Hynek Martinec: I have a better connection with my dreams in London than Czechia

Hynek Martinec, OHSH (London, 2022)

Hynek Martinec, a Czech artist originally from Broumov in northeastern Bohemia, won the BP Young Artist award at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2007 for his hyper-realistic portrait of his partner, Zuzana, beating 1,869 other contenders. He is currently exhibiting a new portrait of his daughter titled What Are You Most Afraid Of? as part of the exhibition ABSURD at the OHSH Projects gallery in central London.

London | Photo: jikatu,  CC BY-SA 2.0

Martinec has been living in London since 2007, the same year he won the BP award. During a recent trip to the UK, I spoke to him in the basement of the gallery where the new exhibition ABSURD was being installed upstairs, and we had a conversation spanning all kinds of things, from his family to his sources of inspiration, and from how Czechs embrace darkness more than the Brits to why he dreams more vividly in London than in Prague.

But first of all, I asked him why he left the Czech Republic in the first place, 15 years ago.

“I studied art there for 10 years, and then I felt that actually I needed to discover something else, and London seemed to me like the perfect place. I was young and I felt like I needed something new. Maybe the reason was also that when I was looking at the art magazines at the academy where I was studying, I was always dreaming about what it must be like to be in London meeting those artists, and I wanted to see it in the flesh.”

The main building of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague | Photo: Radio Prague International

You lived in Paris as well, and to me Paris and Prague seem like art capitals. What drew you to London over those places?

“I wasn’t actually planning to go to Paris – this was around 2005–2006 when I had just graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts. But a friend of mine was going to India for half a year and he offered his studio to me for free, so I went there and stayed two years.

“But as an artist it was quite tough because I didn’t speak fluent French, and you need to speak it very well if you want to access the art world. So I was quite isolated there. I am ok with that, because I like to be at the studio by myself, just to paint and focus on my work, but I didn’t see my future there as an artist – it would take years to kind of 'get in'.

Paris | Photo: Walkerssk,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“But I think that in Paris and Prague, you kind of feel something in the air, you meet the right people, and there is time for thinking, which I think in London is a little bit tricky. So that’s what I miss from Prague and Paris - I would say that these two cities are amazing for thinking.

“In London, life is more hectic. But I wanted to have it that way at that time, I wanted to be under that pressure – that’s what London always gives to everyone.”

Was it difficult to establish yourself as an artist in London – especially a successful one – because London is a famously expensive city?

“I didn’t think like that when I came here, but I was very lucky in that I was showing the portrait of my partner Zuzana at the National Portrait Gallery, and it won the BP Young Artist award in 2007, and that was an absolutely great entrance to London. I think that saved me five years of work maybe. So I had quite good access, I felt almost like London was calling me. I met nice people, very helpful people, so I kind of naturally got into the art world.”

Zuzana in Paris Studio,  2006-7  |  Acrylic on canvas 130 x 110 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

What kind of community do you have here – do you hang out mainly with other Czechs, or is it more international?

“At the beginning it was mostly Czech people – I would organise outings every month to see the galleries and we would talk a lot. It was a mix of people – I also tried to invite bankers and curators and people who like art.

“But I would say now it’s definitely international, because London is international, and you meet so many different people. I’m not very much engaged in the Czech community, that’s true – I don’t know why, but I guess we are not grouping much. Which I think is quite healthy and good because if you want to live somewhere else you should really engage with the group where you are and not just stay in the bubble with your own culture. Then I wouldn’t see the point of living elsewhere.”

Was there ever a time when you thought about going back to the Czech Republic?

“Not really. I mean, this is a permanent question in my mind, but it’s not urgent – it’s not something that I want to do next year. I don’t want to think too much about it because I want to be more in the present.

Brexit-II,  2020  |  Oil on canvas,  60 x 60 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

“But politically, yes, it’s been quite tricky to be in London the last five years. I still remember how it was around 2007-2008, when I think London was at its peak. Then things slowly started changing. But that’s the way it is – I can’t change much about politics. I just try to catch bits of information and then bring them into my work and turn them into art.”

