By Barbora Kundracikova | Deciphering the visual signs of an image may seem like reading a text, as both depend on identification of significance and adoption of lexicography. Yet reading an image does not suffice as a strategy for interpreting its meaning. Unlike words, the visual components of artistic media are inherently open-ended. Printmaking presents a unique case for engaging such intuition since the print testifies for the procedural friction between the artist’s subjective expression and oft-rigorous technical realization.
Alena Kucerova, The Level, 1981, print from perforated matrix, 21 x 29 3/8 inches image size (53.4 x 74.7 cm), 24 3/8 x 30 5/8 inches paper size (62 x 77.8 cm), edition of 60, photograph by Zdenek Sodoma, collection of the Museum of Modern Art Olomouc.
"When we see the image, what mode of thinking occurs? It is not reading, which refers to the model of a text, rather than the picture . . . whose meaning we understand when we interact with it . . . as a phenomenon that is ‘mediated’ by the visual data present in front of our eyes, and nothing else.” Miroslav Petricek1
There are two possible ways to understand the merit of an image: from the bottom, through its empirical being, or from the top, with the use of abstract meaning. In this article, I seek to analyze images through the theoretical approach by focusing on cultural and philosophical context pertaining to the second half of the 20th century and the so-called “linguistic turn” of structuralism in the arts. The said concept involves an examination of the relations between words and graphics, or rather, the ways that pictorial meaning develops in accordance with semantic principles.
We are discussing the artistic practice of printmaking, in which the tight connection of pictorial and semantic elements seems intuitively acceptable. Beyond its existential detachment from the original drawing, the print functions as a structure of two autonomous phenomena: an initial, significantly absent, affective response to stimuli, and a subsequent materialized intellectual realization of the experience.
The purpose of this reflection is not to analyze possible issues and counterexamples, but to use the theoretical approach to elaborate upon so-called image-thinking. Printmaking presents a peculiar situation because, with the exception of photography, the medium is intrinsically much more technical than any other type of visual art. As such, the viewer who witnesses the printed picture gauges its nature as both an expression of original, whimsical tendencies and a physical form of an intensive production sequence. With that in mind, what does it mean to think not about the image, but through it? In order to address the question, I will compare the visual strategies of three contemporary female Czech printmakers, Alena Kucerova, Marie Blabolilova and Romana Rotterova, and review the pictorial language they developed in conjunction with the era of creation.
Alena Kucerova (b. 1935) studied at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague from 1954 to 1959 and has been one of the leading figures of Czech printmaking since the 1960s.2 Her thinking about the pictorial space and meaning is closely tied with the usage of the basic semantic system of dots and lines. During the 1960s, she started to utilize a geometric structure as a tool that allowed her to reflect upon deeply personal topics without exposing affective responses. Kucerova worked with perforated aluminum matrices and designed the systems of dots to express herself in a self-sufficient language. Distance, solidness, simplification, reduction and stylization all characterize the strategy she chose to execute. Kucerova told her own private “story” through printmaking, expressing and exposing a sense of intimacy that ultimately remains intimate. She has long been interested in seemingly banal situations of everyday life, which are of course not so banal from the subjective perspective of the observer. The artist’s figures are usually outlines connected by series of dots. The same style is seen in her landscapes, whether they feature the horizon line or treetops and riverbeds. The scenes are definitely living and breathing—although only imaginatively. Kucerova does not invent some sort of a symbolic language; her work itself is an embodiment of symbolic narrative. In the same way that myths are told and mythical heroes and heroines fully, and almost sensually, share visible parts of their lives but hide any inner depth, Kucerova’s bathing girls are simultaneously exposed yet concealed from the spectators.
Marie Blabolilova, Three Floors, 1989, etching, 23 3/8 x 19 1/2 inches image size (59.4 x 49.7 cm), 27 5/8 x 21 1/2 inches paper size (70.3 x 54.5 cm), edition of 50, photograph by Zdenek Sodoma, collection of the Museum of Modern Art Olomouc.
