The welcome presence of the “post-occupation” globetrotter Antonín Málek on the Czech stage of graphic art reminds us of the fact that his work has by a considerable margin not been given as much national attention as it would deserve. There are whole series of work by him that we hardly know, which relates not only to the period of his emigration and his ongoing stays in Western Europe and worldwide, but also to the times of his studies in Prague and his activities within the development of Czech structural abstraction at the beginning of the 1960s. In the course of time his work richly, and even unexpectedly ramified. He follows a number of parallel subjects that should be given attention both separately and in a holistic way, with hard effort made to understand Málek’s work as a testimony of a conspicuous and most independent personality of graphic art. As time passes, and as we become more familiar with the character and the development of local and international trends at home, we feel more and more attracted by the very specific contribution of this author, of the features making him different, even though his work may be justly classified within the development context of the period.
The diversification of Málek’s artistic thought attracts us as a document of a general tendency within the contemporary art, doubtlessly dissipated in a plurality of directions that are often incompatible as to style. The profile of this outstanding creative personality appears repeatedly as a certain unity in diversity, rather than a fixed monolith following one direction and one idea. The courage to take up the risk of contrasts and discrepancies does not appear as a phenomenon of the times only, being akin to the whole spectrum of present day art, but also as a means to arouse the interest of the cultural public by expressing intrinsic and external conflicts of the creative programme. The farewells, the refusals, the comebacks, the acknowledgements and new updating of the starting points, the cohesion of the past, present, and future, all that sounds to be most topical. The metaphysics of the radical structural symbolism of the 1960s as well as Málek’s descriptive realism of more recent times have a quite justified claim to be acknowledged as a certain general cultural value.
As early as in his Indian-ink drawings from the turn of the 1950s and the 1960s Antonín Málek’s profile was one of a strong personality. Following in the expressive trends that were typical for the Czech way to cubism, Antonín Málek made a successful attempt to combine some particular parts of the Czech landscape with a relatively independent formal synthesis, searching for deep-minded symbolism. Neither side is seen to prevail; both are joined in drawings that are emotionally and intellectually deeply impressive. The dark meditative drawings are not just one stage on a path to abstraction, but superb key signatures in a principal, and in this sense also permanent, rooting of the author’s production in the world of real perceptions and fateful events of life.
The impact of early Málek drawings is so intensive from our present day view that we can not help appreciating the fact that in spite of his own excellent results Málek joined in and took the lead within the endeavours of opinionrelated young people, by the end of the 1950s, and namely those who saw the symbolics of formally autonomous graphic and material textures and structures as a means for an utterly authentic, artistic expression and testimony, with enough responsibility to the ego and to the contemporary period of time. In 1960 Antonín Málek is coauthor of two historical Confrontations. They took place within the unofficial intimacy of the Prague atelier of Jiří Valenta and Aleš Veselý, as imposed by the regime. The impulses of graphics by Vladimír Boudník, the works of Mikuláš Medek and Josef Istler, together with the search of the young generation, led to the establishment of the “Czech School of Structural Abstraction” where Antonín Málek also left his fingerprints. Only today have we begun to realize how very closely Málek with his friends focusing upon symbolical abstraction were related to the parallel development in our neighbouring Austria (that was inaccessible during those times). Over there – still producing half-gestural, half-structural paintings – they were working upon the same existential, religiously and mystically motivated symbolism as the young painters in Prague. Globally known names, such as Hermann Nitch, Otto Muehl, Günter Brus and others, can document the value of the works of the young Czech structural school, while illustrating the specific character of material mysteries of the Central European spirit. In this respect Málek’s works range among the most convincing ones.
