Mikulas Medek – Closed Issue or Current Phenomenon of Czech Art?

Mikulas Medek – Closed Issue or Current Phenomenon of Czech Art?

A one-day international symposium on the work and figure of Mikulas Medek was organised by the AVU Research Centre in Prague in co-operation with the Rudolfinum Gallery as one of the accompanying programmes to Medek’s retrospective exhibition (Rudolfinum Gallery, 25 April–18 August 2002).

21 May 2002, 10am–5pm, AVU – auditorium, 3rd floor
Organised by the AVU Research Centre in collaboration with the Rudolfinum Gallery.

M. Medek, Imperialistic Breakfast, 1952

M. Medek, Imperialistic Breakfast, 1952

The following gave papers at the symposium: Antonin Hartmann, Vit Havranek, Zdenek Felix, Jan Koblasa, Charlotta Kotikova, Jan Kriz, Marek Pokorny, Jiri and Jana Sevcik, Ludmila Vachtova, Dalibor Vesely and Josef Zumr.

M. Medek, Thirsty Angel in the Window, 1970

M. Medek, Thirsty Angel in the Window, 1970

The symposium’s aim was to contribute to the evaluation of the present retrospective exhibition in the Rudolfinum gallery and to confront the views of Medek’s contemporaries, Czech art historians (both from the Czech lands and abroad) and the position of the youngest generation. The organisers therefore asked the symposium’s invited participants to try to bring Medek’s work into a wider period context and to discuss the question of his synchronicity and asynchronocity in relation to the development of art throughout the world following the Second World War.

Exhibition in Teplice, 1973

Exhibition in Teplice, 1973

The symposium’s main theme was whether Medek’s work was currently relevant with regard to contemporary art with an emphasis on more general considerations of the function of the artist and art in society. This was closely related to thoughts on the period philosophic-aesthetic context in which the works of Medek and artists representing quite different artistic programmes.

Medek in Čejkovice, 1952

Medek in Čejkovice, 1952

Participants invited to the symposium:

Antonin Hartmann – art historian, main curator of the Mikuláš Medek exhibition, deals mainly in the study of non-figurative tendencies, Czech Informal art, and structural painting.

Vit Havranek – theoretician and art historian, working as a curator in the Gallery of the City of Prague, dealing in non-traditional artistic approaches, constructive and conceptual tendencies of the 1960s and contemporary Czech art.

Zdenek Felix – theoretician and art historian working as director of Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, has been the curator of numerous contemporary art exhibitions.

Jan Koblasa – sculptor, painter, significant representative of Czech art in the 1960s, working in Germany.

Charlotta Kotikova – theoretician and art historian, working as a curator in the Brooklyn Museum in New York, dealing with contemporary world art.

Marek Pokorny – art critic, publisher, editor of the magazine Detail.

Ludmila Vachtova – theoretician and art critic, in 1960s organized new art exhibitions, since 1972 working in Switzerland, dealing with contemporary art.

Dalibor Vesely – architect and theoretician working as professor of architecture at Cambrigde.

Josef Zumr – philosopher teaching at CSAV Institute of Philosophy, deals with the history of Czech culture, philosophy and aesthetics.

Dagmar Dušková – Reflections on One Symposium

The one day symposium on the artist Mikulas Medek and his works was organised by the AVU Research Centre in co-operation with the Rudolfinum Gallery on May 21, 2002 as part of an accompanying programme to Medek’s collected works exhibition (Rudolfinum Gallery – April 25 – Aug 18, 2002. The programme’s morning session included Antonim Hartmann, Jan Koblasa, Ludmila Vachtova, Charlotta Kotikova, Jan Kriz and Jiri Sevcik while the afternoon session consisted of Zdenek Felix, Josef Zumr, Dalibor Vesely, Vit Havranek and Marek Pokorny. The main goal of the symposium was to take another look at the legacy of Medek’s collective works from the perspective of the current art-historical situation. Is he a closed case or a current topic of Czech Art that continues to communicate in the Czech Republic as well as in a foreign context?

