THE DISCOURSE [3D video and music by Havlicek]

What kind of poetry do you like...[video and sound by Havlicek]


MY EYES [3D video and music by Havlicek]



Jiří Havlíček's artwork

Catalogue published by The Moorland Press

Copyright © Kenneth G. Hay and the authors.




Kenneth G. Hay

Jirí Havlíček’s Fantastic Vision 

In Havlícek’s production, whether it be painting, graphic work, multimedia website animation or, more recently digital sound works, one feature persists - a fantastic inventiveness which goes against the expected and which blends surreal incongruity with mystical intensity. The persistent quality to his drawing, with its complex repetitions is echoed in the reiteration of sound-bites or the reoccurrence of themes and fantastic imagery over the decades. Jiří Havlícek started as a surrealist and attained an international position, exhibiting in Yugoslavia with the Czech Surrealist group in the 1960s, in Belgium as part of the C.I.A.F.M.A. Fantasmagie group in the 1960s and 70s, and with the Italian Surrealist group, Surfanta in the 1970s.

The graphic work draws upon many sources - cabbalistic texts, alchemical and mediaeval mystical texts, the visionary drawings of William Blake, Islamic calligraphy, Baroque ceiling paintings, science fiction and graffiti art, to name but a few. What these seemingly disparate elements have in common is a relentless energy, a spiraling, repetitive drive, a hand-drawn quality, a sense of soaring light and vision, or mystical illumination bursting through the clouds of skepticism, anxiety and doubt. In the early work, the bizarre creations of science fiction, half-man, half-machine rejoin the equally strange creations of Bosch, Brueghel, and mediaeval nightmares.

In these early works, creatures and objects were created from within the graphic marks themselves, drawing upon the unconscious mind and the inspiration of the marks themselves as much as on their arcane sources and repertoire of references. Most seem to have a frightening, Kafkaesque aspect and many combine human, animal and mechanical traits, overlaid with Hebrew or Latin script. Sometimes, as with Klee’s inventions, the characters which Havlícek creates seem to take on a life of their own on the page, like the Golem which stirs from base matter into organic life, or like the alchemy which would attempt to create living breath from inert substance and turn base metals into gold.

For Havlícek, the artist/scholar is also a kind of alchemist, concocting new amalgams from the raw materials of the cultural world, raking over cultural heritage, from Central Europe with its troubled and shifting borders, from ancient civilizations with their graphic and scriptural traditions, to eke out what has been forgotten, mislaid or lost in the damaging process which is History. “Czech space” as the Czechs themselves are wont to call their territory, occupies more than physical space. It is simultaneously linguistic space, cultural heritage, memory and tradition. It is a space which has been invaded, overrun, annexed, ruled from afar and isolated and alienated from itself during the last century alone.

It has been a very difficult space to make art in, and especially an art which is non-conformist, experimental, and which attempts to find a lost unity underlying languages and cultures, and yet for a small and fiercely independent country it is rich in culture, aphorisms, metaphors and above all humor, albeit sometimes of a dark complexion. During the Communist Period, official artists grouped themselves into a Union, thereby not only protecting themselves and ensuring patronage, but also disenfranchising all those who were not able to claim ‘professional status’ by having graduated from the Academy of Art or the Academy of Design in Prague. For Havlícek, as for many of his generation, this was a difficult time. Experimental and non-conformist art went underground, limiting itself to whatever media or materials as were available, publishing its outputs via photocopied or hand-written records, and presenting itself to audiences, often of a few friends in someone’s front room, or the upstairs room in a bar. Because professional status was resultant from being granted membership of the artist’s union, exclusion from this category meant that artists had to find another occupation, since employment was compulsory.

The international recognition which Havlícek had already begun to gain following his graduation from the Masaryk University Brno, evaporated or at least was curtailed, and instead he devoted himself to his teaching, participating in many cultural


events, assisting his pupils, soon to become the next generation of artists and teachers in Brno, and continuing with his private artistic research. His production of etchings, drawings, paintings and mixed technique studies continued unabated throughout this period, and he maintained an active exhibiting career in the Czech Republic, Germany and elsewhere.

In the eighties and nineties Havlícek’s work, generally small to medium scale, developed the highly individual hybrid style by which his work is immediately recognizable, drawing upon the calligraphic traditions of Islam, Judaica and Chinese Buddhism, and combining them with a new radiance and luminosity of colors. Works like Kaligraf, Crux-Labrys, Mantra, Tabula and Topos, painted in mixed technique (pastel, pen, pencil, ink, gouache and other media) on card, create this luminosity with a central area of light in pale yellows or blues fading to a darkened periphery and overlaid with his spidery calligraphic marks, floating on the surface or spiraling round in expressive loops or waves to lend energy and dynamism to the whole.

Often a central Menhir, spiral, or floating form occupies the central space around which swirls the calligraphy like a vortex. In the UK, there is an interesting parallel with the work of another very private visionary, Norman Adams RA. In both, there is the interest in Blake, in the musical or spiritual dimension to painting and like Turner, or Samuel Palmer, the attempt to render the luminosity of an interior vision by analogy to the glow of the sun bursting from behind a cloud, or the amber glow of sunset behind the hills. As often, when external circumstances are restrictive, travel impossible, and the creative space for expression and invention is constrained, artists voyage inwards to that limitless space of fantasy. This is not the same as escapism, as we can see in Havlícek’s work, because often, as in the early work, the demons accompany him there, but here in the later work, although the relentless energy is still in evidence, there is a new serenity and a sense of oceanic limitlessness.

It is rather, as Brecht observed in the midst of very different oppressions in the 1930s, that “In the Dark Times, there will be singing: singing of the Dark Times.” Havlícek’s excursions into Cyberspace are the logical continuation of this quest. One part of these excursions involved the translation of his works into a web archive - an on-going process - which characteristically has not remained immune to the possibilities inherent in the new medium. Animation, video and hypertext afford new possibilities to develop the dynamic rhythms latent in his work. Recent work recording birdsong, transforms this into a magical and incantatory singing by lowering the frequency on the computer and slowing the tempo until the natural modulations are made transparent. The result is a fantastic warbling sound which recalls the grotesque strangeness of the early graphic work, and brings us full circle in this on-going, looping and spiraling trajectory.

Another result of the excursion into Cyberspace was the call, which Havlícek put out over the web in the nineties, for participants in a series of international multimedia workshops based at the Masaryk University, Faculty of Pedagogics, to which I and other artists and teachers from around Europe responded. From this series of cultural exchanges, strong links have now been forged between staff and students at the University of Leeds, School of Design, Masaryk University, Faculty of Pedagogics and Brno Polytechnic University which have resulted in several student and staff exchanges, exhibitions, publications and events such as the “Hibrida” series of exhibitions, curated by Colin Lloyd and Ian Colverson at Bradford College. In all these developments, the energy and vision of Jíři Havlícek have been an inspiration.



The current exhibition, which coincides with his 60th birthday, is the first solo show devoted to Jíri Havlícek’s work in the UK and inaugurates the new gallery space within the School of Design at the University of Leeds. 


Prof. K.G.Hay, Head of Contemporary Art Practice, Leeds University UK