Work of Czechia’s famous twin artists on display in Kutná Hora
An exhibition presenting the life’s work of the twin sisters Jitka and Květa Válová got underway in Gallery of the Central Bohemian Region in Kutná Hora earlier this month. Entitled A Path Destined by Faith, it presents numerous works on loan from other galleries, as well as works from both sisters’ estates that were donated to the gallery's collection in 2021, marking the centenary of the sisters’ birth.
I discussed the exhibition with its curator, Richard Drury, and I first asked him to tell me more about the sisters, considered one of the most distinctive artists of their generation:
“I would begin with the important fact that the Válová sisters were identical twins. They were born in 1922 and they lived through a very difficult period of the 20th century in what was then Czechoslovakia.
“They studied painting at the Prague Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design under Professor Emil Filla, who was a very important figure of Czech avant-garde painting.
“The Válová sisters lived together in Kladno, and the industrial atmosphere of a mining and steel-making environment really influenced not only the themes in their work but also their mentality, the way they saw the world.”
“The Válová sisters lived together in Kladno, and the industrial atmosphere of a mining and steel-making environment really influenced not only the themes in their work but also their mentality, the way they saw the world.
“So the Válová sisters are really a unique phenomenon. They lived together in their little house in Kladno, they never got married, they never had children and when times were bad, they lived on their mother’s pension and they were always true to their own ethics and their own principles.
“So they are really something unique in European and maybe even international art.”
As you said, they always lived and worked together. Did they have their own distinct style or are their works indistinguishable from one another?
“I think what they have in common is an amazing insight into the difficult fates of humanity. They reacted in their art to events happening in their country and it really always had a very strong connection with harsh reality. This was their starting point.
“I would say it really is a kind of a Yin and Yang situation: without Květa you can’t understand Jitka and without Jitka, you couldn’t understand Květa. They are really inseparable!”
“So in their work they react to events going on in Czechoslovakia but it’s always expressed through symbols and allegory that transcend the time when these works were painted. And their amazing empathy and the insight into humanity is something quite special.
“But of course even identical twins have their differences. They are two different people, even though Jitka Válová said quite poignantly, that they were kind of one person that was somehow separated into two bodies.
“So Jitka Válová is the more introvert of the sisters. Her work was more focused on the spiritual aspect of humanity, the inner struggle of the human soul. Květa was the more extrovert of the sisters. Her figures are more monumental, more robust and they often seem as if carved out of stone.
“But I would say it really is a kind of a Yin and Yang situation: without Květa you can’t understand Jitka and without Jitka, you couldn’t understand Květa. They are really inseparable!”
You have already said that they were greatly influenced by their background, the industrial Kladno. Where do you see the influence?
“Well, simply being born in that town and living so close to people who worked in mines, you cannot have a greater awareness of the fragility of human life, of our mortality.
“But in their own lives, they had an important first-hand experience of industrial Kladno when in 1944 and 1945 they were sent as forced labourers to the Poldi Steelworks and they saw the environment and the tough life of people working there.
“And instead of taking this as a traumatic experience, they took it as something that enriched their lives. They saw the value of these ordinary people, who were carrying out very difficult work in very difficult situations, and they connected with them. And I think that the experience of this environment was something that really sparked their expression in art.”
Today, the Válová sisters are considered one of the most distinctive artists of their generation. But it wasn’t always so. What was their situation like during the Communist regime?
“They came to the fore in the late 1950s during the east-west political and social thaw. They were part of a group called Trasa, which you could translate as Route or Path, which consisted of young artists who were really forging their own path.
“So they appeared on the art scene around 1957 and during the 1960s they became part of what’s now called the New Figuration, which is based on the idea of using the human figure to express messages about contemporary society.
“So the 1960s were good for them, but then from 1971 onwards you had this post-1968 hard-line repression, which is called Normalization in Czech, and they were completely marginalised.
“Their work was not shown at galleries or public museums of art and they had difficulty selling their works. So the 1970s and 80s were a very difficult period for them.
“However, by 1983 the situation had become a little more liberalised. And the curatorial duo Jana and Jiří Ševčíkovi did a travelling show of the Válová sisters work that really rehabilitated them. This of course improved after the Velvet Revolution, when their work became much more recognised.
“This was the time that I came to know them and I have to say that as people they were amazing: honest, friendly and with this lovely way of talking that involved a lot of swearwords, which probably had to do with their years in the steelworks. They had such positive energy and this of course was reflected in their art.”
The new exhibition, which is currently on display at GASK and which marks the centenary of their birth, is called A Path Destined by Faith. What does the title refer to?
“I think the important think to mention is that the exhibition, as well as including gallery loans, is based on the artists’ estate, works on paper that GASK received from one of the heirs of the Válová sisters last year. That is drawings, prints, printing plates, sketchbooks - an amazing variety of work that tells you about the most intimate sphere of their thinking and artistic expression.
“So the title comes from an inscription on one of these little drawings from the artists’ estate, because I think both sisters were very much aware of how fate in a sense of being born in a particular place and a particular time sets you on a certain path.
“And it is not at all intended as a kind of fatalism. In fact, it was the opposite. The Válová sisters established their own territory of free expression. But it really has to do, symbolically, with the fact that we as humans are born in a particular place and a particular time and the question is how we deal with that. And I am full of admiration of how the Válová sister dealt with that fate they were born into.”
I know that during their lifetime they have given away many of their paintings. Do you think there are still many of their works out there waiting to be discovered or donated to galleries?
“A lot of their works are in public collections. There are a lot of important works in private hands, so I could maybe see certain important works being sold to public galleries, which fortunately often happens.
“But I think the real discovery at this moment is what we are showing at the exhibition in GASK, by which I mean the Válová sisters’ drawings and sketchbooks and things that I think most viewers have never seen before.
“I think it’s important to mention that the exhibition is not a classic retrospective. It is divided into twelve chapters or thematic areas which loosely follow the lives of the Válová sisters, but which focus on particular key areas of their thinking and their expression.
“Regarding the works from the artists’ estate, I think it shows how both sisters worked in a very focused way on developing the themes in their works.
“Most people only know the “final product” - the paintings, the iconic works. But at this exhibition, we open up a new level of understanding the way they worked and the way they thought by accompanying these well-known paintings with smaller works that show how these ideas were formulated, how they created the paintings that came later on.
“It is like a diary, something quite confessional, something very intimate, and I think this level of understanding the Válová sisters is something new in how their work has been exhibited until now.”
Jitka and Květa Válová: A Path Destined by Faith
Gallery of the Central Bohemian Region
Barborská 51–53, 284 01 Kutná Hora
6.11.2022 – 19.3.2023
Tuesday – Sunday 10am-6pm