Málek’s contribution to the Czech “School of Structural Abstraction” resides roughly in two essential trends of quest. We can appreciate the mystically ascetic nothingness of the ashy structures, rough as lava, expressing the post-war nihilism of a spiritual meditation under the motto “you are dust and ashes”, and on the other hand we are fascinated by artistic utterances related to human experience through testimonial and objective ingredients that are symbolically included into shapes with cosmic allusions of the impressive and almost sacral material icons. In many a case there seem to be some encoded personal secrets that could be unveiled by X-ray investigation of the interior of these pictures. They only appear to be amorphous, but are in fact quite targeted, with both intrinsic and outward topicality. Also, the continuation will be quite special. This time there is a conjunction of the returning human image with a geometric shape. The human figure is incorporated into the connections of fatefully ominous trajectories beyond Man and Time. In the context of figural treatment of structures in Czech graphic and plastic art by the end of the 1960s, this is nothing singular in the case of Antoním Málek. However, the power of contrast of the material and abstract component parts is really spectacular; neither of both is seen to dissolve alibistically in the other.
After 1968, as Czech art suffered the ongoing wave of emigrations, not all emigrants were able to successfully cope with the new issues of existence and culture in the West. As to his work, Antonín Málek belongs among those who were always able to maintain their firm hold upon their home experience and traditions, even under cumbersome circumstances of life. He was able to evade the threatening embellishment, the dwarfing of the contents and of the art language. In a certain sense he even intensified the slightly baroque and dramatically bizarre and phantastic accentuation of his message. Málek professed his defying outcastedness as a permanent feature of his work even in Sweden, and in particular in Germany. He went his way of rough expression in fictitious portrayals, but also in portraits that were almost naturalistically veristic. The earthy, yet also baroque-like ecstatic realism seems to characterise the ethics of Málek’s very special footing in reality, ensuring truthfulness in the best traditions of Czech culture and spiritual life. Figurative art on the global scene, enriched by experience of Czech material painting in Málek’s work, has found many a climax.
It should still be explained why the original notes from Málek’s journeys to the far away Ladakh in the Himalayan foothills and from the temples in the Angkor region in Cambodia turned out to be an extensive programme of poetically relieved descriptive realism over the recent ten years or somewhat more.
His outstanding drawings in particular, but also paintings expose Antonín Málek as a brilliant graphic artist and realistic painter. He must have been fascinated by the vain combat of dilapidating monastic structures with the bizarre and aggressive Nature. There is also a piece of nostalgia after the vanishing past, a dramatic vision of the end and vanity of civilisation and culture, but also some sort of Utopia, again a depressively melancholic outlook of the distant future. That future may bring Man back – if he happens to survive – into the womb of Nature. Yet this Nature will be dangerous and merciless for the humans, in spite of its phantastic beauty. Also here the painter is a sceptical realist. But there is something he trusts permanently, and namely the beauties and the truths of Art. In this sense the work of Antonín Málek is uniform from its very beginnings up to the present day.
The place of Antonín Málek in the Czech landscape of graphic art remained vacant after he went into exile in autumn 1968. In the course of the so-called “normalisation period” his name was almost left to oblivion. The awareness of his personality, though, was kept alive among the painter’s friends and in a narrow circle of his peers from the unofficial “Confrontations” of 1960.
After the beginning of the 1960s, when his works used to be included in exhibitions of contemporary art (in Prague, Brno, Rychnov nad Kněžnou and Ústí nad Orlicí), we were given the chance of meeting Málek’s production only as late as 1991, at the exhibition of the Czech Informel organized by the Metropolitan Gallery Prague (Galerie hlavního města Prahy). The radical form of “abstraction”, encompassing his years 1960–1964, represents one of the highlights of his development, as shown by all his works at that particular exhibition. Together with Koblasa, Veselý, Sion, Tomalík, Beran and others he was part of the progressive wing the youngest generation, participating in the formulation of its artistic opinion. These days, after almost 25 years spent in Sweden and Germany, he has decided to organise an exhibition of the project entitled You Are Observed at Jindřichův Hradec where he grew up and where he likes to return to. The motives of the large format pictures of 15 faces – masks are related to the idea of injured and distorted humanity with which Antonín Málek was repeatedly confronted during his exile work. The memento of protecting humanity in this concept ushers us into situations threatening the emotional substance of Man.
The fiction of “being looked upon”, and constantly exposed to psychological pressure due to such observation that also leads to distortions, is based upon Málek’s life experience that was initiated in this country during the totalitarian regime. At a certain distance, and even with some sort of ironising zest, he returns to his experience in order to remind us of these issues from the perspective of the new humanism of the present day.
