Sýkora´s Počedělice 2015
Počedělice, 11. 7. 2015

Sýkora’s Počedělice 2014 – the second informal gathering of friends and fans of the work of Zdeněk Sýkora to pay homage to his memory on the banks of the Ohře (Eger) River at sites where he used to paint often and with pleasure, a commemoration of the legacy of this great painter and lover of nature, especially the landscape around his hometown of Louny – earned a lot of attention from the greater public, with over two hundred visitors attending. Once again friends from Louny and Prague came to admire the beautiful countryside and see old acquaintances. On this beautiful summer day they could also sit in the village green and enjoy the hospitality of the local people of Počedělice. This time Sýkora’s former students from Charles University’s Faculty of Philosophy and Arts formed a large group of visitors. Several accepted invitations not only to the celebration on Saturday afternoon, but also to spend a week in Počedělice painting. The primary aim of this symposium was to continue the tradition of landscape painting established here by Zdeněk Sýkora and his painting club in the 1960s. Eleven painters participated in the landscape painting course – not only Sýkora’s pupils, but also others who had a desire to learn more about the places where the paintings they admire were created. Symbolically they could thus become recipients of his spiritual heritage in the form of Sýkora’s landscape motifs. The concrete result of the artists’ week of work and the completed mission of the event is the current exhibition Through the Landscape of Zdeněk Sýkora at the City of Louny Gallery (15 June – 15 July 2015). The gallery is showing the work of all of the painters who participated in the symposium along with photographs that offer a picture of the atmosphere at the symposium. Part of the exhibition space is also dedicated to art photographs, as they present the results of the polysemous (and rather untranslatable) photography competition announced in Počedělice last year – “From ‘March’ (Březno) to ‘Friday’ (Pátek)”. The sole assignment in the competition is to discover through the lens of a camera beautiful places along the Ohře River between Březno (just outside of Louny) and Pátek (near Peruc), in Zdeněk Sýkora’s own “painting territory”. Both exhibitions are excellent accompaniments to the Sýkora’s Počedělice 2015 programme.

At last year’s gathering, a speech delivered by one of Sýkora’s former students elicited a well-deserved response from all in attendance: With respect and pleasure, Václav Šimice took on the role of speaker and in his spontaneous talk he recalled his teacher. As he spoke, a gust of wind suddenly blew, rustling the leaves in the treetops over our heads. It was a magical moment and many impulsively lifted their eyes up towards the sky... 


Mayor Smetanová, Lenka, dear friends and honoured guests,

I would like to thank Lenka Sýkorová for contacting me so that I may speak from my perspective about a person who has made some sort of impact on the lives of all of us who have gathered here today. And I’m glad that it’s here, in this landscape, right at this spot. Here where Zdeněk Sýkora found himself in painting and fully developed his talent, where he felt free and derived the confidence he needed all his life long in his dialogue with nature, which he could look to at any time for a reflection of the transformations in his work, thus verifying his instinctive and rational decisions and artistic processes. If I should search my memory to provide insight on Zdeněk Sýkora, it would be a personal view that would certainly deserve much additional information from you. So if anyone here would like to add anything, please do.

Although experiences from throughout my life bind me to Zdeněk, my strongest memories are mainly from my student years and the times we painted together in the open countryside. This is where his artistic thinking spoke to us most clearly, most convincingly, and where we students were able to practically follow him.

I attended Charles University’s Faculty of Arts in the 1970s, where I was a student of Czech language and art education. We went to the illustration studios on the third floor of the university’s Faculty of Education, where Zdeněk Sýkora was already an associate professor in the art department. Most of us didn’t graduate from secondary schools that specialised in the arts, perhaps making us all the more open and unencumbered by routine – which absolutely suited Sýkora. It was the period shortly after August 1968, the beginning of normalisation. Interesting exhibitions were still winding up at galleries. Sýkora himself had held his last exhibition at Prague’s Václav Špála Gallery in 1970; after that, he wasn’t allowed to exhibit in Czechoslovakia at all till 1987. We were eager for new things, but the times got tougher and Zdeněk Sýkora tried to make it up to us. In class he introduced us to as-yet unknown books, exhibition catalogues and foreign-language publications that he had mentioned in his seminars. We didn’t just talk about painting; Sýkora didn’t avoid any subjects and our discussions were completely uncensored. He took us along to visit his friends’ studios, artists Karel Malich, Jiří Kolář and Adriena Šimotová and writers Josef Hiršal and Jan Vladislav. Like Sýkora, they weren’t allowed to exhibit or publish at the time, even though they represented Europe’s elite. These meetings opened up contexts for us, better clarifying the urgency of Sýkora’s message. The fact that Sýkora was still exhibiting abroad was solely thanks to the exceptional nature of his work, which spilled across the border and could no longer be stopped. That’s the way we saw it then, and it instilled respect in us. The unmistakable value of his work also assured him a place at the university. I think they couldn’t fire him because they needed at least one real master artist there. Sýkora tried to remain outside politics and even in his paintings there was no critical subtext, but rather always a positive message. In art, however, he was uncompromising.

