Hynek Martinec in London studio

Hynek Martinec

Czech painter Hynek Martinec has been living in London ever since he made a breakthrough there with his painting Zuzana in Paris Studio. The hyper-realistic portrait of Hynek’s girlfriend won in 2007 the prestigious BP Young Artist Award. A native of the eastern Bohemian town Broumov, Hynek Martinec will soon rerurn to the Czech Republic. In October, the 32-year-old artist will be featured in an exhibition of contemporary British painting entitled Beyond Reality, along with Damien Hirst, Ben Johnson, Keith Tyson, and other artists. RP spoke to Hynek Martinec on the rooftop of his London studio, and asked him what he was going to show to the audience in Prague.

'Zuzana in Paris Studio'
“Firstly I am going to represent a project called Zuzana which is about my girlfriend, and then I will be representing four paintings from the project, each of which captures her at a different time, so I think there will be a six or seven years period when her face is changing. I think it’s quite clear and focused, so I’m looking forward to seeing it in the Rudolfinum Gallery.”

What do you find so fascinating about capturing Zuzana at different stages in her life?

“I think if you look around, there is so much noise in every subject, and always so much going on in our lives, so when I discovered this idea of doing some important project in my life, I just thought I would like to bring something from our lives, from my life. My girlfriend and I have been with each other for over ten years now, so we know each other quite well, and I wanted to put this idea of knowing each other, which is very unique in a way, into my art. When I die I would like to have something which is here for ever. So that’s why I chose Zuzana. I guess there will be some kind of message when I’ve completed twenty or thirty paintings of her portrait, but for now it’s quite early to say what the result will be. Right now what I’m looking for is to capture our lives, our living together, and everything that surrounds it.”

Your method of trying to capture life through art is often referred to as hyperrealism – is that a correct label?

Hynek Martinec
“Yes you could call it that, but frankly to me it’s not that important. I use those sorts of techniques, to capture hair, how she looks through the technical pictures done with photography, and to me it’s also quite important to have the quality of craft, which is why it looks like hyperrealism, but I think there’s a close link with the renaissance, when the masters were creating paintings with such a high level of craft. I think this is the language of hyperrealism, and what I’m doing now is the language of our time, so it’s a difficult question to answer.”

Your works seems to be very technically demanding. Did the Prague Academy of Fine Arts give you a good basis for your work?

“I guess so, it was a long course, about six years, which was too long for me, and I think I discovered the techniques that I’m using now a year after I graduated from the Academy of Fine Art in Prague. Of course what I learned in Prague was very important, but I think what was maybe more important for my skills and education, was when I got my first private teacher in the early 90s, and I think he educated me more in fine arts and painting than the Academy. He was really focused, so we could talk about lots of things; what I could make through art and so on.

“So I think when I came to the Academy it was more about competition, and so much was going on around you that it was hard to focus, you we’re always getting distracted by others’ ideas, which is important, but for me it’s much better if I can be somewhere alone and just focus on my work. So I was very happy when I left the Academy and went elsewhere actually.”

'Zuzana in London'
Why did you decide to leave the Czech Republic and live first in Paris and then London for many years?

“Well, I graduated in 2005 and before that I’d been travelling quite a lot and I discovered the world outside the Czech Republic, and I was always fascinated by different cultures, so I just felt that when I was in Prague the atmosphere was too heavy, especially in the art world, it was too small, everyone was getting in each other’s way and it was more about talking and not actually working. I thought it would be quite amazing to try to set up a studio somewhere outside the Czech Republic, to meet other artists and to see some new things and experience a new atmosphere.

“I think it’s quite amazing how, if you travel a lot, every country can give you a different energy, you learn so many different things, and at the same time you are teaching yourself. I’m still very open to those things; when I was in Prague I was there for about ten years and for me that was quite enough so I just felt I needed to move on and do different stuff. And now I’m really happy somewhere else, because I’m always looking for a good spiritual energy in the place I’m working. Maybe one day I might find this in Prague again or somewhere else in the countryside in the Czech Republic, but it still isn’t time for that yet.”

You had a big break here when you were shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award with one of the paintings from the series about Zuzana, but before you got that recognition, was it hard to make a living here in London as a Czech artist?

Well I think I was really lucky at the beginning, because at that time when I painted Zuzka, we were based in Paris, so I didn’t have any idea about what it would be like to live in London. Life in Paris was okay – I could make some money by selling my paintings, and I actually had an exhibition in London at that time, but it’s quite a funny story because when I came to London just for a weekend to see the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, I met an English guy and we were chatting and he asked me whether, if I could live in London I would like to stay here, and I said of course I would love to, but it’s an expensive city so I couldn’t make it. He said he knew a guy who could help me so he introduced me to him the next day and then this guy said if I was looking for a living he could give me one because he had a room and I could stay there for about six months for free.

“I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to come to London again and to start to build up a career. So after three or four months I was able to set up my new studio, and I met other people because there was lots of attention. I got some commissions so I could start to earn a good living. I think it was also important that we came here in 2007 when the economy was at its best, so many people were interested in art and spending lots of money on it. At that time I think that’s what was missing in Paris, because it’s even harder to survive in Paris as an artist. London is very open, very international, there are opportunities for everyone here and it’s not as selective, as it is in Paris. That was really important, and I’m really glad I made the decision at that time to come to London, because it’s a great place to be an artist.”

We’re speaking on the rooftop of your studio in Brixton. Why did you pick Brixton as your base?

Hynek Martinec's studio in London
“I chose Brixton because it has such an amazing history, and because it’s a black community, which is something I’d never really been involved in before, I was quite keen to understand more about this community. It’s very lively, even though it’s quite a small space, but it’s like a village in London, so you can meet your friends on the street, it’s very familiar, but I think in the future if lots of money comes here the area will change in the next five or ten years. So I’d like to see this little village stay how it looks and feels and tastes now and not how it will when the money comes in and the high street gets covered in expensive shops. I love it here, and I have a good studio, good friends around and it’s such a great creative place. I think it’s interesting that just five minutes away from here is where the YBA (Young British Artists) started in the 90s, so Damien Hirst had a studio nearby and he had all his main ideas in Brixton.”