The thinking man’s painter

Czech Position

Kam AŽ (How Far) takes the viewer from a reflection on the Velvet Revolution to glimpses of paradise via the paintings of Tomáš Císarovský

Three aspects of artist Tomáš Císarovský’s recent work are on display at Galerie Václava Špály. People passing by on Prague’s busy Národní street who just take a quick glance through the window will catch large-scale oil paintings that relate to the contemporary world but will miss his dreamlike watercolors and visions of paradise.

“Tomáš [Císarovský] is an exceptional, unique painter, very original even without descriptions you would recognize his work, but at the same time he doesn’t succumb to fashionable or popular trends,” exhibition curator and gallery manager Pavel Lagner told Czech Position.

The exhibition Kam AŽ (How Far) covers figurative painter Císarovský’s work from the past two years, and the gallery’s layout was taken into consideration when the pieces were arranged.

“The gallery has three levels, so we tried to respect that and divided the levels into themes,” Císarovský told Czech Position. “In the basement the logical theme is subconscious and the world of dreams; the ground floor displays paintings that the world is experiencing now and on the [upper] floor the paintings are linked to paradise or something we are dreaming of, but with a bit of danger because the world is fragile.”

Císarovský’s work is full of expression and feeling — and color, which is his work’s most striking element. The large-format oil paintings on the ground floor show mostly naked forms in front of a backdrop of color, in one there is a subtle blending of reds, purples and maroons; in another, shades of green and yellow.

“Colors are the basic means that the painter has to express himself, also I’m open to the narrative part of my paintings, so I use colors as a vehicle for the narration,” Císarovský said. “At the same time, the colors are so powerful that they exceed the story.”

He said his stories on the ground floor depict a moment of uncertainty, danger, someone being threatened. In “Klíšte” for example, a man is bent over as he catches sight of a bulbous tick on his back.

“It’s typical of the world we live in now, contaminated by visual smog,” he said. “But beyond this visual screen, I can perceive very peculiar relationships and stories.”

History often plays a part in Císarovský’s work but in a unique way. The largest painting in the exhibition is in a room by itself, and resonates with the current events happening throughout the Middle East over the past couple of months.

“My basic motivation to paint this was in the summer of 2009, it is my memories of the time when I was a witness and participant in the events of 1988–89,” he said. “It’s a street scene demonstration, but my abstract vision of this memory as I didn’t want it to reflect a concrete event, because these events occur everywhere now.”

The painting shows a crackdown by authorities; people in pain and being beaten, but the bright colors that Císarovský typically uses give it an almost surreal appearance. He adds that he refers a lot to history and past events, but that he needs time and distance to reflect on them. “I don’t want to be a journalist; that’s not my role.”

In the depths

The paintings downstairs are in a startling different style: Watercolors on paper are hung by clips, almost as if they are out to dry. The work is more abstract, blurred, and barring Císarovský’s typically skilled figures, one might not immediately think he was the author. Watercolors for him are a totally different ball game.

“When you paint, it can be a long process, you use your subconscious to paint,” he said. “If you use watercolors, the motivation is urgent, topical; my perception of watercolors is that it must be done immediately, in one stroke.”

The dripped pools of color give the paintings a dreamlike quality, the theme of this floor. For Císarovský, the cerebral act of painting is flipped upside down.

“When you paint like this, quickly, there is no time or possibility for mental speculation, you must have quick reactions to the moment,” he said. “Oil is a long-term process, time to reflect and work under rational control, compared with watercolors, which are an instantaneous impulse.”

Oils and watercolors can mix

The top floor is best visited last, as it is a mix of oil and watercolors. A collector sent Císarovský to Polynesia to get some inspiration. He said he was skeptical, but based on the work shown here, the trip was successful.

“This is my vision of paradise, an unstable and fragile thing,” he said.

The oils typically show a man and a woman floating in the sea with a stingray. Císarovský said of the fish that it is “like from another world, but intelligent and open to contact with humans.” The watercolors show Císařovský’s marvelous shading abilities, with a variety of hues coming together to offer life and movement to his work. He said when he returned he used sketches from his diary to paint the landscapes shown, and there are figurative watercolors as well.

“The figurative watercolors reflect the weightless condition in the water; you don’t know if you are up or down, like water, like life,” he said.

It is these thoughts on life and the ability to paint them that make Císarovský such an interesting artist, and perfect for this particular gallery.

“Tomáš is a real honest painter who uses traditional means for expression; he isn’t one who follows new trends, new media – but he is contemporary and very unique,” curator Lagner said. “We are a traditional mainstream gallery; it is our mission to present well-established, professional, mid-generation artists.”

Galerie Václava Špály has a long and checkered history. Originally opened in 1957, it was one of the best galleries in Prague, with well-known art scholar Jindrich Chalupecký as curator. The communist era wasn’t kind to the gallery, which underwent a post-revolution rejuvenation. Local artists were displeased with the direction it took after the ’90s from being an acclaimed gallery of contemporary art to one that was freely rented out to whichever artist could afford it.

In 2007, it was “opened” again with a new curator who refocused on the gallery’s contemporary roots. In 2010, PPF Art became the operator based on a municipal tender. After Kam AŽ closes, the next show will be Czech photographer Tono Stano, opening May 6.