Czech painter Tibor Červeňák on his life in Britain and using boxing gloves instead of paint brushes
Czech painter Tibor Červeňák on his life in Britain and using boxing gloves instead of paint brushes
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Czech painter Tibor Červeňák was born in the Moravian town of Hranice and spent part of his youth in a children’s home. A visit to a local sculptor’s studio changed his life and he has since devoted his life to painting. He graduated from the prestigious Chelsea School of Arts in London and has had his work exhibited all over the world. He lived in the United Kingdom from 2004 but in 2020 he returned to his home country.
How did he end up living in Belfast? Does his art reflect his Roma background? And why does he use boxing gloves in his paintings? These are just some of the questions I discussed with Tibor Červeňák during his visit to our studio, but I first asked him what triggered his interest in painting:
“I discovered my artistic nature when I was around twelve. As a boy, I had a wild temper and I was not easy to manage, so at the time - it was during the communist regime – the social workers decided to put me in a kind of children’s prison or a home for naughty children.”
And that was in the town of Krnov?
“Yes, that was in Krnov.”
So that is where you discovered your passion for art…
“Yes, it was at the time. I was often bored and I would be sitting for hours on the window sill watching people passing through the street below. There was this particular man passing every day, who looked like a homeless person, and I had observed him for almost one year.
“One day, one of our social workers told us that we were going to visit a studio of his friend, who was an artist. We went just across the street, where there was a studio full of white plaster sculptures and drawings. And it was just amazing. It seemed like a different world to me.
“And as I was standing in the door frame, I saw the homeless man, who was sitting on a small chair brushing some heraldic signs or something like that. And from that moment, I started drawing and I would draw for ten or twelve hours a day.”
So were you a self-learner or did you go to some art school to learn the craft?
“In those first three years I was trying to teach myself. I was drawing sculptures in the church and I was going to the cemeteries, looking for interesting grave stones.
“And later on, when I was around thirteen or fourteen, I started to visit Zdeněk Smejkal, who became my teacher. I needed someone to share my passion with and I was looking for somebody who I could talk to.
“So in fact, I was self-taught, but with a sort-of academic background. I visited professional artists who gave me their time, and space in the studio and they also gave me lots of paper and pencils, so it was a really wonderful time and I really value that experience.
“Later on, I travelled through different museums, observing paintings. And in the MoMa museum I saw Claude Monet’s Blue Water Lilies and I was just amazed by that painting. And since then, for years, I would put a water lily in each of my paintings as a signature.”
So basically you were developing your own style….
“Yes. But what does it actually mean? My style is a concept and the concept is not to be squeezed into one particular artistic style. But I think there will be always a signature to my paintings, even if they were made using different methods, or subjects or colours. But I strongly believe that there is something strongly recognizable about my style.”
By the time you were 20, you had already exhibited in Europe. Yet, in 2004, you decided to move to Belfast, and ended up working for a cleaning company and driving taxis. Why did you decide to leave?
“That was at the time when the Czech Republic entered the European Union. I was young and I had lots of friends abroad and I thought it was a good opportunity to move somewhere legally.
“So I visited a job centre here in the Czech Republic and I saw a leaflet offering a cleaning job on trains from Belfast to Dublin. So I called the number written on the leaflet and I was one of twenty guys from Czechia and Slovakia who got the job in 2004.”
What was it like, living in a foreign country all of a sudden, working 12-hour shifts and sharing a house with other immigrants? Did you still have time to paint?
“Yes! We worked from seven in the evening till seven in the morning. But there were very fast workers in our group, so we would have everything done by two in the morning and after that, we would sleep in the train. And then I would go home and sleep until ten or eleven and then I would paint until the evening.”
How did you make your name as an artist, without knowing anyone in Belfast?
“I just kept on trying and I was also very cheeky. I would visit every single gallery in the city with my portfolios and photographs. Once I entered a gallery called ‘Emer’ and the owner was Michael Flanagan, one of the biggest art dealers in Ireland.
“He took me to his storage room, which was full of paintings by well-known artists and he told me: I have a group show in April. Bring me one or two paintings.
“I was surprised but I said: Yes, I will make it. The exhibition was focused on female nudes, so I did two small paintings and surprisingly, they were both sold.”
