This world of ours is organized in such a manner, that everywhere around me I find every reason for hopelessness, see death as turning into nothing, a woeful word, the key to the incomprehensible existence into which I was incomprehensibly cast. (Gabriel Marcel, Présence et immortalité, 1959)
To say that the photographer Ivan Pinkava (born 1961) expresses himself by means of the classic pictorial repertoire of black-and-white photography – figures and still lifes – is imprecise. Rather, the figure and the still life come together in a special unity in his work, which can properly be interpreted only with a unified view of the artist’s perception of the world and of the individual’s role in that world. The human figure enters Pinkava’s photos as a living organism, as a material artifact that occupies space. It gives space a measure and, thus, meaning. What measure and what meaning? The answer to that is not straightforward. What probably is straightforward, however, is the emphasis on the role of time in this recurring process.
Pinkava’s photographs, often called Symbolist or Decadent,1 are not primarily concerned with the surface of reality. The essential thing here is the relations amongst the selected elements and also with the chosen frame of any one photograph, and also with the change and variation in the individual photographs of a set. Small, inconspicuous variations of motifs against the background of a darkened frame suggest repetition, and provide greater detail and therefore a thorough exploration of the territory. That’s also why one can legitimately talk about mannerism in Pinkava’s work.2
If we consider Pinkava’s works linearly, as a journey, we begin to notice a remarkable feature. The dominant, self-centered, visually fully exposed human figure of the earlier works changes in the later photos. The figure becomes episodic or else gradually vanishes. All that remains is various imprints in space, traces of memory. If we choose to read his works nonlinearly, which is probably more suitable, we learn that the center of Pinkava’s thinking, around which his imagination and selected iconography revolve in various rings, is completely immobile. It is somehow an imaginary fixed point in the universe, a peg around which his probes into human transience turn. The questions raised here concern the continuously confirmed mortality of Man and the hope to surmount it, that is to say, faith in immortality. In terms of expression, the photographs are quite similar to forms of theater.3
For Pinkava, the breaking point, the thing that triggers our attention, the crossing of the boundary, is the act of death, that unavoidable experience in the course of a human life, which one cannot buy one’s way out of or even put out of one’s consciousness. It is the end of a linear section of time, after which comes darkness and unconsciousness. Moments of confrontation with death appear at various intervals and in various intensities in the course of one’s life, from childhood, through the productive years, to old age. They are formed by direct experiences and moments in situations, which as “prefigurations” are imprinted into our dreams or our otherwise altered consciousness. Birth as the beginning, the starting point, also refers to some sort of finality. The leitmotif of Pinkava’s work seems to be the axis of human beings’ realizing their own transience and their search for a way to reconcile themselves to this fact. In this connection, Gabriel Marcel talks about the “axis of spiritual activity,” which, in thinking, articulates freedom and mercy.4 Hence also Pinkava’s ambivalent theme of the young man as the bearer of renewed vitality, but also as a one-off example of life’s temporary perfection, which over time is necessarily subject to destruction.
Portraits, dynasties, families
“Is it death, which keeps man from idleness?” (Vladimír Holan)
“This transporting power of flame increases in proportion to the depth and extent of the surrounding darkness.” (Aldous Huxley, Heaven and Hell, 1956)
The earliest Pinkava photographs, from the mid-1980s, are imaginary portraits of novelists, poets, and philosophers. The photographer’s inward kinship and sympathies played a role in his choice of the pantheon of “immortals,” who file past as if from portrait galleries of the aristocracy. Since these aristocratic galleries were usually family galleries, is Pinkava’s then an imaginary family to which belong, for example, Gertrude Stein, Ladislav Klíma, Sylvia Plath, Antonin Artaud, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Friedrich Nietzsche? The half-length portraits are unified by the motif of closed eyes, and therein lies the genealogical, family relationship. They are dead yet alive. They live through a legacy. They remain in ideas. Pinkava searches for their form in living models by way of expression, gesture, costume, and hairstyle. The silhouettes of the figures stand out against the background of a special, unreal world. Light shines forth from somewhere inside. They are and they are not dead.
