Filozofická Fakulta
Ústav pro klasickou arecheologii
Ústav pro klasickou arecheologii

Jiří Frel

Profesor Jiří Frel

(13. 11. 1923 in Dolní Újezd u Veselíčka – 29. 03. 2006 in Paris)

Professor Jiří Frel died in Paris on April 29th, 2006 at the age of 82 from cancer in his bronchae and throat. His life was extraordinary and full of dramatic events. Born on November 13th, 1923 in a larger village in Moravia as the son of a local teacher and headmaster of the primary school (Dolní Újezd u Veselíčka), he spent most of his time during the war – after finishing his studies at a gymnasium – as an agricultural worker, in order not to be sent to Germany as a forced laborer. However, he prepared himself intensely for his later career by privately learning classical and modern languages. After Czech universities reopened in 1945, he began his studies as one of very few students in Classical Archaeology and Art History at Charles University in Prague. Being an excellent student, he acquired a French scholarship and was sent to Ecole Normale Superieure, at that time one of the leading institutions in the world not only in the fields of Archaeology and Classics. He traveled together with one of the greats of Czech archaeology, Bohumil Soudský. After this experience, he was still able to accept a scholarshipin Italy in 1948, and he returned to a communist country only one year after the communist coup. He was a passionate lover of classical and especially Greek art. Like many others of his generation, he entered the Communist Party after 1948, but was soon expelled from it.

When both professors of Classical Archaeology in Prague, Jindřich Čadík and Růžena Vacková, were imprisoned in the early 1950s, and the second assistant, Milada Vilímková, was forced to leave the university for political reasons, he became the only person who ensured continuity; as both professors stressed to me several times, he was in no way responsible for what happened to them. The Institute for Classical Archaeology was temporarily led by Prof. Antonín Salač, an epigraphist and philologist with some archaeological experience from his younger years. The Institute was later merged with the Ancient History, Classical Philology and Modern Greek studies into a Department of Classical Antiquity Studies, first led by Prof. Salač, later by Prof. Ladislav Varcl and Prof. Eva Kamínková. I became one of the very few students in 1953, together with Josef Bartoš, who was slightly more advanced and specialized in terracotta and in Archaic Greek art, and with Roman Haken, who died very young just one year after having finished his studies in 1957, but managed to compile several interesting papers and a large catalogue of Roman lamps in Czechoslovak collections with interesting ideas concerning workshops and schools. With three girls who did not try very hard and later left the subject for Art History or something else altogether, we had to prepare a large number of papers for Prof. Salač’s seminar. I learned from him in the field of Latin and Greek epigraphy, but Jiří Frel was my real teacher and and excellent master in stylistic studies of ancient art. His bright eye contributed to ascriptions of Greek vases, he corresponded in volume with John Beazley. His precise visual memory enabled him to establish many connections and to compose several Attic stelae from fragments kept in different museums. What I know in the field of style I owe to him as a teacher in the first place. His first marriage with a dancer collapsed in the early 1950s (she was an ardent Catholic and he still stylized himself as Marxist, even if not a party-member) and he lived very modestly, running in sandals even in the wintertime, with one pair of trousers and a few shirts that he changed to last him the whole year. But he was in many ways a fascinating person and excellent teacher; he even opened many Art History students’ eyes to stylistic classification of works of art. He wrote several Czech books on Greek art that are still useful as textbooks for students today.

He tried to travel anywhere in the world where there was at least some Classical art, but this proved very difficult at a time when the country was almost completely shut off from the rest of the world. He participated in excavations in Nesebar, Bulgaria for some years and studied the sculpture from other Greek sites in Bulgaria whilst compiling a catalogue of Attic pottery in Czechoslovakia that was published in 1959. He tried at the very least to get to his beloved Paris as best as it would be possible through very small holes; there he earned some modest money as a guide in the Louvre that made enough to survive. When the borders opened somewhat more around 1960, Frel started going to Greece where he also lived very modestly and helped me follow him there a few years later, similar to how he also helped me come to Paris in 1963 for the first time. At that time, his main interests lay in Attic stelae and Roman portraits, and he produced several papers on both subjects and a booklet on the ateliers of the former, which remains finer in some aspects of attribution and classification than the corpus compiled by Christoph Clairmont. In the happier times of the later 1960s he travelled much, was able to get a scholarship and lived abroad more often than in our country, while at the same time helping me in projects that were the basis for all I would later do. He became famous through his reconstructions of reliefs from fragments kept in different museums, by his attributions in sculpture as well as Attic pottery.

