T E X T S . . .

I AND THE FIGURE, THE FIGURE AND I (Between a Monument and a Dwarf)

CHAPTER I There is no question whatsoever of my expounding on anything like general theses concerning the above subject. At a time when everything happens to be disorganized, confused and open-ended, I believe what makes sense is to say a few words about one's own approach to this matter, without resorting to excessive generalization. Every individual is an original in his/her own right. The crucial influences that shape our characters may be thoroughly trivial, and there the influence exerted by the worldwide development of art may indeed be purely marginal. That is why I am going to describe myself here as a test-tube sample. I will give a brief description of what has concerned me, of what is not too well known about me, and what, viewed from another angle, might naturally have taken an entirely different turn. The most important thing that predisposes everyone in terms of his approach to any subject is the sum of his childhood experiences. As a child everyone definitely does get into some kind of contact with a sculpture, a statue, a figure. They may be more plentiful in towns and cities, and scarcer in the country, ret even there one could always come across the standard trio of saints in roadside chapels. Thus I for my part made this early experience with a bronze sculpture of a wild boar installed in a manor park, dating probably from the beginning of the century; and there was another sculpture there, a copy of an ancient statue of Hermes; then both at home and in church, an assortment of crucifixes which I would not even perceive as figures, concentrating rather on the part that was the cross; and finally, the various statuettes that could be found at home, such as a porcelain swan, a bronze shepherd dog, or a souvenir Buddha. Apart from all that there was the occasional garden dwarf and, once again in the manor park, a bust of Beethoven. A source of major excitement were puppets and nativity scenes which I myself came to carve as I grew up a bit, and of course the dwarfs. I made one myself from clay, dried it and decorated it with tempera paints. I was about nine years old then. The presence of that kind of statuary was somewhat later on supplemented by sculptural creations of Socialist Realism aspiring to "monumentality": In the town of Opava, for instance, there was one that was supposed to embody the zeal of the New Order's builders, a rather slipshod affair executed in sandstone. I was kind of disappointed by both the subject itself and its slipshod treatment. Later still that exemplar of, shall I say, decadent sculptural style, came to be part of a very weird interaction, as a local construction engineer erected in his rock garden, across the street from the monumental sculptor's house, a group of Seven Dwarfs plus Snow White, made of painted glazed earthenware. The sculptor angrily protested against the new presence, as tourists passing by believed the group was his doing too, which naturally offended him. Perhaps that strange encounter of two decadent themes just might have provided an impetus, long since overlaid by others, for some of my works dealing with this subject. But then, it is likewise possible that here I am inventing this, just as I invent everything else, and that it all happened in a different way and at a different place. Godd figures would fascinate me through that remarkable effect that is usually generated by any artificial likeness of a real human figure. In the European context, and in the rural context in particular, the representation of something - anything - in the form of a figure has been regarded as a supreme manifestation of art.
In Czechoslovakia of these days, isolated as it was from the outside world, a broader context was made accessible solely through the literature that happened to be available, and through what could be seen in art galleries, chiefly these of Prague if one was lucky to get there: namely, the works of Myslbek, Štursa, Gutfreund, and French sculpture. All of that formed the material backdrop to what one could hear being dealth with verbally at the colleges of Brno and Hořice, and later on, in the 1960's, at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts which was by then already fairly liberal. It was that classical approach to the study of figure which somewhat deformed the natural attitudes towards that subject and which at the same time imparted to the apprentice sculptor a repertoire of skills needed for tackling that sort of sculpture. As a matter of fact, it was still before my studies at the Academy that I had made my first experience with the dividing line between the spontaneous, as it were, kind of sculpture on the one hand, and the study-oriented, naturalistic or realistic strain which has its antecedents in the output of various artists, Czech and French alike, on the other. I even recall that the experience cost me a personal crisis, that as an eighteen-year-old I found myself unable for something like a half-year to engage in any sort of meaningful work; that in the process of passage to that extraordinary discipline which, viewed from the perspective of sculptural training, would have appeared to be the sole option, it was extremely difficult to find a relatedness between that discipline and one's .own nature which in its turn was obviously determined by what I had until then liked.1 had inclined preponderantly towards models set by archaic sculpture, folklore, geometrically abstracted art, where the message is delivered by the geometry of an object, not by the imitation of an individual detail or grimace. In contrast to that, I also dreamed of making a figure that would have a life of its own. What I felt was the enchantment of imitating there a living human being in solid material. The deeper one penetrates into that discipline, the more complex it gets - and the more likely it is to absorb one.

