Joska Skalník

Born 23.3. 1948 in Prague. He grew up in Kolín. He studied at Secondary Applied Arts School in Prague (dept. of applied graphics), where he graduated in 1970. In 1971 to 1976 he worked as graphic designer at the State Theatre Studio and later at the Prague cultural center.

In 1977, he became resident artist at the Prague Činoherní klub theatre, where he works until now.

1970 he is the co-founder of the independent cultural organization Jazz Section, for this activity he has been imprisoned in 1986. 1988 is a founding signatory of the creative freedom association Open Dialogue.

In 1989 he co-founded an independent cultural organization Artforum.

In November 1989, he's the co-founder of the Civic Forum and subsequently becomes a cultural adviser and member of the Collegium of President Václav Havel.

Since 1991 he is freelance painter and graphic designer. He organizes many cultural events and art projects.

In 1994 he was awarded with the prize of Masaryk Academy of Arts for his creative activities. Exhibits at home and abroad (France, Germany, England, USA, Holland, Italy, Poland, Mexico, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, South Africa, Zimbabwe, China, South Korea, Venezuela, Philippines, Jamaica).

He lives and works in Prague.

An Obsession with Blue

In my youth, gazing up at the sky – the fantasy shapes of floating clouds – was a profound experience for me. I often experienced the same thing exploring the night with its starry sky. It evoked in me (and still does) a feeling of mysterious distant reaches, the inspiring cloud play and above all a wonderful range of blue tones. I wander through this ‘landscape’ and it arouses in me a feeling of enormous freedom that is the essential source of my art.

I’ve often wandered though nature with my portable easel, small-format canvases and my pipe, a faithful companion. I love nature, its changes, horizons and details at the same time. And, once again, the heavenly vault over my head, full of aspirations, dreams and a special poetical playfulness. I turned into a loner and a dreamer.

After taking aptitude tests, I left Kolín and came to Prague, where I lived beautiful student years at college, full of parties and soaking in literature, art, film, theatre and music that were exceptionally high quality during the 1960s. Listening to music, whether it was jazz, rock, classical music, opera or ethnic music, became a great source of inspiration to me. I’m convinced that music and art have much in common – harmony, composition, and importantly also improvisation. I think that music is one of the most powerful artistic disciplines. It is all-embracing, unlimited by tangible dimensions and perhaps has the most powerful impact on the soul. Listening to it, I had the most powerful experiences, and it was classical music especially that helped me overcome my periods of suffering. At that time I often experimented with colours, coming to recognise their heavenly quality. Colours have a healing power and are like a soothing touch. I began intensely painting abstract art, which I called poetical abstraction. Apart from relaxed painting, I use geometric elements, symbols and tantric signs that express a feeling for inner order.

In 1969, following an unlucky accident and two serious operations, I lost the use of my right eye. As a result, I stopped seeing things spatially, and had to interrupt my studies and learn how to paint with this indisposition. What was worse, at that time my younger brother Jan died in a tragic accident. It was a difficult period for me and I realised how petty certain situations are and what is fundamental in a person’s life. Time is a powerful magician, knowing how to hurt and heal.

There then came the time of ‘social activities’. Despite all the meaningful work I was involved in, whether for the Jazz Section or the many samizdat publications, I had a strange feeling throughout this long period. Although the themes in this area of independent culture were interesting and fundamental, they were given themes and I felt inwardly troubled that I wasn’t creating work on free themes – my own themes. At the same time I realised that it was a challenge for me, as well as a direct responsibility to stir up the stagnant waters of the totalitarian regime. In any case, this work was a rich source of learning for me and helped forge firm friendships that exist to this day. It was a slice of my life, though; applied graphic work brought me many experiences but on the other hand took away a lot of my time.

After much persecution and a series of many interrogations and house searches by the totalitarian regime resulting from its confusion at the activity of the Jazz Section, I was arrested and jailed along with friends from this organisation. My time in jail was very tough and depressing, damaging my health. It’s a crazy but instructive experience to come face to face with the devil. After I was released, I staged an art event on the basis of those experiences, which I dedicated to all political prisoners.

