Pavel Koukal: A Lifelong Obsession with Art

This year’s very first art-world anniversaries indicate that a lot more is going to be said about the “Louny School” phenomenon. Kamil Linhart, whose low-key exhibition inaugurated this “milestone year” not quite four weeks ago, is quickly followed by Zdeněk Sýkora (born in Louny on 3 Feb 1920); a number of important birthdays are included on this year’s calendar, including that of poet Emil Juliš. Undoubtedly there is some element of destiny in their relationship, something that they themselves could not have overlooked, but waxing philosophical on this subject would probably take up all the space allotted for this article. So instead we preferred to dedicate the space to an interview with the painter and educator who connected both fields into a lifelong mission.

But please, start with “In the beginning …”
Then I’d have to start with a standard statement like that already as a child I was interested in painting, and this embarrasses me a bit because it’s really true. From my childhood, art excited me an awful lot. In my bedroom, Václav Brožík’s Council of Constance hung over my head – such a terribly depressing painting, but one that continuously fascinated me in a certain way. I later went to secondary school in Louny where there was an excellent drawing teacher, Jaroslav Mařík, an excellent pedagogue but also an art theoretician who was able to lecture on Impressionism, for example. He gave us an education in art in the best sense, and it was also the only subject in which I excelled.

So that meant your path was unusually straightforward?
My desire to dedicate myself fully to drawing and painting grew stronger and stronger, and I constantly tried to persuade my parents that I would like to study to become a draughtsman – the idea of being a full-time painter was absurd, my parents would have died of shock! I wasn’t successful at persuading them, so I went with a few friends to study at the Mining University in Příbram! After the universities were shut down, /translator´s note: after a series of anti-Nazi demonstrations, all Czech universities and colleges were shut down in 1939/ most of us went to work on the railway. I had quite a diverse life back then and worked as a yard labourer, a telegrapher and then three whole years as a dispatcher in Vrbno nad Lesy and in Český Brod.

How did your love of art fare faced with the reality of war?
It was the group of Louny artists and writers who saved it. The leading spirit behind all of this was the Louny librarian Jaroslav Janík, and the prime mover was the extremely active Kamil Linhart. The first exhibitions also took place at the Linhart’s attic, where there were also lectures about things that were not at all associated with the reality of war.

The war ended, though, and your generation seized life with passion.
Already during the war I realised I wouldn’t return to the Mining University and would unequivocally head into art. So Linhart and I applied to the architecture faculty, which is where art education was taught back then – and it turned out to be fateful! There were excellent artists there such as Karel Lidický, Cyril Bouda and Martin Salcman, the latter of whom had the greatest influence on us. After a year we already became assistants to various professors, and then we ourselves started to teach. In 1966 /ed. note: Kamil Linhart had already become an Associate Professor in 1965/ we both became associate professors at Charles University’s Faculty of Education, and we held out together right up until retirement.

But now I need to quickly slow down the story you’re telling, because your work at that university can’t be dismissed with a few sentences. We know that it regularly went beyond the limits of that field and that “it was communication and sharing, creation, a discussion and an appeal,” as theoretician Jiří David, who was censored by the communist regime at the time, wrote.  
Even though from a political standpoint we lived through terrible years, as chance would have it our school was a sort of oasis where, despite all the pressure from the outside, we absolutely openly talked and lectured about international modern art and no one ever informed on us. To our joy, students from the Academy – which was under greater political control - also came to our lectures. We also had an extensive library that enjoyed a continuous flow of international purchases.

Your teaching activities were inseparably linked with your independent art work. What was its distinguishing feature at that time?
During the war our interest mainly focussed on Surrealism, the creative principle for the entire Linhart group, and we all were taken with it. Besides this, I was excited by Cubism – paradoxically, the complete opposite of Surrealism. When I came to the university after the war, the professors did accept my Cubist paintings, but they had a very wise philosophy: that it’s necessary to start with the study of nature.

