museum in Prague.
When asked about the characteristics of Czech carvings, Ales describes the style as being most closely related to German or Austrian carving traditions, “In the past, Czechoslovakian carvers travelled all over Europe and you can see these influences, particularly the Italian, French and Spanish styles, in Czech Baroque ornaments and figurative works.” Also, as a regular reader of Woodcarving, Ales reflects that, “Nowadays the traditions and influence of British carving are a bit weaker here, but it is interesting to see the mixture of all of these influences on untutored rural carvings. These have a special charm. What surprised me about the UK was the popularity and perfection of wildlife carving – this is an unfamiliar approach here.”