Jiri Sopko - renowned painter, rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague

Jiri Sopko, photo: CTK

Contemporary painter and rector of Prague's Academy of Fine Arts Jiri Sopko is one of the most respected artists in the Czech Republic. He first drew attention to his work in the 1960s and has continued to have a prominent and lasting impact. Last week a retrospective of some of Sopko's best but also lesser-known work opened at Prague's Rudolfinum Gallery.

Jiri Sopko, photo: CTK
A little earlier I spoke to one of the curators, Petr Nedoma, who runs the Rudolfinum and told me more about Sopko's "significance".

"Sopko is one of the most important current painters and he has been regarded as one of the best representatives of figurative painting in Bohemia since his start in the 1960s. I think he remains at the top till this day."

Jiri Sopko broke onto the scene at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, but originally his interest in art began much sooner: in childhood. When I met with him recently at his office in Prague he told me more about his youth and his family's roots.

"My father, a lawyer, was born in Carpathian Ruthenia. But his family was from Spisska Sobota, Slovakia. My mother was from Kladno, near Prague. As a teacher she went to Carpathian Ruthenia to teach and that was how she and my father met. When I was born in 1942 the region was occupied by the Hungarians and my father didn't know whether we should stay. So we moved to Slovakia where we lived until I was about eleven. At that time all lawyers from the First Republic, my father included, were forced to leave their jobs and were sent to work in factories. That's the kind of period it was."

Eventually Jiri Sopko's family moved back to Bohemia, relocating to the industrial town of Kladno. For the boy the change was something of a shock, a far different experience.

"The Kladno area was shocking in a visual sense. Zitny Ostrov where we lived in Slovakia, the countryside was similar to a colourful southern landscape. But in Kladno we first lived at my grandmother's. In Kladno everything was gray and black. On the other hand, I was young and I was full of new impressions, so changing homes wasn't especially stressful."

Fruit, 2006
Jiri Sopko - who went on to become a painter particularly famous for his use of colour, says he drew a lot as a child, and the presence of clay at construction sites around pre-fab apartments rising in 1950s Klado soon saw him drawn to modelling. He says originally he wanted to be a sculptor, something he pursued later, although he became, predominantly, a painter. He gradually completed studies in the arts at both the high school and university levels, the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague which he heads today.

"In the beginning I was influenced by Professor Karel Soucek, whom I had known since I was a youth. Looking back at the '60s it is possible to say it was a very tolerant period. That was also thanks to professors we had who were often excellent and had a good understanding of the situation."

Sopko began to exhibit and his first big solo exhibition - still often recalled today - came in 1970, two years after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. I asked him what it had been like to return to the country, after having successfully gotten out.

"To escape was an easy decision. Difficult was the decision to return. Originally it had been my intent to go to Greece, Cyprus in particular. But my future brother-in-law (the architect Vlado Milunic) persuaded me to come to France. I returned because of my family, after spending about half a year in France."

Sopko's one-man show in 1970 was his last for quite some time. The notorious Normalisation period which followed the Soviet-led invasion left little room for progressive artistic work. The Rudolfinum Gallery's Petr Nedoma:

"Certainly a lot of work was not liked by the communist regime: the regime was provincial and conservative and didn't understand art. For it, anything other than landscapes, anything that wasn't pretty or 'easily' readable' was shunned. It didn't even specifically have to be against the system: those in power rejected that which they didn't understand."

This is how Jiri Sopko himself remembers the period:

"Then there weren't any more exhibitions for a long time, a situation that affected many others besides myself. We weren't allowed to organize any events in Prague and it was only in the 1980s that it became possible to organize exhibitions in regional cultural centres or even in regional galleries. Usually they were group shows of three or four different artists. Most often I exhibited with Jiri Naceradsky, Rudla Nemec, and Ales Lamr."

The fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989 was not surprisingly an upturn for newer as well as established Czech artists, Sopko among them. In the 1990s, he was named professor at the Academy of Fine Arts and later, rector. Still, he continues to paint extensively, working in series: often, he says he'll begin a painting and get an idea for another in the process. He told me more about his colour technique:

"How to work with colour is something which is very difficult to teach. I think it's a matter of intuition and it's something that you have to be born with. Painting is basically a question of balance and imbalance of a colour scheme on canvas. It doesn't matter if it's figurative or abstract. When I was studying we didn't have acrylics here - these only came later.

"We painted with oil-based paints. When I was studying it was all darker colours: a lot of blacks and browns. Acrylic paints compared to oil, are fast. Acrylics dry quickly so you have to work fast and know exactly what you want. You can't paint over what you've already done, because the surface or structure of the paint underneath won't allow it. It remains visible underneath."

The painter is also well-known for his inclusion of figures which have been called grotesque or been credited at times for adding elements of irony. But his use of irony, says Petr Nedoma, is not easy to gauge:

Photo: CTK
"It really isn't any easy question to answer: I've known Jiri Sopko for almost thirty years and it's only in the last few that he's really revealed anything about his work. In the past he always avoided any concrete interpretations or even description of his paintings, so it wasn't fully clear to what extent his figures, as has been interpreted in some cases, were grotesque or ironic. Personally, I think it varies: in some paintings the figures certainly do not serve that role, while in others they do seem to be scathing caricatures of the reality which surrounded him."

The artist himself:

"Figures of course appear in the majority of my paintings: I do have some in which where there are none, when I've had it up to here with people! But those are more meditative in character, usually 'landscapes' but not concrete landscapes but areas that are basically abstract and don't exist. But the figures in my paintings also are not real and there are certain 'deformations'. You can take my 'hlavonozci' which are only heads without hands. But they still represent people."

Jiri Sopko is also much respected as a pedagogue, which led to me to ask a final question: how he saw differences between artists of his generation with the young students he teaches today:

"I can only compare it to my own experience but young artists have far different sources of inspiration than I or others from my generation. I am interested in the whole history of painting and of course nature, whereas many young people take inspiration elsewhere. For me photography was also important but for them it's film, video, and things that have to do with new media.

"Of course I am also interested in the new media even if I don't incorporate such elements myself. I enjoyed a video at Cassel which was inspired by Beckett which I suspect was done by Bruce Willis. It featured these bright characters walking within a frame. I was able to watch that for quite a while."

The current exhibition of Jiri Sopko's work will run at the Rudolfinum until November 18th.