Texts

Voyage to Iceland

Petr Nedoma

National Gallery, Prague, 2018

 

 
 

A country that is missing several chapters from history; that from a European perspective appears to be barren, disjointed, difficult to comprehend, and without anchor. But in an undefined space, intentionally out of context, the imagination may be unleashed and a new story allowed to unfold, a fictitious diversion that combines moments of the past with the present and exists outside of official history.

Today more than ever, the reality of the image has become the subject of contextual examination. The assumption that an image is a direct reflection of reality has been questioned to such an extent that the substitutive form of depiction appears more plausible than reality itself. In thisday and age, the fundamental expansion of a painting’s range of meanings, no matter how realistic the image is at first glance, can (and often does) result in an interpretation whose straightforwardness is regarded as an almost exclusively intellectual speculation. In the current situation, it would be suspicious to call a painting a genuinely realistic reflection of reality. Paradoxically, we try to suppress this possibility to avoid losing our newfound space for greater imagination outside the basic duality of ‘truth versus fiction’. The intense expansion of the possibilities of visual representation (even while using the same methods, such as classical oil painting) adds ever more layers of meaning to the original intention of trying to find the most faithful depiction of the depicted. It expands our interpretational possibilities to include the full range of newly created connotations. Reading a work of art thus becomes more of an intellectual act presupposing a thorough familiarity of all conceivable and realized variants of the particular discipline. The act of comparing the depiction with the depicted is enriched by the past to such an extent that even a simple and immediate comparison with European paintings from the past century is so complicated as to be impossible to comprehend without a high level of expertise. It necessarily emphasizes all that has happened between then and now, and calls attention to the long series of earlier solutions that, with each additional work of art created today, is enriched by additional facets of the new way of seeing.

What is more, since the late 19th century painting has had to contend with the products resulting from the development of photography. For a long time, the struggle for the right to reflect reality seemed to be clearly going in favour of photography, and this even though – as Vilém Flusser pointed out – the photograph’s reality is based on its ability to encode the reality of the world and transform it into depictions that we as viewers accept as a ‘reflection’. With the dawn and massive expansion of digital photography involving computer-processed data, it can be argued that paintings have once again taken priority, though only because painting boasts an incomparably longer history, and has accrued  a multiplicity of contexts and meanings during its long development.

If we take a closer look at the struggle between painting and photography, especially when seen from the point of view of painting, our attention is drawn to the 1960s, that decade of revolutions, which also witnessed an important revolution in the relationship between these two media. A central figure in this revolution was the German painter Gerhard Richter, who made the relationship between painting and photography one of the main subjects of his work. To a certain extent, photography at the time guaranteed a correspondence between the visible world and recorded reality. Working quite consciously and systematically, Richter explored the relationship between the direct, non-mediated, and at the time still mechanical recording of reality and the shift in meaning that occurred the moment the photographic record was used as a model for painting (which Richter for the most part openly admitted to doing). The question thus was: What will happen if we use the already ‘coded’ reality of the photograph within the code and mode of painting, moreover while preserving the identity of the model (i.e., the photograph)? The goal was not to reproduce the photographed scene, but to create a painting of the photograph as such. The remarkable thing about Richter’s work is that the subject and meaning of the original image were unimportant, although when it came to the repainted photographs that he openly used as models for his paintings Richter sometimes allowed the subjects to speak for themselves and did not resist their interpretation within the original meaning (a prime example being Onkel Rudi (1965)). Richter thus reopened the question of the model in modern art, a subject that within this meaning had been inherent to painting for centuries.

Nevertheless, for nearly the entire history of European art, paintings were not modelled on directly observed reality but on often quite complex ideas and intellectual constructs, usually on the basis of difficult-to-depict meanings and phenomena. By expressing his fundamental stance towards painting as such (which, we should add, he did from the modernist perspective of the search for form), Richter paradoxically opened up the possibility to repeatedly penetrate deeper beneath the surface of the meanings of depiction, and thus to turn our attention to the hidden and forgotten treasures of narratives and the carefully constructed and intellectually formulated theological theses of Baroque painting.