In the course of the 1990s Pinkava made another portrait gallery. This time he was working with living artists – fiction writers, poets, painters, and print-makers. There is a greater diversity of personalities, and greater accent in terms of expression. The print-maker Michal Cihlář, for example, seems here to have almost been reincarnated as an older magician of print-making, the occultist Josef Váchal. In the photo of the conceptual artist Václav Stratil we discover a compositional model from Modern Czech painting, a work by Jan Zrzavý.5
For Pinkava, a powerful stimulus to the imagination (that is, thinking in images) is, naturally, art history. With his predilection for shifting and exchanging the customary linking of form and content at the level of iconography and iconology, he revises and updates historical models.6 He also exhibits that special artistic sensibility which stylizes and objectifies the emotions, the fruit of an excited consciousness. Thus amongst the photos from 1995 is the figure of a young man wounding himself with a knife (With His Own Knife). Against the background of an ornamental carpet he is showing his wounds. But there is an obvious contradiction here. Does the surface of his body really reveal inner scars (stigmata), or does it only multiply and underscore the youth’s self-centerdness?7 The model has Zrzavý’s features. In the portrait Gilles, loosely modeled on Watteau’s painting of the same name from about 1718–19, we find the dark side of the picturesque, rollicking, erotic, Rococo. The head of the disgraced, worn-out little boy, not shorn, but plucked, with protruding ears, looks into the lens with half-closed eyes. It is a head set halfway between its clown’s costume and darkness, with the look of someone no one wants, rejected by all.
Inspiration from the fine arts together with an intentional shift away from them creates the distinctive motif of transfers in time and space. In his work Pinkava revives well-tested theme-prototypes and puts them into a newly made living art, thereby confirming their immortality. A key work in this respect is the photograph Ecco, la Luce! (1996), in which there is even a triple transfer of a figure composition as the photographer’s paraphrase of an original idea. First there was Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci, then Saint John the Baptist by Jan Zrzavý, and then, ultimately, Pinkava’s androgynous figure (a hairless female model) with the same gesture of the hand pointing upward to the symbolic light, figuratively to God.8
The topic of the family and family relations is given an unusually large amount of space in Pinkava’s works.9 From the Dynasty series (1990–91), including men and women of a fictitious relationship, mythical yet real siblings (Castor and Polux and Sára and Her Brother Tobiáš), allegorical twins (Tomáš and David Medek), and hints at a mystical interpretation of family, which again raise many questions (as in Pietà). The viewer must again ask why there is divine injustice the leaves one brother immortal and the other mortal (Castor and Polux). Each of them is masked in Pinkava’s portrait, thus of similar appearance, yet of different fate. Why is the traditional diptych of Christian art (Adam and Eve) in Pinkava’s work made of such de-idealized individuals, where the living matter of naked corporeality shines with grease and dirt after their sin, manifesting the evident traces of mortality (the drooping breasts of Eve, the scar on Adam’s abdomen)? Why make a Pietà with an intertwined couple of people roughly the same age? Does the crossing of their limbs really form the Chi-Rho? How can a satyr and Venus – Satyr and Venus (Brother and Sister), 1996 – be siblings? Does that not, after all, smack of blasphemy? Here, paradoxically, Pinkava mainly opens up the subject of purity and immaculateness, at the level of thematic counterpoising. Corporeality and nakedness are seen through a gradual transformation over time (Little Charon, 1996, and Adult Charon, 1997). “I’m interested in purity or, better said, the attempt at it […], the purity that can be attained. That’s never possible without getting dirty […] Beautiful, perfect, pure, and immaculate bodies are lies, kitsch […] In that sense, I’m interested also in the subject of sin and guilt, to put it in religious terms.”10
Coups de grâce
“because children are not satisfied with the answer and adults are not satisfied with the question” (Vladimír Holan)