“And after about a year, there was a big annual show, the Royal Academy Salon and I applied for it. There is a very strict process and some of the guys wait for 20 years to be accepted, but I was accepted the first time around. For me it was a very big surprise and I felt like a big artist, because there are thousands of paintings and many of them are rejected.”
Your first solo exhibition in Belfast was a huge success, yet you decided to leave the city and enrol in an art school in Cardiff. Why?
“That was simply a family decision. I was there with my partner and my two kids and I was content with my life. I was successful, I had contacts for big art collectors but my partner was not happy there. She had no friends there and my relatives lived in Cardiff.
“I thought I could make it anywhere, but when I moved to Cardiff, it was a completely different place than I expected. It seemed to me there was no interest in art. It was more focused on sport. So I didn’t like it there.”
Could you still make your life just by selling your paintings?
“I was driving – I got a taxi license. But I was trying to find a way to be part of some artistic group. That was one of the reasons why I applied for university studies.
“So I entered the first year of Cardiff University. I was lucky they accepted me based on my professional portfolio, although I had no formal qualification. But I didn’t like the school, because there were no authorities.
“So I applied for a painting course at Bath Spa University and that was a different story. There were professors who had far more authority and they were far better than myself. That’s what I needed.”
You continued your studies at Chelsea School of Art, one of London’s most prestigious art and design colleges. What was it like, being taught by some of the best known contemporary artists?
“I will never forget about the one-to-one tutorial with Adrian Searle, one of the most important art theoreticians. We were sitting in front of my painting and discussing my methods and my technique and he told me: Tibor, don’t try so hard.
“He was very nice to me and after four years in Chelsea I told him: Mr Searle, I want to tell you something. I never said it to anyone during my studies. I am a gypsy. I am telling you that because I really value your artistic opinion.
“And he just looked at me and said: Tibor, go to Madrid, go to see Goya and look at his paintings. They are all gypsies. So later on after my studies, I went to Madrid for a week to see Goya’s Black Paintings.”
So what role does your Gypsy background play in your art?
“I will give you an example. I was looking at Picasso’s paintings and he would often visit gypsies and circus people to observe their life and to find inspiration. Because visually, they look like they are from a different world.
“This is how I want my paintings to be seen. Like pictures from a different world. I have that inside of me, without having to observe anything. I can translate emotions more fluently.
“Because what Picasso was looking for were emotions and it was something that he could transform into his paintings. But I have it in my nature. That’s the advantage of living in a gypsy’s body. But otherwise, it is not important to me, whether I call myself a Gypsy or a Czech.”
Tell me something about the process of painting. Where do you look for inspiration?
I never paint something that is too far from me, because I don’t have a relation to it. I have to be connected with the subject emotionally.
“I am the subject of my paintings. I never paint something that is too far from me, because I don’t have a relation to it. So I have to be connected with the subject emotionally.
“I also like architecture. I like to paint old historical buildings, but they first have to touch me, both visually and emotionally, and they also have to trigger some sort of question or interest.”
In 2014 you had another success with a painting exhibited at the Royal West of England Academy event in Bristol and the painting was made using boxing gloves. How did you get this idea?
“As I said at the very beginning, I was impressed by Claude Monet’s the Blue Water Lilies and for years I was trying to find a way to paint Monet without using his method, and for years I wasn’t sure how to do it.
“I trained as a kickboxer, and one day I actually tried to do an imprint of a boxing glove. So I started boxing, but I actually paint, using the gloves as my brushes!”
“And a few years before I did that painting I trained as a kickboxer, because I suffered from back pain and I was overweight. Afterwards I painted lots of figural paintings of kickboxers. And one day in the garden I actually tried to do an imprint of a boxing glove.
“It was at the time when I was studying in Bath and my professor, Natasha Kidd, told me: Don’t paint like a painter, try to paint like a decorator. Choose tools which are not part of the painter’s index. And that advice stuck with me.
“So at the time, it occurred to me to use the gloves as brushes. I did several imprints on different small pieces of canvas and on one type of canvas, it worked particularly well.
“And when I saw the imprint I saw the ellipse shape and I knew what it was: I have found a way of painting Monet without using his method. I have found my own way. So I started boxing, but I actually paint, using the gloves as my brushes!