The ability to masterfully imitate the reality of pre-existing paintings (i.e., their recoding into a sign identical to the original artist’s intention), and this reality’s similarity to the visible and known world accessible even to the untrained individual, has paved the way for the reuse of artworks from earlier centuries. It is on a similar painterly foundation that the wide range of connotations, echoes, and experiments with content offering the many different ways of reading the paintings of Hynek Martinec sneak so easily into this space between two extremes – between, on the one hand, the strong visuality so dear to 17th- and 18th-century Dutch painting with its stories of everyday life, raised by painting to a world of their own, and on the other hand pure painting as practiced by Richter, free of story or emotion. Martinec’s paintings are reality recoded into an almost monochromatic image on a two-dimensional surface. They are magically mesmerizing in their precisely detailed imitation of reality – but this is exactlyhow they divert from reality, if we are talking in terms of a direct reflection thereof, for they draw on historical painting the same way that Gerhard Richter painted photographs. Despite possessing all the meticulously depicted elements of the familiar world as it can be grasped by the senses, they are an autochthonous reality, a reality all of its own, a dream about a reality that is not physically tangible, that can only be imagined and surmised, that can be constructed only ante quemor post quem– primarily on the basis of experience, familiarity with the historical context, and the ability to draw abstract conclusions from known historical facts.

Take, for example, the still-life with a lemon. In paintingthe work now held in the National Gallery, what incited Willem Kalf to engage in such a blatantly provocative exhibition of his exceptional ability to capture the textural qualities of the lemon and its juicy, effervescent flesh against the glistening matte surface of the silver tray? Was he aiming for a reproduction of reality that would capture the lemon’s textural qualities as faithfully as possible? Or was he driven by an attempt at dazzling the viewer with his mastery of painting while reproducing a widespread idea of luxury at the time, which had moved from owning the object itself to its depiction – i.e., towards the dematerialisation of this idea? The painting, meaning the representation of a preferred subject, was of far greater value than the actual tropical fruit or expensive dishes made of precious metal. It was also a highly sought-after good. But what is the significance of Hynek Martinec’s equally masterful still-life with a lemon? The reproduction of the reality of luxury goods usually takes on a completely different form today. But the reproduction of the reality of a Baroque subject fundamentally differentiates Martinec’s painting from its model even though they are visually nearly identical. The reproduction calls our attention to the time that has passed between Kalf and the present day – and by extension to all other lemons over the centuries (Cézanne’s is just one example of many), whose existence within the historical context is revived by Martinec’s gesture. It is a living reference to an awareness of the roots of contemporary art and how it is perceived. Another layer of interpretation is the reality of Martinec’s painting in today’s era of exaggerated conceptual perception and the tendency to ascribe meaning to every slightest detail and gesture that might help us to see and interpret this outside of the context of its model. Equally impossible to ignore is the existence of both paintings next to each other in real time and place.

Martinec’s visual encounters against a neutral background in an implausibly frozen time are unclear stories that freely alternate between poorly legible source material and models based on original Baroque narration. His still-lifes referencing the subject of vanitasare not a stage for exhibiting the painting skills that come from clinging to the surface of reality; they are a step into history, towards previously existing peaks that the process of spiritualization has rendered seemingly insurmountable but that nevertheless possess the potential for further development. Despite this clear formal kinship, we are no longer capable of reading these still-lifes as visual metaphors or illustrations of the basic beliefs of the young Dutch bourgeoisie as we know it from 17th- and 18th-century painting. In terms of both motif and painting technique, these two nearly identical paintings (still-lifes with a lemon) are of a fundamentally different significance. Only the artist’s masterful mannerism, with its loving sense of intimate familiarity, hides the space of several centuries and our different way of thinking about paintings today. Martinec’s Baroque opulence of form, exaggerated figural poses inspired by religious scenes, and sharp jumps in the scale of objects did not grow out of a need to escalate expressive hyperbole and move towards a more forcefully ecstatic and comprehensive expression of the hidden mysteries of faith or the material desires of the owners of these works. He opted for a compressed form and a composition consisting of elements that evoke the forceful moments of his Baroque models, thus allowing him to insert alienating elements and contrasting, appropriated details evidently of Baroque origin. The vague nature of the boundaries between motifs, and the permeability or even absence of time within the dense web of scenes, is not meant to refer to the fleeting nature of the moment (in contrast to eternity). Instead, Martinec sees these scenes as an authentic means for reinterpretation and for a parallel expression of our artistic heritage using a form that far transcends established and often neurotically defended boundaries. Baroque literature’s rediscovery of the subjects of Antiquity, coupled with that era’s way of seeing and reading, is no more than a distant and highly indistinguishable echo, an idea adrift in time. Nonetheless, it is a part of European history and remains permanently and vibrantly present, although it is often hidden deep within the foundations of how we see and perceive paintings. When we relive this heritage in the intellectual sense of the stories hinted at in the paintings of Hynek Martinec (our era’s contribution to this subject), then an incredibly wide field opens up before us, one that offers multiple levels of reading along which we can move freely, and that enriches us by its connection with our roots in the past.