Moving to your artwork then – could you tell us about your current exhibition?

“Yes, well, we are sitting in a kind of project space on New Oxford Street, run by two artists who founded it two years ago, and the idea is that they invite 10-15 artists for every exhibition.

“It’s a non-commercial space, which I always like in this kind of London environment, where you have a lot of things that are only for profit. For me it’s very important to be in central London and in a non-commercial space, so I can show what I want and not have to worry about sales.

What Are You Most Afraid Of? 2022  |  Oil on canvas,  265 x 200 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

“I’m showing a painting here which is the second portrait of my daughter, Agnes, so as you can imagine it’s very personal. In the first painting, which I showed in London a year ago, she was alone, she was lying on the floor with closed eyes and she was kind of in her own world. The second painting which I am showing upstairs is more about how she has changed since then, because she is now six and a half years old and things are changing around her, because of her schooling, different friends and people.

“In the early summer I went with Agnes to Richmond, and we took a ferry on the way back, which takes almost two hours. So we were chatting, and Agnes asked me, 'What are you most afraid of?' And I knew that that was quite a serious question that I couldn’t just brush off or say 'Don’t talk about that.' So then we were talking very openly about what I was worried about, and it kind of resonated with me. When I went to the studio I was thinking, 'Wow, this is quite an interesting question that we as adults don’t ask each other – we just don’t talk about these things, and it’s quite important.' So I decided to do a painting with this question as the title, and that is what is upstairs.”

You Will Bury Me,  2021  |  Oil oncanvas,  200 x 200 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

“She is in a prayer position, for some reason she started praying when I was taking the pictures for the painting, I guess it comes from the Gothic paintings which she saw at the National Gallery where we go quite often. The idea is that she is praying for her future failures in 20 or 30 years’ time, when she might be similar to how we are now. So that is why she is in the prayer position and her best friend is on the floor, she’s dreaming or we don’t know what’s going on. So that is the material and the idea behind it. I think it’s kind of absurd in the way that she is still innocent but at the same time, she is approaching our world.”

So that’s why you chose this painting for this exhibition, titled ABSURD?

“Yes, and also there is another layer which I think is quite unique about this show, which is that the painting is on quite a big wall, I think 7 or 8 metres by 3.5 metres, and I drew a mural straight onto the wall with charcoal, and the painting of my daughter is covering part of the charcoal drawings.

“The drawings come from my dreams, which I record daily in my sketchbook – I’ve been doing it for 15 years so I’ve got quite a long record. I usually separate these two projects, the realistic paintings and the drawings of my dreams, this is the first time that they’ve come together. So I’m quite excited to see the reactions and responses from friends and artists.”

Hynek Martinec | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

I was looking through your old artworks and I couldn’t believe that some of them weren’t photographs, like the early ones of your partner Zuzana. How did you learn to paint so hyper-realistically – does it take hours of technical practice?

“I guess the first thing is obsession – you have to be obsessed with achieving something. In those cases, with those quite large-scale, highly-detailed portraits, I was just obsessed. We’re talking about more than ten years ago – I was just trying to push myself harder in that direction.

The Dance of Dreams,  2021  |  Cryon and gouache on paper,  28, 5 x 38 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

“But interestingly, once you achieve your goal, you want to move on – so that’s what happened with that. I felt that I had made it, I’d done it – so I could either just keep repeating myself, or I could carry on in a new direction. So I joined the Parafin Gallery, who represent me in London, and that was good for me to start a new way of painting, and I think it’s still going.

“I like to work on projects – I spend maybe four or five years discovering one topic and trying to go deep into it, and once I feel like I’ve done it, then I change direction – that’s quite naturally how I work.”

And what direction do you think your art is developing in now?

“Definitely something kind of between my dreams, which I draw, and the figurative paintings that I do – ideally I would like to have them meet somewhere. In the last year I’ve been thinking quite a lot about how to achieve this friendship between these two quite different languages.”

Would you say your dreams are your main source of inspiration?