Thanks to him, we survived the times and I think there wasn’t much we were lacking, except perhaps travel – but then we might not have gone on landscape painting field trips, and that would have been a shame.

We students first met Zdeněk Sýkora when we were in our second year. He taught us practical drawing and painting and led a theory seminar on the morphology of modern painting. Up to that point we had done our school work without holding any opinions. We just tried to draw and sculpt better, basically just becoming acquainted with the craft and hoping that our paths would open up later on... It was Sýkora who added the opinion we so desperately needed.

When I was in the second year, he entered the lecture hall one day and said something like, “And now let’s get serious...” and we immediately sensed it. He opened a book featuring paintings from the Hermitage, found a reproduction of early impressionists and asked: “What do you see?” It didn’t matter if there were paintings of fruit, trees or figures... The question was – how is it made? How is the space laid out? How is perspective used? What is the light doing? How are the colours functioning? He took apart the painting the same way you would take apart a machine and only afterwards truly understand how it worked. He gave us the sense that we don’t just talk about art, we directly touch it; by understanding the beautiful paintings in the reproductions, we paint them again – and likewise we can paint our own. He convinced each and every one of us that regardless of the type and level of talent we had, we were able to understand what modern art was about and connect to it somehow.

Sýkora was a person of distinction. Whoever experienced him wanted to be like him. Not literally, but the unity of his thoughts, work and attitudes, his interconnection with contemporary art – all this came together in an inimitable personal message. He was simply an exemplary teacher who seemed to say, “If you take the path I have, even if you do it your own way, you won’t regret it.”

Sýkora embodied something that was especially attractive and compelling in those times: he guaranteed the authenticity of his art with the authenticity of his life. He set his own bar very high, and he wasn’t afraid to judge others openly and strictly. His opinions were like sharp knives, mercilessly dividing truth from falsehood. Often we asked him about things that had nothing to do with painting, but he proved to us time and again that everything was connected everything else. In painting class he always got straight to the point, to the real values that were there, and Sýkora was exactly the same in how he led his life. The clothes he wore and the things he used were simple but of good quality; he embraced the style of noble simplicity. I won’t forget the contrast between the shiny Omega watch on his wrist and the black charcoal dust that fluttered down on him when he drew in front of us. For him, good design made by a machine and a good work of art created by hand were never at odds. And then there was his passion for cars! For me personally it was eye-opening to see that it was possible to be a demanding artist and yet still be interested in cars – at the time they were a symbol of a consumer society. We tended to see “real” artists as romantic figures opposing the majority society, someone like van Gogh or some protesting non-conformist who would practically be ashamed to own two pairs of trousers. But then here came Sýkora, unhesitatingly driving around in his cars (he liked giving us rides), sometimes inviting us for good food, showing what good wine could taste like, and not at all did it look like this was having a bad influence on painting. Later I learned why he enjoyed driving so much: when he drove, just like when he painted, he could entrust himself to an order he respected and within which he could feel completely free.

Sýkora himself despised the romantic myth of the suffering artist as a requirement for producing good work. He understood the artist was a person in tune with all new resources and discoveries of the present, and cars were very much a resource of our times. It is necessary to note that Sýkora did not paint so he could earn money to get an Alfa Romeo. That’s just the way it turned out. When he could afford it, he bought a car. But if he had thought about it from the beginning, he definitely would not have been as successful and he would not have sold anything. But it was not only cars that we thought didn’t exactly fit with a “real” artist. Sýkora rode a bicycle, played amateur ice hockey, went skiing (even water skiing), had a racing sailboat and was one of the first to try windsurfing. He was connected with nature not only through his eyes, but physically with his entire body. He knew how to get tired, but then energize himself again. As it is, the entire Bauhaus period of the 1920s was not only a display of excellent design, but also a display of the modern lifestyles led by Bauhaus professors, supported by faith in the future to which art wanted to make a significant contribution. In this regard, Zdeněk was the same optimist. He considered himself a serious artist in the field of visual culture, which was comparable with any other profession. There was no reason for asceticism.

Sýkora really enjoyed teaching. He needed to share his thoughts, not because he wanted to primarily present himself, but because he considered his thoughts new and liberating and he felt a need to share them. He was able to get the most out of the range of subjects he taught. Drawing, studio painting, the morphology of modern painting and landscape painting complemented one another; we learned in a system whose pieces fit together.