 
 

 

Hynek Martinec in the role of the „founder of discursivity“

Petr Vaňous

Galerie Dům, Broumov, 2018

 

 
 

The preconditions and open results of the Broumov project entitled Kilian Ignaz D. in its Baroque framework

The author must be lost or he must be concealed in favour of the forms intrinsic to the discourse. (Michel Foucault)

It was in fact by chance that the painter Hynek Martinec discovered something. And by this discovery, he extended his sphere of activity, becoming a researcher for some time, apart from still being an artist. We can likewise view this situation vice versa. His own painting practice led the artist Hynek Martinec to consciously surpassing the framework of the medium he works in – the format of painting – and in doing so he entered a field that is constituted discursively. His reason was in that a discursive field enables one to get rid of a pattern of unequivocal authorship in favour of free play. Or there is a third possibility, namely that he conceives of the „foundation of discursivity“ as an act of revival of links between forgotten things and elements, which are authorial, interpretational, or even appropriated. We might also simply say that Hynek Martinec as an author needed to „disappear“, to „vanish“, to become a grey eminence, an unseen architect of a project, in which his authorship is dispersed in a diaphonous structure of composed facts, realia and hypotheses. To become an actor in his own „film“, whose cast is comprised by one character only  – Kilian Ignaz D., who in his decisions and behaviour, or practice, creates a screenplay, in which after an exposition, collision and crisis everything tends to a possible historical solution. 

A basic condition here is the location of the screenplay in space and time. There is a Baroque monastery in Broumov that was designed by the renowned architect Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer (1689‒1751). The same architect was the author or co-author of the majority of the Baroque churches of the so-called Broumov group, and of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Snows (the Star) on Hvězda (Star) Hill near Broumov. Out of the past, the figure of the architect appears before us as the „author“. We don’t know him, and it’s even impossible to know him (a common situation in a film or dramatization). We don’t know who he was nor what he looked like (excepting the preserved stylized portraits), yet we know his buildings, his executed designs. It is with the help of this portfolio of designs, and on its basis only that the name of the famous architect appears as a signal recognizable in the framework of a broad cultural discourse. Is it possible, though, that the portfolio of the buildings designed by K.I.D. is not complete? Is it possible that something got lost in the case of such a celebrated artist? May there have been a design, perhaps a mere concept which for some reasons was not carried out? The exposition of Martinec‘s libretto is clear. Owing to some unlucky coincidences something „went wrong“ in the past. 

Out of the reconstructed (or restored) photo story – in which Martinec sends Kilian Ignaz D. to Island, to comply with a wish of an Icelandic scholar and collector Árni Magnússon, and design and build a cathedral there – the most developed and structured in detail is the episode of the very visit of the architect to the deserted Icelandic landscape (performance Kilian Ignaz D., Iceland, 2016, a cycle of photos), his physical entering in the unknown space and feeling the terrain. This forms the framework for the field of discourse, as it reveals the reasons for the architect’s visit to the island and defines the space for the research into the relationship between the continental architectural tradition of the Baroque, and the island’s ignorance of construction in general. Seemingly, this episode suggests cultural colonialism, but it in fact focuses on the failure of the optimistic presuppositions that a renowned Central European architect might masterfully establish a building tradition in a cultural wasteland. With the help of this failure, authentic natural surroundings of the island are being revealed. However, the disappointed architect is less and less able to perceive them. He sees his surroundings through the prism of his own grief and personal failure.  He is backgrounded as an „author“. His feelings and experiences resulting from the loss of faith and confidence take over the foreground. Their tone, however, is purposely exaggerated and parodied by Martinec, resulting in a series of grotesque situations. Those evidently manifest the relationship of the author-conqueror and the space that  rejects any alien intervention. The photo series by Martinec includes a Friedrich-like (Gaspar David Friedrich) motif of a proud challenger, who virtually confronts natural elements and hostile places (the sea, the oceans, high mountains, icebergs, ravines). Kilian Ignaz D. is evoked here as a locator or conqueror looking for the most convenient situation for a new building of a cathedral, as a cultural missionary, who has taken everything into account but the fact that geologically, Iceland is formed  by ice and lava. Close under the surface, he always hits against the unpenetrably hard bedrock, unsuitable for the construction of foundations.  

