Jan Uldrych is the leading contemporary painter living in Prague, Czech Republic. His work includes large paintings that include precise rendering of anatomical surfaces, surreal elements, and biomorphic forms.
Magician | oil on canvas | 150x145 cm
WALT MORTON: In America, we don’t think much about the art history of Prague. As early as 1360 AD, Prague was a hot spot of Renaissance art, but over the centuries artists in Prague have been plagued by fires, wars, and political turmoil. In the 20th century, Nazis occupied Prague and in 1945 the USA accidentally bombed the city. Then Prague suffered Communist rule until freedom came in 1989. How has this difficult history affected your art, or art making process?
JAN ULDRYCH: These critical moments in the history of my country are certainly worth attention. Many of the older generation of Prague artists were not allowed to exhibit freely under communist rule, and they organized secret openings in their studios. Psychologically, this lack of external freedom forced them to search for inner freedom, through their work. This tradition created a very powerful and authentic base for art after 1989. Even though most of that formative group of artists are dead, they taught us that the first priority is to create, no matter what else.
Bug In Brain | oil on canvas | 200x175 cm
WALT MORTON: Can you tell me about your background? Growing up in Prague, and how your environment influenced your work as a painter today?
JAN ULDRYCH: I have always been fascinated by nature. When I was age 6, I got a book about prehistoric life illustrated by Zdeněk Burian and that ignited my interest in fantasy and nature as well as drawing and painting. Around the same age, I wanted to be paleontologist and uncover secrets. Sometimes, I still feel attracted to this historico-mystical material, as in my painting of a shaman from Trois Freres cave. Shamanic traditions appeal to me. Are shamanic images fantasy? Are they images of a personal demon, or is it a mask? I have painted shamanic deer-headed beings, and for me they evoke European nature, and also here in Prague along the river Vltava were camps of paleolithic hunters. A few years ago ethnobotany was added to my science interests. Some kind of magical thinking comes with it, a mystical view common worldwide in pre-industrial civilizations. I also learned that this "primitive" view does not conflict with scientific knowledge, for example the work of Dr. Stanislav Grof. I think understanding the archaic and shamanic psychological motives are more and more relevant for me.
Desert | oil on canvas | 200x175 cm
WALT MORTON: What is it like working as an oil painter in Prague in 2017? Is there any community of painters or any support?
JAN ULDRYCH: Painting is popular again. There are some artistic communities developing in abandoned factories and buildings, and people are increasingly interested in art through galleries which organize numerous exhibitions and events. All my artist friends are busy. I think that the art is alive here and the artists have a lot of opportunities. Certainly you can always complain, but in the shadow of the question about working under communist repression, it's impossible.
Three Way Shaman | oil on canvas | 100x150 cm each
WALT MORTON: In America, there’s a revival of interest among ateliers and colleges in skill-based training for figurative oil painting. How did you learn to paint?
JAN ULDRYCH: An important milestone came when I studied at Prague’s Vaclav Hollar art school, where I drew and painted a lot of figures, portraits, and still lifes. That’s where I learned human anatomy. There were classes in all the artistic disciplines including history of art. I met people there, similar to me, with common interests. Then I went through a six-year study of classical painting techniques in the atelier of the great artist Professor Zdenek Beran at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts. It was a similar course of studies, but higher level, more painting, more history, greater sophistication.
Moth | oil on canvas | 200x175 cm
WALT MORTON: How would you characterize yourself? As an artist, a painter — but then what? A surrealist? Tell me how you fit into the art world.
JAN ULDRYCH: If my pictures produce a deeper feeling of enjoyment in someone, they may call me an artist. I understand if my work presents a combination of unknown spaces, entities, structures and shapes, and that might make someone call it surrealism, and why not? Salvador Dali was one of my heroes when I was about 15 years old. But I can’t say I am working in any specific school or style now. Painting is speaking to me in larger and different visual languages. Maybe someday I will be able to condense everything I do as a painter to a summary. But not yet.
Omo | oil on canvas | 200x150 cm
WALT MORTON: Can you describe your painting process? Your finished large canvases are painstakingly done with a extremely high level of care about the surface. What is your working method? From photographs? Or live models?
JAN ULDRYCH: The illusion of a realistic surface is still important for me. Therefore I use photos, or a photo of clay model that I specifically sculpted. I want to be able to look at the live light on real shapes to capture in my painting. Sometimes I build an entire model environment in small scale as a study. And sometimes I'm using only my imagination, because after you have done this for years you know a lot of natural structures and textures are governed by similar laws and once I have learned and understood the various forms through a painting, I remember them forever. Later, the forms or textures can be used freely at any time without photos or models but working from memory. I also try to cultivate a skill in watching and seeing the actual physical environment. Old masters understood this skill of watching.
Flowerearth | oil on canvas | 100.80 cm
WALT MORTON: What is the role of imagination in your work?
JAN ULDRYCH: We can say that every image first appears as an idea in the mind. Two things are critical: First is an urgency to realize the idea, and second is the maturity of the idea. Sometimes, the process to build up the painting also causes a deviation where the final image is far removed from the original idea. The act of painting guides me, and can show me which direction is better to proceed, but sometimes I still don’t recognize that a painting is done. I should stop, but I go on and then I might have to spend another month to make it good again. One thing that helps give me perspective is to document my creative process and the various phases. A simple cellphone camera is very helpful for this, it accelerates the development and highlights errors. Sometimes, I’m in bed, late at night and I look at the photo of an unfinished painting. Hoping that I meet it in a dream and find a solution there. When something appears in my dreams, usually I find a solution. But it's practically impossible to transfer the dream imagery fully through the border of sleep into wakeful consciousness.