The Dance of Dreams,  2021  |  Cryon and gouache on paper,  28, 5 x 38 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

“I think right now yes they are, because I really do think and care a lot about them every day, so it’s a constant dialogue between me and my consciousness and unconsciousness.”

Was it hard in the beginning to remember your dreams well enough to capture them? Dreams can be quite ephemeral.

“Interestingly, when I came to London for the very first time in 2002, to study at Middlesex University for half a year, I was alone – so I was just learning the language and culture and meeting new people. And within a few weeks I realised that for some reason I was able to remember my dreams better here than in the Czech Republic. That was quite shocking – I was wondering why.

“So I guess that in those first months when I was here, I was back in the Czech Republic in my dreams while in my normal life I was in London talking to people and being in the present. So I was already living in two different worlds, and I was always quite looking forward to going to sleep because I knew that my dreams would be about something from my childhood.

“Since then, I’ve known that I have to take more care of my dreams. I started slowing thinking about how to record my dreams and I developed a simple, quick language to do so. Upstairs what you can see is a kind of development and result of recording many dreams.

The Dance of Dreams,  2021  |  Cryon and gouache on paper,  28, 5 x 38 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

“I have a good connection with my dreams here, I don’t know why – because even now, if I go back to Czechia, it changes. So there is definitely something for me that really works here in terms of remembering them.”

Do you have to record them as soon as you wake up?

“Yes, but I think about them, I don’t ignore them. I think everyone has or could build this skill, it’s just a question of paying attention to them.

“Basically when I wake up, the very first thing I do is draw – it takes me normally five or ten minutes, not long. But it has become a ritual – without it I would feel weak almost, because it’s a part of my everyday life.”

When I was about thirteen, I started a dream journal, and I found that I could remember my whole dreams like a movie, in their entirety. But then I stopped doing it and now I can barely remember them, so I guess it is like a skill that you need to practice actively.

Josef,  2003  |  Oil on panel,  26 x 20 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

“Yeah, I guess in your case it might be writing. I think I am more obsessed about capturing them, not much about interpretation. I mean I do care what they want to say to me, so I try to understand them, but for me it’s more important to just have that record of being there in the present.”

Do you have a favourite painting from your work?

“That is always changing, but I would say I have maybe three or four.

“The Agnes portrait would be there, the first painting I did of her, and then the portrait of my father, which I did quite a long time ago, and then Zuzana as well. I think this would be the collection that I care most about.”

Your paintings seem to have a very distinctive style – did you consciously develop it, or did it somehow arise on its own?

“I think the main ideas come from my education – I was educated in a very kind of central European way, to admire the Old Masters and the influence of German culture and the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque era. I would say that you get these things more as a student in central Europe than in London, which has a different kind of approach.

“But if you are educated in Austria, Germany, or maybe even in France as well, you get closer to those Old Masters and to what it means to be a painter. So I was trained in that way, very classically, and I think I couldn’t get away from it – let’s say it plainly – it’s a part of my DNA.

“And I love it, I don’t regret it – I’m just trying to understand why I am where I am. And I think I feel it’s kind of my duty now, to link this past and turn it into a new contemporary language. I definitely see myself as a bridge-maker who is trying to go to the past to see the Old Masters and bring them into our lives and show that they are contemporary as well.”

Hynek Martinec | Virtual Tour | The Net Gallery

I think you might have hit on the difference between British and central European education more generally, not just in art – in central Europe, people tend to be more classically educated.

“Yes, maybe – but this is just my experience in the art world. I have no idea how it functions if you study economics or science, but definitely in the art world. I mean it’s changing now, slowly – I wouldn’t say massively – but it is a bit different because we are living in a time when the art world has a global language so it’s kind of like there aren’t any borders between Czech art and English or American art or whatever. Because of social media and everything, these platforms are making it more universal.”

I noticed a lot of your paintings had a classical style but very contemporary titles like ‘cancel culture’. How important are titles in your work – do you need the title to understand the painting?

“With the titles it’s always interesting, because some paintings shout their title at me, I don’t need to think much about it – I just naturally feel 'This is perfect'. Other times it’s quite difficult to name the painting because it’s so open and it has more options. But the titles are important because I want to navigate the viewer a bit towards what I was thinking about when I painted it.”

