The Painter's Way

Martin Dostál

Painter Tomáš Císařovský (born 1962) has more than 20 years of remarkable work under his belt. It is exceptional in both the Czech and world contexts; this can be proven by a list of his exhibitions, on which solo exhibitions held in most prestigious Prague premises are not missing: the Rudolfinum Gallery and the National Gallery in Veletržní Palace. Tomáš Císařovský deserves his position, regardless of the changing context and shifting focus of the audiences' interest, through his steady and conceptual work in the area of traditional paintings. With today's boom of "pictures you can hang on your wall" it is no wonder that he has returned to the spotlight for connoisseurs, experts, exhibitors and collectors. Císařovský's advantage in this respect is his focus on communicative and visually attractive topics; these, however, always have an exact content and effect, sometimes controversial, social-oriented or historical. In his work, figure and portrait paintings dominate, complemented in recent years by landscapes.

Tomáš Císařovský's cycles – let us recall just a few of them: From Legionnaire Grandfather's Diary, 1988, describing the march of Czech legionnaires in Russia; No Horses, 1994–1996, a portrait series of "resituated" Czech nobility; portraits of handicapped people from the late 1990s; or the latest convolution Stale Time, depicting stars of the normalization-era pop-music – are visual chapters documenting both the painter's effort and the Czech society with all its metamorphoses. His paintings thus become an original and attractive "chronicle" of a creative fate, both individual and collective. His cycles with historical and social meanings overlap with an intimate layer of his work, showing his privacy and family. A kind of snapshot documentary shows a conceited excitement of the vernissage community.

At the turn of the century his topic range extends to landscape. This surprising extension of repertoire preserves the typical colors and style of his paintings; selection of the landscapes is based on the painter's personal experience at the depicted places. Two moments of Tomáš's landscapes are conspicuous: a tendency to "romanticizing" mountainous scenery, and a certain emptiness, even of sceneries full of residential buildings. It is not just taking rest from the turmoil of voices evoked by the figural motifs. The sceneries, free of extraneous details, enable Tomáš to work in a more concentrated style, focusing on variability of his motifs; and distinctive color composition of his paintings is also emphasized; thus elements underlining the painter's authorship get attention.

This also plays a dominant role in the infinite series of watercolors, whether landscape – some of which were even made in the traditional plain air – or figural.

For his paintings, it should be noted that they are created by the historically-verified oil techniques; he is sure this technique has not exhausted its visual qualities yet.

Another advantage of oil painting is that when I spoke with the painter in his studio, full of light from above, my senses were directly hit by the characteristic smell; this is a direct physical influence that cannot be escaped...

Tomáš Císařovský: ...Well, landscapes. To the landscapes...

Martin Dostál: You had never painted them until four, five years ago?
– When I was some fifteen, sixteen, I wandered around Kokořín and painted views through forest interiors. Never thereafter. Some landscape, or say spatial, elements did appear in my mythology or on-wood paintings, but this cannot be called landscapes. I did it deliberately, to shift the focus from landscape to figures and portraits. I filled the background or space of people I painted with the absolute environment, painter's area.

– A little like medieval art…
– I began to give systematic attention to landscape in the cycle depicting handicapped persons (1998–1999). The topic itself requested as much. I painted people bound to small living territory. They are denied movement in the landscape, the physical perception of it. That is why I let them levitate in the absolute space. And as a counterbalance I painted dark landscapes from which spatial delight can be felt. Real pleasure, even if in dark colors.

– Pleasure without people?
– It is a double desertion. On the one hand deserted people; on the other hand deserted landscape.

– What did your journey overseas, to Peru in South America, bring to you?
– A feeling of the absolute. There is a massive jungle, the last resort of nature on our planet. We flew for three hours and continuous green land was below us. I started to feel that the vegetation wins over the human plodding. And right next to the jungle another extreme – six-thousand-meter mountains. This is the absolute feeling I refer myself to; I first felt it at the Grand Canyon.

– Mountains are known to notoriously bring about such feelings.
– I want to combine our perception of nature with such absolute experiences; I want to recast them into painted landscapes. Another phenomenon I met with in Peru was the Indians, their authentic life and ties with the land, in contrast with the central-European limping romanticism of my childhood. Plus the naturally unfortunate interference of our tempting way of life, which we affect them with.

– How was that reflected in your paintings?
– My colors have become more compact. The mud is everywhere there and its colors are intensive, with an unbelievable range of shades. Above that there are the skies with clouds coming from above the Pacific Ocean, clouds building up like new continents. It was the first time I believed in the re-connection, in my ability to paint a landscape with people, not separately as I had been doing up to that moment. There the figures and landscape share a single space in one painting.

– Do you come to a thing like that theoretically or by intuition?
– You have to have a good reason for painting any picture. I introspect by reason all strong visual perceptions I live through. In this buffer space between an idea and its implementation I cope with my doubts, review the idea, get away with skeptical views. I do not look for feedback in advance.

– Your paintings are characteristic by suggestive motifs.
– Painting is a story of energy, and also of a suitable way of life.

– What sense does it have for others?
– Irrelevant things are put aside during painting. You just go and room doors open in front of you. For others, a painting should be an accumulated source of such energy and experience, as well as source of certain knowledge, visual perception, and a meeting point with subtle emotions. Pictures affect psychology and experience in a more valid and more persistent way than other media.

