Portrait artist and painter Marie Gabánková

Karel Kryl, Marie Gabánková, photo: archive of 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.

Karel Kryl,  Marie Gabánková,  photo: archive of Marie Gabánková
“There are very many beautiful memories and also some very sad ones, especially of the last period we were there just before the invasion. Some memories are in regards to my parents, especially my father, who was a conscientious objector and a dissident and imprisoned – and the difficulties my parents had as my brother and I were growing up under the communist system. We encountered difficulties at school, for example, because the system essentially expected that everyone would be a member of the Communist Party and that young students would be members of the communist youth organizations – and we were not. So we were growing up in a family of artists and dissidents and also believers in God, Christians, and these were basically all strikes against us.”

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.”

Karel Kryl
“Of course, at that age – fifteen, sixteen, seventeen – we were writing poetry and secretly listening to Radio Free Europe, or the BBC or Radio Luxembourg, and listening to all the songs and everything that was happening at that time in the 60s. This helped us keep in touch with another world that we could only imagine. At the beginning, we hoped that we would one day be able to explore and travel and visit this other world that was closed to us. But then, during the events of 1968, the Prague Spring and as all of that was happening, we actually did not want to leave, because it was so exciting and we could taste the freedom and the beauty of around us, and we thought: now we should stay here. And yet the signs were ominous, and the normalization that came afterwards was one of the most desperate and hopeless situations that descended on the nation. We left and went to Austria at the end of September.”

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…

Gordon Skilling
“Ironically, my father had two brothers that had escaped earlier and they lived in the US. And he applied under the Dubček regime for permission to visit these brothers. And the request was approved on the day of the invasion. So he left immediately; we then got, through an artists’ union, permission to go for four days to an art exhibit to Vienna. As we crossed the border, I saw some young Russian soldiers and we looked at each of with a kind of disbelief.”

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.

Josef Škvorecký
“That was in the 1980s and it was a commissioned portrait. I painted him at the family home in Cabbagetown, and it was an unforgettable experience, because I could take my time with the sketching and deciding on the pose. And there was also a cat involved called Julinka that was not co-operating very much. They actually had about five cats and one of them – or maybe it was the neighbour's cat – was called ‘Brezhnev’. But Julinka definitely was theirs and she had to be in the painting. I had this amazing privilege of spending time with Mr. Škvorecký and as I was painting him – it was a life-size half-figure – he served as an incredible narrator and storyteller. He just kept talking and I just wish I had recorded all that he said, because it was so interesting. He talked about all kinds of things: his books, life here and there, and it was just fantastic. Of course, all of that goes into the painting, because it is so different from just having a session and taking photographs, which I also took.”

“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?

Marie Gabánková,  Gordon Skilling,  photo: archive of Marie Gabánková
“I didn’t know him very closely, but I met him several times and I think the whole idea of doing a portrait mostly came from the inspiration I felt observing him and hearing him in group discussions and I just found him a really interesting person to get to know. I told him that his head would be great for a painting or a sculpture and I think he liked the idea, so he came to my studio and I started to work on painting his head and then he fell asleep because it was one of those very hot, humid days in Toronto and it was unbearable in my studio. But he did not change his position, so I added another piece of paper and added the rest of his half-figure, including his hands, which were amazing, and I painted it all quite quickly. Later on, I kind of mounted the whole thing and put some words from, for example Kafka and other favorite writers of his, and even included some of his texts. So I first did several studies and then this one portrait, which in the end, he actually bought for the university, because he was the founder of the Slavic studies department and now it hangs there at the Robarts Library.”