Karlík’s Hands of Poets

Michael Špirit
Viktor Karlík

In his introduction, Viktor Karlík says he did not intend to create a register of poets’ hands; such a statement might distract certain readers: not only is there not every poet, or rather his hands; but the author does not explain his choice. Actually, is there anything that links the chosen writers? In the development of Czech 20th century poetry, they do not form any homogenous poetic movement; however, they may share a standpoint outside the virtual literary center of their time. Some of them were awarded well-respected literary prizes in the course of time; some decline such honors almost programmatically. They may not have a single thing to talk about, but they did not refuse to be in the company Karlík put together, and they accepted the task the author had given them, a task that is not void of humor: to stretch their fingers and place their hands on the table.

It is not their first cooperation. Among others, Karlík’s artistic effort draws from musical and literary sources. During the twenty years the artist has worked as the editor of Revolver Revue, all the authors included in the present selection were published in the review (with the exception of Ivan Jelínek); moreover, all of them appeared there more than once. Besides their creative writing, both poetry and prose, as well as criticism, many of them were interviewed in Revolver Revue, and submitted their contributions to various inquiries and cycles, above all to the section called Seven, in which the respondents present and comment on seven artifacts (such as paintings, photographs, works of architecture) that they consider important to themselves. Out of their choice and comments, a certain form arose that is unique in learning about the authors and their artistic tendencies or directions.

Karlík’s editorial work in Revolver Revue is particularly concerned with the (co)forming of such series and cycles (besides Seven, there are other similar projects, such as Ateliers, Out of Graphic Workshops etc.) whose power lies in the fact that Karlík is interested in the respondent’s work, and any further step thus results from a symbiosis of his instinct and courage, faithfulness to his initial ideas and permanent critical evaluation of the experienced world.

However, imagination, thinking and craftsmanship are primarily characteristic of Karlík’s own creative work. Lines, edges and colors of his series entitled The Center of Periphery, exhibited in 1999, reappear in subsequent paintings out of which urban motifs gradually disappear; however, the author varies them in serigraphies printed on plywood (2001–2002), in the linocut series (2000–2004) introduced in the book Black Works (2004), subsequently in plaster and bronze relieves, and, last but not least, on the Revolver Revue covers (since January 2003, starting with the issue number 51). Like his editorial work, his art creates a meaningful whole whose shape could not have been planned that way from the very beginning, but whose features had been immanently ever-present in the author’s perspective.

Hands of Poets forms such a whole. A mere idea of that kind would be enough for certain well-connected artists to organize a flamboyant exhibition, spiced with cute little photographs of hands of the president, prime minister and several TV stars – and it would be flooded with grants, stipends and visitors. Karlík, on the other hand, made do with people that have recorded virtually the least useful thing in the world – poetry – with their own hands, producing an act of verbal art that is different from anything the audience knows. The photographs (taken by Robert Portel) do not feature the writers’ faces (and the book does not contain their poems), but their hands. Th hands do not hold pens, nor are they ready to hit the keyboard of a typewriter or computer; they are shot from the top view, their forearm outreached, their fingers stretched wide, one photograph showing their palms, the other their backs.

Instead of the poetic text, we perceive the symmetry as well as deformations of the hands that had written poems (i.e. hands with fingernails, phalanges, joints etc.); the photographs emanate tension or peace, caused respectively by strenuously or naturally stretched fingers that had worked as an immediate link between a thought, inspiration, writing tool and paper. We can see calluses, marks, freckles, wrinkles, cultivation or neglectfulness of hands at the moment of exposition; adornments (rings), wristwatches and sleeve ends that enter the pictures. We don’t know whether the writers’ mood was ceremonial or casual during the photographing; whether they had treated their hands in some special way; whether Karlík had made them cooperate under the pressure of a favorable occasion; whether they had created some texts with their hands or fingers before or after the photographing; what is sure, though, is the fact that besides the essentially artistic impression they raise, the photographs also have a priceless documentary value.

Some of the poets were photographed at the moment when their current work somewhat neutralized values thanks to which Karlík had acknowledged them; others were slowly approaching profaneness, and it is doubtful whether Karlík would even think of photographing them today; with others, Karlík found his way to them only during his project, which was actually repeatedly interrupted by other activities. But it does seem that there is a time for everything. Besides Revolver Revue, Karlík encountered the texts of the poets gathered in the book while working on typography and design of their books; in most cases, he based his designs, fonts and formats on his thorough knowledge of the published poems, of their genesis, authorial revises, or even on a certain degree of shared experience (e.g. with first books by Jáchym Topol or Zápisník and Summa by Ivan M. Jirous).

A chiromancer will be able to read a good deal from the photographs; readers without such talents will have to settle for the sight of the open pages and a silent confrontation with poems of the given author: tiny, young hands of Egon Bondy and his brutal, open verses from his Big Book and Small Book from the early 1950s; a missing phalanx on Jiří Kolář’s thumb and his typewriter-copied poetic diaries, in which he identifies himself as their author despite the political executions imposed by the communist regime, or his pictorial poems, requiring other use of hands than holding a pen or typing words on the keyboard. Symmetry of J. H. Krchovský’s hands and his precisely built dactyls; extensive outreach of Jáchym Topol’s hands and morphological divergence of his poetry collections and all-inclusiveness of his novel City Sister Silver. Walnut-stained hands of Andrej Stankovič that had recorded apparently ephemeral ideas that in fact represented a self-preserving human motto: ”The greatest today’s task/Is to keep one’s mask.” Peasant hands of Ivan Jirous, showing marks of gore, associating prisoner norm-enforced labor in the life-threatening Mírov prison, and his joyous Swan Songs that the poet had to learn by heart before he had a chance to scribble them down illegally on a piece of paper in the hell of the Valdice prison. Illness-stricken hands of Naďa Plíšková, reminiscent of animal claws from Karlík’s still-life oil painting (Natura Morte, 1999), and her verses full of passion, tenderness and harshness of human coexistence.

It is difficult to guess whose hands would be added into the author’s collection if it were possible. I think that among the missing we would not find Ladislav Klíma, Jan Hanč and Otokar Březina. The times have changed tremendously. One hundred years after the third poet’s poetry collection in which hands functioned as a symbol of human reflectiveness and solidarity, Viktor Karlík comes up with a project in which hands symbolize the particular person. A person that used his/her hands to put down a poetic work, very often in severe conditions caused not only by so-called “creative difficulties”, but also by the outer world’s uneasy situation – all of this happening in probably the last century when literature had more impact and influence in the human society than power structures of the media, establishment or military.

Translated by Petr Onufer
(in: Viktor Karlík, Hands of Poets, Revolver Revue, Prague, 2005, s.61-71)

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