The Furious Years

Pavla Pečinková
Viktor Karlík

“Real poetry occurs in the space we have come to refer to as the ‘merry ghetto,’ one of the forms of preservation against the dehumanizing and levelizing pressure of the establishment,”[1] wrote Ivan Martin Jirous in the 1980s. At the same time, Viktor Karlík chose for himself at the time a similar form of preservation. This period, which for many is associated with the gray of Normalization, is in his work wild, colorful, magical, and powerful. His paintings, sculptures, objects, and performances represent an alternative world in which blazing colors and mysterious light overcome darkness and uniformity, where no external rules apply and which pulses with a vital energy.

Even before graduating art school on Hellichova Street in Prague he found his own path to the underground, and here, on the margins of contemporary society, with no prospects and under constantly threatening persecution, found his own space of freedom. Here he could live — although with much risk and discomfort, but without the degrading compromises with the regime — and devote himself to creative activity not subordinated to political, institutional, or academic demands.

He became the most distinctive graphic artist of the younger underground generation that came into being during the late seventies and early eighties. The political repression after the founding of Charter 77 publically drew attention to the existence of independent initiatives, which had been officially denied. Especially to the young generation coming of age during the most stifling years of “normalization,” when it was no longer possible to believe in the “transitoriness” of military occupation and a future “with the Soviet Union forever,” totalitarian power appeared as unequivocal and inadvertently showed that it was possible to surrender to the comfortable passive existence of the silent majority and oppose the undesirable political reality.

“We were actually publishing samizdat even before I had ever heard of that word,” recalls Karlík during the beginnings of the so-called Smíchov-Malá Strana Circle, to whose inner circle he belonged. This association arose spontaneously and began to consolidate itself around the anthology Desítka X/Violit and the musical groups Psí vojáci and Národní třída. Originally a group of friends with literary, artistic, and musical ambitions, it quickly became an important center of nonconformist cultural activities. It is here that Viktor Karlík during the period 1980–81 debuts at illegal exhibitions and in samizdat anthologies and founds and serves as artistic editor of the samizdat book series Edice Pro více, which published the earliest works of Jáchym Topol, Vít Kremlička, J. H. Krchovský, Vít Brukner, Filip Topol, Beatrice Landovská, and Martin Socha. Then in the mid-eighties he is at the genesis, along with Jáchym Topol and Ivan Lamper, of the illegal cultural periodical Revolver Revue where he has worked until today as author, editor, and artist.

Karlík understands the term underground in the spirit of Jirous’ definition as not an artistic direction or strategy, but primarily as a “conscious spiritual endeavor,”[2] an ethical position of self-preservation whose highest value is freedom and the internal fidelity of life and work. Also the space of the so-called second culture is for him “absolutely independent of official channels of communication and the assessment of society and the hierarchy of values as presided over by the establishment.”[3] After graduating in 1981, therefore, he did not even try to get into the university. “Painting or graphic arts, those were my spaces of freedom, something I considered personal — and the idea that pedagogues whom I did not respect and who for me who were unacceptable from an ethical point of view were going to have a say in what I created upset me,”[4] recalls Karlík in an interview with Adam Drda. Instead of university reading rooms, for example, he visits Prague antiquarian bookshops, where he becomes acquainted with Váchal, Boudník, Céline and other eccentrics of literature and the graphic arts; his living “teachers” become those who gather at the Němcovás on Ječná Street, especially I. M. Jirous, Andrej Stankovič, Zbyněk Hejda, as well as Egon Bondy. From the world of officialdom he meets Lubor Hájek, the director of the oriental collection of the National Gallery in Zbraslav, where he is employed in the depository in the eighties.

For years Karlík worked entirely outside the official or semi-official activities of the so-called alternative gray zone, which from the second half of the seventies beneath the officially declared socialist art to a certain degree had taken the place of standard artistic operations, which had been decimated by “normalization” cultural politics. His concept of alternative is radical and uncompromising; it means a position not only beyond official institutions, but also beyond the academic sphere. (“As soon as you accept the first compromise […] all is lost,” emphasized Ivan Martin Jirous at the time.[5]) For a long time, Karlík exhibited only in the apartments and yards of his friends and close co-workers. Only at the end of the eighties, when the barriers between the official and unofficial begin to relax on the political field with the advent of perestroika, is he invited to a few exhibitions of the gray zone. In May 1987 he participates in the final — of six and the first legal — Confrontation on Špitalská Street in Vysočany, where a wide spectrum of artists who had been working outside the Union of Graphic Artists including unknown representatives of the underground had gathered. In March of 1989 he is represented at the similarly open intergenerational show Past and Present, organized in the area of the devastated Vinohrady emporium. In the spring of 1989, upon the initiative of Joska Skalník, he has an exhibition in the Prague Klub Na Chmelnici.