In the works of Ivan Pinkava human nudity is linked with transformations caused by time, aging.11 The transformation of the body is also linked to changes in consciousness. Sleep, intoxication, and ecstasy weaken muscle tissue. The state of experiencing – the alchemy of physical changes and transformations, temporary and also permanent, to put it poetically – covers the whole spectrum of behavioral models connected with love, emotion, instinct, desire, anxiety, hatred, defiance, and also love of oneself. From women are born women and men. They continue in imprints of themselves, and unwittingly find themselves in the mysterious continuity of human existence. They are brothers and sisters, biologically and figuratively. And here we may look for the boundary where the artist Pinkava begins consciously to relate to what goes beyond the physical being of the individual person and touches upon universal, let’s say metaphysical, questions. Transformation here on Earth may analogically be close to transubstantiation in the Christian sense of the word. How should one understand transubstantiation, a dogma about a body that is bread and wine? How should one understand reincarnation? What is the Trinity? How should one imagine the Resurrection and eternal life? In his photographs Pinkava creates something like transformational models, which nevertheless preserve the openness of the ideas. The counter-positioning of two photos – Advocatus Diaboli (1999) and They Shall Look on Him Whom They Pierced (1997). In the first, the “devil’s advocate” offers the viewer a piece of juicy, irregularly cut fruit instead of the Eucharist. Everything refers back to a Mephistophelean temptation through the temporariness of objects and the body. The second photo shows only a pair of feet and legs. The evocation of the Christological subject is obvious. The wooden box imitates the levitation of the body above the ground. The unreality of the now independent, anonymous extremities both piques the curiosity and plays with established convention in the perception of the subject, which “looks like” the legs of the crucified Christ. Pinkava reveals established compositions in new garb and asks the same questions in different ways. Unconventional physical and objective configurations emerge, but consciously moving in close proximity to their absolute conventional ones. And sometimes he intentionally crosses them.12
“Tormentors, their victims, and self-tormentors here show their wounds in ecstasy,” Věra Jirousová wrote in a review of “Heroes,” Pinkava’s important 2004 exhibition at the Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague.13 Upon closer inspection, however, we discover that tormentors, except for several spiteful “tempters,” are absent from the photographs. There is not the least contact between the photographed figures that would suggest aggression or open conflict. On the contrary: flagellants predominate here, wounding themselves because of self-hatred or self-admiration, narcissists (Ecce homo, 1995).14 It is as if the photographer wanted to show, by means of allegorical metaphor, the key to something truly substantial, a revision of the term “the self.”15
Does this perhaps suggest the possibility of a primordial purity of interpersonal relations, which is, however, continuously clouded by the wounding of the ego and tempted by fateful disruptions in the concrete lives of human agents? What are the things that can sully one on the way to purification? What can be washed off later, and what cannot? Pain and the traces of a healed wound in Scars (1999), high on hashish in Young Man with Poppies (1996), original sin in Adam and Eve, or even incest between twins in Incest (Twins) from 1999? Which way do the roads of justice lead, whence and whither? The look in the eyes of Salome (1996), full of bitter knowledge, is enough to make the viewer understand that she was misused by people close to her, forcing her to make an irrevocable decision and to commit an equally irrevocable act. What is the difference between the two brothers in Cain and Abel (1998)? Seen through Pinkava’s lens, one would say, hardly any! Let’s look at the details, for they are decisive. And what about half-closed eyes?
“the unearthly whiteness of statuary” (Aldous Huxley, Heaven and Hell, 1956)
“They are beings from the end of the century […] beings of the universe: sexless, disowned, and powerfully expressive.” (Pinkava quoted by David Chandler, 1993)
The theatre of new forms is in itself a heraldic motto. Pinkava captured it in the series TNF (Teatr Novogo Fronta) with synthetic expression. He works with selected actors, whom he strips of their personal character and dimension, by shaving their heads, stripping them, and using light.16 As a fashion model changes clothes, an actor takes over roles. He or she is continuously reincarnated. When not performing, the actor becomes lusterless, pale. He or she becomes a vehicle for empathizing with other lives and fates. In the better case, the actor is a permanent pilgrim, in the worse case, a turncoat and transvestite. Pinkava strips the actor bare into a sort of prototype. He does not, however, turn figures with hermaphroditic features into mere supernumeraries. Instead, they tend in consequence to resemble silent, inanimate statutes, a firm coherent form contrasted with its amorphous milieu. This too is the origin of the distinguishing attributes, as with the pilgrims and saints of Christian iconography.17 A different attitude, a fan, a unicorn’s horn. One can only guess whether that horn is intended here as a symbol of innocence or, by contrast, a trophy, evidence of one of the greatest sins, the killing of a rare mythical beast. Again, we have evidence of Pinkava’s characteristic question-raising ambivalence. The important thing is the lighting. It dematerializes. The figures stripped of gravity again gives the impression of levitating.
