Wiegand’s second Wunderkammer investigates Frkos,
a beautiful Czech children’s photobook.
There aren’t many children’s books that are illustrated with photography. Fewer than you would think, anyway. Among the few that exist, one of the most beautiful is the subject of this Wunderkammer. The book tells the story of a cheeky baby blackbird who falls out of a tree and is rescued by two children from the clutches of a hungry cat. The children keep the baby bird in a cage on their windowsill and it is visited by its mother, who raises her child from outside its little prison. Along the way the mother tells instructive stories from the blackbird world, and at the end of the book the baby bird is all grown up and it flies the nest, as it were. Only then does it get its name: Frkos (in Czech), or Flitzi (German), or as the English would say, Chirpy.
The actual context of the story – in which two children find a baby bird and keep it on their windowsill where it is visited by another bird – is easily photographed. What is not easy to photograph are the stories told by the mother to its baby, about growing up in blackbird-land. So in the German editions, the photographs are replaced by illustrations that depict the un-photographable tales*. The original Czech edition confines itself to the images of the real events.
So, what came first, the photos or the story? Perhaps it went like this: the photographer Milada Einhornová (1925-2007) noticed a baby blackbird in a cage on someone’s windowsill and photographed it. To these she added images of the wide-open sky to which the baby bird eventually returns, and here was the basis for a film-esque storyline. At this point a famous contemporary author Pavel Kohout (born 1928) became involved and composed a story for the images.
The “talking” typography and the idiosyncratic, almost enigmatic design of the book are the work of artist Pravoslav Sovák (born 1926), who came to the west in 1968. He is also responsible for the coloured constructivist patterns and surfaces as well as the bold framing of Einhornová’s pictures. This would be Sovák’s second collaboration with both of them, his first being an equally remarkable book about the spa town of Marianske Lazne (1960), photographed by Milada’s husband, Erich Einhorn. Sovák must have had good reason why he did not include these two remarkable book layouts in his bibliography.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether we can read the words of the story. It is crucial that the story and the photographs were brought together by the layout in a way that is both child-friendly and slightly avant-garde at the same time: this is the interesting thing to us. Even today this picture story can be followed by adults just on the pictorial level without being able to read the Czech text.
* Pavel Kohout (text), Rina Mayer (Illustrator), 'The Wise Blackbird', Bucher Verlag Luzern and Betz Verlag, Munich, 1973 (more German editions appeared in 1981 and 2000), the English, new illustrated edition is called 'Chirpy Blackbird', Vitalis Verlag, Furth, and Prague in 2000.
Original Czech edition: Milada Einhornová (photos) / Pavel Kohout (text) / Pravoslav Sovák (layout), říkali mu Frkos (= They called him Frkos), Státni nakladatelství dětské knihy, Praha 1963, print run: 20000, hardcover.