Although from the beginning Viktor Karlík has maintained the position of an outsider, his work from the eighties organically fits in with the outlines of period artistic tendencies and is directly connected with the fundamental stylistic and attitudinaltransformation in Czech art, which is connected with the advent of Postmodernist ideas.

At the beginning of the eighties, essentially two primary trends dominated the gray zone. The first was represented by the so-called Czech Grotesque, a line developing upon the impetus of new figuration in which the absurdity of the conditions of Socialist Realism was markedly reflected. In the second trend, which asserted itself especially in period collective proceedings and symposia such as Malechov, Mutějovice, and Malá Strana Courtyards or Meeting at Sparta could still be seen the trends of Western art of the late sixties and seventies — Conceptual and Action tendencies, Land Art, Body Art, Minimalism, and Arte Povera. The direction of this second line also remained existential to a certain extent, but it relied upon more generally formulated meanings.

Then in 1984 we find a significant change. A new generation of graphic artists registers at the unofficial exhibitions called Confrontation with a radically different creative and ideational orientation. It reacted boisterously to German Neo-Expressionism and the Italian Transavantgarde and professed a Postmodern reevaluation of the basis and intent of artistic creation. The character of Karlík’s artistic expression has much in common with this new wave, and we may position him among the pioneers of Czech “Wild Painting.” At the same time, it retained an internal continuity with existing tendencies in graphic art, which were not subordinated to the doctrine of Socialist Realism and represented a kind of connecting link between Modernist and Postmodernist concepts.

The beginnings of Postmodernism in Czech graphic art are typically associated with the first Confrontation exhibitions. In reality, however, the transformation of the artistic climate began earlier and proceeded more slowly. Just as the work of Martin Mainer and Vladimír Kokolia, who achieved a more relaxed artistic expression earlier, or František Skála whose wooden sculpture Untitled installed in a park in Veltrusy in 1980 were considered the harbinger “heralding the arrival of a new artistic style,” in the Czech environment,[6] we can see in the work of Karlík’s Neoexpressionist principles as early as the beginning of the 1980s.

One could still consider his primitivistic graphic art from 1980–81 (for example Devil; Three Kings; King; Drunkennesses), some of which were published in samizdat, as connected to the Czech Grotesque, but the paintings he exhibited at his first independent exhibition in the apartment of Jáchym Topol in January 1983 (Painter´s Day; Cripple; Portrait; In His Own Juice, among others) already correspond to the trend of “Wild Painting.”

However, he does not profess “Wild Painting” programmatically, unlike the contemporary art school students who carefully followed current trends of European art. “Upon seeing the paintings of the German Neoexpressionists we immediately saw the way. These paintings expressed what we were sensing around us, what we were spontaneously expressing in music, what corresponded to our general mindset,”[7] comments, for example, Vladimír Skrepl upon his debut in 1984. To be sure, the work of Viktor Karlík is also connected to rock music and thus is also informed by the anarchistic vitality of punk, but he is not drawn to wild expression of the academic art of the European artistic scene. His version of Neoexpressionism issues from his immediate personal experience and is connected with the general poetics of the so-called second generation of the Czech underground. “One senses in the air something distinctly close to Expressionism. Since there’s already been mention of it, it is remarkable that the young artists around Psí vojáci have picked it up,”[8] noted Ivan Martin Jirous in his account of the rock group Psí vojáci in the magazine Vokno in 1986. Karlík’s actualization of the principles of Expressionism does not proceed from his contemporary models, but is a reaction to the contemporary hopeless and intractable situation, of which he was personally very well aware. It was a spontaneous expression of hopelessness, protest, defiance, and a longing for freedom. His work is grounded in the work of the first Expressionists and the classics of Czech Modernism, primarily the original heretic Josef Váchal, and based upon the “fury and humility”[9] characteristic of Czech underground society.