The contributions to the symposium and ensuing discussion to the polemical points of the individual papers showed that two distinctly antithetical views stand in close proximity to one another. In essence, it’s a clash of generations. For “Medek’s generation”, represented at the symposium by Hartmann, Koblasa, Vachtova, Kotikova, Kriz, Felix, and Vesely, Medek’s work continues to be the generally accepted ideal and classical value of Czech painting of the latter half of the 20th century. Their reflections on Mikulas Medek, influenced by their own experiences in that time and the sentiment of their personal recollections, for the most part only confirmed the earlier art-historical verdict of full appreciation. Nevertheless, there appeared among the recollections a new evaluative view of the peak creative era of the 1960s. Several pointed out the greater importance of Medek’s work from 1951-1959, the so-called second creative period, which is his strongest and most authentic contribution to contemporary Czech and European art. The hitherto preferred and glorified work of his peak creative era of the 1960s, when Medek moved from individual figuration to structural material painting, has become more problematic and is understood as a more local phenomenon, asynchronous with the world development of art in the 1960s.

The younger generation (Havranek, Pokorny) entered the discussion with a radically critical view. Their contributions were not objective interpretation of Medek’s work, but a personal redressing with a steady paradigm of the “Medek-legend”, which often prevented matters to be seen in their historical relativity. Referring to an immediate communication with the pictures, with more authentically representatives of the artistic expression, they reviewed Medek’s work with an extremely critical distance and formulated a series of poignant doubts. With a certain measure of courage, they reached in their questioning of Medek an almost heretical thought – they preferred the titles of the pictures over the paintings themselves. The most original Medek statement thus became his diary records and other texts.

The works of Mikulas Medek, as with every work of art placed in a certain historical context, are part of the construct called “art history”, which creates the most varied interpretations by people such as art historians, critics, philosophers, aesthetics and theoreticians. This created cultural archive of art stories forms its own legends and myths. Dependent on the unforeseeable movement of time and events, the earlier ruling models are unavoidably transformed – they are deconstructed and subject to critical revision. The existence of an absolute view is thus relative and conditional to the age.

The symposium on Mikulas Medek became an open platform of an intergenerational dialogue and forums of antithetical views, judgements and convictions. It demonstrated the importance of constantly returning to closed artistic paradigms, re-evaluating them and freeing them from past critical assumptions.

Jana Sevcikova and Jiri Sevcik – Mikulas Medek – A Strategic Model of the 1950s

The life and work of Mikulas Medek is a myth we all helped to construct and one that is still active as is apparent from the broad public interest in the exhibit at the Rudolfinum Gallery. This myth had an important function in its time and it is very difficult to confront it or even argue against it. It does give rise, however, to a series of questions: How are we to perceive Mikulas Medek’s work? Is it still able to communicate something today? How are we to interpret the work without proper context, without the historical setting, which was very important for the social and artistic activity of a strong character and for its extraordinary resistance? The situation is now similar, at least for the younger generation, as it once was for so-called Eastern art and its legibility for a Western public. After the first confrontations in the West during the latter half of the 1980s, we often spoke with curators from Poland, Russia and Yugoslavia about the necessity of exhibiting works from our countries in full context so that they would be understood. How are we to come to turns with the fact that a work without context often loses its tension – that it’s perceived more through a discourse of aesthetics, creative language, and structure of material, and the strong existential feeling of anxiety that was to materialise in them can seem extremely stylised or be illegible or already archaised? Or it can seem that the titles of the pictures, navigating us in its interpretation, no longer fully connects with them. How are we to come to terms with the fact that the pictures can have an ironic effect, as though they concealed an old secret, but that the path to them is no longer passable? How are we to come to terms with the feeling that today the essence of the artistic gesture is overshadowed by the complicated aesthetic process and the originally strongly felt escape from the period norms is incomplete? Other questions also arise including so-called abstract painting, which really isn’t abstraction, and the problem of strong intellectualisation in face of a generally declared imaginativeness.

