Time, History and New Meanings: A Conversation with Hynek Martinec

One of Culture Trip’s “10 Must-Know Contemporary Czech Artists”, London-based Hynek Martinec (website, Instagram) has gained recognition for his dark, haunting imagery that comments on life and death, and engages with historical artistic trends. The painter frequently borrows elements from the Old Masters and situates them in a present-day context. References are also made to literary-philosophical texts and spiritual subjects explored.

Hynek is represented by Parafin Gallery, London. He won the National Portrait Gallery’s 2007 Young Artist Award. His work is included in the collections of the British Museum (London), the National Gallery (Prague), the Sammlung FIEDE (Aschaffenburg, Germany), Standard Chartered Bank (London) and the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists (London). He will have a major solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Prague in Spring 2018.

I recently caught up with the artist to discuss his background and style. Here he talks about growing up in the Czech Republic and explains a few of his works:


Hynek Martinec, El Greco is Watching, 10/10/2017, Spain


I read that you were born in the town of Broumov and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Where exactly did you grow up and how did you get into art? Which artists/movements—Czech and foreign—have been your strongest influences?

Until the age of fourteen I grew up in Machov, a small town surrounded by a beautiful countryside. When I was eleven I won a local art competition, organised to discover new talents among school children. One artist from the jury offered to teach me privately and I was very happy to accept his offer. That was my first step into the art world. Two years later I got another private teacher. The two teachers knew each other but they were very different as artists so their response to my work wasn’t the same. For me it was quite confusing because I didn’t know which direction I should follow but I later realised this really was the best education I could get. In spite of my subsequent studies this has been the foundation of my artistic life.

My first strong influence was definitely Vincent van Gogh: on a school trip in the Czech Republic at the age of eleven we had an hour of free time. I went to a bookshop. Seeing a cover of a book on van Gogh’s landscapes I immediately bought the book. I still remember the effect it had on me when I later opened the book on the train. This was my huge turning point: I knew I wanted to become an artist. Later on, Leonardo da Vinci would be the second artist I admired. It’s not that I don’t love other artists, I see art as my family where I feel I have many relatives, but these two were important to me at the very beginning. I find it interesting that I relate to these two very different artists just as I related to my two very different teachers.


Hynek Martinec, Study of Baroque, 2016 Oil on paper, 56 × 77 cm © Hynek Martinec 2016. Courtesy Parafin, London


Your work is a “conversation” with the history of art, a “search for visual connections between diverse historical moments”. There are many young artists who want to do something radically new, be innovative. You have chosen a slightly different path—developing a style of your own while being in touch with older traditions. Why is engagement with the past so important to you?

I don’t believe much in the concept of “being contemporary”–-going back in time is for me also contemporary. I like to work with time, with history. I use everything around me as material maybe because I grew up in Central Europe where art is very pertinent and that’s what I absorbed as a child. Using references to the Old Masters’ paintings and old photographs brings me into the past. For me it feels natural to use historical material for my work. I like to rediscover old stories and give them new meaning.


Hynek Martinec, The Shepherd Paris, 2016 Oil on canvas, 170 × 240 cm © Hynek Martinec 2014. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, Cross The Line, 2016 Oil on canvas, 60 × 60 cm © Hynek Martinec 2014. Courtesy Parafin, London


I really liked your grisaille works from 2013 and 2014, which were part of your exhibition “Every Minute You Are Closer to Death”. The “vanitas” effect is conveyed powerfully through the use of shaving foam, flowers and other objects. Two paintings that really stood out for me from this collection were “Experience Of Being Alive” and “The End of the Twentieth Century”. What were you trying to depict through these?

In 2012, I came to the conclusion that I should be more radical, more direct in my work so I stopped using colours to avoid their distraction. I wanted to achieve a certain clarity in terms of the topics. In this context, grisaille seemed to be the right direction. Since 2012, I’ve been working on my own visual language where I use specific materials in my work that have a certain meaning to me.

For example, the shaving foam is, for me, a new representation of vanitas. In the works of the Old Masters, still life flowers would represent vanitas; they only had a short life and would die quickly. To me flowers also represent the female. The shaving foam has similar qualities: at the beginning it’s bold but later on melts and disappears. In addition, it’s also a representation of masculinity and fragility.

