Notes on Hynek Martinec’s
From Every Minute You Are Closer
To Death, Parafin, London, 2014
Arts Baroque Foam
Central and Western Europe
Arts Baroque Foam
Central and Western Europe
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’.
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 vanitas during 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.
© Hynek Martinec 2017
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