There then came the longed-for turning point, the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, and as one of the initiators I was able to take part in changes based on democratic principles. Work at Prague Castle was a great learning experience for me, during which I acquired a deeper understanding of our society. Those are the paradoxes of life – following much persecution, there I was, suddenly redesigning the state emblem.

From the 1980s I became completely hooked on the colour blue, which turned into the dominant feature of my paintings, installations, collages, prints and objects. Blue is the colour of fantasy, sublimity, nostalgia and melancholy, hope and spirituality. Blue is the most remarkable of colours, it is the colour of deities, mysteries and ancient myths. In history, blue protected human habitation from demons, being painted around doors and windows. In the 13th century, ultramarine was called ‘the queen of colours’. This colour played an important role in all religions and symbolic codes. Blue is the colour of hypnotic sleep, the trance and longing for eternity. It is the colour of the cosmos, the far-off reaches of the sky, the depths of the night, the sea, distant realms and dreams.

In the past, I had to create the space of ‘an oasis of tranquillity and contemplation’ for painting, surrounded as I was by an increasingly hectic world of absurd problems and intractable social situations. Technological progress has led to the point that man is engulfed by information, and the natural question remains as to whether we really need this ever-growing onrush of information in our lives. I myself think that this torrent of news and innovations isn’t simply misleading but actually destructive, and that, without realising it, we are ceasing to be our own self and are increasingly consumers in this world of globalisation. In the present day, I feel that it is ever more important for me to live and create my art in an oasis of tranquillity, surrounded by nature. I long more and more for tranquillity in my soul, and contemplation in nature helps me reinforce this feeling of calmness.

This necessary tranquillity that one has to cultivate and defend wouldn’t be so clear to me without a moment of meditation. One of the most powerful sensations I ever experienced was meditating at the Cape of Good Hope, which is a magical place at the southern tip of Africa surrounded by many legends. Another of my most powerful experiences was visiting Borobudur in central Java, Indonesia, the largest Buddhist stupa in the world. Located between two volcanoes in the jungle, Borobudur is a truly magical place, and the building itself – a perfectly thought-out mandala – is a great rarity. The ascent to the highest bell is a symbolic path of life to Nirvana. I reached the top of this unique construction while it was still dark, and began meditating as the sun rose. Day broke, the mist fell away, the wind blew and the birds sang. While meditating, I strongly felt the harmony of nature; nature pervaded me and I became a part of it. To begin with, you ask many questions, but then there gradually comes a state of ‘emptiness’, and in that state you feel the most intimate humility and bliss. In my opinion, that’s the true power of meditation. You come to understand yourself and you achieve a special state of mind, an inner peace that is prerequisite to meaningful creative work.

I don’t know whether art brings me more answers or questions. By all accounts, more questions. Almost each of its new answers comes hand-in-hand with more questions. Even so, it’s important for me – as it is in life – not to close the door on any of its questions or answers. At the same time, I count on the fact that the answers and questions I incorporate into what I do clearly won’t squeeze through the door to the vast majority.

On a continual basis, I’ve created several spatial installations. I’ve a feeling that with the installation entitled Direct Path I determined my direction, and the final installation Eternal Desire saw the culmination of this theme. Dreams play an important role in my life. Dreams are more powerful than reality. The eternal theme of my exhibitions, Dreams – Situations – Games, features throughout my work.

I began painting and exhibiting intensely abroad, but the greatest tragedy of my life descended to destroy this apparent creative tranquillity. Just before the close of the millennium, my beloved daughter Lenka tragically died. She was young, beautiful and full of life. What can you say when words aren’t enough. She is still with me, in my mind and heart. I often talk with her and she is inside me, a part of my life and art. After serious mental problems I realised all the more that life is a gift and that it is important to live it to the full.

I enjoy travelling and learning about various corners of this truly exceptional planet of the universe. Coming to know diverse communities, cultures, customs, lifestyles and faiths has enriched my life enormously. I came to love exotic Asia, where I also often exhibit. I have experienced many inspiring themes in the world and I’m convinced that the most powerful of them was not long ago on the island of ‘a thousand demons’, Bali, a place brimming with sacred nature and the original culture of the local people.

Joska Skalník