Dazed Faces – Animals – Fish – Birds – Banshees – Masks – Totems – Fetishes – Altars

Martin Machovec
Viktor Karlík

(the Graphic Art of Viktor Karlík as an Example of Czech Underground Art of the 1980s)

For over twenty years I have been trying to chronicle and describe the phenomenon of what is called underground culture in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. As we know from experience, as soon as something is given a name, that name is immediately abused and exploited, whether by ideologues or businessmen — which, in the end, is essentially the same riffraff. The term “underground” was exploited in the West as early as the end of the 1960s; in Czechoslovakia, two decades later. Today it seems that ninety-nine percent of the inhabitants of the country officially called the Czech Republic consider the term “underground” to be some sort of retro fashionable trend, in some cases as another quasi-cultural commercial ruse. The dullest among us think it is one of the many deliberately incomprehensible Anglicisms. The continuity of normalization pseudo-culture with the pseudo-culture of the era of the quasi-democracy of the last two decades is remarkable. Karel Gott received recognition from both Gustáv Husák and Václav Klaus. Only a patent imbecile needs more evidence.

I am not an art historian; I deal primarily with the underground literary scene, actually only a specific sector of the unofficial dissident literary scene during the forty years of the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. Yes, over the course of the last twenty years, dozens and dozens of volumes of poetry, prose, and essays have been published, and a number of names of the Czech underground literati have been smuggled into the chapters of the academic history of Czech literature. But that is just about all. A notorious lack of interest in critical self-reflection, of examining our own past — which of course is part of the agenda of many “democratic” politicians on both the left and the right — has affected this area as well, the historiography of which is today tolerated at best.

This, however, is superfluous lamentation and fruitless clamor. Whoever does not understand what I have tried to express in the preceding two paragraphs will understand nothing anyway — not in the text that follows, not in his life, not in the whole wide world. With this brief recapitulation I wanted to emphasize the essentially “extremist,” “antisocial,” and, of course, exceedingly forlorn position of the poet, writer, musician, or graphic artist who may rightfully be referred to as underground.

Underground culture of the seventies and eighties was not an indoctrination; it was not an ideology, and it was even less an aesthetic. In the words of Egon Bondy, it was essentially the “self-defense of culture,” the defense of a person located in a situation of extreme peril, of a person banished to a place where he can no longer do anything, where he simply must surrender. Or, in the words of Ivan Martin Jirous from 1975: “… the underground is an activity of artists and intellectuals whose work is unacceptable to the establishment and who are not passive and acquiescent in their unacceptableness, but who, through their work and their attitude, attempt to destroy the establishment. The indispensable qualities of those who have chosen the underground as their mental attitude are ferocity and humility. Whoever lacks these qualities will not survive in the underground.”

Today more than twenty years after 1989, I consider it necessary to emphasize these characteristics not only because they are the key to understanding underground artifacts of the totalitarian era, but also because recently it has become obvious that the substance of these attitudes are once again relevant. Because genuine human culture, genuine art, art that positively must contain an ethical and spiritual dimension as well, art that necessarily must be indifferent to any kind of –ism, especially in “post” or “postpostmodernist” packaging, is today in even graver danger than during the decades of “normalization.”

But perhaps it is precisely this renewed threat that will allow the few remaining individuals who are not entirely devoid of artistic sensibility to examine that, which formed the specific value of underground artistic creation — of underground literature, music, and graphic art. Here, in view of my professional orientation, I cannot choose but to place above all a sort of per analogiam with regard to the creative artifacts of the period, that is, to view them through the prism of literature. During the two decades after 1989 when I was trying to write, and even teach, about underground literature, I realized time and again that it is almost impossible to interpret its specifics solely on the formal level. For example Body’s concept of “Total Realism” is in some ways parallel to Jiří Kolář’s Poetics of the Eyewitness: but at the same time it is entirely different. Ivo Vodseďálek’s “Awkward Poetry” from the early fifties is not only an updating of Dadaism. Vladimír Boudník’s Explosionism is not just a decoction of Action Painting. One can find numerous examples: the “humor” of the literati (and graphic artists) of the so-called Křížovnická School of Pure Humor Without a Joke is in some ways more convulsive, dry, and sardonic than the “Pataphysics” of Alfred Jarry or the “anti-art” of Marcel Duchamp. Jirous’ Magor’s Swan Songs are not only an example of what we refer to as prison poetry, let alone of the Czech Catholic literary tradition, even if it is one of its most beautiful products. Bondy’s Invalid Siblings is not only a paraphrase of some of the dystopian science fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. The poems of Fanda Panek are not only schizophrenic coprolalia; the poetry of J. H. Krchovský is not only neo-decadence; the monotony of Magic Nights by the Plastic People of the Universe is not reducible to musical minimalism, let alone barbaric “tam-tam culture.” Et cetera, et cetera.