Actually, we should return back to the threshold of the 1960s in order to understand the artist’s intention. The expression of existentional anxiety in the nucleus of the project, namely, finds already its second genesis in Málek’s work. At the turn of the 1950s and 1960s it was reflected by informal structures of assembly-type images – objects. In their monochromous ascetically temperate relief structure, destructed by diversified tools and based upon all sorts of mass substances and untraditional material (sands, sheet metal, jute etc.), we were able to witness the permeation of two spheres: the domain of personal existentional experience, as manifested by the act of direct interventions into the surface of the work, on the one hand side, and the level of general meaning encoded in the language of hidden symbols, on the other hand. The well-done example in this sense was his series entitled What is inside (To, co je uvnitř of 1964–1965). This can serve as a division line in the development of the author’s production. It was also represented by numerous items in Málek’s independent exhibition at the Karlovo náměstí Gallery, former hall of Lidová demokracie in 1968. That was the first, and also the only independent exhibition before he left this country.
I mention this particular exhibition on purpose. In addition to the series of objects “What is inside” it demonstrated works that were linked by their morphology with the line of the newly topicalised imaginative art that became a certain way out of the malaise of amorphous masses of structural abstraction in the mid-sixties, caught in the trap of petrification in the Czech lands of those times. A stimulus of new orientation for quite a number of the young advocates of “abstraction” seems to have been its frequent symbolical second meaning, opening up enough room for free phantasy. The burden of life perception was also quite frequently transposed and materialised by martyrized corporal elements.
In the mid-sixties Antonín Málek also set out in this direction. The entanglement of biomorphous tissues, of which areas of eyes, outlines of heads, morsels of internal organs were born, and all that was intersected by lines of geometrical symbols, brought the beginnings of his return to figurative painting and to reality. At those times he also started to conceive the thematic circle of his next journey. It was introduced by the portrait of Samuel Beckett (1967–1968). Also this picture was part of Málek’s exhibition, accompanied by a set of five portrait drawings in Indian ink.
The commencing step was a successful one. Beckett’s head, conceived in a large scale, whose simplified abbreviation captured the characteristic features of the writer’s face, however, was more than just a portrait of the famous man. It became a symbol of human straight-forwardness and decidedness. As a majestic shield protecting the intrinsic feeling of a person, it cut through the geometrical network of permeating imaginary spaces. It was approaching as a sort of memento, in order to fill the whole image area of the spacious canvass with its presence, transgressing any limitations of room.
The suggestive effect of the portrait that was achieved by Málek in this way, was quite extraordinary, especially in that he succeeded to link the spiritual elements of Becketts wrinkled face with more general problems. Also the balance of abstract stylisation and the signs of realistic imaging was very carefully calculated. The time-less message of this picture was potentiated by the ascetic scale of brown-grey and grey-white colours of this sober painting refraining from any effects.
The fascination by the fate of Man and the purpose of his existence became the starting point of the following works by Malek . Their contents appear to be deepened by his emigration experience. In the paintings originating after 1969 the feeling of being lonely is seen to prevail. The person is confronted with the outer world in a defenceless condition. The drawings and paintings reflect this situation by stripped sections of the brain, silhouettes of figures devoid of skin, imaginary interviews with shades of figures and fabrics of tissues. The “Quo Vadis” of the triptych dated 1971–1972 was then, in Málek’s version, a shrill cry the response to which was mute nothingness – nothingness after the story of a Man and his shadow. Only the amorphous overflowing mass in the foreground with linear delimited swapping of spaces appears to be the witness of vanished time wherein the disappearing of a human story took place and the story took its end.
The feeling of void was soon followed by meditative pictures. The meditation was incorporated in taciturn fragments of faces-masks emerging from the space of the painting as silent shadows of some testimony. Their sight was turned inward. In the chain of Málek’s work they created a certain interlude for paintings that followed at the end of the 1970s with the counterpoint of anxiety and irony. The painter’s attitude to the world was mediated by suggestively overdone huge heads and figural compositions facing the attack of the expanding outer space. The expressivity of disfigured and martyrized corporality often used a language that was not distant from the dramatism of Bacon’s and Rouault’s art.