The most conspicuous characteristic that connects Karlík’s work with the advent of the new wave is obviously the return to brush painting and pictorial narrative accompanied by contempt for academic templates. Karlík’s approach to painting, however, is to a certain extent anomalous. Because he did not graduate from any institute, he had no need to distance himself radically from the painter’s craft. For most of the participants of Confrontation at the beginning of “Wild Painting,” the act of painting itself was more important that the resulting artifact. Varnishing brushes were often used on large pieces of wrapping paper, and attention to the technical execution of the work was considered purposeless formalism. Of course, Viktor Karlík also worked with vital and crude gestures, disharmonic color combinations, non-classical artistic approaches as well as with make-shift materials and refuse. At the same time, however, he did not programmatically reject traditional artistic means of expression. He critically considers and employs in a new way contemporary possibilities of the “speech of form.” He links destructive expressive gestures with cultivated aesthetic details and even employs refined technological methods such as encaustic painting or poliment gilding (Altar; This Side of Paradise; The Bat; Golden Collar).

The Postmodern “return to painting” was accompanied by a loss of the internal integrity of the picture and an interconnecting of artistic and conceptual approaches. The inherency of an artistic work is no longer something self-evident. Its autonomy is often disturbed and called into question — on the one hand by the verbal communication integrated into the structure of the picture, and on the other by overlappings between the object and the picture or between the painting and the performance. “They say the new wave is dead,” Jiří David inscribes this quote from Miller’s Little Mole into his painting of the same name in 1985. “Where does the palette end?” asks Karlík in one of his self-portraits. In both cases the texts concern actual possibilities of painting. Whereas David’s provocative bon mot applies to contemporary strategies on the artistic scene, Viktor Karlík’s question remains connected with the Modernistic search for living and non-academic means of personal artistic statement.

The poetic commentary and authorial texts or assemblages from found material, which Karlík often integrates into his pictures (for example, The Last Song; I’d Like to Be a Dog; I Feel Something, I Sense Something; Fish in the Shallows) are not meant to call into question or deconstruct the language of the painting but rather to broaden and enrich its possibilities. Although he works with conceptual principles and expressive experiments (an extreme aspect of this are his “live pictures”), he recognizes the autonomy of the image space; moreover, he attempts to renew and emphasize it along with originally constructed and painted frames. With his objects such as Sick Paintbrush and Dead Paintbrush from the beginning of the nineties, he is not declaring the end of painting but rather asserting a general diagnosis of the period. He himself is not definitively abandoning pictorial media.

An attachment to non-European and primitive cultures was also one of the characteristics of Postmodern Czech graphic art. Especially during the first phase of the new wave, when Joseph Beuys’ concept of creative art as a secular ritual was dying out, totems, masks, altars, shamanic accouterments, and attributes of various cults constituted the basis of the period iconographic register (which boldly asserts itself especially in the work of Jaroslav Róna, Michal Gabriel, and František Skála). Primitivism especially dominates Karlík’s reliefs, sculptures, and boxes-shrines, which create the impression of cult objects. Nevertheless, wild, almost frantic, primitivistic ornaments are developed as well in his linocuts (especially in his illustrations for the samizdat edition of Havel’s Temptation) and his oil paintings (Dead Monkey; The Bat; Celestial Anchors , among others). In Karlík’s work, however, it is not a matter of Postmodern quotation or paraphrase across time and space, but rather a spontaneous return to the expressive principles of an art that possessed an irreplaceable function in the life of the human community and allowed it to survive. Martin Machovec interprets primitivism in the underground in the following way: “Perhaps in this connection one can speak of some sort of ‘savagery’ syndrome or ‘indigenousness’: a ‘savage’ becomes a foreigner in his own country when it is occupied by an incomprehensible and obviously unconquerable enemy.” The motif of the mask with which Karlík is almost obsessed in the eighties and which he develops in innumerable technological versions from paintings to sculptures and reliefs to action experiments with “live pictures”, refers not only to primitive cultures. At the same time it designates an existential metaphor for the search for identity, and one can understand it also as an omnipresent sign of “normalization” reality.

The primitivistic Wild Paintingwas characteristic primarily for the first stage of the new wave. Instead, after 1986, more dispassionate artistic approaches assert themselves on the Czech artistic scene, repudiating personal experience and concentrating on semantic play with conventional means of artistic language. In Karlík’s work, Neoexpressionism is rooted more deeply, and therefore its expression becomes calmer at the very end of the eighties. Viktor Karlík’s turn to conceptual experiments based on the principle of readymade (sometimes with direct reference to Duchamp), however, does not mean a weakening of the immediacy of his personal communication. Even though Karlík works with found objects or their imprints, he continues to project his own life story into their realization.

