Mikulas Medek

Painting of Mikulas Medek

Today's Czech in History is one of the most outstanding painters of the 20th century, who died young, and due to the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia never saw his paintings exhibited. His name was Mikulas Medek.

I spoke with the artist's brother, Ivan Medek, a former Chancellor of president Vaclav Havel. He remembers his brother vividly:

"My brother, Mikulas Medek, whose biggest ever exhibition we could see earlier this year at Prague's Rudolfinum Gallery, ranked among the most outstanding and most interesting artists of the 1960s, despite the fact that he was not allowed to exhibit his works and his painting could only be seen in his flat. It was a big flat near the Vltava river in Prague. It was a very peculiar case - he was a popular artist but could only work at home. But our flat was always full of people from all over the world, who wanted to see his pictures."

Mikulas started painting as a very young boy. He most likely inherited his talent from his grandfather Antonin Slavicek, a well-known Czech impressionist and landscape-painter at the turn of the 20th century. But what he also inherited from him was his volatile spirit and temperament. However, that was only one of his famous predecessors. Mikulas's father was a general in the Czechoslovak armed forces and a senior officer of the Czechoslovak Legions, which during WWI fought first against Germany and later against bolshevik Russia. This fact marked both boys' lives. When Rudolf Medek died at the beginning of WWII, his whole work - as he wrote many books on politics - was immediately banned by the Nazis.

"As a result of this we, his sons, were also persecuted in a way, because we were unacceptable to the Germans. Then came the end of the war, and the year 1948, when the Communists seized power in post-war Czechoslovakia, and we started being persecuted from the opposite side, because my father fought against the bolsheviks. He wrote many books, besides being an army general he was also a writer, and all those book had two common features: they were anti-German and anti-bolshevik. This was in fact the most horrible family background one could imagine in Czechoslovakia in the second half of the 20th century."

But against all the odds, Mikulas Medek decided to devote himself to creative arts. He studied at a graphic school, but Mr. Ivan Medek says Mikulas started very slowly and inconspicuously. He learned very diligently, starting by painting landscapes, and tried to create a style similar to those of the great painters of the past, van Gogh, Gauguin, but most often El Greco and his grandfather, Antonin Slavicek. All this was typical of his young years, up to the age of 16 or 17. As a young boy, he used to say he wanted to work in a different profession, as a biologist, natural scientists and he even wanted to become a bishop. But in the end, painting won.

"Very soon Mikulas found his own style: soon after the war, when he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, he started to paint under the influence of well-known surrealists - they were pictures full of dreams, containing all kinds of hints. But Mikulas did not continue his studies. Thanks to his anti-Communist family background he was kicked out of the Academy in 1949, so in fact he never became what we call an 'academic artist', because he did not graduate from any art school."

Mikulas Medek made his living with difficulty, sometimes he lived from hand to mouth, but his wife, who was a photographer, kept the family above water and supported her husband as much as she could. At the beginning, Mikulas's pictures did not sell well, but several years later, art-lovers started to show big interest in them and began buying them. It was for quite decent money at that time - 2,000 or 4,000 crowns - for pictures that at auctions today cost several million, because Mikulas Medek is now valued as one of the greatest European artists. But Mikulas did not only suffer as an artist, he also had very bad health:

"When he was about 36 years old, it emerged that he was suffering from a serious form of diabetes, which caused osteoporosis and total weakness of his body. He fell on the floor twice, damaged his leg, and doctors put in what's called an 'extension'. This caused him to limp for the rest of his life, and he also suffered terrible spinal pain. The medicines he used caused his stomach walls to get thinner. Mikulas died young, in 1974, at the age of 47."

Ivan Medek told me that he had always respected Mikulas a lot - although he was younger, Ivan considered him cleverer, more talented, more interesting, and he thinks that his brother did a lot for this country, and that his work still is and will be alive in the future, too. The younger generation at present looks at Mikulas Medek's work in a rather controversial way - he is both adored and hated. But Ivan Medek says young people need to express themselves quickly, to take clear stands towards everything that is happening around them. Mikulas Medek was a diligent person, his pictures that started in an surrealistic manner and ended up in abstraction, have one common feature: they are painted carefully to every tiny detail, which, according to Ivan Medek, is something that the young generation does not understand.

But Mikulas was also popular for his special kind of humor:

"His sense of humour can be described in that it was a kind of mixture ranging from utter kindness to a high degree of self-irony, which sometimes went as far as absurdity. We both grew under the influence of books by Franz Kafka, who now seems to be understood as a very problematic and serious writer. But when Kafka wrote his stuff and a long time ago used to read them to his friends in his flat in Prague, everyone was laughing out loud, including Kafka himself, because they all thought it was such a good joke."

According to Ivan Medek, the mixture of tragedy, problems and complications on the one hand, and humour on the other hand - that's what makes modern art really modern. He told me that his brother Mikulas was also a deeply religious man, although he did not go to mass or visit church regularly. He says Mikulas was a kind of 'non-practicing Christian'. But the truth is, that in his works, there are lots of religious themes - simple crosses as well as stations of the cross expressed in many different ways, and also, one of his masterpieces is a big altar picture for the local church in the small town of Jedovnice in Moravia.

Mikulas Medek did live long enough to see exhibitions of his pictures - the biggest of which was organized earlier this year at Prague's Rudolfinum, the biggest exhibition gallery in Prague. It showed the majority of Medek's works in five big halls, and the public interest was immense. But occasions to see Mikulas Medek's pictures are rare, because quite understandably, most of them are parts of private collections, with many owned by collectors abroad.