When passing through this position of Málek’s work that appears to be only one of a plurality of differentiated schemes of his interest comprising portraits and, at the present day, also landscapes, we cannot help asking the question whether the painter, just by grasping the situation of psychological constraint, may not have tended beyond the rendered suffering, for achieving its opposite. If this were the case, we should perceive the distorted facemask, so often found in Málek’s creation of the 1970s and 1980s, in a different way and without emotional involvement – at a distance. The manyristic stylisation of faces in the suggested sense, often pushing the imagery of martyrdom to grotesque levels, would provide, a necessary shield protecting the fragile human interior that should be kept secret.
In comparison with the face-mask conceived in this way, the design of the present project “You Are Observed” appears to be different. It differs as to its intention, scope, character of work, and special articulation. It consists of 15 paintings imaging large scale human faces. They are prone to be arranged into a circle in order that the onlooker entering before them may feel to be within their power. This is not simply competence, but marked cruelty. Also the image of sodality to which we are introduced by the author, is merciless. The intentionally destitute typology of the faces is distorted with a sort of obvious pleasure derived from the caricature. In addition to that, each face incorporates a paraphrase of the cross symbol. Everything is run down: the smile changes into grin, the sight to blunt staring, the face into a grimace. We can realise the impact of the intellectual game hidden in this concept. Also the play with the onlooker makes part of it. Actually, who is the one who is observed? The onlooker, or those of the panoptical gallery before us? The roles are changing by each step. Yourself or me, myself or you? The interchanges are reflected in the manyristic stylisation of the faces-masks; they are also utilised to the end that the community of the observed and the observing may create an uninterrupted chain of human comedy, thus establishing a pillory for the nakedness and harsh substance of the present life. It is a question, though, whether such concept that has been submitted by the painter in this project, may not represent a mask in itself.
Light in Ladakh, a mystical place high in the mountains of the Himalayas, is intensely bright. It delineates every feature of the landscape, natural or man made alike, by a sharp outline, as if the formation was chiseled from the rock. In this harsh, hard edged world of intense beauty our reading of the vast distances is also effected by this penetrating light that suspends the accustomed reading of perspective and of the interplay of background and foreground. One is reminded of the atmosphere in Surrealist paintings or the carefully calibrated lighting in the recent Sci-Fi movies. Landscape itself is dominated by monasteries perched on the cliffs overlooking the low laying areas. All aspects of life of the province are governed from these imposing buildings.
When Tonda Málek came to Ladakh he was smitten by the inherent spirituality of the place that is inextricably woven into the fabric of the everyday. He came as a resident artist with the members of the Save Alchi group established to protect and restore the ancient monastery of the same name. When Ladakh region was discovered as a tourist spot in 1974 it also became pray to the developers. Being one of the highest and most arid inhabited place on earth its ecology is extremely fragile. Any abrupt change can have devastating consequences and groups, such as the Save Alchi program were created to try to reverse the tide.
Málek who is an insatiable traveler, became fascinated by this place. He soon realized he could not capture the visual aspects of this territory nor comprehend its spiritual underpinnings in one visit – he has returned ten times since his first visit, and he is planning a trip for this winter.
The year 1993, when Málek began his travels to Ladakh, was also a year when Ladakh obtained a semiautonomous status from the central Indian government. Set deep in Himalayas, on the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau Ladakh is also called Little Tibet. Being under the Indian government its heritage was spared the destructions that afflicted many other parts of Tibet. Buddhist monasteries, with buildings dating back to 12th or 11th centuries, feature walls adorned by the richly colored frescoes and display a multitude of statuary. Their strong colors attracted Málek’s attention and are being echoed in some of the paintings. Málek is intrigued not only by art but also by the lifestyle and customs of the indigenous population. However he decided not to include any figurative motives in his Ladakh work so as to avoid the ethnographic romantization of the “natives”.
