Czech novelist Milan Kundera praised his compatriot, the graphic artist, painter and photographer Pravoslav Sovák, for being “a man of our era, someone who has lived through it, and not just as a passive observer…He builds his relationship to the world in a complex and very serious way.” And Sovák really did earn his political and artistic stripes in the post-World War Two and Communist period. In 1947 he became an assistant to the painter Jan Zrzavý at the Palacky University in Olomouc, but after the Communist takeover in 1948 had to leave his position for work in the coal mines and iron foundries of Northern Moravia. After the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 he left for the west, travelling in Europe and America before settling in Switzerland in 1978.
Sovák’s first retrospective exhibition on home ground, curated by Helena Musilová, contains some of the best work from his various periods, from the abstract and figurative work of the 1960s and 1970s to the highly distinctive and suggestive photogravures of the 1980s. Samples of his mature photographic work from this century is also included. It’s a relatively small but balanced and representative selection, and one that offers some startling contrasts of form, content and feeling.
First exhibited at the Rehn Gallery in New York in 1972, Indirect Messages is a cycle of graphics dealing in indirect but unmistakable terms with the situation in Czechoslovakia from the mid-Sixties to the Normalization period after 1968 (‘normalization’ being the Czech Communist Party’s euphemism for Soviet occupation). Mostly figurative but with mildly abstract, geometric elements, each small print is a kind of political cartoon, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, but often cuttingly satirical. Sovák was the nearest thing to the Banksy of his day, a Banksy not of the streets (though no less street-wise) but of 325 x 350 mm colour etchings. In Spring a pretty mini-skirted girl sits with crossed legs in a dilapidated semi-constructed room, in which there’s no colour but the bright red box on which she sits. All the promise of the ‘Prague Spring’ seems contained in this red box beneath her pretty posterior. Will she, like Pandora, be able to release and realize it? The following print, ‘…and freedom too…’ seems to supply the answer: a marching brass band led by a grim skull-faced old woman – a typical, if nightmarish, Czech ‘Babička’ – beating a large drum, followed by a girl in traditional Bohemian costume with a mad round-eyed mockery of a face. In Red Tablecloth six anonymously intellectual men in mournful postures are arranged around a table covered in a scarlet red covering, some seem to be taking notes and there’s an inquisitorial feel to the gathering, though whether the heretic is the man on the left, head hung lower than the others, it’s impossible to say as they all seem collectively guilty, collectively eschewing any responsibility. Though the image more obviously refers to the accommodation the Czech government made with the post-Invasion situation of 1968, Sovák’s witheringly sardonic yet still subtly ambiguous image has powerful contemporary and perennial significance. A few steps on we have Red Desert, a thoroughly unambiguous and wonderfully stark example of Slavic gallows humour: a man standing with arms raised against a barren expanse of bloody red, facing what looks like a machine-gun post or scaffold covered in a ragged sheet “…you are Wellcome” running through the image in black type pitted as bullet holes.
Superficially at least the photogravures from the Beauties series of the late 1980s to early 1990s seem a world away from that depicted in Indirect Messages. But the title itself contains a vein of irony. Though the locale is California and the American West, one of the great dreamscapes of the good life with its palm trees and beaches, not all is golden in paradise. Against Pacific Style’s avenue of tall waving palms a picture of an interior is superimposed; the palms are blue and the interior is a pale, jaundiced yellow in which a lone figure sits in the corner of a sofa looking anything but comfortably at home. In Blue Hills a small blue-tinted photo of a young girl stands out against the hills above the busy jumble of a typical western town-scape, the girl looking like a passport photo of a missing person, or a picture of an old girlfriend carried around in someone’s wallet for a very long time. Beach is an elevated view of a beach front with another superimposed image placed where the sea meets the sand, as though we were looking at a close up of one of the bathers. But the single figure is one of Giacommetti’s elongated figures, a spindle of concentrated isolation, a needle in the eye of the American Dream, a stiletto through the heart of Family Values. Though there’s nothing overt about Beauties’ satirical content and the images all share a wonderfully faded, nostalgic quality, as if each were a distillation of memory, a gently decanted cup of loss.
This memorial aspect takes on a mythic quality in some of the photogravures in the Deserts series from the early 1980s to late 1990s. The eponymous palms in Five Palms are barely visible, swaying fine and ghostlike as if swept out of view by the airborne river of sand whose grains you can almost taste. This series also includes deserts of the sea, such as the Grecian sea which blends into the same pale wash of air and sand in Maenades and the breaking sea a lone female figure strides fatefully toward in Ithaka. The desert of the sea is a vague but rich space in the Seawalls series, an intense presence , a saline genius loci which yet flows out of the frame, and which the sea wall itself cannot possibly limit or deter. These sea-walls of Sovák’s are simple lines of ink standing out against the vastness, suggestive summaries of civilization which at any moment can be overwhelmed by nature.
And nature could hardly be blamed for exacting revenge. Some of the unearthly beauty of what surrounds us, even as we eradicate it on a daily basis, is captured in samples of Sovák’s large landscape photographs. There are two of the Black Lake, honest rather than pretty studies which capture the neutral non-human quality of nature blended so inextricably with its intoxicating appeal. Rain in Bohemia also hints at a transcendent quality in nature: from the bottom left of the image a forested landscape misted by rain rises level on fading level up and away into remoteness and invisibility.
Helen Musilová talks of a ‘special atmosphere’ in Sovák’s work, and she’s certainly correct, though this unique element is hard to define. It’s something to do with the blurring of techniques, particularly evident in the photogravures and ‘political’ etchings. But there’s also a very delicate, cautious and understated overlapping and mutual undercutting of feelings in his work. There’s something of the pride of a patriot – someone with a physical love for the body of his country – in the large landscape photographs intertwined with a cool appreciation of the untameable forces which constitute that body. While the Beauties series gently mocks the longing for the dream spaces of America as much as it shares that longing