The history of the Museum of Jan Vachal began in 1920, when the retired office worker, amateur printer and lover of art Josef Portman invited to Litomysl his friend the painter, graphic artist and writer Josef Vachal, and asked him to decorate the ceilings and walls of two rooms in his house.
Josef Vachal, an idiosyncratic and unique artist, whose life work had gone largely unrecognised, was especially talented as an illustrator and creator of beautiful books, which he considered to be original artistic artefacts. He created them himself using his own handwriting, typesetting, coloured and black and white woodcuts, and also the binding. He published books using hand-made paper in print runs of one to twenty books. Apart from books he also worked at free-hand drawing, especially coloured woodcuts, painting, decorations for ceramics and woodcarvings for furniture. The ideas behind his writing and creative work oscillate between deep and informed respect to baroque book production, shopkeepers' poems and folk 'bloody' novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, and an interest in oriental religions and philosophy, theology and demonology. Josef Vachal obliged Portman's wishes, and in 1924 he completed his work in Litomysl.
Vachal's wall paintings in the Portmoneum are so complicated in their structure that it is very difficult to describe them simply. At first sight the heterogeneous mixture of themes and painting styles have an internal logic, which cannot be deciphered without knowledge of all of Vachal's works, and especially without knowledge of his views and opinions on art. The paintings are interwoven with dozens of significant and direct citations from his works. It is a landscape, and alongside this there is a number of devils, sprites and ghosts, together with classical themes from Christian iconography and references to the Hindu bhavagadhit and other oriental sources. It is therefore a type of ORBIS PICTUS of Vachal's spiritual life and artistic opinions.
When in 1991 the Paseka publishers bought Portman's house including its pictures from the National Gallery in Prague with the intention of saving the derelict work, the wall paintings were truly in a piteous state. Part of the surface of the painting was lost when the windows and doors were changed in the 1970s, and a fire at the end of that decade also proved to be a fateful event. Due to dripping water, the paintings were detached from their plaster backing, and had partially fallen off. In addition the paintings were, prior to restoration, covered with a layer of soot, dirt and, in places, damp rot. The damaged uprights of the building also caused cracks in the vaulting. The overall incongruity of the paintings and the aluminium fittings meant that a decision was made to carry out the most difficult and most risky form of restoration - transferral of the paintings, which meant that they were taken down and transferred to a new plaster backing. Following the removal of the transfers the remaining plaster was removed and during 1992 a building company carried out all the work necessary for the successful preservation of the work: a new roof, strengthening of the vaulting, insulation and new plaster. The restorers, under the leadership of Jiri Latal, worked on the replacement of the paintings until June 1993, following which they carried out colour retouching work and partial reconstruction with the help of preserved photographs.
All of the work was financed and organised by the Paseka publishing house in the honour of Vachal's work, and in 1993 the museum was opened. It was called the Portmoneum, which was the name given by Vachal himself in 1924 in his novel entitled 'Bloody Novel'.