Let us consider the model of a painting we have here before us and begin with how this type of art wants to be perceived. If we borrow the typology from another art theory of that day (Yve-Alain Bois), this above all concerns a “perceptive model“. The pure sensuality was naturally already transformed by the surrealistic experience, but the mimetic aesthetics is active, despite work with the internal pictures. An important aspect here is the imaginative consciousness, which creates its object as the aim of the entire psychic and artistic process. The “imaginative idea” is undertaken in the work, or, in the terminology of theoreticians of surrealism and imaginative art in the Czech lands – “fantastic components of the consciousness are recreated in a fantastic interpretation”. Simply put, the picture represents inner notions, whether they are of dreams or otherwise projected – spontaneous or construed. This had its theoretical and markedly intellectualised model – the inner model, differing for various theoreticians according to the phase and the way the picture was made. After the Breton inner model and its Teige version, an inner model of structural abstraction arrived, intellectually construed by Medek himself. /Only later will F. Smejkal adjust Teige’s inner model for the needs of interpretation of Czech imaginative art/. The old surrealistic inner model is thus archaised. In a January inquiry in 1951 Mikulas Medek and Emila Medkova write that the inner model is not an autonomous product of the unconsciousness, but a project of movement of objective reality in us, a reality “encompassing our trembling subjects, but a reality seen through our whole body, reality, existence, nothingness, reality of the consciousness.” Egon Bondy is evident in relation to “total realism” and deserves further consideration. Medek further defines his works asmodels of the course of psychic events. A picture is a report on the existence of events, a picture is even a model of acknowledging existential events. The term event is emblematic of a new existential orientation in which, theoretically taken, the matter, picture or object was to dissolve in the process in which the events took place. Its parallel with the period action painting is evident, but the manner in which Medek undertook it is absolutely unique in Czech art.

At this point we should mention how Medek’s own inner model was created as he himself described in an inquiry on Surrealism in the spring of 1953. In response to the question “What course does the creative process take in your case?” he specifies the inner model’s dependence on such things as abstinence, the time of the year, the lunar cycle, rainfall, state holidays and the position of the body. ( “For the most part I work in the spring… I don’t drink for at least a week… external events play a major role (official days of mourning, state holidays), the position I fall asleep in is important and that’s the only position I can construe the so-called inner model, …I tuck my legs in, but leave my calves half uncovered… I need to make myself cold…”). We are tempted to perceive such a description as the black-humour persiflage B. Mraz succumbed to for a while in his memoirs in 1970, though in the end he adopted the position that Medek’s response is a serious, authentic message to his contemporaries. Let us once again consider the disparaging, destructive, sarcastic response that parodies the orthodox of the surrealistic inner model and creative process, especially when a text was written in immediate connection to other journal records full of black humour on atomic poetry, “running for peace”, etc. ( “Black humour is a reaction to deadly imbecility and to the peace-loving debility of optimism.”)

Yet let us return to the perceptive model. Medek doubtlessly defined theoperational rules of his work and in this defined painting half-ironically, half-seriously as a theoretical and life practice. In this he standardised a new variant of imaginative consciousness, bearing imaginative pictures, this time more as inner projections of external reality than products of the subconscious. He also specified the period model of creative work, solidifying the original surrealist ideas in a synthetic picture: Artefacts are the course of events, the products of events that are connected directly with material paintings. Let us add in advance that the work on them takes so long that they eventually lose the immediacy of their automatism of the vision and vitality of the immediate gesture of an action painting.

At this point it’s important to consider Medek’s painting as a strategic model (i.e. that against which it stands), which values it prefers, what kind of relationship it assumes toward institutions, etc.

1) First of all, his paintings are also a strategic position toward Surrealism. This means, as we have already seen, a shift – the surrealistic model archaises /and mocks/, destroys the surrealistic effects of automatic paintings, but paradoxically returns to the effect of the surface. The new value is determined by psychic and technological mechanisms, which are the essence of Medek’s system, guaranteeing him a rarity and uniqueness.

2) He also instilled a strategic distance against against the concurrent gestic painting. In a long process the gesture is controlled, made intimate and miniaturised; it loses its immediacy and borders on an ornamental record. The strategic distance vis-a-vis the current streams, to a large extent surviving today, was a period gesture, rejecting the “cultural mimesis” (i.e. imitation of the centre and an appeal to preserving independence).

3) In the face of the neo-constructive tendencies of the day and the industrial explosion, Medek demonstrates the unique character of an artistic production, of the originality of authorship and the primacy of technical mastery. This process is usually connected with historicism and essentialism. In the situation in which his paintings were not incorporated in the social stream and were not accepted by the artistic stream (galleries, museums, critics, media) and in which it is only for a closed circle of collectors, it necessarily becomes a fetish. This fetishist transformation of the painting is a paradox in former Eastern Block countries in which the Marxist fetishism of the commodity could not occur to the same extent as in the West and it could not be developed to such an enormous extent. In the middle of the normal social exchange of values, however, a secret exchange of forbidden goods, which is overly glorified, is carried out.