Cancel Culture,  2021  |  Oil on canvas,  40 x 35 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

So in the case of your paintings with titles like ‘Cancel Culture’ or ‘Deep Fake’ or ‘Harvey Weinstein’, it wasn’t that you started with the idea for the title and then did the painting – it was the other way around?

“I mean, with the painting upstairs with Agnes, it was already in my mind before I started that I wanted to use that title – her question when we were on the boat. But normally it comes later. I’m quite open regarding that – I don’t always think that it has to be the title first. But every painting has a different approach, so it’s difficult to say how it really works. There’s always a searching.

“But it’s important, because I think it’s good when the viewer gets interested and tries to find out more about what the title means.

“You mentioned Harvey Weinstein – we had quite an interesting debate about whether I could name the painting after him or not in the time when this controversial topic was in the media. And I thought that actually I need to capture the mood of where society was at that time. I mean, who knows him now? Well, now it hasn’t been long enough yet, but I can imagine that people in twenty years will have no clue who this guy was, that he kicked off one of the big social movements of our time.

The Last Portrait of Harvey Weinstein,  2017-18  |  Oil on canvas,  170 x 240 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

“I think that’s part of the history that we need to create as artists – to capture the mood of society, no matter if it’s good or bad. I’m not commenting on it, I’m just saying 'This is where I was, and this is how it needed to be captured.' So it’s a kind of dialogue with the future really, or a message for the future. And that kind of came quite naturally, because of course it was everywhere in the media and everyone was talking about it.

“I like to use these kinds of hot topics sometimes in my work but I don’t like to go straight at them – the titles go direct, but not necessarily the painting. You need to open your mind and think more deeply about what it really means. At the end there is a story which brings the painting and the title together, but it requires a bit more thought.”

You said your art is always developing, but is there an overarching theme that links all your work?

“I think time – time, death, the fear of what will happen when we aren’t here anymore. I think just the existential things really, which are not very fashionable but I’m sure everyone is thinking about them – it’s just a question of who is talking about it loudly.

Deepfake,  2019-20  |  Oil on canvas,  170 x 240 cm | Photo: Archive of Hynek Martinec

“So it’s, I wouldn’t say necessarily the dark side of life, but that might also be the difference between living here and in the Czech Republic. Because central Europe is quite dark, when you think about the art and how we express ourselves and maybe what we value, what we pay attention to. I see that there is a difference, and I still have this dark sort of thinking.

“Here it’s the opposite – it’s more positive, it’s more kind of thinking that everything is going to be ok, just carry on, and not necessarily dealing much with the very heavy dark questions. They are in the air, but very few people are touching them, and if you are handling them as an English artist you have to be very brave to present them in a nice way, if you know what I mean, because that’s the bridge for the masses to understand it.

“I think if you really highlighted the darkness here in London, at full force, it wouldn’t be accepted that much, because it would be too scary. Whereas I think in the Czech Republic it wouldn’t be too scary, it would be kind of like, 'OK, yeah, let’s think about it, what it means.' I think this is what I have learnt over the years – that different cultures really approach art in a completely different way, even if we are still in the so-called European bubble.

“So I guess, going back to the painting upstairs, you might think that it is quite serious, but it is also accessible. There is still space to enjoy it, it’s full of colours. So it’s a very fragile sort of line and I have to deal with that because my heritage is from the Czech Republic and I’m kind of mixed with another layer that I learned later on.”

Hynek Martinec,  Lost in Time Studio  (2021) | Photo: Paul Plews

Do you feel that the British audience understands your paintings – are they missing something or, on the other hand, do people like it because you bring something different?

“Yeah, I mean there is definitely a different approach. If I was showing my paintings in Japan, for example, there would also be a completely different response.

“But painting or art is about the viewer really, so if the viewer comes from central Europe, they might understand it a little bit more – I don’t know, I’m just guessing – but an English or American audience also might find something that I couldn’t see there. So it’s a dialogue, but it’s always about the viewer.”