Flood | oil on canvas | 150x100 cm
WALT MORTON: Do you use modern tools like digital cameras or computers (photoshop) in any part of your painting process, or are you old-fashioned?
JAN ULDRYCH: When I was in high school, I worked in a commercial illustration studio. I made a lot of digitally brushed and happy-faced commercials. I met interesting people and I saw the environment as a factory for visual industry. It was an art-world experience that showed me a very alternative job, compared to being a fine arts painter. But it was unfortunately disturbing to my fine art intentions, and I had no ambition to be a great photoshop artist, even though I saw a lot of artists with real mastery in computer graphics. But I learned how to use photoshop and so, I often prepared the study for a painting on the computer in photoshop. But afterwards, I did not use photoshop for years. Photoshopped references are not a useful guide for me anymore, because there is a digital aftertaste you never escape. It’s better if I work in reality and I can merge layers down directly on canvas and touch them. Of course, using photography may still be helpful, when I need any realistic volumes and logical light in my picture. For that purpose, a cell phone camera is good enough to take a reference image.
WALT MORTON: As to content, your painting varies from figural works of animal-headed humans to more abstract explorations of textures and forms. Why are you exploring the subjects we currently see you painting?
JAN ULDRYCH: My work includes quite a range of subjects but mostly I am concerned with the human perception of reality. As I'm getting older I have a deeper understanding of perception. I'm looking for forms which are new for me, because I'm interested in what happens when I meet something that is beyond my logical understanding. And taking that feeling into painting, I want to paint the perception of deep dark water while swimming in the ocean. Or to paint the feelings while meeting with a bear in the wild. Of course it feels nearly impossible to do it directly and transfer the same experience on the canvas. I'm moving towards a method and forms which are less illustrative and more authentic, Still, I love illusions and there must always be technique to bring a painting to full realization.
WALT MORTON: For a few years you have been doing “biomorphic forms.” These are lovely paintings that look both abstract and anatomical — they evoke biology, waves, clouds, and various naturalistic forms but are often ambiguous. What are these, and what is your process in making them?
JAN ULDRYCH: Yes they are ambiguous, like an echo of all the forms you mention. The idea might be a shape floating in an amniotic interior fluid to evoke the beginning of their cloudy existence. I seek a feeling of inner, intimate secret processes. I like the phenomenon of synesthesia. The images arising in your mind when you hear the music, for example. I have made many clay models very intuitively. I’m influenced by the evocative process of the Rorschach psychological testing pictures. I used a Rorschach method to create my underpainting on a few pictures. Before I stretched the canvas, I bent it centrally and imprinted mirrored colors to develop a theme of “twins.” Working this way, contrasting ambiguity and clean reality, reminds me how brilliantly David Lynch uses ambiguity in his movies. I like the films of David Cronenberg too.
Touch (WIP stage) | oil on canvas | 130x105 cm
WALT MORTON: You employ both oil and acrylic in making a painting. Painters know that you can paint oil on top of dry acrylic (but not the reverse). Explain your working method. Is that what you are doing, to work in layers, building up an image?
JAN ULDRYCH: Yes, this is a classic process, and still very useful. Acrylic is very different from oil, more blunt and rubbery. Acrylic painting starts the game and prepares a substrate for oil. You can use the different acrylic colors early on, and leave it to glow through the oil layer, or just to support the power of the same color in a later layer. Sometimes, acrylic is a better solution for a matte finish. Durable oil paint is sharp and creates beautiful surfaces, which keeps all the details even after a very long time drying. Working in thin transparent layers I can build up the volumes like an old master method. But today, there are different products allowing an artist to work with acrylic or oil almost the same way, interchangeably. Many contemporary artists are exploring this range of potential. Essentially, I believe “everything is allowed,” even if it may not be the method in an old book. For example, a thin and wet acrylic over the oil can make an interesting texture after drying out. Most schools would not advise you to combine materials like that but it’s possible.
Unshaped | oil on canvas | 135x110 cm
WALT MORTON: What do you think is the most important thing a painter can do to improve, as a painter?
JAN ULDRYCH: There is always something to improve and the act of creating is an endless process. My work and my life are the same thing. When I want to make powerful paintings, I have to be brave to go even more deeper inside of my personal experience of life. It is important to be looking for a balance between concentration and relaxation, thinking and intuition, form and content, day and night.
WALT MORTON: In 2017, we hear a lot of ideas about art like: “Don’t paint narrative” or “Beauty is old fashioned” or “it’s all been done before.” Do you have a guiding idea or philosophy about what to pursue in your art?
JAN ULDRYCH: We can see how art recycles itself more than ever before. The internet has accelerated the natural recycling and you can find art where narrative painting blends with abstraction and geometry elements, often on a single canvas. The internet is useful and it can help give any artist perspective on art in a wider context. But terabits of information are very loud, and you must constantly strive to overcome this influence and hear a voice from inside. Only within yourself is there is a hope for finding originality. Not just in visual art but you see this as well in contemporary music, it’s a remix of all that was made before. Any art without the spark of a personal investment is useless. If the idea of beauty is old-fashioned for someone, they can decide to live in a "modern - ugly world". I think that beauty is a universal concept but there is no universal standard on how to perceive it. It always depends on who is watching.
Each obstacle was a moment of reflection, each defeat a learning lesson. He was also a fierce defender of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. He understood the transformative power of words and images. He believed holding the powerful accountable was both an art form and one’s civic responsibility.