It is the architecture and its seamless placement in the mountainous environment that fascinates Málek the most. He does not, however, produce the true to life rendering of the landscape. Rather he takes liberties with the visual reality to express the unique character of the place. In the largest of the paintings, the depiction of the castle in Leh, Málek alters the natural configuration of the mountains to accentuate the monumentality of the castle. The images of the landscape are not therefore literal translations of the existing situation. Artist himself see them as indirect “portraits” of the depicted territory.
This attest to Málek’s long standing interest in portraiture. He created many outstanding works in this genre before his involvement with the Informel in the early 1960s and reaffirmed his interest in the portrait of Samuel Beckett of 1967–1969.
In many cases Málek combined the truthful likeness of the sitter with the unexpected rendition of the background that frames the figure. Portrait of Mrs. Gross, 1981–1982, presents a sensitive study of an older woman painted with the extensive use of yellow and shades of blue. The quiet contemplative mood of this picture is strengthened by the centrality of the book held by the sitter.
Portrait of Bertík Šipek of 1982–1983 displays empathy and understanding of the psychological problems afflicting the young sitter. Here Málek puts his deeply felt humanism on full display. In this painting there is a partially developed landscape motive in the background pointing toward another longstanding interest of the artist–that of depictions of the landscape or cityscape. In Málek’s early figurative scenes such as Bufet na Palmovce, or cityscapes with a strong landscape elements such as Špejchar, both 1957, we can witness the strong predilection for expressionistic mood and reorganizing of the elements in order to achieve the optimal dramatic effect. At the time Málek was interested in the work of other expressionists such as Bohumil Kubista, George Roualt or Edward Munch whose 1905 exhibition in Prague influenced the whole Czech modern movement and the generations to come.
Málek’s involvement with Informel and his participation in the now legendary Konfrontations is sufficiently discussed elsewhere, therefore I shall rather trace the predilection for representation that is so strongly demonstrated in the recent work from Ladakh, Cambodia and California. Accepting an invitation of the German Apsara Conservation Project at Angkor Vat, Málek went to Cambodia in Spring of 1998.
Here again he became a frequent visitor into this world of the past. In contrast to Ladakh the monuments in Angkor are no longer functioning but were abandoned long ago. For centuries now the man made architecture is engaged in an uneven struggle with tropical vegetation. The trees envelope some of the walls by the roots formations that are almost reminiscent of human limbs. In the Ladakh paintings and watercolors Málek uses strong primary and secondary color. In the works from Angkor he limits himself to the use of pencil and very pale washes not to accentuate the exoticism of the place or to succumb to the romanticizing historism.
The last series of works that I had a chance to see in person vere series of renderings of California landscape. Many years ago Málek came there to visits his friends from Sweden and again he established an almost permanent base there by teaching painting and drawings. He had returned many more times. His drawings of the divers aspects of California are usually quick studies that capture the great diversity of industrialized as well as pristine environment.
Tonda Málek could have hardly imagined the distances he would travel and the variations in his own work he was destined to experience until today. His adventures began early on when he found himself studying art in Prague in the 1950s, became an inextricable part of the vanguard in the 60th, and went into exile after the Russian invasion in 1968. After that he established himself in Sweden and later in Germany. Now he spends long periods of times living and working in India, Cambodia and California. The foray into abstraction seem to be abating, replaced by the renewed interest in the figure, portraiture and landscape painting and drawing. Moving comfortably between these categories, as well as between the continents, Málek seems to have attained a resolution to his life and work.
The name of the Czech painter Antonín Málek was more famous on the European and American art scenes than it was at home for a long time. In the Czech Lands, it was known to only a handful of art professionals and a narrow circle of friends and colleagues of the same generation. Málek belongs to the circle of Czech exile artists, a claim put forward in professional literature – and in it, only in the past few years we could have read about how distinctive a mark this painter made on the development of Czech art of the 1960s. At that time he, along with several other artists, belonged to the group of artists who organised the unofficial exhibitions “Confrontations”, being one of the representatives of the Czech Informal Art movement.