– Why did you begin with painting at all?
– I feel I somehow continuously grew into painting from my childhood. Only from the 1st to the 3rd year at school I wanted to be a sports car designer – it was more impressive to my classmates. In my case, painting was a logical result of family influence and being the youngest son – an art-historian / painter father, one of my brothers is a sculptor, the other is a movie maker. But it is a question to which I still do not know the answer, whether family influence is or is not an advantage. I am not claiming they tried to lead me to painting, though.

– After graduation from a secondary school of visual arts and the Academy of Fine Arts, you profiled yourself as a painter of characteristic figural paintings and portraits in the late 1980s. What led you in that direction?
– It was nearly a program declaration of mine – I decided to contribute to re-establishment of figural and portray painting in this country. But I tried to get rid of the aspects I was bored with, the hypertrophied burlesque "traditions within the law." I prefer a concerned, direct view of people in their immediate situations of life and society. In portraits I am attracted by experimenting with new approaches to this historically anchored genre.

– We can see that, both in portraits of your contemporaries and historical personages, and portraits of anonymous people serving as a basis for a typological or sociological study. Allusions to various periods in history of painting can also be felt. Which of these periods attract you most?
– I am personally most attracted to paintings as stories. In the history of art, periods that are characteristic by a clear-cut painting concept and a weighty but easygoing monumentality are interesting for me. I admire the "storytelling" series of early Byzantine anonymous mosaics, Giotto's frescoes in Assisi and Padua, and works of Sienna painters. Also the portrait series by Master Theodoricus, Italian renaissance fresco painters Masaccio and Mantegna; going back to my childhood, of course, pop-art of the 1960s; among my contemporaries, I most admire the work of Alex Katz. I also like works that declare their substantial approach on the basis of sensitive work with colors. For example, I am fascinated by Poussin's divine color harmony but I am indifferent to the stories he painted.  I have the same painter's feeling when seeing Italian primitive paintings, and of course Velasquez. These bring about the same delight in me as some people feel when listening to Mozart's music.

– I have had the impression that you seem to prefer this or that color from time to time. In the late 1990s, about the time of the Red Wilderness exhibition in the MXM Gallery it was red; at some other times blue or green.
– All colors are good. Red or blue. They are all fine. Say, Naples yellow with the ferrosins can make wonders. I would like to mix a color that does not exist, but I have not been successful so far.

– Why do you only paint in oil?
– Oil is near to our animal substance. It is flexible, does not cool out. Oil will win the evolution!

– And watercolor?
– That is an ingenious technique. It refreshes me, opens new ways; it is happening. Compared with a painting, where everything must be worked out, watercolor is immediate thanks to the water medium, with a great space for the random, and requires immediate corrections.

– Do you register your own brushwork?
– When I do not know where to go, my hand goes on automatically. Brushwork shadows may be the worst thing that can ever happen to a painter.  I am careful to keep my brushwork open, and declarative; I inconspicuously hide it. The "brushwork parade" is something I really hate, with few exceptions. A painting's compact information is what counts.

– Is it important for you to express the atmosphere, gesture, or do you make them up in paintings?
– My paintings try to tell a certain story by means of a visual fragment, borne by the figures' gestures, standing, and mutual relationships. I look up the more general context which bears the meaningful layers of communications. No painting would make any sense without that.  What should I do with a mere torso?

– When did you realize that your style is characteristic?
– During the Legionnaire cycle, that is, the late 1980s. Everyone told me then that my style was distinctive. Sometimes I have my doubts about that. A painter's style is often given by his/her temperament, speed of work, etc. I know about myself that I gradually saturate the color plans, stretching individual tones to the exact moment when they close into themselves and leave me. Well… I may have just described my style. It takes me a relatively long time to finish a painting.

– Is it your ambition to find a wide audience for your paintings?
– I am not saying I do art; I call myself a painter. It is my contact with the world. A visual contact. I may be a bit moderated by an increased skeptical streak. This is based on the multilayer experience I have had in life. I am not a "gründer," I am not trying to conquer the world. The times are a-changing; just recall the conjuncture my generation lived through on the 1980s/1990s turn, just after my graduation. We were able to exhibit our works at places the generations before us could not have dreamt about.

– Skeptical streak?
– I am a bit of a skeptical man, but it does not tamper with my delights. By intuition, I keep a concentrated climate inside of me.

– No forty-year-old crisis?
– I did stylize myself into it; it felt it becoming. When you are about forty, you have the last chance for a real change. I have been here, in my studio, for twenty years; my airways are properly corroded by turpentine, so what about having a small hotel somewhere in the mountains? I tell myself that all the ways are still open for me, but it would be silly to leave everything behind after such a long time of intensive work. And it would not leave me alone. I feel the forces of the space we live in. I am all the time attracted by investigating it. I read about the First Republic, the ideas of modernism; I am excited about the nature of our society as a source of motifs. It is complicated. How strong is our environment? Which parts of it overstep the borderlines? What about its memories, with its hidden-and-leaking layers? What about its subculture? I feel like before a big cleaning just now.

– Since your Legionnaire and Masaryk cycles, your paintings have seemed to put together a historic jigsaw puzzle of the Czech environment, not losing their viability and still being interesting.
– I do not think I am conservative either. I do think it is important what you relate yourself to, where you live. All will be ultimately shown in the paintings, including the feelings of the moment. Buoyancy and necessity to keep it going are big driving forces. And, after all, I still enormously enjoy painting. Before each new painting I look forward to being taken by it to some new places I have never been.

© Tomáš Císařovský
© text Martin Dostál