A series of surrealistic linocuts, Dreams responds to traumatic events of the twentieth century witnessed by eminent Slovak artist Vincent Hložník (1919-1997).
Born in 1919 in the small town of Svederník, Czechoslovakia (today Slovak Republic), Vincent Hložník’s career spanned some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century: World War II, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’s coup d’état in 1948 that stifled modern art and free thought, and the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion that ushered in “normalization” and crushed liberal reforms as the new conservative government worked quickly to restore hardline, oppressive policies.
Dreams holds a central place in Hložník’s artistic repertoire and reflects how the cultural and political context of his times directly informed his work, aesthetically, stylistically and conceptually.
A Student in Prague
Beginning in 1937, Hložník studied at the School of Applied Arts in Prague. He described his work of the period as depicting joyful scenes that drew from folklore and religion and produced drawings of bucolic landscapes, the countryside and children. His approach to art was radically altered when he witnessed the Nazi occupation of the city in March 1939.
“Until the day I die I will not forget the announcement I repeatedly heard blasting from the loudspeakers on the streets of Prague: Executed this morning were…followed by some hundred names.”
— Vincent Hložník from Ľudovít Petránsky’s 1997 monograph
Image: Prague, Czechoslovakia. 1939. The German Army’s tanks roll through Prague on March 15,1939, as crowds line the streets.(Original print held in AWM Archive Store), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Around 1940, Hložník met Ján Mudroch (Slovak, 1909–1968), who was a prominent figure in “Generation 1909,” a group of modernist Slovak artists all born around that year. At Mudroch’s studio in Bratislava, Hložník was introduced to a group of young artists with whom he discussed Surrealism. He credited this encounter as being a pivotal moment opening a completely new set of artistic possibilities that allowed him to explore the “wondrous world of the imaginary,” and “a novel world of the irrational and the mysterious,” as he told his biographer Ľudovít Petránsky.
Hložník graduated from the School of Applied Arts in 1942. Although his initial focus was on painting, beginning in 1945, he began experimenting with printmaking. The medium had moved to the fore of modern Slovak art as a result of the achievements of a few key artists working in the late 1930s. They had begun to approach graphic art from a new, modernist perspective, including placing an emphasis on the reduction of form to its essential geometry and exploiting the potential of the medium’s inherent expressive power.
In linocut printmaking, the artist creates a relief template by carving an image into a sheet of linoleum that is then inked and pressed against a sheet of paper, either by hand or press. Linoleum and other materials used to create plates, such as wood, can be used multiple times and are usually printed in a limited edition.
The Possibilities of Surrealism
For Surrealists, realistic styles were inadequate to express the devastation and humanitarian crises brought on by war. The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was perhaps the era’s most influential work to address these themes. A mural-size abstract painting in stark black and white, it was created in response to the German bombing of the Basque town of Guernica and became a widely recognized antiwar and anti-fascist icon after it was exhibited at the Paris International Exposition in 1937.
Guernica’s effect on Hložník is visible in his linocuts and other works that convey a similar message of protest. As in Picasso’s painting, a horse is prominent in Hložník’s composition. The animal, with protruding teeth and linear ribs, looks out at the viewer as an armed winged figure hovers overhead. These motifs appear repeatedly in Hložník’s work, taking on a potent symbolism.
This print depicts a monstrous figure with a grotesque amalgamation of eyes, teeth and an open jaw that appears ready to consume its victims indiscriminately. The dismembered limbs in the lower half of the picture and a mounted figure holding a shield conjure a sense of imminent violence and barbarism. These motifs appeared in Hložník’s work for most of his career, reflecting how his experience in Prague left an indelible mark on his approach to art and life.
The animals in Hložník’s prints and paintings are often twisted into semi-abstract shapes. In the linocuts, among other works, horses reference Cervantes’s 17th-century novel Don Quixote and its protagonist’s farcical quest to right the world’s wrongs according to an outmoded code of chivalry. In this work, the contorted horse bends toward a red sun as a winged figure, the Angel of Death, hovers above. At right, the skeletal figure of a man is rendered in fine linear strokes, making use of negative space. Angles and voids activate the area and create an instability marking the very real threat of annihilation, whether from conventional warfare or nuclear arms.
The majority of Hložník’s graphics were in black and white until he became interested in painting again in 1962 and used color in his graphic works for the first time. Dreams was one of the earliest series to incorporate color with strategically placed geometric forms in blue, green, red and ocher, suggesting fiery suns and rising moons, disquieting silhouettes, and the interplay between light and shadow.
A Humanist Artist and Teacher
Hložník established the Department of Graphic Art and Illustration at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava after he joined the faculty in 1952. From this department emerged what is referred to as The Hložník School—a generation of Slovak graphic artists who approached art with a “deeply humanist experiencing of the world, on the border of reality and dream, of drama and poetry,” as described by Petránsky in his monograph on Hložník. Some of the most important figures in Slovak art in the latter half of the 20th century emerged from this school.
An undated photograph of the artist with linocuts from Dreams. Courtesy Zuzana Hložník.
” . . . [a] violent interruption [took place] in the evolution of Slovak art after [the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’s coup d’état] in 1948. Fortunately, after many painful experiences and occurrences, we have managed—and I believe for good this time—to get to a place of greater freedom, both in life and in art.”— Vincent Hložník, from Ľudovít Petránsky’s monograph
Hložník, like many of his colleagues at the Academy, was a proponent of modern art even while working under an oppressive, and at times, totalitarian, Communist system.
Recognition at Home and Abroad
Over the course of his nearly 60-year career, Hložník obtained recognition both within the Soviet bloc and in other countries in the Communist sphere of influence, as well as attention from the West despite the culturally dampening effect of the Iron Curtain. At the 1958 Venice Biennale, for example, he was one of three artists—along with Antoni Tapies of Spain and Kenneth Armitage of the U.K.—to receive an award from the David E. Bright Foundation of Los Angeles. It was the first time in the history of the Biennale that an American organization had presented an award for which artists of any country could be eligible.
One of the most notable exhibitions mounted in the West took place in 1965 at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. It featured 58 oil paintings and selected graphic works. Grosvenor Gallery was one of the few Western venues during the Cold War that routinely exhibited Eastern Bloc artists, including Hložník.
Image: Exhibition catalogue for Vincent Hložník: paintings and graphics, April 13–May 8, 1965. © Grosvenor Gallery, London.
Hložník’s work has been widely exhibited and collected throughout the Slovak Republic and in other countries. An essential figure in modern Slovak art, he had an immeasurable influence on its direction. He died in Bratislava in 1997.
Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.