Midsummer Flowers is the third of Czech painter, graphic artist and illustrator Jan Hísek’s exhibitions at Prague’s Gallery Havelka in recent years. For Hísek literature is a rich source of inspiration, the film-noir flavoured title of 2008’s exhibition A Dead Man Has No Need for a Knife, drew on dark Icelandic fairy tales, here the initial inspiration was apparently, and somewhat surprisingly, that orgiastically eventful and surreally allegorical Biblical book The Revelation of St. John.
Like the previous two exhibitions of what now constitutes a trilogy, Hísek’s oils and drawings are monochromatic, the charming worlds he creates unfolding in varying shades of grey and white. It’s quite a hurdle for an artist to set himself, this eschewing of colour, and also a challenge to the viewer to look carefully, reading past the charming, superficially child-friendly surface to the subtler, darker depths within.
At first glance each of the six works offer an airy world of blowing lightness and sun-filled ease. Angelic figures in diaphanous gowns, peacocks and other smooth-necked birds, disport themselves in flowing landscapes and dream cityscapes of rippling obelisks and sky-piercing towers. But closer inspection reveals threads of malevolence interwoven in these tapestries of peace and innocence. On a halved seed-pod in Carousel a group of toddling angels are enjoying an afternoon’s play only to be menaced by a dark snake-like fire-breathing dragon, claws outspread in grappling position. And then one notices less obviously threatening, more questionable activity, such as the amorphous winged creature with drooping dugs carrying another tiny winged creature and a spiky fringed dark-faced sun with bulbous headed cloudy spermatozoon-like emissions erupting from its mouth. The carousel itself seems to be doing its job, with youngsters riding various quadrupeds, but this huge source of amusement is more like a giant jellyfish, the quadrupeds attached to its tentacles, the ride overseen by one of the typically questionable looking characters with a saint’s halo which populate the pictures.
One of the midsummer blossoms, popularly called ox-eye, dog- or moon-daisy apparently began appearing spontaneously as Hísek worked on the pictures. In folklore the moon-daisy is one of nine flowers said to have magical properties when picked at midnight on midsummer’s eve. According to curator Radek Wohlmuth, it’s difficult to define the nature of these magical properties, though they may be more to do with evil than good, and, at best, tend to reverse the established order of things. Hísek’s pictures are full of the ambiguous nature of the moon-flower, mascot of midsummer blooms, with flowing forms forever on the cusp of change. There’s also a beguiling blend of pagan and Christian elements, sun symbols, saints, angels, animals and animated flora which suggest that the world is infinitely more various than any of our religions and mythologies have so far managed to encompass.
This richness of content is apparent in the small pencil drawings as much as the large paintings. Chamois is a mere fifteen centimetres square but is a wonderfully structured burst of irrepressible energy, a kind of hieroglyphic view of the world as a magical conundrum.
Prague 1, 110 00
Until 28th June 2018
Images courtesy of the artist and Havelka Gallery.