Viktor Karlík lives and creates in the same artistic time-space as the artists debuting at Confrontation, and their expression has many similar artistic attributes. Nevertheless, their starting point and artistic attitude differ in many respects. The most significant difference concerns the meaning and pursuit of art. Whereas the artists of the underground understood art primarily as “the enunciation of the truth of life and the position of a person in the world,”[10] the new wave in no uncertain terms rejected this statement. With respect to the work of the preceding generation, their protagonists limited themselves primarily to their “existential marasmus.” By contrast, the liberating and essentially non-destructive, and therefore only apparent, nihilism of the underground had much more in common with the existential starting point of the Czech Grotesque. “Hmm, who am I?”begins a poem by Jáchym Topol entitled “Whats Up, You King of Freaks?“ Karlík poses this question again and again in his self-portraits, even though he does not attempt to find a final answer. His Hamlet from 1983 is certainly an irreverent and ironic reference to the icon of European cultural heritage; however, he does not ironize Hamlet’s question as to the meaning of life itself but, on the contrary, actualizes and opens it up.

The existential basis essentially connects Karlík’s furious years with further stages of his creative work as well as with his contemporary artistic position. At the same time, he represents a basic difference whereby from the second half of the eighties he surpasses the major artistic current of Czech art.

The fierce accession of the Czech Postmodern new wave was accompanied by proclamations that appealed to recognized names of Postmodern philosophy, but which to a certain extent both simplified and distorted their theses. Lyotard’s rejection of “great narratives” and the enthronement of a pluralistic model of truth disintegrating into parallel language games became the requirement for the absolute emptying of content, the absence of meaning, “speech that does not lead to expression.”[11] These conclusions are foreign to Karlík. The doubting of absolute truths does not mean for him resigning the truth of individually formulated artistic communications. He remains faithful to the concept of art as an important and cogent communication.

With the advent of the absence of meaning logically followed the rejection of ethical criteria in the evaluation of art and programmatic apoliticalness — and on this point Karlík’s path departs diametrically from work of the Tvrdohlaví generation. Whereas the young underground society to which Karlík belonged “bore authentic frightening witness to our time,”[12] the new painting intentionally distanced itself from the contemporary situation of society: “We believed it was possible to build up or draw attention to a realm of intelligible, readable, and important subjects, which were entirely indifferent to the marasmus of life under the rule of the Communists. We did not want to pay tribute to power nor did we want to exhaust ourselves in political opposition,” states Jiří David on behalf of the group Tvrdohlaví. His theory of “total distance” during the period of social anemia is absolutely unacceptable for Karlík. He indeed reacts spontaneously to Postmodern stimuli and employs the possibilities of a plurality of expressive codes, but he does not relinquish the responsibility of artistic expression and its meaning. Any content indifferent to the real life situation is not sufficient. The fundamental difference between both approaches can be seen for example in comparing Císařovský’s picture “Postcard from Captivity” from 1989 and Karlík’s oil painting “Postcard for a Friend”, exhibited in May 1989 in Klub na Chmelnici. Both works represent “word pictures,” which quote the text of an actual postcard. However, whereas Císařský with a programmatic impersonal distance reproduces the neat artless writing of the text of an interesting but semantically neutral document from a family archive, “Postcard for a Friend” reacts with wild dramatic handwriting to the imprisonment of Ivan Magor Jirous. Of course, Karlík does not develop any sort of “militant art”: he “merely” seeks a deeper reflection, both personal and general, upon the life situation, something which the new trend programmatically avoided. This is why his position in Czech graphic art of the eighties is thoroughly irreplaceable.

Karlík’s peculiar version of “Wild Art” has not been sufficiently evaluated. In the collection Alternativní kultura, which attempts a summary view of Czech art as it developed outside of Party directives, Martin Machovec reminds us that during “normalization” not only the significance but also the very existence of an underground subculture was denied, and there was a general “tendency to proclaim that all underground activity was non-existent.”[13] It is a sad paradox that this is how the artistic underground from the eighties appears from an art historical perspective even today.

