I did not want to go to Prague. Not even a little. It was my partner who suggested this trip. He never suggests travelling anywhere, unless it is Valencia because he saw it on Travel Man. I went with it. The trip to Prague was more about convenience than anything else.
I spent days walking through the city and visiting bookstores. My favourite quickly became the overfull bookshop near the Kafka Museum, with a reading room jammed with old books and vintage furniture, right along a shady canal. I liked seeing the two Kafka memorials, the Museum of Alchemy, the park filled with peacocks, and the Klementinum Library but it was not until I visited the Baroque art collection at Stenberg Palace that I fell in love.
Love at first sight
Filled to the brim with Baroque treasures, the National Gallery of Prague at the Stenberg Palace is an absolute must. From Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s The Tearful Bride to Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve to El Greco’s Praying Christ, there is no shortage of priceless pieces. They are stunning masterpieces. However, while the specifics are different, the paintings are the same as you would see in any major city. Vienna has several Velàzquez portraits and multiple Arcimboldo composite heads. Amsterdam has The Night Watch and The Milk Maid. Paris has uncountable treasures in its many art museums, so too does London.
What made this gallery, at that moment in Prague, different was the exhibition of modern art works inspired by the Baroque. The exhibition space had grey walls, white ceilings, and golden wood floors; it was welcoming and inviting. Spotlights highlighting the art provided more than enough illumination for the room. The bright white paint and stark lighting elsewhere made the gallery feel less intimate than this space. The contrast between this space and the rest of the gallery was stark.
Usually, I am a meticulous consumer of art. I start at the beginning and read the introduction. I read every panel or sticker placed on the walls. Here, a sculpture drew me forward to the center of the room, completely bypassing my usual art museum routine.
It was a skull supported by undulating and sinewy waves of silk, air, and water. It was a glossy and luminous white in the dimmed lighting of the space. The piece was startlingly abstract. And I fell in love. In an instant.
To my right, I see the muscled form of Samson, inverted, in The Last Portrait of Harvey Weinstein. At the far end of the room, Silenus’ corpulent torso grotesquely stretches and transforms into a horse head in Allegory of the Internet. Along the wall is a circular painting called Flogging Baroque Horse, in which the neck and the ear of the horse are alive and progress into death and decay as the skull reveals itself to passers-by.
Hynek Martinec created most of the works in the room. Those works he did not create, Martinec chose purposefully to initiate a family conversation between the pieces. In an interview with Radio Praha, Martinec said he “wanted to exhibit the paintings next to old masters” to start an “amazing family dialogue” as the “paintings will speak to each other.” In the same interview he says he sees himself and his work as a younger brother to the baroque artists and their oeuvres.
A Portrait of an Artist
I managed to catch up with Hynek Martinec a month ago to talk about his artworks, inspiration, and the exhibitions in Czechia. The Czech born artist now lives and works in London, England.
We chatted about his fascination with the Baroque period and its artworks. “I started to focus on the Baroque three years ago. I thought there was a huge potential for a dialogue with our times.” Martinec says.
“We are living in a different time but not as different as we think,” he says, offering a comment on the timelessness of art and the stories artists tell. “We think everything is new. The internet is new but there will be a new technology which moves us in the future.” The exhibition is a comment on the perpetual nature of human narratives.
The conversation moved from the narratives in art to philosophies of time. The exhibition itself speaks to a complex understanding of the nature of time. “Everything is past. There is no difference between yesterday and five hundred years ago.”
Martinec has an oddly McTaggartean b-theory of time. “The old masters are alive. They are growing. There is no stop and start. The past is nebulous. When you wake up the works, the past comes alive and when you view them the past becomes now.” Martinec stopped reading philosophy because he found the need to define these ideas for himself and use his own words.
In the continuing dialogue of past and present, Martinec presents the Baroque in a wholly modern way. The narratives which inspire Martinec are deeply rooted in our current world but have strong ties to the past.
The sculpture, Fantasy Meets Brutal Reality, which initially drew me into the exhibition space, has its own place in time and timelessness. “It is based partially in the events surrounding Brexit; I saw a politician shouting fantasy meets brutal reality,” Martinec says of his initial inspiration. “Things are more difficult. It is stressful in England. This sculpture represents those feelings.”
“The skull is reality and the second form, fantasy. It references this quote, this speech but everyone has this feeling. It is timeless. We all have dreams and sometimes they are not realized,” Martinec says of the general concept underlying the piece. “You could say it is politically motivated but it represents a more timeless feeling.”
This is not the only piece with political undercurrents in the exhibition. The Last Portrait of Harvey Weinstein contains a very potent, timely, and highly politicized message. The initial Baroque inspiration comes from the Peter Paul Reubens painting Samson and Delilah, which hangs in the National Gallery in London. He started the painting when he read about the #metoo movement and knew this piece would represent his thoughts on the global conversation regarding the treatment of women. “It is about the whole way we behave as humans,” he states. “It represents a new beginning and a farewell to older ideas of masculinity.”
While Martinec does have a fascination for the past, this piece is very forward thinking in its inspiration. “It is a message to the future. In twenty years when someone wants to understand the painting, they will search the name and the #metoo movement will come up.”
Time is a constant theme for Martinec, even as we discuss the political ideals and feelings underlying his work. “These two works make comments about the currency of politics. They are not waiting twenty or thirty years to make the comments. I don’t want distance between my work and events. Time moves fast now,” he said, encompassing feelings about time, human perception, and philosophy all in one bold statement.
We discussed some of his other works and the other exhibitions the museum is running in tandem. There was an installation in a monastery in Broumov, Gallery DUM, which focuses on architecture.
The National Gallery of Prague was featuring another of Martinec’s works in one of the gallery’s main spaces. Displayed next to El Greco’s Praying Christ was a large-scale installation. It is a television, playing a video of a copy of the painting in nature. El Greco is Watching is the title of the work. “The painting is in the mountains,” Martinec says of the highly skilled copy he lovingly crafted for this project. “It is in a beautiful, peaceful place. He observes the sky and the environment continuously.”
He has a similar piece in Iceland. “The painting is changing over time and I like it. This is an on-going project.”
The March of Time
Martinec states throughout our conversation that people will develop their own interpretations of his work. “These are just my thoughts. There are other interpretations,” he says.
Over time, our understanding and interpretation of art has changed. Pictures and symbols become imbued with new meaning. Symbols morph and ideals shift. In twenty years, someone may look at these works through new eyes and create something new. The conversation will continue with a new younger family member contributing a different thought.
Header Photo Credit: Jennifer Cornick. Original Painting: Flogging Baroque Horse, Hynek Martinec. Displayed in The National Gallery of Prague, Schwarzenberg Palace.