Jan Jedlička was born in Prague in 1944. In 1960s he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. He focuses on long-term projects of landscapes through various techniques – drawings, local pigments, photographs, prints and films. He lives and works in Zurich and Prague.
A mediator who makes things speak - artist Jan Jedlička turns seventy
On this day, painter and photographer Jan Jedlicka turns seventy years old. His art is nourished by an intellectual resourcefulness with a profundity that reaches far beyond what we assume to be the current issues of the day.
As in his life, so too in his art. Jan Jedlicka melds the strata of time and the cultural spaces of Europe in a way that effortlessly oversteps the boundaries we take so much for granted today. Jedlicka draws upon intellectual resources with a profundity that reaches far beyond what we assume to be the current issues of the day.
Born in Prague, he left his home city in 1969, shortly after graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts there.
The self-immolation of student activist Jan Palach and Jedlicka´s own imminent conscription into the Czechoslovakian army with the prospect of having to guard an internment camp for political dissidents were the key events that prompted him as a young man to lake this important step. He left for Switzerland, and soon settled in Zurich, the city where he still lives. Nevertheless, apart from personal loyalties, he has put down no real roots in the cultural climate of Switzerland. In an art scene permeated by tongue-in-cheek folksiness and would-be cosmopolitan airs, he-has remained an outsider. Behind the modesty and sincere friendliness of this man lies an almost palpable sense of marginalization that has become a way of life for him.
When Jedlicka emigrated, he was, in the best sense of the term, an academic artist, whose technical finesse was invested in the fantastical realism that had evolved seamlessly in Prague from the turn of the twentieth century right through to the postwar era.
It soon became evident to him that the aesthetic ideas he had honed in the cultural isolation of his homeland held little appeal in the west. „I was like an earthworm that has to grow anew following an amputation,“ says Jedlicka in hindsight. In recalibrating his approach, he discovered his affinities with Land Art and the notion of „preserving traces“ that had by then begun emerging in Europe and the USA. Jedlicka is fascinated by the constant transformation of phenomena that lakes place before our very eyes. A distrust of ideological slogans and superficial definitions of reality, such as those imparted under the socialist regime, had become second nature to him. And so a way of moving perceptively through space, taking precise note of things and transforming them into form, became the building blocks of his new art.
He found the ideal geographic terrain for this new approach in Italy. Since the late 1970s, Jedlicka has been a regular visitor to the Maremma – a distinctive coastal region in southern Tuscany. Here, he has discovered the ideal counterpart to his own artistic ideas. The Maremma lures him with its specific landscape forms and with the historical dimension that they so clearly echo. It is here that, over the years, he has created his major cycles of pigment drawings, paintings, photographs and films.
The Maremma – the very name betrays its proximity to the sea – is an in-between realm, where land and water are no longer separate and distinct. The elements are constantly realigning. The unique character of this landscape was evident even to the people of Antiquity. Today, the region is sparsely populated, with a network of canals bearing witness to centuries of efforts to make the land arable. By controlling the flow of water, the soil has been drained to reclaim strips of arable land from the sea.
Taking Jan Jedlicka´s art as a guide means entering into an untouched landscape in which nature has completely absorbed all traces of human activity. It is the breadth of the sky stretching over the vast expanse of the land that appeals to Jedlicka´s imagination. The concise traces of his watercolor brushstrokes map an open terrain in which a landscape of almost indistinguishable elements takes shape. These are the traces of a realm in which objects have yet to find individuation. When we look at these works, we are reminded of prehistoric cave drawings, of musical structures and of sounds that surge momentarily, only to ebb away again. It is no coincidence that, a few years ago, András Schiff chose these works by Jedlicka to illustrate his interpretation of Beethoven´s piano sonatas.
Even in the main body of his work as a painter, Jedlicka´s approach is that of a neutral communicator whose personal experience of the landscape remains free of any subjective signature. He lets the landscape speak for itself, uninterrupted by the voice or notions of an author. The materials he uses, too, are always directly related to the phenomena themselves: the colours are won from the stones and the earth that the artist finds on his walks. He grinds them and filters them, procuring the most luminous of pigments. Then, in his studio, he mixes them with water and pours them directly onto the canvas. The resulting forms are somewhat distorted, in that they are not directly controlled by human hand, merging easily on the surface into a regular pattern. Here, too, he eschews all semblance of composition. In these sonorous, saturated patches of colour that radiate so subtly from within a darker ground, the very landscape itself seems to speak out with confidence in its own situation. It is barely possible to interpret or translate this into conventional linguistic or discursive structures.
For a long lime, Jedlicka regarded photography merely as an aid to the craft of drawing and painting. It was not until much later that he began to see it as a medium with an artistic syntax of its own. His exploration of the photographic image reaches an impressive climax in the expansive cycle Il Cerchio, dedicated to the Maremma, which was published in book form in 2008. Over a period of more than a year, the artist revisited the area every two months to capture the landscape as it altered with the seasons. Every day, from morning to evening, he would walk with his camera, documenting the changing vegetation and the changing light. What we find is a landscape in which nature retains its quiddity, casually negating any historical narrative. Humankind appears to have no place here, „It is a foreign place,“ recalls the photographer, „where you have to bring your own means of survival from outside.“ The photographs lend the quietude of this monotonous landscape an enduring formal structure. The camera focuses directly on the horizon, which divides the picture plane evenly in the middle. At the same time, the camera position remains close to the ground, so that the observer feels part of the luscious vegetation while the sky arches sublime above.
Nature embraces humankind in its constantly recurrent cycles and, in doing so, opens up a singular sensory perspective. The words of American landscape photographer Robert Adams come to mind, when he said of his colleague Timothy O´Sullivan – who had made several excursions into the then barely charted American West in the mid-nineteenth century, „The pictures themselves are human compositions, but they refer to a design that is independent of us.“
Nature transcends the vicissitudes of our days and times. Indifferently absorbing our civilizational efforts, it ploughs them all into the furrow of forgetfulness. It would not he going too far to interpret Jedlicka´s fascination with the close relationship between human history and landscape – as evidenced in his images of the Maremma – in terms of his own personal background.
Jedlicka is the son of a bourgeois family in Prague with a distinctly Bohemian identity and a clear affinity to the notion of a multi-ethnic Austrian stale.
The reality of this multicultural climate soon emerges in any encounter with Jedlicka. His forebears include doctors and lawyers, among them his great-grandfather Frantisek Zenisek (1849-1916), who was a painter and a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. On a visit to Janovice Castle, where Sidonie Nadherny von Borutin regularly played host to Rilke and Karl Kraus, there is a portrait of Kaiser Franz Josef, painted by Jedlicka´s great-grandfather. Both of them – the Kaiser and the artist – died in the same year. This brings us to another great-grand- father, Bedrich Jedlicka, who, in 1866, at the age of ten, was an eye-witness, along with some of his friends on a nearby hill, lo the Battle of Konig-gratz and was promptly escorted from the danger zone by his horrified father. Time and history have left no visible traces of these events or their context. But they continue to resonate in the consciousness of Jan Jedlicka and form an undercurrent in his art.
Translation Isabel Flett, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Feuilleton, 18. October 2014, Nr. 242.