Exhibition:Line, Colour, Rhythm, National Gallery, Prague, 2002
review by Tomáš Pospiszyl: Petr Kvíčala’s Invisible Ornament, 2002
Ultimately, however, line became an art form in and of itself and was used without direct reference to any particular model in nature. Since, of course, not just any irregular scribble can claim to be an art form, linear shapes were made to obey the fundamental artistic laws of symmetry and rhythm. As a result, straight lines became triangles, squares, rhombuses, zigzag patterns, etc., while curved lines produced circles, undulating lines, and spirals.1
Those observers who have been following the work of Petr Kvíčala for some time now, may still be hesitant about the type of artist they are dealing with: Is he dogmatically consistent, or is he the very opposite, i.e. someone who is indefatigably playful in his work?
Petr Kvíčala has been continually working on a unique project – an uninterrupted series of paintings with an intelligible genealogy and clear set of rules – for more than a decade. He works with the simplest ornament, consisting of wavy lines, broken arches or loops; his paintings are the result of “forming the inner order of a painting by means of an ornamental arrangement of geometric elements”.2 It becomes apparent at first view that the artist achieves an unusually wide spectrum of results and effects in spite of limiting his means of expression to a minimum, simply by repeated use of the same elements both in his paintings and spatial installations.
Kvíčala’s approach, i.e. his consistent conceptualization of painting, without which he would never have been able to continue in his cultivation of one single principle, is rather atypical in the Czech context.3 It is a lucky symbiosis in which he produces paintings that are at the same time rational and also work with the public, while promoting the legacy of the modernist painting of the second half of the 20th century. His work represents both conceptualism and “pure” visual qualities.
Kvíčala’s manner of painting has lately been attaining a more and more painterly style, aestheticism and sensual features.
The last of his thus far exhibited series of paintings – shown first in Berlin and now also in Prague – fascinated the eye, especially given the large size of the pieces, serving only to emphasize its sensory power.
Similarly to the previous process paintings, this set is also sensual and spectacular (in a good sense). These paintings are hardly just some kind of graphic diagram or chart created by a mere mechanical expansion of motifs whose concepts had already been completely worked out on a sheet of paper taken from a note pad. The precisely chosen size of these paintings and their final execution in color are the key factors in the resulting effect. Both the viewer’s eyes and body are confronted with a ratio, the material and the size of the individual paintings. The observer relates to them as to some kind of two-dimensional architecture, as to minimalist objects.
“Does the ornament have a history?” was the rhetorical question asked by Alois Riegl more than a hundred years ago in his book Problems of Style. The impetus for this book came from (a) his study of ancient ornaments conducted over many years, and (b) – even more importantly – from his polemic with the architect and art historian Gottfried Semper and his students. The latter group derived the shape of historical ornaments from the materials and technology used in the process of their creation. In their opinion, for example, the manner of weaving and the threads used played the main role in the final look
of the concrete textile ornament. Unlike them, Alois Riegl claimed that the ornament develops according to its own logic, i.e. that it has a history independent of the material and/or technology. In his view, the ornament was not primarily predestined by the technological processes of ancient man, but rather by a fondness for evenly organized lines and their own artistic will. This would necessarily lead to the conclusion that the ornament, like the whole of fine arts, has its own individual laws
of progress and therefore also its own history.
During the 19th century and more so at the beginning of the 20th century, the ornament was placed at the center of research of fine arts methodology, for it was perceived as a basic element of fine art. Art scientists believed that once they understood its essence and development, they would discover a way to understand all art, similar to the way the splitting of the atom could throw light on the secrets of matter. The origin of the ornament and the origin of fine art were seen to be located in immediate mutual proximity; the ornament representing the outcome of an instinctive force, which lies behind the original impulse for creating art.
The ornament played a similarly important role even in the development of the then evolving modern art: It was understood as a demonstration of primitivism, being the exemplary product of the “natural artist”. Archeological findings of the time proved that the ornament really is one of among the oldest manifestations of art; it definitely existed in the Paleolithic era and occurred in virtually every subsequent historical period.
