Jiří David: Zdeněk Sýkora 60

Only a few art educators have managed to harmonize their art of living with fine art and art education in such a remarkable and auspicious manner as Kamil Linhart /ed. note: Kamil Linhart (1920-2006), painter and educator. Following the war, studied art education professorship with Zdeněk Sýkora at Charles University's Faculty of Education under Martin Salcman, Cyril Bouda and Karel Lidický. Assistant at the faculty from 1950; named Associate Professor in 1965/ and Zdeněk Sýkora, associate professors at [Charles University’s] Faculty of Education in Prague. For thirty years, practically for the entire post-war period up to the present, first as assistants to Professor Martin Salcman /ed. note: Martin Salcman (1896-1979), painter and educator. Studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague under professors Loukotka, Preisler and Krattner. Studied in Paris 1926-28. Professor at Charles University's Faculty of Education since 1946/, then they themselves as university teachers both taught countless scores of young people aesthetic perception and creative expression. Many of these young people have since gone on to become excellent teachers or even artists. Linhart’s and Sýkora’s original teaching styles extended beyond the usual sphere of the field; it was communication and sharing, creation, discussion and challenge. 

Both like-minded in terms of the main aim, art education, and each on their own in terms of how art should be accomplished, these remarkable sixty-year-olds are leaving their work at the university. Yet they are doing so without feelings of nostalgia because the meaning behind their work, their calling, is not changing because of this. We are simply taking advantage of these external circumstances, this milestone, to stop for a moment: to offer our sincere best wishes and pose the following questions that approximately define the contents of our double interview:

How did the relationship between art education and fine art manifest itself in your experience as an educator? What was the essence of your teaching methodology? In terms of educating creative art teachers, which psychological aspects were most important? What did many years of contact with young people mean for you?

Zdeněk Sýkora, or better known to students and friends as “Sejda”. It is unusual that this robust, one could say even Renaissance man, has permanently adopted the anti-Renaissance and subtle order of the language of geometric elements. In these rhythms of “divisional structures”, though, we discover the dialectic of a complete, individual picture space and an internally intricate, divisional or divisible form. The picture resembles contemporary man, and man resembles the picture.

Thirty-three years of a dual life: in the order of the picture space and the “anti-order” of all too mobile structures – students who must be shaped and formed; all those years created a sense of method and the ability to fulfil his calling as a teacher simply and naturally, with the provocative intensity of a person with determination.

Associate Professor Zdeněk Sýkora says:
I didn’t discover any smarter start than the study of nature. Of course, this was concerned with artistic perception, with cultivating it. So then it was a given that there would be two parts to the instruction: study based on fact, where Cézanne’s principles were used; and, at the same time, the interpretation of modern art from the Barbizon School. Here I always come to an agreement with the novice about what a picture is, and from there it’s possible to follow artistic thought up to the present and back into the past. At the same time, it became less and less of an objective for me to “teach students to paint”. Instead I concentrated more on having them be able to see their way around in the world using their eyes.

Painting outdoors was the most effective for cultivating artistic perception. The “sightless”, meaning those who were used to just the regular, everyday perception of empty form, the practical purpose of individual things, travelled down to Třeboň, which is where we usually went for landscape classes. Standing outdoors at the easel, they suddenly began to recognise that the painterly, artistic perception of the world is concerned with the specific quality of objects, with the relationships between objects. And this was enormously enriching for those kids. When we took the train back afterwards, they spoke about it themselves and with verve.

During this instruction, what role did your own artistic experience play?
Even for me, in my first years at the university contact with facts also played a decisive role; this is why my own work had such an immediate influence on instruction. The artistic production of that what is seen was also decisive for me. Primarily, Matisse’s paintings had a great influence. As did Klee, where I discovered what for me is the intrinsic meaning of artistic structure – its divisibility. At that time, in the early Sixties, after long transformations I arrived at the intrinsic concept of constructivist painting with rational logic.

So it was Klee and not, as some people could think, Vasarely?
Actually, it was only a few lines from Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook /ed. note: Zdeněk Sýkora was chiefly fascinated by the following passage (Hlaváček's translation also appeared in the catalogue for Sýkora's exhibition at the Václav Špála Gallery in 1970): "The element which unifies the surface and produces movement is structure. This appears as structural rhythm, and may take the form of a primitive arrangement in layers or of a highly complex series of accents. Its distinguishing mark is the repetition of some unit. Parts can be taken away or added without their rhythmic character, which is based on repetition, being changed.  he crucial sentence: The structural character is dividual (divisible).“  This entire quote in fact did not come directly from Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, but from a book by Werner Haftmann: Paul Klee, Wege bildnerischen Denkens.  Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg; Fischer Bücherei KG, 1961. Josef Hlaváček translated part of this book. In his text entitled Memories are memories (Verzone, 2011) from 2003, he recalls: "Vladislav Mirvald gave me an English translation of Paul Klee's monograph written by Werner Haftmann back then. I was impressed by the chapter about the Pedagogical Sketchbook, so I translated it and asked Zdeněk Sýkora to pass the translation on to Dr. Lamač for Výtvarné umění (Art) magazine. Lamač rejected the translation because it was a translation of a translation. Nevertheless, it seemed to impress Sýkora – when he was on the bus going to Prague he mostly read about Klee's interpretation of the creation of structure while he was commuting by bus between Louny and Prague. This impetus that arose by chance from Klee apparently ended the search that followed after the two peaks described earlier and launched the risky and brave step called Grey Structure."/, his visual interpretation of structure in art. There was even an attempt in this to start teaching manipulation with geometric symbols, or namely to apply Formlehre, the Bauhaus lectures on basic design, here – but it did not bring any results.

