Fotograf Magazine

Ivan Pinkava

Ivan Pinkava has had a number of exhibitions both at home and abroad, but until the recent Rudolfinum Gallery venture, we did not have the opportunity to become acquainted with his entire and extensive oeuvre. The retrospective presented Pinkava’s work from the mid 1980s until today, and featured a hundred and thirty selected photographs, following the key turning points in Pinkava’s evolution as an artist. The installation took as its point of departure the specific dispositions of the Rudolfinum exhibition rooms, thus achieving ideal conditions for the perception of Pinkava’s work. The viewer therefore had the unique opportunity to “meet” the artist and engage in dialogue with him. It is an encounter not easily forgotten – an intense feeling of communication with something powerful, compact, profound and tragic.
The title Heroes is both precise and eloquent. Many of the photographs featured show heroes of our age. At the same time, however, these heroes have connotations of heroes of the past, most frequently the protagonists of Biblical tales as well as other great myths of European culture. Some photographs represent a kind of period paraphrase of Biblical figures – John the Baptist, Ismael, Benjamin, Noe, Salomé or of personages taken from myths of antiquity – Satyr, Venus, Narcissus. Some photographs are variations on ancient stories of fatal relationships – Cain and Abel, Castor and Pollux. Attributes, gestures or a more complex mise-en-scene mobilizing our cultural memory make the figures identifiable, even though Pinkava gives them a new, and one could say updated form. Portraits for Gertrude Stein, for Oscar Wilde, Antonin Artaud, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and others represent a sort of combination of exalted allegory and homage to the writers and philosophers that the artist evidently strongly relates to. The exhibition features also portraits of some figures of the Czechart scene – Petr Lébl, Anna Fárová, Věra Jirousová, Filip Topol, Michal Cihlář, Václav Stratil, J. H. Krchovský, Petr Nikl, Oto Mádr and others.
And yet most of the portraits are unrelated to concrete persons or mythical figures. There are wonderful images presenting some kind of contemporary versions or interpretations of archetypes – Persona, Son, the devil (in the photograph Advocatus Diaboli), angels (Annuncia- tion) archetypes of duality (in Twin, Tomáš and David Medek, and Brother and Sister). And there are wonderful photographs dealing with representations of various states of mind, the case with Knife, Wounds, Gilles, O Sweet Blood, Youth with Poppies, Scar and others; in fact the entire cycle Dynasty deals with this theme. These are unsettling images of wounded, or “damaged” people, scarred bodies and faces, heavy eyelids concealing ardent, as if sinful gazes, Veraikon with its fly on the face. Martin C. Putna speaks, very aptly, of a “damaged beauty.” Pinkava finds a corresponding visual form mirroring a damaged, or perhaps even disfigured human soul, especially powerful and tragic in the portraits of children. In these photographs the artist works with the model and his or her personal physiognomy more as “material” (like a sculptor working with wood or stone), out of which he creates a universal figure, a sort of “physical symbol”, referring to the collective unconscious, visualizing the invisible reality of our collective soul. Pinkava in fact works not as a photographer, but rather as a sculptor, painter, or dramatist. Aside from some anonymous but persistently recurring models he often uses for these photographs the actors of Teatr Novogo Fronta, who in their own artistic activity apply much the same method. As much as possible they lay aside features of individuality in order to create generalized bodies suitable for the expression of collective processes, for conveying something important and universally shared. We are thus faced with a whole range of portrait types, the artist’s diverse goals.
Yet it appears that the altogether most powerful part of Pinkava’s work are the photographs alluding to himself, his personal, psychological circumstances, perhaps his personal unconscious – the photographs that are a profound testimony of the artist himself. “…We measure the surrounding world through ourselves, whether we realize it or not… It is probably precisely in the vanishing point of our fascinations that we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves… An attempt at lifting the veil on one’s own shadow” (says the artists in an interview with Petr Kilian). But even here there is at the same time a transcendence of the private in favor of the universal and collective “psychogenesis” of our time.
Novel to some viewers is the presence of still lives at this exhibition. The master of a specific type of portrait turns out to be also the master of a specific type of still life. Pinkava calls them Vanitas, in order to emphasize their link to a visual form symbolizing the temporariness of all mundane affairs. Vanitas are mementa mori, reminding one that all things, including beauty, are mortal. Pinkava’s Vanitas make palpable the transitory, and therefore tragic, beauty of the world with great skill. Facing these photographs we become keenly aware of how much greater, more painful and passionate is the experience of beauty if we know that it will vanish. Another type of Pinkava’s still life exhibited here are the Exercicie, photographs from 2003: contemplations of light, form and place that quite possibly point to the artist’s future creative path.
The exhibition includes several photographic cycles dating to a specific period of time in the artist’s career: Dynasties, Portraits for…, TNF, Exercicie and others, all splendidly organized in an outstanding catalogue, designed by the artist himself, with graphic design by David Balihar and featuring an insightful essay by Martin C. Putna.
Galerie Rudolfinum again managed to produce an extraordinary experience for the discriminating viewer. It proved extraordinary for two reasons: first, the outstanding installation presented an opportunity to become acquainted with almost all of Pinkava’s entire oeuvre, and I believe that Pinkava is a leading contemporary artist (and not only in the Czech context). That is the main point. And, secondly, we had the opportunity to become acquainted with so-called “aesthetic traditionalism”, as Pinkava’s art is referred to by some critics, at the very height of its form. Pinkava is not alone in his baroque and mannerist predilections (let us mention for instance Bratrstvo). This anachronism, however, is a major trend in contemporary art.

milena slavická