4) A strategic position, even though it is largely forced, is the attribution of heroic qualities to the role of the artist, of the outsider, of the non-participant in official social events, stigmatised and stigmatising. Isolation is also a protective trench from which art becomes a rarity, an antique, a dear icon. The protective strategic wall preserves the integrity of the medium, precarious in concurrent art in the West, and also prevents its misuse and pollution through official theme-processes.

5) The preparation of the pictures is also part of the strategic beginning. The preparation is actually foreign to the live gesture, or is a kind of aesthetic substitute of the live action gesture, but is often played out on a canvas placed on the floor (as is the case with Pollock). It is, however, the result of a toilsome process in getting to the substance of the event, in turning it into a living tissue. Medek’s pictures thus, according to everything, fulfilled the expectations of the public, of his hidden imagination of the purity and quality of art like an addition to the soul, similarly wounded as the author’s. The author, on the other hand, fulfilled this need and stimulated it, until the pictures became a fetish of non-commercial values. The central construct, on which the strategic moment is based, is authenticity – the authenticity of imaginative values. In the art of the day this was already slowly recessive. This led necessarily to a more conservative position directly proportional to the isolation of the environment in which the avant-garde ideology fall and the utopia connecting life and art proved unfeasible. The renewal of classical traditional values also corresponded to a conscious cutting off of all relations with institutions. In connection with the strategic aim of artists we could also speak separately of the technical model. Technique and technology is elaborate in all layers and plays a key role in making the picture. The procedures are bound to a traditional processing of the medium and correspond to the intimacy of the structures, their layering and uncovering during the work on the picture. In this, however, they become a natural defense to the pure gesture. The symbolic structure also corresponds to this. The picture is an analogy or symbol of the inner, optically non-displayable process – of the inaccessible event. Yet the traditional symbolic rule is not affected, but, on the contrary, is a return to the rule in the most general sense of the word.

Art historians of Medek’s time mainly interpreted him from an existential-political standpoint – as a reaction to the complicated situation of insecurity in a totalitarian system. Medek himself confirmed that the artist is an expert for such situations. For the art historian it even became specific to the nation, emblematic of the Czech national school (or Prague School). We knew that it is distinguished by a long work process that has, according to Czech critics, a deeper scope than the immediate record of a gesture in the West and frees space for a higher, contemplative perception. The operation rules of work not only serve the aesthetic form, however, but also therapeutic aim since the anxious situations are objectified and even transcended to the artefact. The artist works in a cramped space, everything is compressed between his personally experienced situation and the picture – the picture as preservation and the final holding point of an eliminated existence. František Smejkal properly perceived that a dialogue is not played out predominantly between the artist and world, but between the artist and his own artifact. “The petrifying of a permanent flow of existence”, is actually a movement away from the anxiety problem to another sphere, to the eternity. The live act became an enduring print. And this operation also results in such things as the difficulty to understand and accept action painting and real abstraction in the context of the domestic scene.

A generalisation is thus offered: in turning away from the avant-garde, in the long-term interruption of the tradition of Modern art and in the isolation, it was necessary for an anti-modern model to arise. The exclusivity to which art was violently pushed by external conditions then reduced the gesture in the area of form, isolated it and gulled it into a decorative swoon.