The powerful counterpoising of Tristan (2001) with Isolde (2000) is handled in a similar way. The tragic story of great passion that has many obstacles placed in its way. The lovers ultimately meet only at the moment of death. Whereas the reclining Tristan in the photograph has his back turned to the viewer, Isolde’s face is visible and one sees her closed eyes. Tristan, turned away from us, propped up on his elbow, is considered self-sufficient. Isolde, by contrast, her head on a cushion, is supported by comfort (which is usually linked to dependence), and her hand suggests she is conscious of her nakedness. As if she were escaping to Tristan in her dreams. The physical absence of a loved one is not, it seems, essential to the emotional intensity of a relationship.18
The harsh stage lighting, as in the TNF series, lends the figures a double dimension. They are shown in the light and also radiate light onto the background of an all engulfing darkness. Is it possible using visual means to give a better shape to a being on a pilgrimage?
“Fenced-in nothingness! And yet we climb over ….” (Vladimír Holan)
Apart from figures, part of Pinkava’s project of ideas comprises objective elements, artifacts. They either form configurations of meaning together with the photographed figures as attributes (as in Noah, 2002, and The Benjamin of the Family, 1997) or they are captured independently. They are loosely connected to broader groups of themes or develop them in a special way or complete them. Single subjects, which in Pinkava’s work regularly return after some time, and are then a vanitas and memento mori.19 The subjects often link together a figure and a dead object or objectify parts of the human body. Memento mori I (1993) shows an androgynous head foreshortened and standing out from the darkness. The hair is expressively windblown, and brings to mind lashing flames. It may thus refer to burning as an act of transformation and purification. Memento mori II (2001) is made with a distinctly male model. The bald head with the sharp jawline is reminiscent of a skull concealed under skin infused with the blood of bulging veins. The hands over the edge of what the head is resting on seem to imitate the wilting products of nature in a vanitas. The finger of the right hand is pointing downwards, to the darkness. In the detail of the head and shoulders, the figure is bowing down to something. The woman’s face in the photograph Zora (1995) goes beyond the usual portrait. The harshly lit, expressive facial features against a background of dark hair changes, upon closer inspection, into the outlines of a skull. Here again one is very close to an “omen of death.” As in the diptych Vera icon (1999) Pinkava combines traditional Christological iconography with the theme of the vanitas, which is brought to our attention by a fly on the left cheek of the model. And Pinkava does so in many other places as well (for example, Sheep, 2003, and Great Banquet, 2003). Depicted by Pinkava, even a subject as banal as the one in Chair (2001) suddenly levitates. The thing finds itself beyond space, which is painted over by the reflecting background “as if one were trying to fill in the desolateness by continuously adding chairs.”20 On the seat we suddenly notice a crack. Inappropriateness. Flawed perfection. Or a place connected with a modest event, a place of intimate memory.
“The first prelude is the composition, seeing the place.” (Ignatius of Loyola, Second Week. Exercise)
The relationship between an idea and its physical verification has to do with sleep, death, and also meditation. The spiritual exercises are nothing but meditation structured in time.21 The state of immediate awakening contains an intertwining of fact and fiction. Hence the supposed similarity to an ecstasy that could perhaps resemble a transition to another state of consciousness after death. Compared to earlier photos of erect full frontal figures (in Heroes), here the emphasis is on a horizontality that is no less heroic. Figures and objects lie in an improvised setting. In some photos they relate to an acknowledged horizon, in other photos they deny it. Expectation and the tension connected with the motif of passivity, which stems from that, here give the impression of metaphysical experience. By photographic means the artist transcends the objective category connected with the objective perception of eternity. The photo Knife (2002) is particularly eloquent. The wavy horizon heralds that a change is coming. An individual lying on his belly, facing away, is making a futile gesture of defense. With a knife he blindly cuts through the space. The knife becomes a theatre prop, defense an absurd act. In Pinkava’s Exercises the figure is now completely absent. Only foam rubber mats placed along the horizon remain in an empty environment, imprinted with the memory of a body. They are settings stripped bare, abandoned territories.