The architect gets furious, going through fits of anger. He throws himself face to the ground. He condemns himself. He behaves like a stubborn little child confronted with a failure or a new piece of experience, hitherto unknown. Part of the discursive play by Martinec is the psychoanalytical dimension of the agent, emphasized by both the physical gestures, and the used attributes, such as a distinct headdress. When viewed from some distance, the outlines of the wide beret deform the architect’s head (and in fact the whole of his figure), making it ridiculous, while in the close-ups its sharp red colour stands out (it feels out of place in this island!). On the background of this diagnostical situation of ruin, the author synthesizes the three main expressional genres of Baroque painting into one fluent whole of the scenic photos. Landscape becomes still life, which in turn transforms into a portrait. In all those cases the genre is not presented in its pure form, but it is mutated and hybridized. Animal skull symbolises the traditional vanitas– both on its own, and in configuration with the pseudo-portrait. The covered face of Kilian Ignaz D. takes us away from the historical portrait of the „author“ to the portrayal of pure emotion and to an evocation of the discursive field. 

And yet in the end, this hopeless situation gives birth to a vision of architecture which is more dynamic, more fantastic and materially more radical than anything that had ever originated in the Baroque period. It is born like Venus, out of foam, or in a literally Baroque way as a pearl from a grain of sand caught inside a mussel that reacts against it. This is the moment in which the focus is felt of the entire discursive field established by the artist Hynek Martinec. The substitute stylish motifs of foam that covers the face of K. I. D. and can be read as a metaphor developing the motif of vanitas, becomes a volatile form. The mass built up by radical gestures of human fingers gradually takes on the outlines distantly reminiscent of an architectural vision (Icelandic Cathedral, first sketch, 1729–2018). The rising form is so bold that even Kilian Ignaz D. gets frightened by his discovery. The form which mysteriously rises upwards integrates in itself the process basis of Icelandic landscape, the eternal hum of the sea eating away the coastline on all sides; the waves that in their endless movement produce the layers of foam which crash against the sharp shores of the island. The uplifted idol distantly resonates with other surviving plans by K. I. D. However, no Baroque building was carried out in Iceland.[3]

Time has buried everything. Both the author and his authorship are gone. Only archival indications and circumstantial evidence have survived, originating from period contexts. The project of Hynek Martinec came into being because it is time to remember. Not only to bring back to mind the architect Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, whose name has paradoxically changed into a more veiled and anonymous form in the described discovery (Kilian Ignaz D.), but also the motif of a „return to“, at some point worked out by Michel Foucault (1926‒1984) in his lecture entitled What Is an Author?. In his „return to“ he suggested the process of the so-called tzv. re-actualization: „This is the way to define movement which has its own specificity and which characterizes the establishment of discursivity. To make the return possibleit is primarily necessary to forget, but not incidentally, not by some sort of misunderstanding, but by essential and constitutive forgetting. In its very substance, the act of establishment is such that it invites forgetting. What reveals it, what follows from it is simultaneously what defines the difference and what superimposes it. It is necessary for this non-incidental forgetting to enter precise operations, which can be located, analysed and reduced by the very return to the act of establishment.“This is in fact the procedure used by Hynek Martinec, when he applies accurate imagination as a visual operation and thus visualizes his discovery, a gap in history, a fissure in an otherwise compact legacy of the renowned Baroque architect. Is it a return to something that was doomed to oblivion?

What does this return refer to? It refers to both what is and what is not present in the hitherto known biography of Kilian Ignaz D. And analogically, to the concept of  „return“, as it was described by Michel Foucault: „The return (…) refers to what is present in the text (in its bareness), but even to what is signified by the emptiness which forgetting left out or concealed with false or bad fulness, and the return must reveal this gap or deficiency again: this is where the ceaseless play comes from, the play that characterizes these returns to discursive establishment, the play that lies in this: on the one hand you can say that it was sufficient to read what there was, everything was there, one would have to be blind not to see it or deaf not to hear, whereas the contrary view says: no, it isn’t in this word or in that one, none of the visible or legible words says what the matter is, it’s more in the use and arrangement of the words, and in the distance between them.“[6]In the case of Hynek Martinec and his Kilian Ignaz D. the text and words are substituted with pictures and a visual message; with the movement in the discursive field, which is formed by penetrable forms, from photos to painting to material artifacts and documents. The author is dead, long live the author, possibly best in his updated, transdiscursive position with open horizons on all sides. This is also a way to substantially touch the long-deceased Baroque today. 

 
 

 

Always Present Notes on Hynek Martinec’s New Paintings

Ben Tufnell

From Every Minute
You Are Closer To Death, Parafin, London, 2014

 

 
 

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past

TS Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’, from Four Quartets

The doe lies quite still, her eye fixed. Life is leaving. Light plays around the darkness of her eye and catches the fine hairs that fringe her features. This eye is the ‘still point of the turning world’, a focal point, a zero. The doe lies upon a table with a white cloth spread across it, her neck twisted awkwardly. Behind her are a dark wine bottle and a candle that has gone out. This could perhaps be any moment in time between the seventeenth century and the present day.