Antonín Málek, an academic painter, was born in 1937 in Plzeň, but grew up in Jindřichův Hradec, where he still returns to visit to this day. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. From the beginning of the 1960s, still during the time of his studies, Málek’s work was classified among the most up-to-date art trends both in Prague and abroad. Málek, along with other members of the youngest and very progressive art generation, was also one of the first organisers of two illegal exhibitions, held in the studios of Prague artists. These two events, later known as “Confrontations I” and “Confrontations II”, were in fact one of the triggers that lead to the so-called Prague Spring of 1968. The members of the “Confrontations” art group took their own path outside the official art scene governed by the Social Realism movement. These young artists worked in the spirit of the global and European Informal Art movement – and their links to Tapies, Alberto Burri, Dubuffet or Pollock are rather obvious.
Approximately from the mid-1960s onwards, signs of a figure, a head, of human body parts and tissues began to appear in Málek’s abstract works, for the artist gradually lost satisfaction in creating random configurations of objects in his assamblages and Informal structures. At this point in time, Málek found it too easy to make use of the autenticity of various masses and materials – sands, wires, metal parts or fabrics – which he would incorporate into his objects in which the material itself was the bearer of meaning and the subject of expression. Although it has become apparent with time that Málek’s abstract works are his ultimate achievements, the artist began to break away from Abstract movement, returning more and more often to the human figure. His work proceeded to another stage. The peak of this period is a large suggestive Portrait of Samuel Beckett, presented at Málek’s individual exhibition in Prague in 1968, his first and also the last one-man show organised before the artist left his home country – Málek emigrated shortly after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
In his Swedish exile, after a short period of searching, Málek soon rediscovered the continuity with his preemigration works (Portrait of Samuel Beckett). His work from this period is dominated by figural themes in which Málek emphasises the psychological aspect of the message. The author’s intention and urgent need to deal with the human psyche gave birth to numerous figural compositions. Many of these, along with Málek’s later works, have a political subtext (The Ideologists). His portraits from this time belong to his most convincing paintings. The expressively deformed proportions and shapes presented in dramatically accentuated details underline the character of the persons depicted and testify to the artist’s inner relation to the models. Examples of this approach are the Portrait of Anastáz Opasek, i.e. the archabbot of the Břevnov Monastery in Prague (1988); Portrait of Mother (1992–1995); or the painting entitled The Last Cigarette (1987–1990). Gradually, concrete themes begin to appear in Málek’s work: a head, a mask, a dialogue, an artist’s monologue with himself reflected in the mirror, a moment of jeopardy. An interest in human fate, his own introspection, existential feelings – all that led the author to create works with a generally valid message (Longing for an Echo, 1990; a cycle of paintings called You Are Observed, 1991–1992).
Thus, from the second half of the 1970s until the present day, the dominant feature of Málek’s work lies in portrait works, whether imaginative portraits or portraits of real persons, and, in recent years, also portraits of a landscape.
Antonín Málek also works as a set designer. He began his work in Cologne, collaborating with Milan Sládek’s “Kefka” theatre of pantomime where he created set designs for “Ubu the King” (1984), “Baron Munchausen” (1986), or “Apocalyptica” (1989). In recent years, Málek had been working on the set design for the new version of Sládek’s drama “Ubu”, which was written on the motifs of the absurd play by Alfred Jarry and premiered in the Arena Theatre in Bratislava, February 1999.
As previously mentioned above, Málek has touched upon the theme of the landscape several times over the course of the years. In the most recent period, however, he became involved with the landscape very intensively during his journeys. Upon invitation by the Fachhochschule project in Cologne (which dealt with the restoration of murals in the Salve Alchi convent), he visited the Himalayan Ladakh in 1993. The Himalayan landscape impressed him so deeply that he began to travel to the region ever since on a yearly basis. On these journeys, Málek created a series of several hundreds drawings and paintings, entitled Portraits of the Ladakh Landscape. One of Málek’s activities during his regular stays in Ladakh is his experiment in the Likir convent which he visits in the summer to draw there and to paint with the young pupils of the local convent school. In 1999, Málek broadened his activities in Asia and began traveling to Cambodia, due to his co-operation with yet another conservation and documentation project of the Cologne Fachhochschule (German Apsara Conservation Project), aimed at sculptural decoration in the Cambodian Angkor Vat temple. The jungle surrounding several temples in the Angkor region (e.g. temples Ta Prohm, Preah Kahn or Banteay Kdei) was not cleared completely. Giant trees were intentionally left in place, and now flow over the temple buildings, their corridors and walls. Their roots wind up all around the buildings, grip them and crush them, not allowing them to fall apart and at the same time destroying them. Nature is getting back what it lost by man’s hand. The fresh and swiftly executed drawings from this environment are characteristic of Málek’s works of the most recent period. It is the eternal circle of birth, decay and passing, what gives Málek the possibility to express his inner feelings which accompany him throughout his life and from the very beginnings of his artistic career, whether in his abstract, figural, or landscape works.