In the studio he used many examples to explain the ways of composing the picture. Only after that did we first go “en plein air”. Once outdoors he said, “I compose the landscape on the canvas using what I’ve got available to me. Colours, lines, shapes. I don’t reproduce it. I recreate it, taking the strongest things from it.” Outside he was able to show this right in the motif. He worked with the landscape, captured what was important in it and strengthened it in the painting. The basis was to primarily understand the landscape as a whole, where the fantastic details gradually unfolded from greater matter as the painting process progressed – by simply using the right approach, these details seemed to come out spontaneously, on their own. He always carefully sought out the only good spot for his painting easel so he could depict the full strength of the experience from the selected motif. He wanted to put on the canvas even the things we felt around us but didn’t fit on it – especially space. He would say it was enough to move just one step away from your position and everything would be different. Likewise, in his Structures as well, changing one single element meant completely transforming the relationships within the whole. While he was painting, Zdeněk Sýkora was a part of the universe, an enormous structure where he too had his place as a painter.

We travelled out “to the landscape” to the village of Moldava in the Ore Mountains and the Třeboň lake region in South Bohemia; he long kept Počedělice to himself. The mood was excellent the whole time – while we worked, while the paintings were evaluated, while we went out to eat in the evening. Something always made it exceptional, edifying. When we were in the Třeboň region, for example, he made corrections to our paintings right from a fishing boat. He rowed up to the shore of the lake we had set up around, pointed at someone with the punt pole he used to push off from the bottom of the lake and said, “Show it to me.” That someone would then turn the painting towards him and listen to his lucid comments. Sometimes I got the feeling that he’d throw me right into the water for what I’d produced. In the autumn landscape of Moldava, he’d walk hundreds of metres from easel to easel – he was really in great shape. When he was correcting us, he never hesitated to take our brushes and clearly show exactly what he had in mind. He knew how to enter into a half-finished painting, link up with what was going through the student’s mind and make corrections that maintained the spirit of the painting. Sýkora always showed respect and humility: he didn’t repaint, he fine-tuned the painting. He was able to find exactly that part of the painting that did describe the landscape, but was not united with the intended composition of the painting.

In the end you could paint how you wanted, but you had to adhere to two things: understand the nature of the motif and express it using uniform means of expression. For example, if we used colour modulation to express space, we shouldn’t also use aerial perspective. In the evening we always gathered the paintings we had been working on during the day – we called them “daubings” – together in one place, and what followed was an absolutely open evaluation. Then we were off to the pub for a beer. The professor had a lot of understanding for our frequent digressions. But we had to get up in time for the motif! If anyone overslept, he would scowl at them all day.

What really won us over was the fact that he didn’t mind if we’d watch to see how he painted; that was a real exception among the teachers. When he stood next to us in the landscape and painted a motif similar to ours, it was fascinating to see how he was able to put it together. One by one we all went over to look at it as if it were a revelation. So imagine that this is what he taught us – he fully experienced landscape painting with us, even though in his own art in the early Seventies he had already finished Macrostructures and was well under way with developing his Lines! When we went to see his pictures at Václav Špála Gallery in 1970, we were coming straight from the painted still lifes at school. Suddenly we saw how far ahead he was, just how far he had shifted the capabilities of painting... And yet at the same time there was no disparity between what we were taught from still lifes with wood crates at school and how far he had gone in his work.

Throughout his life he never stopped painting the landscape, thus assuring himself that he hadn’t lost contact with nature. His entire oeuvre is accompanied by a wonderful power and excitement that comes from his ability to bring strong, sensual experiences from nature to his work with free forms of creative expression, yet while retaining nature in the painting. He often rode through the countryside in his car and suddenly simply stopped, set up the easel he always took with him, and started painting the thing in the landscape that had so captivated him . He used to say, “If it didn’t excite me, I wouldn’t paint it, now would I?” And he wanted the very same from us. Otherwise, he said, nothing of substance would come of it. That’s the approach he took to everything he did – he did it with interest, passion. What he decided to do, he took as a personal challenge. That is why he has always been so compelling.

And if we take today’s meeting, my friends, as another form of continuing landscape painting courses, Zdeněk Sýkora would certainly be pleased and would certainly be satisfied by such a large number of intelligent, understanding participants.

Václav Šimice, 12 July 2014

previous years:
Sýkora´s Počedělice 2014photos 2014/1photos 2014/2photos 2014/3symposium 2014Sýkora´s Počedělice 2013

Photos here

Sýkora´s Počedělice 2015

Počedělice, 11. 7. 2015
The third memorial gathering of friends of painter Zdeněk Sýkora
and admirers of his work in Počedělice


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