“The idea of an ego–territory is in fact a fictitious idea,” Marcel writes in the essay Presence and Immortality.22 This somehow captures the difference between desire and hope, between the feelings evoked by anxiety about the physical end of existence. Whereas desire is proprietary and clings to the physical world of forms, “hope is not egocentric.”23 Objects leave the imprint of human presence, which passes, superseded by new sources. Even objects themselves get old, submit to time, and are superseded by new ones. (Here insulation, foam rubber, which submits to decay, is significantly used by the photographer.) Their function, however, does not really change. Everything lasts in regular variations. It is a matter of unfastening oneself from oneself, stepping out from one’s own shadow, trying “to be in the light” and understand that the category of objective, and therefore definitive, death is a fiction, like the opposite of this claim. Here the open possibility is what is essential. Freedom and mercy. It is this experience that Pinkava’s works are concerned with.
Prague and Kutná Hora, February and June 2009
“therefore, whoever would like to come with Me is to labor with Me, that following Me in the pain, he may also follow Me in the glory.” (Ignatius of Loyola, Second Week, Pt 2, First Point)
The window opened the wind, which drafted on in:
What you do is a lot and is not,
But to do and to be, a wonder worthy of envy!
Night was puffing on history, feasting on fried wings
Sliced from the ankles of Hermes.
And washing it down she was
With the sweat of the organist at St Tragedy’s.
(Vladimír Holan, from Noc s Hamletem [Night with Hamlet])24
1 For example, Josef Kroutvor, “Skok do tmy,” in Ivan Pinkava, Dynastie, Prague: ERM, 1993, p. 8; Tomáš Pospiszyl, “Černobílá dekadence: Fotografický svět Ivana Pinkavy po dvaceti letech,” Týden, 11 (2004) 23, p. 96.
2 Martin C. Putna, “A World Made Unbeautiful,” Ivan Pinkava, Heroes (ex. cat.), Prague: Kant, 2004, pp. 13–16. Putna writes about the conceit in Mannerist emblematic writing.
3 “Pinkava’s ‘portraits’ may bear the names of real people, but have more to do with the forming or creating of a certain figure, like in a play for the stage.” Milena Slavická, “Kain a Ábel,” Ateliér 11 (1998), nos. 16–17.
4 Gabriel Marcel, Přítomnost a nesmrtelnost (Výbor z textů) (1959), Trans. from the French by Peluška Bendlová. Prague: Mladá fronta, 1998, pp. 102–03.
5 This is a loose paraphrase of the composition of Zrzavý’s Meditace (1915), reproduced, for example, in Karel Srp and Jana Orlíková, Jan Zrzavý, Prague: Academie, 2003, p. 178, or , and .
6 As Pinkava notes, “Tradition doesn’t hold one back. On the contrary, it enables one to build bridges […] For me, maintaining the balance means not going too far, yet still having the courage to go at least to the point where it begins to get interesting, where it begins to provoke thought.” Lucia Lendelová, “Svätý, svätý, svätý: Rozhovor s fotografom Ivanom Pinkavom a výtvarníčkou Dorotou Sadovskou,” Profil 2004, no. 3, p. 55.
7 For the flagellant’s self-projection into suffering, see Pinkava’s Christological composition with the ambiguous title O, Sweet Blood! (1995).
8 Pinkava also remarks: “The photograph Ecco la Luce! is important for me partly because of Leonardo, but also because of the loop that its paraphrase was painted by the Czech painter Jan Zrzavý. For me the photo is then a paraphrase of that paraphrase.” Lendelová, “Svätý, svätý, svätý,” p. 69.