It could be a photograph, but for the fact that the brushstrokes are there, and we can see the fine weave of the canvas. The paint has been applied with great delicacy. The chiaroscuro is subtle, the shadows deep. The brushstrokes delineating the fur of the dead deer are incredibly fine. As in a photograph taken with a shallow depth of field, the centre of the image is crisp and sharp, but elsewhere there is a lack of focus, the background rendered as a soft blur.

As life leaves the scene is witnessed by a grinning skull propped in a corner. Yet this is not a venerable symbol of mortality, such as St Jerome contemplates in paintings by Dürer or Caravaggio. This is a twenty-first century memento mori, Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted platinum skull, For the Love of God, displayed on a tablet computer. This, then, is now. Yet this carefully painted composition seems also to speak of then, of long ago, a time both near and distant. The painting articulates a discomforting yet persistent truth. Its title is Every Minute You Are Closer to Death (2013).

Hynek Martinec’s new series of paintings are grisaille still lifes. These technically astonishing works depict carefully contrived compositions that play with the archetypes of the devotional picture and the vanitas. For example, Experience of Being Alive (2014) is a still life in the tradition of the Dutch masters of the genre, yet like Every Minute... it contains an utterly contemporary object from the twenty-first century, a digital radio. You Will Become As My God (2013) depicts a complex still life before a vague interior space. The composition includes not only flowers, bread and a crab, but a party balloon. The whole is distorted with shaving foam and pierced by an arrow like a strange St Sebastian. The setting is an abandoned London dancehall.

33 Years of Armageddon (2013) is based on a life-size plaster Jesus that the artist saw in Brixton Market. What does it mean to find such a religious symbol in such a profoundly secular place? Observing the statue Martinec noticed that the strip lights of the store were aligned so as to give the appearance of beams of light emitting from the figure’s outstretched hands. In the painting Christ’s head is replaced with that of a stag, depicted in negative. Martinec thereby conjurs what he calls the eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil that he says characterises and defines human existence. Yet we should be wary of reducing this painting by a simplistic reading. Martinec’s vision of humanity is complex, as befitting an artist who grew up in a country where the roiling forces of history, the push and pull of conflict, are still powerfully present in everyday life. Martinec says he uses religious symbolism as religion is a pervasive part of our daily lives. It surrounds us and permeates throughout society, a fact of life whether we choose to partake or reject. However, there is also a powerful sense in his work that Martinec is pushing beyond the surface of things, perceiving meanings and interconnections that locate profundity in mundane reality. His intense contemplation of the world through which he moves seems to allow him to perceive a spiritual life like a shadow behind everyday reality.

In Six Years of Tabula Rasa (2013–14) a dead bird lies suspended in indeterminate space before a kitsch bleeding heart symbol. This strange composition is set against a landscape, dimly perceived, that in fact represents the house in the Czech Republic where Martinec grew up. It is important to understand that Martinec’s work is suffused with autobiographical detail. Everything he paints has personal meaning. His great skill is to take these moments of personal significance and render them as universal symbols.

Speak The Truth Even Your Voice Shakes (2014) depicts a skull nestled amongst a group of objects; leaves, a plastic toy ice cream cone, an alarm clock. The skull is an object that the artist says he has a ‘relationship’ with. It resides in the school in Machov, the small village where he grew up. He recently revisited the school in order to photograph this particular skull. This fact serves only to illustrate this point: that his work resonates with personal meaning, with autobiography, history and memory.

Out of the universal substance, as out of wax, Nature fashions a colt, then breaks him up and uses the material to form a tree,  and after that a man, and next some other thing; and not one of these endures for more than a brief span.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 7, number 23

Alongside the large-scale paintings Martinec has also made a series of smaller still-lifes. Recurring motifs in these works are candles, wax and shaving foam.

The candle is a classical symbol of mortality and in Martinec’s paintings they are almost always extinguished, often burnt down and deformed. The backgrounds of the images are redacted and replaced with intense black voids, suggestive of limitless space. When it is heated wax becomes liquid and forms strange and suggestive shapes as it hardens. In The Light is in The Next Painting I (2014) a piece of wax has been pressed against a wall but with the wall removed from the image it hangs in space like an amoeba or a piece of ectoplasm.

A spray of shaving foam transforms the shape of a skull. In another painting it forms a ‘sculpture’ but then subsequently collapses beneath the weight of a brick. Like wax, shaving foam is a fluid and mutable substance. It can be sculpted into suggestive shapes, but with time it will lose its form and collapse, becoming nothing but a pool of soapy liquid. It can appear solid but its inevitable collapse is inherent, like the party balloon in You Will Become As My God. As such it is another vanitas symbol, albeit a very contemporary one.

 Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present

 TS Eliot, Burnt Norton, from ‘Four Quartets’

Time is a key preoccupation for Hynek Martinec. Yet we might also say that his work evokes a sense of timelessness. Or at least a sense of simultaneous time, a co-existence. One finds in the paintings an uncanny presentness. Witness his delicate portraits painted from old photographs, such as Miss Hodges of Salem (2010), William Hickling Prescott 1850-55 (2012-13) or the young boy in 1925 – 11 Years (2012-13). Martinec is fascinated by the drift

between the moment in time when the camera’s shutter was released, and the present moment, when he holds the antique print between his fingers and gazes back into time. Equally, his own photographs, which form the basis for his paintings, seem to strive for a condition of age. Martinec uses the camera to hold time, and the transition of the image into paint seems to stretch out this process. One has the sense that the studio is a space in which time does not behave as it does elsewhere. It is a place where many realities co-exist.

A brief inventory of some of the objects depicted in the new paintings suggests a strange cornucopia: a crab, a digital radio, bread, brick, cotton buds,  octopus, cardboard box, flowers, balloon, skull, lemon peel, shaving foam, computer, dead bird, fish, alarm clock.

 What does it mean to render these things in paint? To slowly and painstakingly layer paint onto paint onto canvas, to render a photographic image—the product of a single moment in time—including the peculiarities of focus, as a hyper-real painting? It means that time congeals around the image. It builds up on the painting like coral on a reef, or crystals upon a rock.

Much is written about the life and death and life of painting. As a medium it persists, resisting the vagaries of fashion, incursions from photography, film, video, computers, the cyclical dynamics of critical discourse. Martinec is a painter and while he uses cameras and computers to create his paintings he also works self-consciously out of a great tradition, well aware of the weight of history, the millions of images that were painted before, now stacked up behind him, the availability of countless images through the internet. Yet somehow he makes paintings that speak eloquently of the past and of that very tradition, while also engaging profoundly with the present. Martinec’s work seems to offer a visual equivalent of the complex understanding of time articulated in TS Eliot’s great poem Burnt Norton, one of the ‘Four Quartets’.

Painting, and Hynek Martinec’s kind of painting in particular, seems uniquely equipped to render this ‘always present’.

 
 

 

Arts Baroque Foam

Hynek Martinec: Central and Western Europe

Kirill Kobrin

London, 2014

 

 
 

Before Hynek Martinec nobody had ever depicted so much shaving foam in pictures or in photographs. It can be seen on many of his still-lifes as it pours out of chalices, slowly runs away from trays and tables and from various vessels, as if it was porridge or milk. The foam is thick and white, and it even detains some sort of perplexing forms reminiscent of classical busts and pompous stucco moldings in baroque halls. It is as if somebody had melted an old finished world with all of its empty museum shells and their blank white eyes, causing the frozen art, which does not invoke questions and emotions as it is so beautiful and anonymous, to float and become a viscid liquid cloud which drips off the surfaces of things, waiting until a dangerous sharp blade or a secure machine with three integral sharp blades will turn the surface into a perfectly clean and smooth one. This is the new destiny of fine art: to make the process of perfecting the external world a painless, soft and comfortable one. The outside world should not irritate (or be irritated) like the skin after dry shaving. Although until the normal razor or electric razor are not revealed, the fine art’s foam fills, overfills and partly hides life. That is the state in which Martinec had found the outside world and then captured it.

The white shaving foam is pornographic. Not only does it remind us of sperm, but the actual idea of smoothly shaven surfaces in our world (obsessed with the idea of total depilation and the perfected forms of commercial models) implies close-ups of flawless genitals: something penetrates something without sweat or wrinkles or pimples and everything is ruthlessly sprinkled with talcum powder, smeared with creme and photoshopped. Only the lubricant sparkles; wasn’t it Swarovski that covered penises and vulvas in rhinestone dust? There is nothing living, which is why Martinec’s works are so indecently cold.

Actually, here we have the image of classical art squared. On the one hand, Martinec’s still-life compositions refer to the classical memento mori with their unfinished drinks, opened oyster valves, heavily luscious bouquets of dead butterflies and flies on the table; they refer to the skulls, open books, the dead fish and game; they refer to everything that was an allegory of vanitasduring the wonderful times in a beautiful country where the production of paintings first became an edifying-bourgeois practice. It was actually the Flemish who swiped art from celestial beings, aristocrats and cardinals, deprived Art of its capital letter and adopted it for everyday life. If 'modern art' (in the sense of modern, but not contemporary) has a beginning, then it is here between Abraham Mignon and Jan Davidsz de Hem.