After the attempt to determine Medek’s work as a model of a certain type of perception and strategy, it is necessary to once again return to Medek’s type of painting as a national model and an ideal, generally accepted type – today to the stereotype of the artefact – and to recall with a tad of provocation the term Byzantinism. Right before the Second World War, during the war and right after it there appeared a national vindication – a defence of its traditional values. At this time the society of culture deserted Modern art for traditional values and for an anchoring in an ideal original culture. /From the transferring of K.H. Macha’s remains with the inflammatory speech of General Medek, to the traditional aspects of the war art groups to the nationally democratic atmosphere after the liberation/. The atmosphere of the national defence of Emil Filla’s war texts – some were written in Buchenwald – were probably first recalled in connection with Medek by B. Mraz without precisely citing the article of Byzantinism from 1942-43. Filla thus utilised the considerations of a Byzantium basis of our identity for a swift assault on the German culture. In his essay, Filla also declared his resistance to the Western spirit, to its denial of the substance, /especially to its abstraction and conceptualisation/ and expressed the view that our heritage and cultural mentality is different not only from that of the West, but also from the East and is therefore based on independence, on self-reliance. Filla’s call for a separate path is understandable coming from the years of the occupation and possibly from the expectations of the post-war situation. Nevertheless, the characteristic and celebration of Byzantinism as it were anticipated the model of art that took hold from the 1950s: material beauty, pomp, celebration of substance, titillating opulence related to the symbol of infinity abstractly conceived, “…the heightened feeling of celebration of one’s own freedom through the isolation of the subject, through the most titillating opulence of material…” “substance stretched between the present and infinity”, the connection of the everyday with transcendence, the connection of the concrete with the absolute… In Filla’s suggestive appeal to approach the new situation, new complexity of life through a traditional instrument, a well-worn path, /not to look only abroad/, there resides the explicit beginning of the defensive anti-modern reflex of the post-war period. This was not a viewer-loosened imagination, but a contemplation of the narrowly confined work with the cherished substance, an absolute aesthetic structure, an icon, in which personal testimony is enchanted, an exciting dissection of structures under the microscope as a revelation of the essence, as a process that was to become an expression of a different relationship to freedom.

Jan Kříž – Mikulas Medek and Natural Cultural Identity

Theoretical considerations concerning specific characteristics of determined (possibly relatively determined) cultural entities do not belong at present among the priorities of art-historian research – especially regarding the globalising world and the pressure of factors of civilisation on the whole. There are too many relativistic viewpoints, too many elements of perhaps overly intuitive knowledge and emotive evaluation for us to come to verifiable and consistently valid conclusions. We also must take into consideration that cultural entities are historically transforming themselves – that an important role is also played by cultural volition, which can change to a considerable extent the entire approach and balance of values.

Nevertheless, the historian knows how important in many cases of expert work (and often even in its interpretation) it is to ascertain whether the artistic work is “Czech” or part of another cultural circle. We know that an analysis of the history of Czech fine arts is something other than that of the history of art in the Czech lands. Even though at present the emphasis in France, for instance, is shifted to the history of contemporary art in France, the inquiry into the existence of “French” art will not lose a certain interest. This is true even elsewhere in the world. Without giving priority to this or that approach regarding the current situation, I think that the concept of Czech art will not lose a certain appeal, its deeper and more universal meaning. The concept of Czech art thus acquires in this a greater level of interest if an exceptional personality appears, in a certain respect in the context of world art of a specific quality, as is the case of the creative stateliness of Medek’s artistic profile and his cultural contribution. The significance of Medek’s work for formulating a present viewpoint on the question of national cultural identity is greater because we can say that the reception of his work abroad is not such a simple matter. We must assume that this work is to a considerable extent dependent on the historical condition of the development of the domestic cultural scene, and Medek’s work is better explained from these circumstances, as well as from the deeper Czech tradition, than from a general cultural event in the world. In our consciousness – and here I’m speaking above all for myself – Medek’s work, from the view of his humanistic responsibility and spiritual overlap in world art, has a far more significant value than other works of foreign art that usually get far more attention from art critics than they warrant from our point of view. I cannot rid myself of the conviction that if we incorporated Medek’s work to world art history of the second half of the 20th century – and so far it hasn’t been – many other glorified works would appear as a shallow, first-level declaration of a bare programme without deeper spiritual and cultural impacts. Medek’s work, his interpretation in our country and his reception obviously depends on the specific point of view for it stems from the period-specific fate of Czech history, from the confrontation of the requirements of art freedom and personal responsibility with an ideological dogmatic totalitarianism, from experiences that substantially increased the need of a moral and ethical evaluation of the artistic position and act. Certain European streams of post-war spiritual development have received special attention in the Czech lands and Slovakia, as well as the independent development which substantially increases the awareness of the possibilities of national cultural activities. We cannot deny to Mikulas Medek’s work that in a domestic environment he created a work of the same humanistic strength and intellectual depth as those Czech artists who felt the need to expand the horizon of their art by living abroad, as is the case with Frantisek Kupka and Josef Sima. In the apparently constricted field of extremely psychologising introspection, Mikulas Medek in our country came up with the same pathos of the cosmic projection of intimate analyses as both of the above-mentioned artists on the basis of the universal aspirations of their creative programmes. The sensual fullness and urgency, the emphasis on optic delights of form in connection with a considerably exposed emotions – these are actually the elements that we can perceive as bearing a certain characteristic of the Czech art tradition. In Medek’s case – in light of the historical circumstances and artist’s character – it is apparently interpreted in a strongly romantic and often negative and ironic reinterpretation.