In Málek’s portraits of men and landscapes there always prevails an effort to depict the human longing to be anchored in the real world. Málek is trying to rediscover our continuity with tradition, thus opposing the dangerous trend of escapism into the illusory world of virtual reality, which, as it seems, is symptomatic for the time we live in today.
“I don’t know. Anything!” said Tonda Malek, when I asked him what I should write for this book. I’m an actor, not an art critic.
In 1984 I had asked him for an article, about his “King Ubu” set design, to put in the programme for the theatre production. A week passed, then a call came: “What shall I write? I’m a painter!”
This led to a really long conversation: he spoke about the curse of deadlines and the difficulties he’d had – really he was talking about what he felt he hadn’t managed and what we wanted to do better. I asked what idea he’d started from, what kind of concept? (I know artists who could happily write tomes on the subject!) Tonda replied slowly: “Well, I aim to provide the actors with a range of possibilities.” Full stop. Typical of Tonda.
Well, in “Ubu” we achieved the impossible with what Malek created for us, which was a whole world of props, stage set and costumes – everything. Apart from our bare bodies, everything was a Tonda creation! And all of it was strong and decisive. Despite this (and because of it) we then had the freedom to breathe life into the performance. We could live in the world of Malek’s images. A rare opportunity.
Mind you, this could have been a scary prospect. When I first met Tonda Malek 30 years ago, he was a portrait artist. In particular, his paintings of people’s faces left a great impression on me, they made me feel uneasy. Trying to catch the right look, from the right distance, I felt and still feel that the portraits keep me at a distance and draw me in at the same time. The idea of disappearing into one of his portraits is not always a pleasant one, more of a nightmare.
Later on, being drawn into his landscape paintings was a more pleasant thought.
So, I have looked at Malek’s images, performed within them, and I had the opportunity to learn from him: how to draw a portrait, always using the same approach. Strict training, that I was only able to undertake for a short while, unfortunately. Drawing did not come to me that naturally, but with his help I began to grasp what it means to see.
I once posed a life model for him. You can sense, through your skin and the corner of your eye and whatever other antennae you have, how he is weighing you up, testing with penetrating look, to the last unflattering wrinkle. You are dissected and devoured. And at the same time you feel that you are being stroked, mended, healed and loved. The secrets of your skeleton are revealed and you are brought to life.
When you then look at the drawing, you are looking at a life, a life within you that you are perhaps just getting to know. The relationship between model and painter is extremely matter- -of-fact, and yet extremely intimate. A coy affair. If you are painting someone, you see them, feel and get to know them, in a different way. When you have been drawn, you are no longer the same person.
Dear Tonda – I have you to thank for many things. More than you think.
I would love to know how the ruins and the trees in Angkor feel and see since you have captured them in your paintings…
It is not easy to be brief in addressing the work of Antonín Málek (1937). His corpus of work is so impressive, his path through life so intricate that an extended and ardent discourse, together with numerous interpretations, is hard to resist. Among Czech art historians who have concentrated upon Málek’s work are Mahulena Nešlehová, Hana Dobešová, Jan Kříž, Vlastimil Tetiva and Charlotta Kotíková, active in New York. Many of them have become his close friends, personally involved with his art and life.
Antonín Málek is one of the Czech artists who have left their homeland to pursue work abroad, in exile. He spent some years in Sweden and Germany, where his work merged spontaneously into local art milieus, was exhibited at a number of solo and group shows and received many prizes. How much energy does it take for a person to hold out and cope with the burden of uncertainty in exile? And how much effort does it take to maintain one’s inner continuity, so that ideas and views may be developed in a new environment with the same degree of concentration as before?