A common man, a philistine, in other words, me and you, my dear reader, and we need a constant reminder that death is certain, life and its bustle are transient, and only dead art is forever.

On the other hand, real art is dead art, and Hynek Martinec makes precisely that, which can be seen in his exhibition 'Every Minute You Are Closer to Death' which was unveiled in the Parafin gallery in London. The title is brilliant, especially if we take into account that however close we get to death, we can never appropriate it, for death, as a completely finished form, has an ideal surface. Death, like the dead and the finished old art, has no hooks, as it is self-sufficient. Some time in the future it will envelop every one of us, but until then – nothing. Martinec’s works feature death in the role of the 'external world', and no other world exists here.

And so, we are approaching closer and closer with every minute and contemplate death. At the same time, with every minute, death creeps closer and closer to us, but we don’t see it, we only feel it once in a while. And Martinec’s art exists somewhere between those two processes. Perfect subjects symbolize death in his paintings, but they are not death itself, they simply signify death, they are a transfigured art form, nothing more. To experience this form is difficult, therefore, in order to make it completely impossible, we need art’s white shaving foam.

Of course, not only the foam. The exhibition features Martinec’s work 33 years of Armageddon (2013), where the biography of the artist (that year he turned thirty-three) was fused with The Known One, Crucified at thirty-three; a scary and sinister god figure with perhaps a deer head with horns spreading and with wide open arms in the pose of the Oranta, exhibited in the museum's hall; is this not a symbol of each of ours’ death in art (if, of course, we have been seen in the manufacture of such items)?

Not life, but a dead and terrifying statuette is exhibited to the delight of onlookers: this is what Martinec, Christ, Pupkin, Leonardo, whoever, are. Thirty-three years not living, but ending the world. Yes, it is terrifying, but goddamn it, so beautiful!

Martinec is obsessed with death, the same way that Czech art of a certain type is enamored with it. For this country surrealism became the “obvious national style”, however not the high and cold surrealism of Max Ernst or Magritte, but slightly rural and hillbilly, overflowing with decorations, it is baroque and provincial, excessive and overloaded with details and ornaments. Today’s symbol of this surrealism is Jan Svankmajer; in fact, Czech art of this sort is located between Toyen and Svankmajer.

The public likes it, but there are Czech artists who don’t. Martinec is the latter. His surrealism isn’t surrealistic but hyperrealistic, therefore it is no longer 'beyond' reality, but it is allegedly so real that it simply disappears, leaving behind empty forms. This is an extinct reality of life, bestowing the only possible reality of death.

Martinec is not the only one in Czech art who is guarded, cold and ascetic. Let us take a look at the great photographer Ivan Pinkava who makes still lifes out of live people, not things.

And here we hit the theme of Eastern-Central Europe. I write this expression with a dash, because nobody can properly explain to me what the first or the second word entails. For example, is Poland Eastern or Central Europe? The Polish would assert that they are Central European, but any Frenchman or Brit would undoubtedly say Poland is Eastern. We can say the same about the Czech Republic and certainly about Slovakia, and I am not even going to touch the Baltic states. As I see it, we need to implement some sort of clarity here, if not in the historical or political point of view (shhhh.... don’t say a word about the loathed geopolitics! not even a half-sound!), then perhaps from a cultural side or even aesthetics. The border between Eastern and Central Europe lies (with a few important exceptions) where the Western border between the USSR and the so-called “countries of the socialist camp” existed. Or another way: Central Europe is everything which was part of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is only the special case of Poland and the Baltic states which were under the scepter of the Romanovs: they are definitely Central European, but found themselves in a completely alien cultural context. Shit happens.

Thus it is a whole world with its own mental and social structures and, no matter how strange it sounds, with a relatively common history, which the historian Timothy Snyder outlined by the terrible phrase 'Bloodlands'. They really were particularly bloody in the past and especially in the XVII century, although not uniformly; for example, the sanguinary of lands in Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1945-48 is simply not comparable. The outskirts in relation to Western Europe, the intermediary between Western and Eastern Europe, the existence of the Ottoman threat from the south-east for centuries - all of these components formed a fascinating way of life and thought, which in turn gave rise to an amazing culture, one that is provincial, brilliant and great without proprietary greatness.

