Hynek Martinec first came to international attention when a painting of his girlfriend Zuzana earned him the British National Portrait Gallery’s BP Young Artist Award in 2007 and he has since cemented his reputation as one of the Czech Republic’s leading visual artists. Martinec, who is 37, is currently preparing for a major exhibition at the National Gallery here in Prague. Before Christmas I spoke to him at his London studio, which at the time was dominated by his wonderful painting Allegory of the Internet.
I have the impression that in the Czech Republic education is more classically based than in some other European countries. For example, when it comes to literature, people learn the classics, they know what’s what. Is it similar with the teaching of art in the Czech Republic, say compared to here in the UK?
“Ten or 15 years ago, when I was at the Academy [of Fine Arts in Prague], I would be trained extremely classically. But I’m not quite sure how it is there now; I think it’s changed.
“But you are right, Eastern European artists have a reputation for having craft first and then the ideas behind the work.
“I think that’s why we could be quite attractive here, because we have something else.
“Here I see that artists who want to have that craft have to really fight for it – they have to find the school, the right people.
“I don’t know how it is now, because I’m not going to those [Czech] schools, but it seems to me from a distance that the craft at some schools is quite disappearing.
“But this is how it is now. Because we are in the age of the internet and some artists don’t think that it’s important.
“So it’s very individual now.”
What led you here to London?
“I quite like that pressure of being creative but also productive. It means that you really have to fight for success.”
“I studied here in 2002, as part of an exchange programme. That was kind of like my first sight of the city.
“I loved it at the beginning and I thought that it would be good to kind of rediscover the city again at some point, so I came back here in 2007, 2008.
“The main reason was actually that I won the BP portrait award under 30 years, the BP Young Artist Award, at the National Portrait Gallery.
“That was a huge thing. It’s a very well-known competition here, so I immediately got exciting offers of a studio, commissions
“At that time I lived with Zuzana in Paris. So we had like only two days to make a decision, if we would stay in Paris or come here.
“So then we came here and I think we were lucky. It was good to use that chance; I think it saved me time – I didn’t start from zero.
“There was something there and I could build a career.”
How do you find living in, I guess, one of the world’s great centres of art?
“I lived in New York for a half a year and I liked being there, but the problem was that it’s not Europe and it’s not America. It’s quite far away from Europe.
“So I felt the ideal place would be in the middle and I felt London was one of those places where you still get something from Europe, but also something from America.
“And it is of course quite isolated but also global. So I think it has kind of everything.”
Are there any challenges to living and working in London? Is there any kind of downside for you as an artist?
“Well, generally London is a very expensive city, so I think that’s big pressure for everyone, for all of us, and especially in the art world.
“But actually I quite like that pressure of, you know, being creative but also productive.
“It means that you really have to fight for success.
“But the people are here, and they are ready to help you.
“It is difficult, it’s a big job, but at the same time, if you are good then you get the chance.
“So I think you should know what you want and then London will welcome you.”
Also I guess you’re measuring yourself against the best here – you’re measuring yourself against the greatest in your profession.
“Well, I think every artist would think like that.
“We are living in a dynamic time and I can’t imagine myself being stuck in only one style.”
“I think if you don’t have some sort of big ideas in your mind as an artist then it’s quite tricky to survive as well.
“So you have to really dream about big things.”
We’re here in your studio and in front of us is an amazing oil painting. What is your technique? How do you do a painting like this?
“Quite a long time ago I chose to use the classical medium, because that’s what is very important to me – to be connected to the European heritage, like Old Masters.
“I learned in Prague the classical way how to paint.
“Basically, it has many, many layers. It would start from drawings, at first with charcoal.
“Then I would use some kind of tempera or gouache, for just the sketchy stuff, and then there would be another layer which would be a thin layer of oil.
“If I want to do some glazing then I wait a few days or weeks, which means I can go over it on top and just make the painting better and better.
“So it’s kind of like a never-ending story.
“But at the same time I quite like that moment when you get the feeling that you can’t give more because it’s just done.
“You get that feeling when it’s done and you just leave it. And then it’s always good to start a new work.”
Do some people, perhaps because of your famous paintings of Zuzana, have the misimpression that you are a photo-realist artist?
“I’m not really bothered about this because I see my art as a journey – and everything that I have done is connected to the work I’m doing now.