Málek left Czechoslovakia in 1968, equipped with considerable artistic and intellectual experience. His studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, Prague (1957-1963) had enabled him to contrast his work with that of other artists and provided him with a theoretical base, while an important part had been played by his friendship, dating from the late 1950’s, with the artists around Jan Koblasa. This was rooted in respect for high standards of quality in art, as well as in an affinity of style. The artists would meet in Mikuláš Medek’s studio; Málek also became acquainted with the older generation of artists (V. Boudník, J. Istler, J. Kolář) and art theoreticians (F. Šmejkal, B. Mráz, A. Hartmann, V. Linhartová, J. Kříž and D. Veselý). The group shared an interest in existentialist literature (Franz Kafka, L. Klíma, Albert Camus), Samuel Beckett’s absurd drama and modern classical and experimental music (Janáček, Martinů, Schönberg, Berg, Webern, Boulese, Stockhausen, Cage) and free jazz (Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane). His artistic experience also included participation in the non-public Confrontations shows (1960), now-legendary, that lent significant emphasis to Málek’s artistic orientation.
Antonín Málek’s work before emigration was thus in line with the non-mainstream (‘unofficial’) Czech art of the 1960’s, as represented by Zdeněk Beran, Eva and Čestmír Janošek, Jan Koblasa, Pavel Nešleha, Zbyšek Sion, Antonín Tomalík, Jiří Valenta, Aleš Veselý, Karel Nepraš and others, all of whom were attempting to pick up the threads of Czech art as it had been before the Second World War. In the late 1950’s an interest in the human figure and portraiture came to the forefront of Málek’s oeuvre. The figure also appeared frequently in his drawings and prints, where it was coded into hidden symbols and reductions, sometimes approached as details of the human body (eye, knee, buttocks). The figure is also present in the artist’s informel material pictures, especially the vertical ones, in which the volume is concentrated around a central slit. This scar-like element refers to more than the physical; it indicates the person as a spiritual being with a deeply hidden but vulnerable soul.
A symbolic milestone along Málek’s artistic path was his portrait of Samuel Beckett (1967/68), which brought an end to his work in his homeland and bid farewell to informel tendencies. The following years of exile in Sweden were characterized by a solidity of form and areas of clear colours that appear to have absorbed the freshness of the pure Scandinavian light and air, perhaps even freedom (Pilgrim in the Mountains, 1973; Yellow Sea, 1973). His pictures and drawings from this period also feature references to the political situation at home (In Memoriam Jan Palach, 1970; Monument to Censorship, 1970/71), as well as humour and bitter irony (Keep Smiling, 1971).
In 1973 Antonín Málek met Ulrike Málek–Lohmeyer, a sculptor and ceramic artist, who became his second wife with whom he started a studio in Kiel, Germany. They lived and worked in Alingsås in Sweden and in Kiel where they kept in touch with emigrant artists Jan Koblasa and Jiří Valenta. Málek and Lohmeyer split up in 1979 and he moved to Cologne, where he still lives. He has produced countless series of portraits, figurative drawings, paintings and prints loosely based on reality. They all hold in common relationships to the primeval essence of man, always assessed at a generally valid level (Cracked Mirror I-VI, 1979; In a Lonely Landscape, 1980/81). The human soul with its loneliness and emptiness, its desire for fulfilment and security, becomes part of the universal content of human existence in these artworks.
The landscapes that have had a presence in Málek’s oeuvre since 1993 also stem from this philosophical base. At this time the artist started to travel to culturally and geographically remote regions, among them Ladakh and Cambodia, where deeply-rooted traditions maintain the most basic principles of human existence. His landscape drawings and paintings, detailed yet at the same time light and rendered with virtuosity, are not “photographic” transcriptions but records of an intellectual process through which a concrete landscape Is transformed into a globally perceived reality. The circle of Málek’s art logically closes. The issue of human existence observed in figures and portraits culminates in “portraits” of landscapes viewed as images of the world, a world within the complex system of which man is anchored.
..selection of works by Antonín Málek.
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