'Grand styles' were not born here (of course I am not talking about Germany and Austria), but while reaching these lands, the styles became something quite different, an element in the quilt of local culture, until the pattern of this quilt was not transformed into something quite implausible, unprecedented, much more grand than the default 'great' and 'fine' made to the west of the Rhine and Trieste, to the south of the Apennines, and so on. Therefore the unprecedented and implausible were of two kinds. The first was a dense concentration of the 'local' transfigured with the help of borrowed artistic techniques of the grand samples from the West and the South. In literature it was Bruno Schulz and Bohumil Hrabal, art was represented by Czech surrealism in its somewhat kitsch recension by the photographer Saudek and the aforementioned Svankmajer. The second kind was completely different; it was a universal principle that avoided any identification with the 'local', it referred to the world at large, to the general idea of mankind and to the structure of consciousness and the mechanism of life.

This was, of course, Kafka, or the Czech photographer Sudek, or the Czech artist Alen Divis who is shamefully relatively unknown. The second type of unprecedented Central European cultural production stands on completely opposing reasons to the first type. It does not borrow grand Western or Eastern techniques but creates its own effortless and amateurish method, but due to these qualities it really is universal and does not depend on the context. The material that was used was also versatile; strangely, reading Kafka, we can imagine anything from France to Japan, not only Prague and Marienbad. This type’s versatility is rooted most often in the accidental and meager choice, using only what is at your fingertips without frills.

Hynek Martinec is a Czech artist and he has a particular relationship with Czech and Central European art traditions. On the surface his art belongs to the second type of the Central European cultural industry with one very obvious adjustment: it is impossible to call Martinec’s art implausible and unprecedented. The public has seen this a hundred times over, and the public understands that Martinec knows how is has seen it a hundred times. And Martinec also knows that the public knows that fact. However he does not undertake any attempts to do something different or do it somewhat new; Martinec purposely stands on his hyperrealism with a face of a human skull. Nevertheless, we can call it neither postmodernism (whatever that term entails) nor conceptualism (again, same): here lies something else. I see here an implicit attempt to rethink the cultural idea of Central Europe.

Memento mori as a genre and a theme blossomed during the Baroque era. 'Melancholia' as a world of feelings and even attitudes to life was invented at the same time; in 1621 a famous book by Robert Burton was published in Engand called 'The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickees, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up', and in 1658 Thomas Browne published his 'Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk'. The triumphant and celebratory Catholic Baroque had an opposing side, which was melancholic and Protestant. But even the first side was also not so simple.

The surprisingly intense cult of death was laid into the foundations of the Catholic Baroque and included the strongest attraction to its aestheticization. If Thomas Brown melancholically deliberated on the transient nature of life while looking at an excavated ancient funerary urn, and Robert Burton pointed out the fact that the actual phenomenon of death is the main cause for melancholy, then the Catholic Baroque masters propelled the endless presentation of images of death into the brightness and intensity of the experience of living. Prague (and to a lesser extent the rest of the Czech Republic) was enshrouded by the Jesuit Baroque after the Thirty Years' War ended; the winners spared no efforts to secure a victory over the local Protestants by building a new urban landscape full of church spires and domes and by erecting twisted stone images manufactured on a frozen conveyor. The Baroque was bad, not like its Italian cousin, but it did the trick: both politically, culturally and artistically. The Czech resistance to the Austrian Empire was crushed, Bohemia became Catholic, and the barbaric imitation Baroque became a condition partially in art and partially in the unique Czech world view. The Czech culture is not afraid of bad taste - the guarantee to this is the good soldier Svejk; here it is understood that the 'bad taste' is, in actuality, life, and the 'ideal, perfect taste' is death; we know which of the two options they have chosen.

Sudek, Divis, Pinkava, Martinec – they had all made a choice, but another one.

The 'ice-cold Baroque' is what I would call Martinec’s artwork. He rethinks the whole idea of the baroque world view. Yes, the foundation of it is death. Yes, we should always remind ourselves of its existence. However! The knowledge of death and the images of death are not spurring the brightness and sharpness of life, as the naive Bakhtin thought, on the contrary, they are freezing consciousness. Death is revealed not in the figures of the saints and the martyrs with their own severed limbs, but in perfect and completed forms. We contemplate death but something interferes, that 'something' might be a small detail, a trifle, a dot, an indent which the engaged mind latches on after gliding along a surface. In order to partly hide the unfortunate imperfections and to partly help bring death’s surface to the final ideal state we need shaving foam. Hynek Martinec lets it out of the tube of molten Czech Baroque in abundance. And at the same time someone invisible is already fixing their razor. As for us, the audience, we get closer to death every minute, but we will never reach it because in fact it approaches us from behind and is about to put its hand on our shoulder in a black Bottega Veneto glove.