Oldřich Šimáček was born in Prague on September 2, 1919. After graduating from the School of Arts and Crafts in Prague, where he studied decorative painting with professors J. Bendy, Z. Kratochvíl and F. Kysela, he got his first engagement at the then Czech Theatre in Olomouc. He worked here in the years 1942-1959 as a stage designer and head of the ensemble. In 1959 he returned to Prague as a set designer at the National Theatre where he worked until his retirement in 1988.
However, his activities were not limited to these two places. In addition to systematic cooperation with Olomouc Theatre, which he maintained after his departure for the National Theatre in Prague, Oldřich Šimáček participated in the production of more than 50 other professional theatres in Czechoslovakia (e.g. in Prague, Brno, Ostrava, Bratislava, Košice, Šumperk, České Budějovice, Kladno, etc.) as well as a number of foreign stages (e.g. in Vienna, Wittenberg, Reykjavík, Sofia, Lyon, Strasbourg, Geneva, Buenos Aires, Donetsk, Amsterdam, Maribor, etc.). In this context, particular emphasis must be placed on contacts with the Koninklijke Vlaamse Opera Antwerpen, the Royal Flemish Opera in Antwerp, for which he created 13 opera sets between 1968 and 1974. He was the first Czech stage designer to design scenes, including costumes for R. Wagner’s entire four-part cycle, The Ring of the Niebelungs (Gold of the Rhine, Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods).
He won a number of national and international awards for his work, such as the 1971 Gold Medal of Prague Quadrennial, the International Exhibition of Stage Design and Theatre Architecture, and in 1973, the Gold Medal for the Best Foreign Scenographer at the XII. Biennial of Fine Arts in São Paulo. We meet his name in educational dictionaries and encyclopaedias, which were published in former Czechoslovakia and current Czech Republic. In 2005, a newly opened exhibition space in the building of the Moravian Theatre in Olomouc, the Oldřich Šimáček Gallery, was named after him.
Oldřich Šimáček also engaged in other artistic activities. During his time at Olomouc Theatre he illustrated books and murals, and later, as a set designer at the National Theatre, he was also involved in exhibitions.
Oldřich Šimáček devoted almost 50 years of his life to scenographic work, the list of which runs to around 600 items. The peak of his creative activity can be traced to the period of the second half of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. He created his scenes for opera and operetta, as well as for ballet and drama productions. Scenes created for opera productions have gained international fame. In addition to the Wagnerian cycle mentioned, there are also scenes for the operas War and Peace by S. Prokofiev, The Lost Dutchman R. Wagner, Kateřina Izmajlovna D. Shostakovich, and Greek Passions by B. Martinů, etc. Of the other productions for which he created, to this day are remembered, for example, The tram to the station of the desire of T. Williems, the Cat Game of I. Örkeny, All My Sons by A. Miller and Deceased Nasredin by J. Kainar.
The scenographic work of Oldřich Šimáček is characterized by a richness of means of expression, it is mainly a combination of architectural, painting and lighting elements, the use of projection and kinetics. These serve to shape the stage space and often became bearers of symbolic meaning (e.g., colour, shapes, use of detail) associated with the character of the work. The resulting scenes were never just a visual backdrop for what happened on stage. They serve as example of high-quality scenographic expression, organically integrated into the overall structure of the theatrical production.
Oldřich Šimáček was an artist with an expansive view and expressive versatility. His lifelong desire was to paint, a dream he could realize when he retired and could devote himself entirely to his painting and drawing and thus express his thoughts, inner feelings and premonitions. At a late age, at the age of eighty, his work surprisingly becomes the richest, most comprehensive and most varied. Through brush and pen, he reveals his heart not only to himself but also to others who are interested in his work. There are smaller works in his collection and large canvases. Sometimes the colour is subdued, which may have a depressing effect, but there are also images in rich, penetrating colour. The images are created with passion, the plot and expression develop gradually. Sometimes he returns to a finished work and corrects it. The painter reacts to the world, perceives what is happening around him and, in his own way, responds to the changes in his art. In the pauses between creative paintings, he focuses on playful poetic line and colour drawings in soft pastel tones. The astonishing number of such drawings done in his later years, is testimony to the artist’s rich imagination
Oldřich Šimáček, an artist whose work has made the field of scenography accessible to the general public, died on 17 January 2014 at the age of 95.
Details on his life and work can be found in Karolína Gumulcová’s diploma thesis: Scenographer Oldřich Šimáček, Department of Art History, Faculty of Arts, Palacký University, Olomouc 2011; Thesis supervisor: doc. PaedDr. Alena Kavčáková Dr. (see pdf appendix with the author’s consent).