Similar to Kucerova, the “graphic eye” of established artist Marie Blabolilova (b. 1941) overlaps into her practice of painting and other media.3 Blabolilova studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in the 1960s. Her artistic style has remained consistent throughout the decades: utterly straightforward and moderate, but also expressive. Despite reflecting the artist’s careful observations of her environment and showing some signs of “portraiture,” the images she creates fall outside of descriptive or realistic paradigms. The seemingly constructive, deeply aestheticized character ensues from false predictions. Blabolilova usually deals with well-known and imaginatively “long inhabited” fragments of reality and attempts to comprehend their essence. To do so as effectively as possible, she employs a conceptual base that is, in some ways, similar to Kucerova’s approach. Blabolilova considers the principle of raster and grid along with lines, surfaces and the logical system of points as she renders dense networks of graphic crosshatches. Her strategy of treating empty (unmarked) surfaces is fascinating, especially when she disrupts tight structures of lines. The intricate systems can appear ornamental at times. In this way, Blabolilova carries the ability to generalize a private experience and share it without losing the expressive, or even poetic, potential of banal, unexceptional situations.
Romana Rotterova, The Red Crate, 1968, drypoint, relief, 21 1/4 x 27 1/2 inches image size (54.1 x 69.8 cm), 19 1/2 x 17 1/8 inches paper size (49.6 x 43.5 cm), artist’s proof, photograph by Zdenek Sodoma, collection of the Museum of Modern Art Olomouc.
Unlike Kucerova and Blabolilova, Romana Rotterova (b. 1931) only studied in private, with her father Leonard Rotter (1895–1963) and other Czech artists.4 She was always interested in sculpture and its principles, which persisted in her work regardless of the medium. The sculptural approach is especially interesting in the case of her prints (dating from the mid-1960s). The visual content comes spatially structured with often heavily textured color surfaces. She practices drypoint, etching and collagraph, frequently combining the techniques in order to achieve a sculptural effect on paper. Rotterova is typically recognized alongside the New Sensitivity movement of the 1960s.5 However, she retained a solitary character. “Imaginative structuralism” seems to be the most convenient description for her art, although the designation does not fully reflect the principles of her strategy. She eschews grids and other formal structures. Her visual language is limited to symbolic vocabulary and gesture—tied, reductive and internally similar to Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” in that more is hidden than said. Yet, in some moments, all that is hidden erupts—in the artist’s case, the purpose of color accents. Rotterova is also a private poet, and it seems that she exploits printmaking as just another medium to share her thoughts, like a language that allows her to be even more abstract yet punctual. Her motives are not epic, dramatic or notably poetic. They act like signs, static, substantive and tense to the extent that they sometimes take the shape of a simplified password...
[This article appears in full in the print and digital editions of Celebrating Print, Vol.2, No.2.]
1. Miroslav Petricek. Mysleni obrazem: Pruvodce soucasnym filosofickym myslenim pro stredne nepokrocile [Thinking through an image: Guide in contemporary philosophical thinking for the intermediary non-advanced] (Prague: Herrmann & synove, 2009), 9.
2. For further information, refer to “Alena Kucerova,” Center for Contemporary Arts Prague, accessed July 1, 2016, http://www.artlist.cz/en/alena-kucerova-100887.
3. For further information, refer to “Marie Blabolilova,” Center for Contemporary Arts Prague, accessed July 1, 2016, http://www.artlist.cz/en/marie-blabolilova-100588.
4. Jan Kapusta Sr. and Jan Kapusta, Romana Rotterova, exh.cat. (Nachod, Czech Republic: Gallery of Fine Arts in Nachod, 2013).
5. In 1968, the leading figures of the Czech unofficial art scene—artists Zdenek Sykora, Vladimir Mirvald, Bela Kolarova and Jiri Kolar, art theorist Jiri Padrta and others—held an exhibition at Gallery Manes entitled New Sensitivity. Inspired by the ideas of art critic Pierre Restany and New Realism in 1960s France, the overall theme demonstrated a shift from conventions of romantic, lyrical accounts of “organic nature” into an artistic affinity for modern industrial civilization, or “new nature.”
A full version of this article Sensing Beyond Seeing: Pictorial Meaning in Prints by Alena Kucerova, Marie Blabolilova and Romana Rotterova written by Barbora Kundracikova appears in the print edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.2 No.2.
BARBORA KUNDRACIKOVA is an art historian and curator. She received Master’s Degrees in history, art history and aesthetics from the Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. In her PhD dissertation (also for Masaryk University), she examines the preconditions that affect the aesthetic evaluation of photography. Her areas of interest include technical representations of photography and printmaking, methodology of art history and analytic approaches to aesthetics. Kundracikova participates in the Central European Art Database (CEAD), a platform that presents regional artists from the second half of the 20th century. She currently works as a curator at the Olomouc Museum of Art, Czech Republic.