Visit to the studio of V. K.

Egon Bondy
Viktor Karlík

The central theme of Viktor Karlík — indeed one of our youngest artists, but famous despite his age because of the covers and design of Jednou Nohou/Revolver Revue — is the human face. He painted so many of them together in one period that it led Magor to name James Ensor as the godfather of Karlík’s work. That, however, is not the case: the painter himself admits to his fascination with Klimt, Egon Schiele and even our own Váchal. For a while now, I have been wondering if there isn’t ultimately a specific Central European genius loci, one that has existed for ages (the “soft style” of the so-called International Gothic radiated straight out of its Bohemian epicenter). I have one foot in the grave, so I don’t have enough time to answer that question, but while it is often laughed away, it is still something cultural historians should explore. Why exactly is it that in the “vertical” of Scandinavia — Denmark ( + Holland) — Germany — Bohemia — Hungary — Austria —Italy this new manner of painting provoked such a quick, spontaneous and vital response, yet west of the Rhine and across the Atlantic or east of Budapest it is not well understood?

If Karlík’s theme is the face, color is his medium. He avoids pure colors, devoting considerable work to shades and hues, testing them meticulously. Even though his paintings are done “in one shot,” the majority of them are completed only after many months, and often it takes several years. It isn’t a matter of fixing and correcting — the author knows which pieces are already finished (and he will not return to them, even if he doesn’t consider them his best) and which “are not yet finished,” although they look perfect and other works are developing next to them. If we must categorize, we may certainly identify Karlík within the current of the new “wilde Malerei,”in its stream that is most faithful to the legacy of expressionism (which still is far from exhausted). But right away it strikingly reveals what is hidden in classical expressionism like a dagger in the dark — i.e., the ornamental setting and tradition. Karlík himself speaks about it and perceives it as problem that is simultaneously tempting and threatening him. Up until now that ornamentation has been in balance — but even if it were not, so what? Just think about Josef Mánes! I can’t imagine that it would be a misstep; it would simply be a reexamination. Expressionism never resolved this issue (and many recognized the hitch, left over from Art Nouveau’s early end) and abstract painting just skipped chastely past it. And this is an issue that has plagued painting in every era. Paintings like When Men Pet or Dance 1986 go the furthest in that direction. It’s not my impression that we should look for anxiety and existentialist sentiment behind every functional deformity. Even the paintings on the theme of the recluse don’t seem to express a void, a vacuum or a death-wish. Of course, no one paints just like Josef Mánes these days (although I think that you could find more than a few in the Union of Fine Artists who would start painting like him if they only had the ability), but we overlook the simple “joy of creation,” the interplay of colors and the labyrinth of reflections on a two-dimensional plane that Karlík usually creates with his use of radical tools:  he doesn’t just chisel encaustic, he’ll scorch the canvas or wood with flame, and through the canvas he often thrusts wood or metal pieces, which can be either little or quite large. These are not expressions of stress: they are quests for the secret of beauty buried within the uniqueness of the artistic piece. I emphasize this because existential angst was a feature of other artists, and the first wave of critics and art historians projected this template onto Karlík (that is how they unanimously discussed his 1988 slaughterhouse exhibition, even though it was nowhere to be seen in it). I don’t deny that Karlík’s images are full of dramatic emotional strokes, full of tension and screams (for example: You Can’t Leave Me or Dead Monkey), that they are almost delirious (Night Glance at Clivia, A Train Runs Inside Me) and that his lonely drinkers turn against the viewer (e.g.I Think I Already Know, I Would Like to Have a Garden) — but in spite of all of this, I cannot overlook that this extremely vital artist bears his calling as a heavy, but delightful burden, that he creates because he’s ready to explode not with despair, but with artistic inspiration, which continuously leads him on to newer and newer experiments. View his paintings simply as beautiful art, and you will see that he carries on not just the tradition of Munch, but also of Klimt, not only of Váchal, but of Hundertwasser too.

I have already written that the artist himself is aware of certain connections that worry him, and it seems to me that he won’t escape that worry any time soon.

Since sculptures make up another aspect of his art, they absolutely deserve an article for themselves and, before too long, an exhibition of their own. For it is there, in Karlík’s sculptures, that ornamentation reaches its apex. They started out years ago as a sort of respite from his painting, but soon they penetrated the canvas (in addition to the three-dimensional elements mentioned in Karlík’s paintings, especially in his latest period — I must mention the phenomenal barbarian-Merovingian folding Altar). Later they stood so impressively on their own alongside the paintings that the question slowly arose as to which of Karlík’s creations will prevail, which will attain perfection. At this point there aren’t many sculptures; they have been developing particularly slowly, but it seems that in them the author finds what he seeks even more than in his paintings — as attested to by his meticulous devotion to the sculptures and a certain obsessive relationship he has to them where he absolutely refuses to leave them alone until he has worked out the final detail, one only he perceives: an observer would not notice. For one sculpture, he built with utter precision a trunk or some kind of case, within which the sculpture is fixed so gently with a system of internal catches that it can be transported in any position, and when the case is opened it actually completes the whole piece — the sculpture shouldn’t dominate the aesthetics. A trifle, you could say, but in reality it is the same type of care that cathedral builders paid to the rooftop statues observable only to angels and demons. And we can find additional examples of this approach in Karlík’s work:  one bust wouldn’t let him sleep until he painted its hollowed-out back — not that the crimson-purple will ever be seen by a viewer.

The sculptures are predominately polychromatic. The material is almost always wood; hardware — nails, metal sheets, washers — is often used but not to the point that it would obscure the piece’s original character of chiseled wood. Again, a person is the usual subject — busts or just a face. Exceptionally, the glimpse of a whole body. The artist does not title many of his large sculptures — he characterizes them as columns, and really with that he gets closest to their essence. They are often enclosed in a case. In addition to metal, he also utilizes glass, mirror-shards, rope. Cauterized holes. Sometimes it appears horrific — then the viewer discovers that is exactly what the artist wants to correct; he doesn’t like the horror, even though it turned out perfectly. There are numerous works in different stages of completion. A number of old practice pieces.

Contemporary sculpture occupies an especially precarious position, and for us it’s twice as bad: Myslbek has more or less domineered Czech sculpture until recently — and I don’t mean that pejoratively, and I’m not talking about those kitsch-mongers who became “national artists.” Classicism has simply had a stronger position in Czech sculpture than anywhere else. Therefore, we have to closely examine every attempt at the new. In his generation, I would put Karlík right alongside Gabriel (just so neither is hurt, I think that both are artists in their own right and both are very good).

I visited Viktor Karlík because he belongs to those who did not follow the official path of the Tvrdohlaví (Hardheads) artist collective — and he isn’t the only one. I wanted to see if we have someone we can rely on aside from Tvrdohlaví; I was delighted to discover that, yes, we do. I’m kind of the gramps of our underground, and consequently I cannot hop from pub to pub like the young ones, and so I also get less information. I plead for young artists to call on Nerudova 51: I would really, really like to see their work. What if we put a proper exhibition together?


Podzemní práce / Underground Work (Zpětný deník / Retroacitve Diary, 2012, pp. 122–123.

Viktor Karlík Viktor Karlík Viktor Karlík Viktor Karlík