In the first study on Medek, the author Bohumir Mraz noticed certain unique qualities of Medek’s work in the context of international art of his time. Mraz writes: “In each creative period we find with Medek a different surprising characteristic that does not at all belong there when gauged by the criteria of the relevant period.” Mraz then ascertains that in “art of the second half of the twentieth century, two tendencies stand side by side more apparently than before; the creation of a universal, resolving the most general artistic problems common to all artists regardless of their race, nationality, place and time; and the creation of a situated, which does not abstract from these determinants, but arises from them and depends on them.” Medek’s work belongs explicitly to the second category. Mraz then declares that it forms “in the 1960s ‘national’ schools of national universal significance” and he analyses “the Prague painting school”, consisting of structural painting, is itself similarly analysed in a separate article.

Let us return to the forgotten, but still highly inspiring methodology of Vaclav Mencl, who, in his book on Czech architecture of the Luxembourg period, points out the special quality of the Czech contribution to the development of the Gothic style in Europe and himself carefully analysed the concept of a national cultural tradition. Mencl writes that “with such a collective spirit of nations we can actually count and, in the same sense, find types that are apparently in their essence already developmentally non-transformable because they are biologically, sociologically and historically to such an extent complete – that even in art history they function as static agents.” Vaclav Mencl observes these qualities not only in Gothic, but also in another development of Czech art. He writes: “It is possible thus in the baroque of the 18th century to seek a new confirmation of our thesis, which from the Czech national existence anticipates a spontaneous revival and creative awakening in later and sensual phases of the developmental stylistic cycles, and this goes for the indifference and misunderstanding in their rational-abstract phases. Czechs evidently do not invent a style, but accept it and easily transform its shapes and composition in later phases”.

Even though Mencl’s findings cannot be applied in all cases of modern and contemporary art, in many regards clearly distinct, it can be pointed out that Medek’s art can, for, instance be better understood from the viewpoint of Czech analogies. For example, a comparison with the work of the gothic Master of the Toebon Altar in which we find a similar synthesis of extreme artism, ardent emotion and sensual urgency in the mystically symbolical vision, just as in the works of Mikulas Medek. Such connections, even if in Medek’s case they concern a typically existential scepticism, are considered specifically Czech in that Medek’s matyrological psychology expands the realm and quality of Czech sensualism and mysticism by a far deeper, fateful extent of an extreme right of light. The once discussed aestheticism is an expression of a sacred reverence to art, a sign connecting life experience to the metaphysics of its spiritual overlap. In our country there is enough room for plebian earthiness, omnipresent realism respecting the physicality of the world as a place in which human fate is played out. In the world of Czech modern art Mikulas Medek is not alone in this regard. From his early works we find the picture Christ and the Calvary (1942), which, as it were, appealed to an example of El Greco’s mystical vision with which numerous leading Czech cubists emotionally and intellectually identified in a kind of special Czech synthesis of ecstatic sensualism. There is no need to speak of the relations between Czech symbolism and surrealism: We only have to recall Frantisek Bilek and Frantisek Janousek. The same holds true in literature when we mention Ladislav Klima or Franz Kafka. It is also possible to be included in the context of the natural cultural whole if the artist, whether consciously or subconsciously, critically re-evaluates any partially empty or even disqualifying dispositions – perhaps even the naive lyricism of the allegedly typical Czech art establishment. Through such an intervention the concept of national identity becomes more substantial and current because it is enriched by inner polemics. This also the contribution of an often painful irony contained in the heroic tragedy of the humanistic pathos of the message Medek’s art conveys.

We have many reasons for saying that the Czech art, cultural and spiritual tradition, even despite its certain specificity, can enrich world culture with numerous original and, from a humanistic viewpoint, enduring qualities. Mikulas Medek’s work, if we preserve the values of from the anonymity of the consumer universality globalising the work, is undoubtedly one of these enduring qualities.