The epic two-volume publication Dějiny českého výtvarného umění from 2007, which should have been a basic scholarly handbook mapping Czech graphic art during the period 1958–2000 does not concern itself with the creative art of the Prague underground at all and follows exclusively the work of the gray zone as the only alternative to official pseudo-art. Karlík is only mentioned in passing in connection with the journal Revolver Revue as an artist working in the 1990s with the publishing house Torst. (On the other hand academics readily following the templates required by the regime, such as M. Axman, J. Simota, or R. Svoboda are represented by reproductions as numerous as those by Otakar Slavík, Martin Mainer, Stanislav Diviš, among others.)

The underground ignored the operation of official and institutionalized art in the totalitarian state, and it is as if the institutions were harking back to these institutions even today. Even the exhibition Painting of the Eighties, organized in 2010 in the Brno Wannieck Gallery, did not consult underground artists despite the fact that the organizers outwardly declared their attempt to present in all its complexity the “creative surge of the generation that during “normalization” fiercely espoused the right to freely create and exhibit.”[14] As early as 1989, however, Egon Bondy, one of the key representatives of the Czech underground, placed Karlík’s work unambiguously in the context of the art of the new wave of the second half of the 1980s: “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 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.”[15] Whereas Bondy managed to follow alternative art from the period of “normalization” in its actual complexity and took notice of both the underground and the gray zone, the only art historian so far to emphasize the connection of Karlík’s work with the art of the new wave is Marcel Fišer in the exhibition +– 50: the Eighties’ Generation, organized in 2006 in the Klatovy Gallery at U bílého jednorožce.

It would be to the detriment of Czech historiography if it did not distinguish and appreciate the importance of Karlík’s “wild period” and did not allot it an appropriate place in the picture of Czech art of the eighties. In the broad spectrum of artistic tendencies and attitudes of the period, Viktor Karlík’s work is a very important and irreplaceable element: ethically uncompromising as well as graphically expressive and persuasive. It is not a fulfilling of stylistic patterns of the day, but primarily a distinctive and idiosyncratic reaction to his own life situation as well as the societal context. Karlík does not ask whether he is supposed to belong to the Modernists or the Postmodernists; he defends the independence of his own artistic positions. For him, there is still an equals sign between art and freedom. This is certainly a Modernistic tenant, but we must ask what we gain if we disown him.

The Neoexpressionist phase represents a relatively limited interval in Viktor Karlík’s work, which ends around the same time as the fall of totalitarianism. After the borders of the ghetto fall, Karlík’s artistic expression is transformed fundamentally. His former fury loses its inner motivation. The essence, however, remains unchanged: Viktor Karlík continues to give priority to independence over the building of positions on the art scene and develops his own idiosyncratic creative “diary” in which he projects that which is most fundamental from his life and artistic experience.

Podzemní práce / Underground Work (Zpětný Deník / Retroactive Diary), 2012, pp.  350–355.

[1] Ivan M. Jirous: Magorův zápisník, ed. Michael Špirit (Praha: Torst, 1997), 228.

[2] Magorův zápisník, op. cit. 507.

[3] Magorův zápisník, op. cit. 197.

[4] Conversation with Adam Drda in Naše normalizace, eds. Adam Drda, Karel Strachota(Praha: Člověk v tísni, 2011), 126–31.

[5] Magorův zápisník, op. cit. 180.

[6] Ludvík Hlaváček, “Postmoderna a neoexpresionismus” in Dějiny českého výtvarného umění VI/2, eds. Rudolf Švácha, Marie Platovská (Prague: Academia 2007), 719.

[7] Ludvík Hlaváček, “Postmoderna a neoexpresionismus,” op. cit., 721.

[8] Magorův zápisník, op. cit., 232.

[9] Magorův zápisník, op. cit., 197.

[10] Magorův zápisník, op. cit., 183.

[11] Jana Ševčíková, Jiří Ševčík, “Umění osmdesátých let” in České umění 1938–1989, eds. Jiří Ševčík, Pavlína Morganová, Dagmar Dušková(Praha: Academia, 2001), 404.

[12] Magorův zápisník, op. cit., 235.

[13] Alternativní kultura. Příběh české společnosti 1945–1989, ed. Josef Alan(Praha: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 2001), 192.

[14] Official website of the Wannieck Gallery.

[15] Eon Bondy, “Návštěva v ateliéru Viktora Karlíka,” Vokno 16, 1990, p. 40.

Viktor Karlík Viktor Karlík Viktor Karlík Viktor Karlík