We were living in Germany, and my dad got a slim box in the mail. The kind that usually indicated a book. He said we were going to look at something very special once we got home. Me and my sister sat at the dining room table with Mom and Dad while our younger sister and brother played; they were too young to understand the importance of this book. My dad flipped through the pages very carefully with amazement. We had a family coat of arms, and there was text going into the symbology, though there wasn’t too much actual writing in the book. There were lions on the crest, which represented courage. But even at twelve, I knew that. I didn’t need a book to point it out. I really didn’t feel a connection to the book on the Scheiners. It seemed vague and not quite right. This was pre-Internet, and I think my grandmother may have ordered this for my dad.
So I forgot all about that Scheiner book with its coat of arms with lions that looked like a cartoon, not real at all. How could anybody carve that onto a shield? Instead my interests were more taken by visits to the Landstuhl Post newsstand and the few racks that were stacked with real comics. I’d also read the cartoons in the daily Stars and Stripes that my dad brought home from Ramstein every day, but what me and my sister really enjoyed were long-form comics. It started with juvenile Archies, which were few and far between because my family couldn’t really afford these extras.
But one day we discovered a treasure trove of comics in the dumpster outside of our building. They had been thrown out by the Covingtons who lived above us. A couple of teenagers in the family were the source of the comics, and I figured Mrs. Covington must have stumbled on them and made her kids get rid of them. She was super-religious and had been spotted in the woods outside our housing complex cutting switches from the trees to beat her kids with.
For sure, Alan Moore’s and Stephen Bissette’s Swamp Thing would be against her religion. I remember being terrified while reading the eco-horror title when a boy’s parents release the Monkey King after playing with a ouija board. With both excitement and dread, I watched that black-and-white monkey as it started feeding on the blood of children. I didn’t know comics could do that, and it was transcendent for me. We’ve always been artists in our family, and with horror comics paving the way, along with a deep love of Grimm’s fairy tales, some seriously demented and wonderful creatures sprung up. We’d always had a taste for the dark, the gothic, and that was reflected in my family’s artwork.
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled onto work by Artus Scheiner, a bohemian artist from Prague, who specialized in cartoons and illustrations made in gauche, my paint medium of choice in college because of the bright colors. I clicked a link that Guillermo del Toro put up on his Twitter account and was stunned to find artwork that looked so similar to what me and the rest of my family produced.
I tried to find more information on him, and the things I uncovered gave me shivers down my back because of the similarities I found. Artus started off as a financial clerk in Prague, but he had an interest in drawing and art from a young age. After he started having success publishing his illustrations in important magazines of the time, like Lustige Blätter, he quit and worked full-time as an artist. He participated in the café culture of Prague, where intellectuals, artists, and writers gathered, and frequented Café Arco, which was visited by other famous luminaries such as Franz Kafka and Max Brod. There he met Milena Jesenska who he asked to work as a model for some of his fairy-tale illustrations. She didn’t mind modeling nude, but she was kind of grossed out by his studio.
Artus and his older brother Josef Scheiner, who was a politician, were part of an association called Sokol, which believed in gymnastic training and cultural development for its members. Josef loved puppet theater and would stage productions for children and guests in his study from 1895 to 1907. The puppet theater was a family affair with puppets being created partly by the brothers’ mother and some by Josef’s wife, Karla Scheinerová. Artus helped by creating scenery and backgrounds for the stage. And Josef would write the scripts, some based on old fairy tales. This reminds me of work my sister has done designing marionettes and selling them on her Etsy shop. Teen Vogue contacted her once, and she lent the magazine one of her puppets as a prop for a photo shoot.
Artus is identified as an artist of the Secessionist movement, which puzzled me. But reading more about it, I found it was part of a reaction to classical art of the time, and there were many bases for the movement: Prague, Berlin, Munich, and Vienna. I knew it as art from the Weimar Republic, and some of the artists associated with this movement are Otto Dix, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and George Grosz—only some of my favorite artists. While staying in Berlin, those were the artists I sought out at smaller galleries and museums, skipping all the classical art.
One of my favorite images by Artus is an illustration for the story “The Wooden Baby” from Tales from Bohemia. For the longest time, I thought it was a picture of a giant frog wolfing down a person, but no, it’s a wooden baby with a voracious appetite who keeps eating everybody he encounters while singing rhymes: “I’ve gobbled and gobbled/All that I can;/A jugful of milk/And food from the pan./A whole loaf of bread/And, all this is true—/My mum and my dad/And a dairymaid, too!/I’ve eaten a peasant/And all of his hay,/Pigs, swineherd and shepherd/And sheep, in a day./But as I’m still hungry…/I’ll eat you, if I may!”
The similarities between that and some of my stories are eerie, and now as I work on my kids’ book The Rats of New York with illustrations done by my sister, looking at her artwork and one by Artus for the book The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, they almost appear as if they came from the same studio. In my eyes, at least.
I am actively trying to acquire some of Artus’s work now through a Czech auction house called Sypka, but so far I haven’t been lucky with any of my bids. I think I need to make a visit to Prague the next time a lot is selling. I want to see one of these artworks in person and really study it.