“I’m not very interested in this judging of where I belong. I even quite like to break those ideas.
“So if you look at my works now, they are still very crafted, they are maybe more connected to the Baroque or some style like this.
“But we are living in a dynamic time and I can’t imagine myself being stuck in only one style.
“What I’m trying to achieve is to kind of go back, rediscover stuff and make a bridge between the 16th century and our time.”
“And just maybe to answer your question about that specific style, called hyperrealism, I just thought that it was quite dead and I still think it’s quite over.
“I just didn’t want to repeat something. Because I achieved it and I know that I’m good at it.
“So I just felt a few years ago that I needed to move on and to find more interesting and exciting ideas, like how we can bring spirituality into paintings, how we can respond to photographs and history, manipulation, time, things like that.
“I think if I were only to work from photographs, it wouldn’t satisfy me.”
Is your work in some sense based on research? Or knowledge of classical art? For example, this painting here, is it something that purely comes from your mind? Or is it partly based on something you’ve seen previously?
“No, it’s definitely based on what I have seen previously – and what became important in my mind.
“That means that before I started this big painting I would collect maybe 10 images which first have to come from my mind.
“Then I would research them on the internet or in books or in libraries sometimes.
“That takes me a few days and after I might continue on something else and then I would jump back to this.
“So it’s kind of an ongoing process, I think.
“Now I have a lot of images in my mind and it’s just about the time when it clicks. Then I know that it’s time to choose this image and work on it and maybe spend two months on it.
“But I do kind of manipulate our history. There are lots of references to the past.
“If I look at that painting, I can tell you exactly what that face means or what the body means or what the symbol is.
“So it has lots of meanings behind it.
“An educated person who knows those images can maybe enjoy the work more, because they know what is behind it.
“But I think it also works visually – and that’s very important to me as well.
“So I like to have deep meanings behind the work but at the same level to have a nice painting. That’s what my aim is.”
London is known for its wonderful galleries, many if not almost all of which are free. How much time do you spend in London’s galleries?
“Oh, I go every week. I would always go to some museums, the National Gallery, of course, the Barbican Centre or, you know, most of them.
“And that’s one of the reasons I’m in London – this is a place where you could see almost everything, from all around the world.
“So you don’t even need to travel outside much, because everything comes here. That’s quite a privilege.”
You have a big show coming up in Prague in April. What can we expect from that?
“It’s a big project that I’ve been working on for over two years now. I’m hoping to exhibit 30 artworks there.
“The main theme is my own response to the Baroque era. Specifically to Rubens, van Dyck, those Old Masters. Ribera, of course.
“What I’m trying to achieve is to kind of go back, rediscover stuff and make a bridge between the 16th century and our time.
“Ideally it should be that the visitors who come rediscover the Baroque, think about it again and realise that it is such an amazing era in our history.
“I’m trying to approach it from the digital age, but still touching on the Old Masters’ techniques. That’s very important to me.
“I don’t want to respond in a postmodern way, trying not to tell many stories. I’m quite interested in grabbing those stories, but manipulating them.
“So that’s what I’m trying to achieve in painting as well.”
Is the nature of the work the reason that the exhibition will be at the Sternberg Palace, not at the Trade Fair Palace, which is where the National Gallery’s modern art collection is?
“Yes, I think that’s absolutely the main theme of the exhibition, that it’s going to be in the Baroque collection.
“Because it’s a very unique situation where I can exhibit my paintings next to Old Masters. Though I wouldn’t call them Old Masters – they are just old because of time, but they’re still contemporary to me.
“So I’m trying to avoid what the meaning of the contemporary is.
“I think this is going to be an absolutely amazing family dialogue, where the paintings will, I hope, start to speak to each other.
“It’s maybe a kind of brick that I’m putting down there and I hope, when I won’t be here, that other artists will continue this and carry on, maybe referencing my work and the Baroque as well.
Does it have much special significance for you that the show is in Prague? Or is it only another exhibition for you?
“No, no, no. This is really, really important.
“I’m taking it extremely seriously. Especially because I studied there. And there is an amazing Baroque collection, the palace is just wonderful, and the location is fantastic.
“So for me it is, I think, one of the biggest projects so far.”
Hynek Martinec’s major exhibition will take place at Prague’s Sternberg Palace from April 26 to August 26.