It seems to me that you have an unusually strongly developed sense for nature. Was this the sole reason why you became a landscape painter, or was it more of an escape from the bleak reality of the Fifties?
As early as during my studies, Vladislav Mirvald, /ed. note: Vladislav Mirvald (1921–2003), painter and teacher; one of the founders of the Křižovatka (Crossroads) art group and a leading representative of geometric abstraction in Czech fine art. He lived and worked in Louny from 1941. Just like Zdeněk Sýkora and Kamil Linhart, after the war he undertook graduate studies in art education and descriptive geometry at Charles University’s Faculty of Education in Prague; following this, he taught both subjects at the secondary school in Louny/ I and sometimes also Linhart went out to the countryside to paint. My relationship with nature grew intensely there. In that “landscape” period, the classic painters Antonín Slavíček and Jindřich Prucha in particular had the greatest effect on me – they were the ideals I constantly related to and who gave me strength. Towards the end of the Fifties my expression was Impressionist or even Fauvist and even though the landscape was a certain escape, nonetheless we were escaping in the “wrong” direction.

Surprisingly, at that time you found your greatest example right in the USSR? 
Back then, the Union of Visual Artists sent a whole train of artists on a trip to Russia and there, at the Hermitage in Leningrad, I saw for the first time a real, live Matisse collection – from his beginnings all the way through to his most developed works. It was precisely what I had been seeking; it helped me an awful lot and drove me forward. After returning home I was five years further along, and this was terribly meaningful.

Is it time now for the art group Křižovatka (Crossroads)?
Following flat colour painting that was strongly reminiscent of Matisse, I gradually moved towards more rational forms of a sort of geometrical abstraction. The Křižovatka art group – this was Jiří Kolář, Richard Fremund, Karel Malich, Hugo Demartini and Vladimír Fuka, /ed. note: In case of Crossroads’ membership base, it is necessary to differentiate between those who were the “spiritual leaders” at Kolář’s table at the Café Slavia but never exhibited with the art group, such as Vladimír Fuka; those who participated in the first exhibition in 1964 – Vladimír Burda, Richard Fremund, Jiří Kolář, Běla Kolářová, Karel Malich, Pavla Mautnerová and Vladislav Mirvald; and those who were invited to additional exhibitions with wider participation (Crossroads and Guests, New Sensitivity, 1968). For more about Crossroads, see Wagner, 2006/ and it was actually a competitor to the art group D which had Mikuláš Medek, Jan Koblasa and additional representatives of imaginative tendencies. Because they were difficult to tell apart, we gave ourselves the name “Crossroads” on purpose – i.e. that we are each different. We waged a friendly “war for power” with these “Demons”, but they had many more theoreticians on their side.

What did you present to the public at that time? 

 I gradually reached the geometric phase of my art and started using a computer.

I’ll admit that the use of a computer in painting alarms me a bit. What does this technique that has captured the interest of a number of Western artists consist of?
Before I used a computer, I created a number of paintings that were structural or even ornamental in nature. It almost looked unnatural, so I sensed a need for a more rational background. I got in contact with the Louny mathematician Jaroslav Blažek, who had access to a computer at Charles University’s Faculty of Mathematics and Physics. It took me two years to talk him into it. What took me a year to calculate from my head was significantly accelerated by the computer. Now everything is controlled by randomness and the numerical output represents individual qualities of the work. My idea about the painting dominates, and the result is determined through the use of technology. I have worked this way up till now, even though the significance of the computer decreased in around 1974, when I moved from structural to linear paintings. I have stuck to this for twenty years now and I’m unable to depart from it because work with randomness has such a wide breadth of possibilities, each painting is a surprise even for me. Some paintings bear a resemblance to natural structures, such as the ones we see under the microscope, and it is mostly scientists and physicians looking for reflections in art who express interest in my paintings. And this suits me because I am more interested in scientific thought than philosophy.

In the meantime we’ve moved to the studio where Sýkora’s jubilee exhibition is in preparation. Beyond the glass wall, a breathtaking view of Oblík Hill and a full panorama of the conical hills forming the Bohemian Uplands opens up before us. You understand everything there – even the essence of Sýkora’s patriotism for his hometown.
I never did anything in a studio that didn’t offer a view of the outdoors. That is why I also yearned for this street – which is not where I was born, that was a short distance from here, but I had the same view from my bed at home as I have now from my studio: of the river, the hills and the surrounding area. My love of art, that’s my curse and also my sanctification. I can’t exist without it and believe me, as time goes on this is becoming more powerful, so today I just live for art...


Published in Severočeský deník, Vol. V, 4 Feb 1995, No. 30, p. 4.

Pavel Koukal (1944-2014), reporter and long-standing editor at Severočeský deník.