In 1969 he managed to secure a guest professorship at Princeton, and after much hesitation he eventually decided to stay in the U.S., fearing – as he told me before on many occasions– that the impossibility of direct contact with original Classical art again would kill him. He left his second wife who did not speak any foreign languages in Prague, and started a new life altogether. First, he spent one year he in the Metropolitan Museum. Dietrich von Bothmer admired his bright eyes very much, but as he explained to me in detail, he was annoyed that Frel left him for Getty so very soon. Jean-Paul Getty and Jiri Frel understood each other very well, apparently. The former needed a man to create a real Classical museum out of his Classical collection, and the latter admired such great men, both before and then. Jiří Frel fulfilled this task splendidly. He acquired what was on the market very carefully, making very few mistakes (these were recommended as acquisitions by many others, too). Today we are witness to an outlet for the compensation of any exploitation by large international companies and the rule of almighty financial markets when certain nationalistic circles, notably in Greece, claim property of everything that might have come from the territory of their country for public collections. Market rules no longer in this field, but in those years, Frel’s policy was generally legitimate. Apart from Ernst Berger, he was the only man to create a great museum of Classical art after World War II. He started a new periodical, the Getty Museum Journal, and compiled catalogues and lists of the Getty collections. Contrary to other museums in the world, his department allowed not only his friends to work freely and publish supported by Getty scholarships, but also anyone else who asked him for some items for publication.

After the death of Getty it became more and more difficult to secure the approval of Frel’s acquisitions by the trustees of the foundation, and he expanded the collection through gifts which he sometimes estimated too highly. It may have been a trick to avoid taxation in the USA, and a certain Howie, an American ‘mud-slinger’ who lost the directorship of the Metropolitan Museum for other, more serious reasons, attacked Frel and tried to persuade the authorities to prosecute him. Though these accusations were never proven as fact and Jiří Frel was never officially investigated, he did not defend himself. He retired from Getty, his third marriage broke down, he left his house and other Californian property to his third wife Faya, and escaped to Paris and Rome, living modestly again from his Getty pension and hiding himself from reporters and paparazzi. In the 1980s he improved his livelihood by doing expertises for the Swiss market with antiquities, as did many Classical archaeologists at this time. He could now buy a flat in the centre of Rome. Frel worked as one of the foremost scholars in his field on various projects in Italy and Greece, publishing results of his studies in many small contributions to various periodicals and conference volumes. Also, in the early 1990s, on several occasions he returned to his home country. As a guest professor he taught several courses at the university in Brno and also lectured to Prague students; in Athens he tried to finish his study of Panathenaic amphorae in the Kerameikos and also prolonged his studies on sculpture and vases in Italy, Switzerland and other countries, being supported by and in turn supporting his fourth wife in her studies – Françoise Duthoy, with whom he had his fifth child, Clara. However, he suffered a serious brain aneurysm in Greece in 1997 and he never recovered completely. Later, Françoise left him for Paris with their daughter, and he then lived in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Rome, alone, helped by a black nurse. He stayed mostly at home, taking only short walks, and ceased to give public lectures. But shortly before this time he had published a brilliant volume of his small studies in Studia Varia with Giorgio Brettschneider in Rome and had prepared a similar, second volume, which we hope to publish soon. As it happened, sometimes his mind was not quite clear, but at times we still had nice conversations at the end of 2003 when we met in person for the last time. Two years later, when his cancer appeared, his wife took her husband to Paris where he spent the last two years of his life, visited by his Czech children and grandchildren, who had often stayed with him in Rome in the previous years, too. Perhaps afraid that possible further investigation of his purchases for Getty might raise claims to their property, Françoise divorced him shortly before his death, when his successor in Getty, Marion True, was seriously attacked. He died quite a poor man, and as such he was buried at the famous Père Lachaise cemetery at Paris.

He had many friends, yet many enemies, too. With his death, we have lost one of the last great connoisseurs of Classical art, whose interests were mainly focused on discovering the exact style of works of art, their precise classification, and restoration of the original state of sculptures. His actions were often governed by sudden impulses – he could love passionately but could also easily break off his former relations to follow a new ideal. Throughout his entire life, however, his love for Greek and Roman art persisted incessantly, and he tried to follow this love as best as he could. Wer ernstlich sich bemüht, den kann man erlösen.

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