Aleš Svoboda: New Interview with Zdeněk Sýkora

The way in which culture was “controlled” over the past two decades placed you in a paradoxical situation. Even though you did not emigrate, your oeuvre is more well-known internationally than here in Czechoslovakia.
I don’t think that my case is somehow exceptional. My destiny was identical to the destiny of my entire generation at the time, specified, let’s say, by being born between 1910 and 1930. Starting in ’65 we were able to exhibit internationally as representatives of contemporary Czechoslovak art. Very soon we were known both here and internationally, and we got into practically all major museums and galleries worldwide. The opportunity to exhibit ended in around ’70, but after a while, mainly because it represented hard currency earnings for the state coffers, we were again permitted to exhibit abroad. After that certain interruption it was quite difficult to get back into the current of European art, but we did it.

It is true that culture was controlled in a certain way. The people up top demanded “politically and socially committed art”, but it was our “colleagues” in the Union of Visual Artists who decided the question of what actually constituted committed art. That differentiation was absolutely impossible to gauge; even abstract tendencies were permitted. At that time, our generation was not in the union – and thus publicly did not exist.

The only thing paradoxical about my destiny is that my first retrospective was hosted in Germany, at the Josef Albers Museum in Bottrop in 1986. It was held in Czechoslovakia two years later, in Brno, but no space could be found for it in Prague.

And regarding emigration – I absolutely am not the emigration type, as I haven’t even been able to emigrate from Louny to Prague.

What has your experience been with the public’s reception of your works?
I have had a few different types of experience. To my astonishment unbiased people who are essentially uneducated in art, people whom I expect to be more interested in my landscape paintings from the 1950s, turn out to have no interest at all in the landscapes and are excited about the latest Lines paintings. This is always an immense pleasure for me. The public closest to me, and this includes the vast majority of my foreign collectors, are people who work in a certain field that requires abstract thought. Scientists from the most diverse areas – psychologists, neurologists, biologists, linguists or architects... In this country it’s a problem to get people to loosen up somehow. The notion that a picture must represent something continues to survive.

At the beginning, when we held the fi rst Křižovatka (Crossroads art group) exhibitions /ed. note: In the early 1960s, Crossroads exhibited only once (1964); he is apparently referring to other exhibitions – MS 63, 1963; Umělecká beseda, 1964/, the guestbooks were full of comments that we should be hanged, what would the working class say about it and the like, but within two years this completely disappeared. As these new things were introduced everywhere and people became used to it, many of them no longer wanted to go back to still lifes and landscapes.

The international public has one great advantage, and that is that all contemporary art is presented to them. It can be seen in almost every city, everyone knows it, they are well-oriented in it. As a result, even each tendency, each current of opinion has its own public. And another important trait is that in no case do these individual tendencies compete with one another. From time to time one of them gains the preponderance of public interest, but this is viewed as being a normal, natural phenomenon that does not in any way degrade the other tendencies. When it comes to Czech art theory, most of the time the view is that one tendency is declared to be the most important, “international” one, and with this it is as if the others cease to exist. I consider myself to be a perfect representative of the tradition.

What is the situation with rational Constructive art here in Czechoslovakia?
I’ve got the feeling that rational tendencies are quite widespread here, even a bit too much. But that doesn’t matter. I would consider it to be a very good deed if someone organised an exhibition that would present this artistic concept from its emergence up to where it has developed so far.

Art theorists here have traditionally preferred imaginative art, Surrealism and art with a literary background where there is a preconceived idea and this is depicted and represented in some manner. There is little art where the contents stem from the fact of the artwork itself; there are few artistic expressions that are completely autonomous and the content is its very own existence. In regards to me, the autonomy of art media, the fact that the picture is what it is, totally purged of any pictorial background, surprisingly makes me closer to modern American art.

One cannot escape from reality even in geometric abstraction. These days your subject-matter is randomness…
My experience from my own work confirms that chaos is a prerequisite for some sort of order; the fact that we consider randomness to be something indefinable is merely our own inability to understand a higher principle. Long ago, back during the war, I read this sentence by Nietzsche: “One must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.” And now, as an old man, I have approximated to this with my own work.

The objection is often made against Czech Constructive or rationally-based art that it is foreign to the Czech national character.
That is an absolutely dilettante objection because there are a lot of excellent artists in our history who absolutely exactly fit with rational and Constructive art. Who perhaps is able to decide whether Antonín Slavíček was more rational or emotional? There is so much that is premediatated in Slavíček’s composition, his manipulation with the palette of colours, it is such a refi ned system for mixing paints that it is unparalleled. Slavíček was able to rationally set up his palette and he treated it as Bach treated music. And that is without mentioning Jan Preisler, Miloš Jiránek, Vojtěch Preissig, Bohumil Kubišta, and František Kupka above all.

And as for “national” … I would loath to speak about that category, particularly these days, both in terms of art and in the broadest context. In the past that word was often identical with “offi cial”. It’s truly hard to identify anything truly “national” in the case of individual artists; all of our major artists emerged spontaneously from European tendencies.

There is a lot of talk now about the need to return to Europe…
Czech art has belonged to the context of European art since time immemorial, as much in the past as in the recent past and the present. It never disappeared from this context. No one disappeared from Europe, so no one has to return there. Especially now, there is no need to get a complex. I don’t see anyone anywhere in the world standing out to such an exceptional extent as during School of Paris period, for example. At that time it was understandable that theorists and artists held it in high regard. There is no need for this now, though. When theorists and people here who write about art maintain that we are lagging behind, it has more to do with their own inadequate selfawareness.

In the new social situation we have been hit with a tide of fears regarding the future of Czech art in a market economy. Do you share these fears of the future?
We’ll have to wait and see. I can declare with absolute certainty that I have no fear of any true artist being lost. Not in any field. It is more likely perhaps that once the era of honours and appraisal based on who could work and who couldn’t comes to an end, a new selection will be made, new values will be adopted.

If you take a look outside the country, even people who are at the top have to work very hard and take care of themselves. Most of them at least teach. It is normal for people to earn their freedom in other activity. Overall, though, I am not worried about the future of Czech art. There are so many talented people here, such an unimaginable gene pool of energy, the gene pool here is splendid – so I don’t have any fears at all about Czech art or the Czech people.

Now we brought up the subject of artists who are educators. This has also been your own experience.
For me this was hugely significant. When I was supposed to explain something to the students, I was forced to think more about it. Thanks to teaching, I got an absolutely clear picture about the development of modern art. And contact with young intelligent people is priceless.

So what is a young person who has fallen under the charms of art to do?
Not leave it. At any level. Whoever has to make art somehow, let them make it. Whoever does not have to, let them stay with it anyway. Art perhaps lives more through the people who themselves do not make art. I know a lot of intelligent people, specialists in their profession who need art so much, it’s surprising.


Published in Ateliér, 21 Feb 1991, No. 4, p. 1.


Aleš Svoboda (1956), university professor and artist. Member, Klub konkrétistů (Club of Concretists). Graduate of Charles University’s Faculty of Philosophy & Arts, where he studied art education (Zdeněk Sýkora was his thesis supervisor) and Czech language and literature. Afterwards he was an arts editor; he presently teaches at Charles University’s Faculty of Humanities in Prague.