In the artistic manifestations of artists moving in underground communities of the seventies and eighties, it was, I assume, similar. At first glance, viewers will undoubtedly compare Viktor Karlík’s artifacts from that period with the work of the Expressionists from the beginning of the twentieth century, especially that of Emil Nolde and Evard Munch, and in the Czech context Josef Váchal and Jaroslav Panuška, but also perhaps with Emil Filla, Bohumil Kubišta, even early František Kupka. And, as far as younger artists are concerned, perhaps with the brushwork of the Junge Wilde. Yes, his work is certainly informed by these artists and trends, but there is still something more.

Karlík’s paintings, woodcuts, reliefs, and sculptures from the eighties compose one of the most succinct examples of the aforementioned distinctiveness of Czech underground art. From Karlík’s portraits, self-portraits, or better, self-caricatures, wide-eyed mugs peer out at us, which are, in the words of Pavel Zajíček, “testimony to a time reduced to ashes,” not just an attempt formally to come to terms with the products of several artistic currents from the beginning of the twentieth century or later. From the art of those years, I consider the most representative to be his shift from the iconography of the portrait or self-portrait to the iconography of the mask, the grimace, and, in some cases, his quasi-religious objects, the totem, the pseudo-altar. These are the artistic reflections of socially marginalized people, contemned and officially non-existent artists, those whose spirituality was mocked, trivialized, and oppugned. Any similarity with Postmodern Tribalism, that is, with some sort of fashionable revival of paganism, is only superficial here. In reality, these artifacts are primarily an expression of self-defense, a gesture of resistance by a person banished to the ghetto, a manifestation of a desperate battle against an omnipotent sovereign and totalitarian arbitrary rule.

Just as it is obviously impossible to talk about “underground literature” in the sense of some kind of school, aesthetic doctrine, or group — the proof of which are the still unpublished samizdat collections from the seventies and eighties — it is impossible to circumscribe “underground graphic art.” Nevertheless, in a certain sense, the mentality of the underground “ghetto” affected artists from the most varied artistic orientations accordingly because they shared the same fate. They came to terms with it, however, through different artistic means. Of course Viktor Karlík did not belong to any group of “underground artists” because no such group ever existed. He never represented any “graphic art generation.” His academic peers from the group Tvrdohlaví (Hardheads) saw to that. Certainly one can find in Karlík’s works from the eighties many external similarities with the work of, for example, Jaroslav Róna or František Skála from the same period. But a comparison not limited to merely the formal level would also demonstrate certain differences precisely in the spiritual and, however ridiculous it may sound today, the moral spheres.

In the underground community, of course, Karlík’s graphic art functioned in a certain context, even if it was not connected to any sort of artistic group. Along with his friends, Viktor Karlík published the artistic and literary collections Desitka X/Violit. From the beginning, he was the editor and graphic designer of the journal Revolver Revue, the creator of its cover, and also participated in the graphic concept of several related samizdat editions or series (Pro více, Mozková Mrtvice, Edice RR among others). His graphic art from the eighties is, more than is the case with the work of other underground loners, accompanied with the literary work of his generation fellow travelers, primarily Jáchym Topol, Filip Topol, Vít Kremlička, Petr Placák, or J. H. Krchovský. It is worth mentioning that Karlík was also active as an underground musician and songwriter — in the group Národní třída — and was also close to the group Psí vojáci. It is all of this combined that informs the cultural context in which we may adequately interpret Karlík’s graphic art.

Prague, 6–12 December, 2010

Podzemní práce / Underground Work (Zpětný Deník / Retroactive Diary), 2012, pp. 343-344.

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