Portrait artist and painter Marie Gabánková
Marie Gabánková is a noted portrait artist, painter and teacher. She was born in Ostrava and left Czechoslovakia with her family shortly after the Soviet invasion of 1968, aged just seventeen. She has lived in Canada ever since and has had a book of her works published in England, and had such noted figures as singer-songwriter Karel Kryl and writer Josef Škvorecký sit down for portraits. When I met up with her I began by asking Marie what memories she has of her youth in Czechoslovakia.
A lot of Czechs think back fondly on that brief moment of freedom or liberalization that happened in 1968 as Alexander Dubček came into power. People say there was a sudden flourishing of creativity and artistic expression. Is that something that you remember fondly? Obviously it was the 60s as well – was that a kind of golden time?
“Yes, it was an exciting time and I remember very clearly that even in 10th grade, we would have very passionate discussions about politics. And it always related to the kind of teachers we had. Some were very definitely not in support of the system and they were sometimes secretly with us, the students, against the regime. They really nurtured in us this sentiment that was obviously brewing in our hearts – and that was a longing for freedom. We had amazing discussions and I have some great memories and still have some great friends from that time.”
From your perspective, and from your memories as a youngster living in Czechoslovakia, were Czechs completely taken by surprise that the tanks suddenly came and ended this “renaissance”?
“I remember very clearly to this day that my mum woke us up – we were in Bratislava, where my father came from, and we were with my grandfather during the summer holidays – and my mum said ‘Get up! Wake up! The Russians are here!’ And then we saw it, because it was right on the border. The tanks were all facing Bratislava, the downtown area over the Danube river. I remember sitting by the radio and writing down the things that were being said by the different journalists informing about what was happening and also offering suggestions about what to do. And I still have those notes today…”
And how come your parents decided to leave so quickly? Because some people left months after or years after…
You ended up in Canada, which is where you’ve lived pretty much ever since. And your work as an artist has brought you into contact with several well-known Czech figures, for example, you were friends with the singer-songwriter Karel Kryl and you also had him sit down for a portrait. Tell me the story behind your relationship with Kryl.
“It just evolved over several of his visits. He came quite regularly for North American tours and we met on the first one in Vancouver.”
I should explain that this was after the ’68 invasion and Karel Kryl then escaped to Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe. And then he toured around the world from his base in Germany.
“Yes, and he would visit various émigré communities abroad and would perform concerts and he came to Canada many times and we started to talk about his portrait a bit and he had all kinds of ideas. He was always full of amazing humour, about himself as well. In the end, he did pose for it and it was a wonderful experience, just listening to him, he was always full of poetry and playing with words and ideas so it was sometimes hard to concentrate on painting.”
You also had the well-known Czech writer Josef Škvorecký, who spent much of his life in Canada, sit down for a portrait. So tell me about that experience.
“This February, I had an exhibition at Loop Gallery here in Toronto entitled ‘Memento Mori’ and it was dedicated to Josef Škvorecký because he had just passed away at that time. And my father, who was an artist, also passed away, as well as Václav Havel. This all happened within a month or so and I felt a very deep sense of loss and pain and that was the only way I knew how to respond to this because I had the exhibition scheduled and I had to meet the deadlines, so I created a number of images and one of them was of Václav Havel. I did that at the very end and it was based on a video-recorded mutual dialogue between Dominik Duka [Archbishop of Prague since 2010] and Václav Havel, which aired on Czech TV and it was the most fantastic exchange of ideas and revelation of their personalities. That was filmed maybe two months before Havel passed away, so that was kind of my homage to these three men, allowing me to express my respect and admiration.”
And you also had the opportunity to do a portrait of the late Professor Gordon Skilling of the University of Toronto, who passed away in 2001. His portrait currently hangs in the university and Skilling was an observer of Czechoslovakian history going back to the 1930s. What was it like meeting him and what was he like as a person and did you ever discuss with him his reflections on Czechoslovakia?