At the same time, however, its geometric laws, as well as its abstract nature, put the ornament in the most current context of up-to-date art of the beginning of the 20th century. We may safely say that the ornament has been the abstracted experience of anti-academism, and/or the expression of a protest against classic European painting from the Renaissance to today.
Petr Kvíčala, today, is also perceived as an artist producing some sort of ‘pre-paintings’, as the type of creator of art who attempts to reach the essence of the creative process.
Gauguin’s journeys to the Pacific or Picasso’s interpretations of African masks were by no means a retrograde or reactionary view taken against the flow of the art stream; no, they were primarily courageous attempts made towards locating the foundations of artistic language as well as identifying new original ways forwards. A hundred-year-old polemic about the possibility of the ornament having its own historical development seems to have a very clear outcome in Petr Kvíčala’s paintings. Even an unvarying and perpetual ornament is nothing more than history in movement, the constantly changing stream of change stemming from the logic of the ornament as such.
The abstract nature of the ornament becomes apparent if we considers the fact that the ornament in pure form does not actually imitate nature. Still, it is governed by the laws of nature, its model being the perpetually repeated movement of waves, the rhythm of breathing, and the regular alternating of night and day. The impetus for the creation of the ornament is not the desire to depict nature but the will to understand nature and to produce an abstract geometrical patterning derived from nature. Similarly, even Kvíčala’s stubborn exploration of the ornament can be understood as an effort to disclose
the possibilities of fine art in its most concentrated form.4
The ornament is, its very nature, two-dimensional – a means for filling out an area that is given beforehand. Flatness is at the same time one of the attributes of modernist painting; it is a necessary step on the way to abstract art. Nor do the paintings of Petr Kvíčala offer a special illusion built using the means of traditional painting techniques. Everything that happens in them takes place in the two-dimensional world of the canvas. The possible overlapping of elements does not create space but a blanket network – a mutually balanced two-dimensional field. Apart from one of Kvíčala’s paintings, which is organized alongside an endless horizontal line, all the other paintings produce rippled planes charged with energy.
Lately, however, the solid field, employing symmetry and regular rhythm, has begun to give way to the mere fragment in the paintings of Petr Kvíčala. The painter separates the basic component of the ornament, or even its mere segment, from its continuation, takes it out from its logical chain, handling it as an independent, separate element. Some of the artist’s recent paintings thus give the impression that they are just cutouts of his previous works; they show just a detail of an ornament, which may not even give the impression that it is part of a patterned structure. The observer may only speculate about the inner workings of the displayed elements, about the way they could exist beyond the edge of the painting, about their rhythm and order. These carefully chosen details selected from the whole universe represent chaos organized only in the mind of the observer, but not before.
1 Alois Riegl, Problems of Style, Foundations for a History of Ornament, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1992, p. 15.
2 Jiří Valoch, untitled text from 1994 published in the catalogue of Petr Kvíčala’s traveling exhibition from 1995.
3 What is interesting is the comparison of the different understanding and use of ornament by Petr Kvíčala and other painters of the same generation like Martin Mainer or Petr Vaněček. The discovery of the oriental rugs by Vaněček and Mainer in the 1980’s of the 20th century and their depiction of this topic in painting led to metaphysical or at least psychedelic levels. The ornament had a function of a metaphoric as well as real flying carpet taking you to a different world. Kvíčala is able to admire the oriental rugs as much as the above mentioned painters, however, the result is painting, which is non-literary, non-illusory, flat, rhythmical and pure in color.
4 Perhaps only monochrome painting could be more radical and more concentrated (Kvíčala also dealt with monochrome in connection with the ornament). However, due to its conceptual character, monochrome belongs predominantly to the history of the 20th century and lacks the general validity of ornament that runs throughout the centuries.