That is a remarkable experience. But then, why didn’t that renowned method succeed in this case?
This method of shaping structures from geometric elements and the relationships between them assumes a long period of artistic development, growth. To put it simply – if it’s not supposed to be just a mechanical exercise, it’s a matter for people who, relatively speaking, have already reached artistic maturity. Besides, take for example the oeuvres of artists such as Kandinsky or Mondrian; well, we know what they had already been through when they started to apply the principles of their abstract art comprised of geometric elements.

Yes, even in their case this was preceded by their experience in studying nature. But let’s go back once more to your instruction of painting. What was the consequence of this negative experience that was certainly also connected with the real opportunities and specific focus of teaching at the Faculty of Education.
It was a return to the original starting point, the study of nature. Now, of course, with greater emphasis placed on the general principles of creation – which is determined by the effort to reconstruct the sentiment of nature using artistic tools. At the same time, there was no risk here of losing emotionality.

I think that now we’re getting closer to the psychological prerequisites for artistic work in regards to artistic guidance. As an art educator, what do you consider to be decisive in this sense?
A sense for an instruction method that relies on landscape painting and perceived reality in general; in the interpretation I spoke about, this concerns the development of artistic perception from mere sight to “a strong feeling for reality”, if I were to quote Salcman. It was Salcman who taught us artistic perception. This was the basis, the key to the entire outlook. This was also the point of departure for all of us.

An experience like this, this of course isn’t viewing one thing next to another, the path from detail to detail – this expects perceiving the properties of objects as artistic phenomena in their relations to one another, it means seeing simultaneously. And the basic prerequisite for this difficult dialectic method of viewing is the ability to focus, absolute concentration. I always strictly demanded this, especially at the beginning of the semester and at the beginning of each lesson.

Certainly those who were perceptive to accept the impulses for this difficult, yet effective method will recall that. Many graduates of the faculty have also been able to apply this creatively as art teachers, and some have even achieved noteworthy results as artists.
This method does contain the potential for development – either back to nature, or away from it, based on one’s individual disposition. That “insight” smells of Eastern painting… It simply forces one to concentrate. Otherwise, only few people are able to spontaneously and directly discern reality.

From this aspect, then, the meaning of our painting would be expressed approximately thusly: One gets to know the method of observing relationships. One gets to know the quality of the abstracted reconstruction of what one sees. One is led to intensively experience the facts one sees.

We acquired a view into art of the past by directly analysing the language of painting and its developmental transitions.

In regards to contact with young people, it brought me – besides the well-known significance of regeneration – mainly the purifying value of openness on both sides. I spoke with them about things that I understood well and I always stood behind. In the teaching process, I was able to go deeper into them; I had to do this repeatedly because understanding something intellectually and actually grasping it are two qualitatively different things. Not just individuals, but each class of students was a subject for me that I needed to approach. Only exceptionally was I unsuccessful.


Published in Estetická výchova, October 1980, No. 2, pp. 51-53, entitled Zdeněk Sýkora 60 Kamil Linhart. The author was listed as Věra Davidová.

Jiří David (1933-2014), art educator, aesthetician and art theoretician. Former student of Martin Salcman as well as Zdeněk Sýkora and Kamil Linhart, who were both assistants at the Faculty of Education while David was a student there. As David was not allowed to be published during the 1970s and 1980s, he used his wife's name, Věra Davidová, as a pseudonym. He returned to the university after the 1989 revolution and became a professor of aesthetics at the Faculty of Education in Hradec Králové, and later at Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem. He studied Zdeněk Sýkora's work in the 1980s and early 1990s, and wrote a scholarly essay entitled Zahrady bdělých smyslů, Poetika nové duchovní senzibility v obrazech Zdeňka Sýkory (Gardens of Alert Senses. The poetry of spiritual sensitivity in Zdeněk Sýkora's paintings) published as part of a collection of his essays: Století dítěte a výzva obrazů (Century of the Child and the Challenge of Paintings), Faculty of Education, Masaryk University Brno 2008.