“Experience of Being Alive” is a painting about lived lives, the animals are already dead. The foam emphasises the sense of transience and death. The radio on the left indicates music, the only thing alive in the painting. “The End of the Twentieth Century” is about the end of the Cold War, the new beginnings in Eastern Europe that I was part of. The foam and the concrete represent two different regimes in an ongoing story.


Hynek Martinec, Experience of Being Alive, 2014 Oil on canvas, 160 × 260 cm © Hynek Martinec 2014. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, The End Of The Twentieth Century, 2014 Oil on canvas, 50 x 65 cm, © Hynek Martinec 2014. Courtesy Parafin, London


I find The Birth of Tragedy a very beautiful book (although I remain critical of Nietzche’s other ideas) for the clever and passionate explanation of the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy. Your 2017 exhibition that is titled after this book is very eclectic, making references to Van Dyck, Zurbarán, Rubens and also contemporary technology and media. How do Nietzschean concepts of fluidity and intoxication fit into these paintings? Could you explain this project more?

The title of my show was actually “The Birth of Tragedies”. I’m interested in the manipulation of history, how we take history as a given fact and yet we know that every generation interprets history in a different way. It’s not Nietzche’s work per se that I’m interested in; “Tragedies” refers to the many ongoing tragedies in the world. This show was about my view on the past and my relationship with history, certainly a recurrent topic in my work.


Hynek Martinec, Baroque Horse, 2017 Oil on canvas, 150 cm diameter © Hynek Martinec 2014. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, Circus of Nightmares, 2017 Oil on canvas, 170 × 240 cm © Hynek Martinec 2017. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, The Boat on The Moon, 2017 Oil on canvas, 170 × 240 cm © Hynek Martinec 2017. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, Brexit, 2016 Oil on canvas, 60 × 60 cm © Hynek Martinec 2016. Courtesy Parafin, London


For your project on El Greco, you decided to exhibit works out in nature, in the south of Spain. What is the significance of this act? And what attracts you to this painter?

As a child I used to visit the National Gallery in Prague where I was very drawn to one portrait by El Greco. When the gallery invited me to do a project to reflect the Baroque I revisited their collection; it was like meeting old friends. When I started working on the project I chose the El Greco portrait as my starting point. When I had finished the painting I wanted to experiment with bringing it to Spain where El Greco painted his portrait. My idea was to give it the original function of art as inherent part of religion, different from just hanging in an art gallery. The painting is now in the open countryside, not protected by a building or any permanent structure, where it should slowly die.

How are you preparing for your major solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Prague in Spring 2018?

I’ve now been working on this project for two years. So far, I’ve created around thirty works reflecting the Baroque. For me, the unique aspect of this show is that my work is there in dialogue with the museum’s permanent collection of Old Masters. It gives me a profound feeling of being in a context where I feel at home both in artistic and literal senses. Part of my satisfaction in doing this project is to know that my work is not only reflecting the past but becoming part of the future.

Finally, which themes/concepts would you be exploring in the near future?

As before, I’ll continue working on themes related to time and history. From the beginning, an underlying strata in my work has been the exploration of the unconscious; I’ve always been interested in dreams.


Hynek Martinec, Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest, 2016 Oil on canvas, 60 × 60 cm © Hynek Martinec 2016. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, Thank You for Looking at Me, 2015 Oil on canvas 170 x 160 cm © Hynek Martinec 2015. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, Picasso Has Seen Blow Up, 2015 Oil on canvas 120 x 120 cm © Hynek Martinec 2015. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, You Will Become As My God, 2013 Oil on canvas, 184 × 244 cm © Hynek Martinec 2013. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, I Was Born in 1880, 2015 Oil on canvas, 160 × 180 cm © Hynek Martinec 2015. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, Brussells, 2016 Oil on canvas, 44 x 50 cm © Hynek Martinec 2016. Courtesy Parafin, London


Hynek Martinec, People Cry, 2015 Oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm © Hynek Martinec 2015. Courtesy Parafin, London