CHAPTER II The European - let alone the Czech - context is naturally not the measure of all things, however likely that may have seemed to many an artist at that time. There also exists a world of non-figure-oriented cultures, where the representation of figure is explicitly forbidden. Those are cultures where an actual human being is transformed into sculpture by means of a mask. Or others still, which transpose figure onto a geometrical plane, and where rhythm is the main theme. Then of course there is Asia, with its Buddhas whose concept has remained unchanged for many centuries, a cultural universe where any change (development) of form is regarded as undesirable and where on the contrary constancy, or sameness, constitutes the virtue to be aspired to. In Europe the continual process of inventing has shaken up several times, notably in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the previously established concepts of figure-oriented sculpture. To us today, therefore, a development that took centuries may at first sight appear less dramatic that it actually was. All that notwithstanding, the practice of depicting live things in as lively a manner as possible - as it has developed to this day when everything is permitted and when figure sculpture is but a small part of a wide scale of subjects, themes and approaches employed by artists - does rank among important phenomena of European culture. By no means was it insignificant that figures would be broken down as part of many ritual transformations.

CHAPTER III To me, however, the crucial point of deflection from that representative type of figure which was true to life in the traditional Czech way, was of course marked by my acquaintance with the work of Segal who had returned to human figure, seemingly by chance, in the era of Pop Art, to apply that approach, which would ignore and neglect discipline, to the building of figure, depicting figure from the opposite end, in a way similar to that chosen by Rodin in Martyr, after his visit to Pompei. Likewise, in a way similar to that chosen by Jasper Johns in his depictions - involving shifts of expression - of such everyday trivia as a light bulb or a tin container: that, to me, was ret another deflection somewhere else.
Eventually, after more trials and detours, I reached the point of making these figures that were made from soft materials, to emphasize the factor of change in the course of time. The underlying aim of that was to challenge the dogmatic concept of sculpture as a symbol of worldly necromaniacal eternity. Another stepping stone on my path of change in figure sculpture was represented by the work of Yves Klein: whatever he might actually have had in mind, the empty room where he had invited his friends, or members of the art-loving community, to the official opening of his exhibition, revealed to me apart from other things the fact that man himself can be viewed as an object of interest, occasionally even as the most important and most interesting object. I then did a personal re-enactment of the experience at my wedding, back in 1970, as I whitewashed the interior of my emptied basement studio, and had the wedding party take place against the backdrop of the stark-white surfaces. Naturally, I did that exclusively for my own sake: none of these present was informed something was happening. Nor, in fact, did I have any artistic ambitions in doing that, I just wanted to give it a try. I would always dream of getting involved in public, or communal sculpture. There, my model was the category of sculptor known to Ancient Greece: one who creates for the community figures of heroes, gods, beautiful objects to which the citizens for their part may relate, as such figures can established themselves as a constant presence in their lives. I was never too fond of gallery-oriented sculpture, the kind which strives to compete in the art charts, nor was I ever overenthusiastic about avant-garde art in the vernacular sense of the term, implying the making of ever new attempts at differing from the art of preceding periods, or even from other avant-garde artists of the same era. Actually, I did admire and follow that sort of art, ret it was not what I would have regarded as the dominant or crucial trend. To me, the most important aspect of the sculptor's career was work for the community. Clearly, the time of "normalisation" in this country entailed an atmosphere where most of that which could be made for communal purposes once again degraded to fake, as it was geared towards restoring the previous dehumanized and adulterated pattern of pseudo-community. That notwithstanding, there still remained a few less strictly guarded places, where one was able to engage in things that ran counter to that general tendency. That was also why I for my part distanced myself from anything like an official career then, and decided instead to establish a state of my own, with its autonomous culture of stuffed and paper sculptures. For one thing, it happened to be cheaper for me like that - the material was low-priced and readily available; from 1972 I was based in an isolated country house -, and besides, I was not compelled to invent complex ways and means of earning money for my art work. Moreover, I did not want to be linked too closely with the general trend of the day. Though that was my basic attitude, I would occasionally manage, at the price of considerable difficulties, to make something at a location other than my immediate place of residence, which was not bad. It did give some hope at least to other people.

