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Kolář came from a working-class family, the son of a baker and a seamstress. He received early training in cabinet making (he lost a finger while joining) and then changed trades several times (sanitation worker, bartender etc.) until 1943 when he became a full-time writer while living and working in Kladno. Kolář joined the Communist Party in 1945 but left the Party the same year. He was not allowed to publish after Communists took control in Czechoslovakia in 1948. He married Běla Helclová in 1949. When police found his manuscript, Prométheova játra, in the property of Václav Černý he was arrested in 1953 and spent several months in prison.
During the next period of milder Stalinism, he became a leader of a group of poets (among them Václav Havel and Jan Zábrana) in Café Slavia. Kolář's wild behavior lost him former friends (e.g. he threw coffee on Josef Hiršal's shirt and was poured by his soda water). In the 1960s he started writing experimental poetry (analfabetogram, cvokogram) from which he shifted into experiments in visual art. The failure of the Prague Spring in 1968 brought his work into the index again. In 1970 cerebral apoplexy stiffened his right arm. He signed Charta 77 and used his scholarship to West Berlin to emigrate. From 1980 on he lived in Paris. After 1989 he visited his homeland more and more often. He then became ill and spent his last years in a Prague hospital.
In 1938 his first poems were published in a private edition but they are not included in his complete work probably because they are openly erotic, describing oral sex (Ústnice), sex positions (Svícen a trakař) and sex with a prostitute (Růže Večernice). Thus Křestní list (Baptism Certificate, 1941) is considered his first production. This and the other three collections of poems from the 1940s are part of a new existentialist poetic style of Skupina 42 with such members as Jindřich Chalupecký, Ivan Blatný, Josef Kainar, Jiřina Hauková, Kamil Lhoták etc.
In the Stalinist years of Czechoslovakia (1948-1953, during the presidency of Klement Gottwald) Kolář wrote poetic diaries - Očitý svědek (Eyewitness, 1949), Prométheova játra (Prometheus' Liver, 1950). In 1957 he wrote a creative interpretation of classical Chinese warfare tract under the name Mistr Sun o básnickém umění (Master Sun on Poetic Arts). In 1964 Náhodný svědek (Accidental Witness), a selection of his 1940s work was published, and in 1966a censored selection from his 1950s work came out under the name Vršoyfjutyivický Ezop (Aesop from Vršovice).
- Křestný list (1941)
- Sedm kantát (1945)
- Limb a jiné básně (1945)
- Ódy a variace (1946)
- Dny v roce (1948)
- Mistr Sun o básnickém umění (1957)
- Básně ticha (1965)
- Evidentní poezie (1965)
- L'enseigne de Gersaint (1965, also in English and German, title taken from Watteau's painting)
- Vršovický Ezop (1966)
- Nový Epiktet (1968)
- Návod k upotřebení (1969)
- Očitý svědek (Munich 1983)
- Prométheova játra (Toronto 1985, Prague 1991)
- Roky v dnech (1992)
Translations and re-told stories
- Ezop: Bajky (1957, adaptation of old Czech texts)
- Kocourkov (1959, based on Johann Friedrich von Schönberg, written with Josef Hiršal)
- O podivuhodném životě mudrce Ezopa, který rozuměl řeči ptáků, zvířat, hmyzu, rostlin i věcí (1960, adaptation of old Czech texts, written with Hiršal)
- Enšpígl (1962, adaptation of old German texts, written with Hiršal)
- Baron Prášil (1965, based on Gottfried August Bürger, written with Hiršal)
- Mor v Athénách (1965)
- Unser täglich Brot (Vienna 1966, translated by K. B. Schäufellen, in Czech Chléb náš vezdejší, Prague 1991)
His first exhibitions in 1937 focused on his collages. In the 1960's Kolář first combined painting and poetry but gradually turned completely to experiments in visual art. In his work he used a scalpel to cut pictures out of magazines. He produced colors in his collages by gluing on printed papers. His collages were intended to influence the viewer's outlook on life; to raise the viewer's level of consciousness. He invented or helped to develop new techniques of collage - confrontage, froissage, rollage etc.
"Like most great artists of the past century, Kolář was both an anarchist and a reactionary. In order to “make it new,” the artist must systematically reject every aesthetic tendency that’s come before; the artist can either accomplish this task via exclusion or destruction. Witnessing first-hand the steady self-destruction of European civilization throughout his life, it seems only natural that Kolář would go the latter route – picking through the debris and disfiguring all that he came across, granting his objects a novel significance that certainly would’ve baffled their original creators." Travis Jeppesen