Interview with Ivan ‘Magor’ Jirous, Prague, June 2010

Adam Drda
Viktor Karlík

Do you remember your first encounter with the artistic work of Viktor Karlík?

I can’t remember exactly; it was terribly long ago. But at the time we had a little house in Košíře, not far from the Klamovka pub. My wife, Juliana, bought it with Stáňa Karásková when we — I mean the husbands — were in prison. I didn’t really get to enjoy the house, because back then they had me pretty much locked up all the time. Across from the house there was a little shed that belonged to it, kind of like a garage or something, where bands would practice. And if I remember correctly, Viktor painted the walls there. He did these frescoes — it was probably right at the start of the eighties — that caught my attention. Later on, I saw his pictures.
Viktor belonged to what I call the second underground generation, those people who went straight to the underground. Us older guys before ‘normalization’ could still manage to do something that was sort of official, but these younger guys, like Viktor, Jáchym Topol, Filip Topol, Vít Kremlička, J. H. Krchovský and others (there are quite a few more to name) straightaway and absolutely refused any attempt at working within the official structures, which were just completely shameful. And they would go to the pub at Klamovka, I think it was a regular weekly thing, and most likely it was there that I met Viktor. Later on, we would see each other around on various occasions, if I didn’t happen to be in prison at the moment. I dare say that we’re friends and I did not stop following his work, although I managed it in fits.

Within the Prague circle that produced Desítka X/Violit and especially Revolver Revue, there were a number of people who more-or-less devoted themselves to the visual arts. Did Karlík’s work seem extraordinary to you? Or did you know the other young artists also, and recognize that together they were expressing something important?

When you talk about other young artists from that group, I’m reminded of Ján Mlynárik as well. I was at his farewell party before he emmigrated, I believe that he lived somewhere on Kampa, and he gave me a really nice graphic that I have to this day… But to answer your question: there certainly was a collective spirit, but I’d say that Viktor was incredibly distinct. Back then I already regarded him as a painter of the same caliber as, perhaps, James Ensor or Edvard Munch. The expressivity in his pictures captured the era under which we lived, but it wasn’t connected with any political protest, and it definitely wasn’t a ‘sociological study.’ They were just wonderful, expressive paintings. That doesn’t mean that I am sorry Viktor later changed his style. Quite the contrary, I appreciate it. But nonetheless I feel that his initial period etched itself into the history of Czech painting in an umistakable way. I don’t think anyone at the time was painting such bold and cutting pieces. After his work from the eighties, even if Viktor had died or stopped painting, I think his imprint on Czech art would still be immensely distinct.

You compared Viktor with Munch and Ensor —could you expand on that a little?

Viktor is an artist in his on right — I made that link, with Ensor even more than Munch, because their paintings express something similar. I didn’t mean that he is their disciple.

Do you have a special relationship with any of those paintings from Karlík’s early stage?

With Magor’s Guard, naturally. Well, I was in the joint, and by that time the secret police probably knew the regime was going to collapse. I was in Valdice, and Viktor wrote to me, “I’m painting you an animal that’ll protect you from evil power” — or something like that. So when I returned from prison, that painting was waiting for me. Then I had it hanging over my bed in Stará Říše. I feel like Viktor didn’t just use paint on it, that he enchanted it with something magical that actually protected me… It’s an awesome painting and just for that I’m immensely grateful to Viktor.

After this expressive beginning, Karlík’s style calmed down significantly; it is now more restrained, more focused on a specific theme. You mentioned a moment ago that he changed his style and that you appreciate that…

The thing is, I don’t really like artists who establish a certain style and then live off it for the rest of their lives, since they are quote-unquote successful at it — a typical Czech example of that would be Olbram Zoubek. Karlík could have easily continued with his distinct way of painting from the eighties up until he died and made a ton of money, but I think that’s precisely what he didn’t want, and so he started doing completely different things. With his painting, I remember that exhibition in Karlín with all the still lifes of fish and dead animals. It was already evident then that he was beginning to paint differently. And actually it could be seen even in his manhole imprints. He started doing them in the place that was closest to him, and all at once it was a coldly rational graphic, but at the same time it also showed his love for the place he lives. The fact that I like it isn’t any real gauge, of course, but I think it’s tremendously courageous when an artist entirely transforms his poetics (to put it in literary terms, because the word style seems rather insufficient to me). Only a real artist can make that type of change — someone who isn’t doing it for praise or money.

In addition to handling the graphic design of Revolver Revue, Viktor Karlík is also one of its editors. His work might be more entwined with the magazine than other artists’. What is your relationship with RR?

My relationship to the review Jednou nohou, which later became Revolver Revue, has always been unequivocally positive. That’s something I’ve said many times… I believe Viktor’s work for Revolver Revue, including using its pages to present other artists, is equivalent to his artistic endeavours — it’s just as remarkable. That’s connected to the fact that he’s an artist-intellectual. There are painters that paint driven by emotion without really thinking much about it. But he belongs to the other category. I would cite Marcel Duchamp who distinguished between olfactional, or olfactory, artists and retinal ones. To the first group belong those who “like to sniff the turpentine,” the retinal artists are those whose paintings penetrate the retina and act on the brain. Viktor is really a unique case, because his early expressive work could undoubtedly be categorized as olfactory — but he has completely transformed into a retinal artist. Now stop asking me, I don’t know any more anyway.

Podzemní práce / Underground Work (Zpětný deník / Retroactive Diary), 2012, pp. 340–342.

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