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The end of the (Czech or Slav) artist as God

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Contemporary Czech artists are barely visible on the international art scene, so it is only at events like the Venice Biennale where they have a chance to make their mark, beyond Czech borders at the least.

It is questionable then why, for the Venice Biennale’s 56th International Art Exhibition, is the Czechoslovak Pavilion draped with a banner that reads “APOTHEOSIS,” which makes it hard for visitors to even realize that they have entered the Czech and Slovak pavilion, in Giardini, the garden area for national pavilions.

Since my Slovak friend who is also fluent in Italian was accompanying me for this visit, I thought she would know what “apotheosis” means, but she didn’t, and neither did I. And so, according to Wikipedia, here is the definition. “Apotheosis (from Greek ἀποθέωσις from ἀποθεοῦν, apotheoun “to deify”; in Latin deificatio “making divine”; also called divinization and deification) is the glorification of a subject to divine level. The term has meanings in theology, where it refers to a belief, and in art, where it refers to a genre. In theology, apotheosis refers to the idea that an individual has been raised to godlike stature. In art, the term refers to the treatment of any subject (a figure, group, locale, motif, convention or melody) in a particularly grand or exalted manner.”

Inside the pavilion, a great white canvas both consumes and divides the space in half. There is a barely readable text at the bottom of the canvas. It is a text by Karl Marx, an aphorism critiquing culture that has been paraphrased by Adorno and Dubord, ubiquitous in critical art theory, but irrelevant in Venice. On the flip side of the blank white canvas, there is a large painting by the contemporary Czech artist Jiri David, appropriated or modeled on the monumental painting of Alphonse Mucha, titled “Apotheosis—Slavs for Humanity” and created in 1926 as the final vision of his Slav Epic series. In grey, white and black, David’s painting is impressive in its size, yet still smaller and a crude version of Mucha’s intricate and utterly colorful work in four main colors: red, blue, black and yellow (at 4,05 x 4,80 m). There is a mirror placed up close to Jiri David’s version of Apotheosis forcing the viewer to almost examine the canvas and its reflection simultaneously. This is a clever installation, by the Slovak curator Katarina Rusnakova, but it also makes it impossible to fully observe the details of the painting at a proper distance. Thus, details and particularly inevitable references or alterations to Mucha’s original in the imitated version by David, which are clearly important for appreciating the work, are hard to decipher. David is also not a master painter as Mucha was, so the mirror arrangement gives him some cover.

Jiri David may be anticipating that this site-specific installation will end up in the Czech national gallery’s collection eventually if not soon after the Venice Biennale closes, and specifically at Prague’s Trade Fair Palace since Mucha’s entire Slav Epic is currently housed there. However, this would then undermine much of his apparent critique of any nationalistic art in the past or “deified nations and deified art,” as it is put in his catalog. This would also undercut the international aspect of the contemporary art scene, and further reveal how Czech artists tend to falter in this scope, though succeeding at the national level.

When Alphonse Mucha created The Slav Epic series from 1910-1928, it was a triumphant gesture initially as inspiration then to symbolize and honor the creation of the state of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Czechs did not appreciate or widely support it, but it was a success at international exhibits. Meanwhile the Czechs (and Slovaks) are merely a part of the Slav Epic, as Mucha appealed to pan-Slavism, including Bulgarians, Serbs, Macedonians, Russians, Poles, etc., all in the broader context of nationalistic romanticism in European art of the mid to late 1800s. After World War II, the Slavs (practically the whole bunch) were confined to the wrong side of Europe (the Eastern Bloc) and thus, only since the end of the Cold War have the Czechs and Slovaks rejoined their place in Central Europe, even turning away from their historical Slavic connections. Moreover, in our times, Slavs in Eastern Europe are undergoing radical divisions (in Eastern Ukraine and other regions), while there are also historical Czech communities remaining in Western Ukraine, and so is David’s painting referring to this current pan-Slavic disaster?

In this broader context, Jiri David’s “monumental” canvas at the Venice Biennale could be speaking to Slavs in the larger context. But it is not clear who should be inspired or impressed by this canvas in the way that Alphonse Mucha clearly attempted and achieved in his Slav Epic series, or for that matter, Picasso achieved internationally with “Guernica” in 1937. As examples of apotheosis, Mucha was likely inspired and influenced by monumental works in and around Venice, including the Giotto frescos (created in 1303-1305) in the Scrovegni Chapel or frescos in St. Anthony’s Basilica in Padova, etc. Thus, Jiri David’s “Slav” painting to follow in the footsteps of such earlier (and greater) achievements is daring.

One hopes that ultimately Jiri David’s point is an ultimate rejection of “Apotheosis” for Czechs and Slovaks period, in their shared pavilion at Venice Biennale and in other aspects of their shared history, since he clearly questions the meaning of terms such as “nation”, “homeland”, “fatherland” and “state” in our times. And if this is the case, he is also then ultimately passing the torch with some grace. At the last Venice Bienalle (55th in 2013), the German contribution to the French pavilion was Ai Weiwei, which is pure European Union, or Melanie Smith’s installation “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” as the representative of Mexico for their pavilion in 2011. Smith being an English artist based in Mexico City.

The question is then, when will the Czechs be able to even consider such a multinational (as well as multidisciplinary) digression or step forward (depending on one’s own relation to the nation-state) for their pavilion in this globally-oriented contemporary art scene.

And if this idea is still too farfetched for Czechs, there is always that other “David” on the contemporary Czech art scene; the only one that most foreigners have likely heard of, and even if he would most likely burn down the house altogether in Venice, at least the Venitians would love him for it, and forever….

Venice Biennale closes Nov. 22nd, 2015.

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