9 Slavická talks about “the genetic program of man.” Milena Slavická, “Kain a Ábel,” Ateliér vol. 11 (1998), nos. 16–17; see also Nina Vangeli, “Fotograf Pinkava pracuje s magií rodové příbuznosti,” Lidové noviny, vol. 11 (1998), no. 148, p. 12
10 Lendelová, “Svätý, svätý, svätý,” p. 59.
11 Pinkava also remarks: “I perceive the nakedness of my works not as revealing, but as a kind of aid to finding something universal and common to us all […] I am not concerned with nakedness as such.” Lendelová, “Svätý, svätý, svätý,” p. 57.
12 As the photographer-critic Moucha say, “Ivan Pinkava does not experiment. His credo is not experimentation, but spirituality,” Josef Moucha, “An Ambiguous Aura,” in Theatre of Lost Souls (ex. cat.), Morgantown: West Virginia University, 2000, p. 10; see also Lendelová, pp. 55 and 70.
13 Věra Jirousová, “Pinkavovy iniciační fotografické obrazy,” Art & Antiques 7/8, 2004, pp. 128–29; see also Putna, “A World Made Unbeautiful.”
14 The subject of self-love appears elsewhere in Pinkava’s work, for instance, Narcissus, (1997) and The Kiss (2001).
15 As Marcel notes: “Here, there is some kind of confluence of metapsychical experience on the one hand and autonomous reflection on the other. That confluence (the frame of fiction = the idea of some sort of “ego-territory”) is, then, able at the level of speculative reflection to cast post-Cartesian philosophy into doubt, to the extent that this philosophy is concentrated on cogito conceived in its restricted form, whereas only the critic of the self can open the way to liberating metaphysics for us.” Marcel, Présence et immortalité. See also Maeterlinck: “A wound, a shock, an illness, a little alcohol, a little opium, a little smoke are enough to affect it. Even when nothing impairs it, it is not uniformly perceptible. An effort is often necessary, a deliberate looking into ourselves, before we can recover it and become aware of some particular event. […] One would say that the functions of that organ by which we taste and know life are intermittent and that the presence of our ego, except in pain, is but a rapid and perpetual sequence of departures and returns.” Maurice Maeterlinck, Our Eternity, trans. of La Mort (1911), by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, New York: Dodd Mead, 1913, p. 57, accessed 6 November 2009, The Internet Archive, San Francisco, CA, .
16 Věra Jirousová, “On the Threshold of a Story” in Ivan Pinkava/ TNF (ex. cat.), Prague: Ateliér Josefa Sudka, 2002, unpaginated.
17 This is particularly true of the saints and blesseds of the Orders, for example amongst the Jesuits, where the distinctions amongst them are usually inconspicuous, indeed almost imperceptible to the uninitiated. See Ivana Čornejová, Tovaryšstvo Ježíšovo: Jezuité v Čechách, Prague: Kolumbus and Mladá Fronta, 1995.
18 Marcel, Přítomnost a nesmrtelnost (Výbor z textů), pp. 90–91.
19 Memento mori is also the name of an exhibition project by Pinkava, Václav Jirásek, and Robert V. Novák, held at the Galerie Rudolfinum in November 1995. It was an artistic documentation of the Sedlec Ossuary near Kutná Hora. See Mojmír Horyna, “Kostnice v Sedlci: Prostor Triumfu smrti a naděje Vzkříšení,” in Memento mori/ Fotografie, Prague: Galerie Rudolfinum, 1995.
20 Vladimír Holan, Toskána, Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1969, p. 68.
21 See Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1548). Trans. Elder Mullan . The Internet Sacred Text Archive, Santa Cruz, CA, accessed 6 November 2009, .
22 Marcel, Přítomnost a nesmrtelnost (Výbor z textů), p. 101. See also note 15, above.
23 Ibid., p. 91; idem., Presence and Immortality. Trans. Michael A. Machado, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press. 1967, p. 42.
24 Vladimír Holan, Noc s Hamletem, Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1969, p. 16.