CHAPTER IV An important point in the development of my approach to figure was marked by the arrival of my first son Jan Mikuláš, born in 1970. I had never really thought I would have a child. I was absorbed all but obsessively with my activities in art, with painting and sculpting, and consequently so natural a part of life as was the birth of a baby led me to infer, by way of association, that I had in fact created a new figure, a new sculpture, using the most natural method.
I made the next discovery connected with my son at the moment he himself set out to make things; which may be the very topic to be dealt with in detail here. While still crawling on all fours, before he could walk, the baby began to use various objects - apples for instance, and pebbles which I have always liked to pick and collect - assembling them in different ways all around him, eventually achieving a highly precise mathematical and geometric pattern. I was amazed at the fact that this little child, instead of surrounding himself by a random assortment of things, got involved in creating some sort of spatial mathematics. It was at that point I realized that after all abstraction, geometry, mathematics constituted the most natural means of channelling a human being's perception, of enabling him to define the surrounding world. There, the prime impulse is probably not the urge to depict, but rather to organize the outside world. Now, here I might just as well conclude my speech, for while I have been invited here as a figure sculptor, there are quite a few critics who now and then suggest that I had better return to making figures - which, after all, I might occasionally do. However, my figures are nowadays centered around different things: for instance, I made two young girls dressed in folk costumes sit upon a speaker's platform and had them alternately cut up and sew together Czechoslovak flags (still before the splitting of Czechoslovakia),
imitating the tradition of tableaux vivants; or I made Self-Centred Notice Board, where I was a figure unto myself. That was supposed to present an ironic self-parodying reflection of that perennial and ever-present, recurrent aspiration of those countless ne'er-do-wells to get into the limelight, to make it to the headlines, to possess exclusive rights to truth. Thus the notice board in question, painted over with grass - in an allusion to a Czech proverb about the fickleness of fame - featured a hole which anyone was free to fill in with his body, to be admired, to view himself admiringly through the frame, and to pose before a mirror. That is the side of my geometry which betrays my indomitable passion for the human mayhem that calls itself politics, or man as the perennial theme. $0 what, then, is figure sculpture in this time? I wouldn't have known. I do not find any substantial difference between figure and non-figure sculpture. To me, sculpture is a way of organizing, or put in more pleasant terms, inhabiting space, which in its turn comprises a wide variety of approaches. It may involve a few stones, or an array of objects of practical use, pieces of furniture, trees. Figure can be defined as a human being in endless situations which occur either spontaneously or once again by purposeful organization, or as part of rituals; it can be a tableau vivant; it may be anything, including incidentally a sculpture that has the form of a figure. The practice of positioning of objects at certain places, creating of spaces by means of certain objects, is again nothing but a way of organizing or inhabiting various localities in the world, a process which may occasionally involve figures. Nearly all of my works have been made to purpose for a specific space: a room I lived in, the surrounding landscape, places somebody suggested I would do something about; and at times, or possibly on most occasions, the act of inhabiting would not take place, leaving me with an object, mostly a figure, which I placed elsewhere, that is, for which I chose another suitable location and duly organized, or inhabited it. In so doing I have resorted to a wide variety of approaches, from inhabiting rock formations, where such objects are otherwise inexistent and where they may be placed for the fun of it, to decorating with various objects places where I position myself. These are instances of transitory inhabiting of diverse locations, spaces, landscapes or exhibition rooms, where I respond to certain situations related to space, personal circumstances or politics. Thereby, endowed with the sweet confidence in my relative sanity, in that what passes through my mind is of some interest, and in that it may help some of my fellow citizens to enjoy themselves in this world, I proceed accordingly to inhabit the cranial cavities of my neighbours.

(Kurt Gebauer's speech delivered at the close or the Symposium on Figure Sculpture held at the Academy or Fine Arts in Prague, on April 19, 1995)