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Oddities and Detritus, by Laura Fisher

Dušan Marek and Australian Surrealism: A Review of Dušan Marek: Art/Film Post 1960, : Art/Film Post 1960

Before viewing the exhibition Dušan Marek: Art/Film Post 1960, I knew very little about the artist. My first impression was that I might have been viewing a group show rather than a single-artist survey. The Sydney University Art Gallery is not a large space, however it accommodated a surprisingly large body of artworks of fantastic variety, including paintings large, small and tiny, many works on paper, animated films, three-dimensional objects, and a cabinet of ephemera that provided glimpses of Marek’s career and process. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of small sketches and a fabulous storyboard from one of Marek’s films among the ephemera, which highlighted Marek’s enviable drawing skills. I felt I was in the company of a polymath tinkerer, one who turned a confident hand to anything to see what might work. As I was to learn from writer and curator Stephen Mould’s catalogue, and his monograph about Dušan and his brother Voitre, The Birth of Love (2008), Marek’s varied practice says as much about the resourcefulness that comes with privation as it does about Marek’s interest in the attributes of different materials and forms. It also attests to Marek’s deeply felt commitment to surrealism as an artistic ethos. Eclecticism and the practice of collecting were at the heart of the surrealists’ sensibility: the oddities and detritus of life provided the material from which unlikely aesthetic couplings might emerge.

When one encounters such a multiform show, biography seems all the more important, and Marek’s is a deeply affecting one. The journey Dušan and Voitre (who was two years Dušan’s senior) took from Czechoslovakia when Dušan was twenty-two is an example of a refugee narrative, a journey by boat over the sea, that both challenged and enriched Australian culture. In the Mareks’ case it was the Second World War and its aftermath that drove them to seek a home elsewhere: Czech society was battered by the repressive regimes of both Nazism and Stalinism. Remarkably, it was during the period between the two regimes that Marek undertook his three years of study at the Prague School of Fine Arts, which he began at the age of nineteen. He thus commenced his career as an adult artist during the brief period of resurgence in Czech artistic culture that followed the country’s liberation from the Nazis in 1945 and preceded its takeover by the Soviets in 1948. Mould’s The Birth of Love tells the story of their extraordinary cousin Milena Koliasova, who assisted 235 people to escape the country, the Marek brothers among them, in 1948 and 1949, before she was arrested. Dušan and Voitre arrived in Sydney in October 1948 aboard the SS Charlton Sovereign. They spent two months in an immigrant camp in Bathurst before deciding to move to Adelaide.

By focusing on works created after 1960, Mould takes us past Marek’s first years in Australia, during which he lived first in Adelaide, then in Sydney, and spent five years in Papua New Guinea (a hiatus from art making, with the exception of documentary film-making) before returning to Adelaide. However, the cabinet of ephemera provides us with an intriguing collection of archival materials that tell of the mixed, and sometimes very hostile reception Marek experienced in those early years, a reception characteristic of Australia’s uneven embrace of modernism. The support of Kym Bonython in Adelaide marked a turning point for Marek, and a number of works from the show can be traced to his first exhibition with Bonython Galleries in 1963.

Marek’s surrealist identity is declared with one of the first objects we encounter in the show: Four Dimensional Drama Without Words (1975). One of the most likeable works in the exhibition, it has a strong sense of craftsmanship and feels gently humorous in the way it marries ornamentality with grandeur. It is centrally composed of a rectangular panel painted on both sides, upon which a suspended figure, like a marionette composed of a swirling gaseous substance, moves weightlessly through space. She appears to glide through solid matter, entering and departing one enigmatic frieze after another, possibly into infinity. This work is reminiscent of Magritte’s illusionistic scenes, particularly in the depiction of moulded wooden frames to echo those of the cabinetry offcuts used in the structure. A mirror, three brass forms and a marble extend the scene beyond the painted image, bringing reflected shine and a sense of handheld tactility into the ensemble.

Opposite Four Dimensional Drama are two very delicate drawings on thin paper that draw the eye: Untitled (c. 1975) and Echo Chamber (1978). They are mystical and organic, suggestive perhaps of something cosmic and in a state of change. These very different ways of working that we are introduced to at the entrance to the exhibition recur throughout: we find very declarative objects, marks and arrangements on the one hand, and more liquid, abstract imagery on the other. Of the larger paintings, Pharaoh’s Paradise (1970) and Spring Time (1970) are the most arresting. They are among several works in the show painted on aluminium. In the former I see figures emerging from shadow, as if choosing to make their presence only partially felt under a chiaroscuro light. Spring Time suggests something amorphous and verdant that is materialising into a radiant form. Both leave the impression of paint pressed into the aluminium rather than applied, and have areas of luminescence that have the quality of bright dry pigment, and linear marks likely from the paint tube that create vibrating colour relations.

Dušan Marek decided he was a surrealist at the age of thirteen. This is a tantalising thought—what better time to be captivated by such ideas than in early adolescence? Surrealism was galvanised by several strands of modern thought and experience, among them Freudian understandings of the psyche, the decline of Western metaphysical truths, and exposure to the material culture of the colonies. André Breton’s surrealist manifesto and the works of those who embraced its principles capture that sense of a world opening up with great velocity, both inwardly into the unconscious and the imagination and outwardly into the vibrancy of tribal culture.

By Mould’s account, several aspects of Marek’s biography created the conditions for him to identify strongly with surrealism. His older brother, Voitre, was also a talented and devoted artist, and immensely supportive of Dušan (as was the rest of his family). Dušan displayed an intuitive drawing ability from a younger age, and Voitre felt he had greater aptitude than himself. All artists will agree that having such familial encouragement from a young age would foster a rare sense of self-assurance. In the villages where they grew up, pagan beliefs still had some hold and artisanal traditions (such as woodcarving and the making of costumes and glass jewellery) were practised. These areas were heavily forested and surrounded by geologically interesting landscapes, and in Mašov, where their later childhood years were spent, there were castle and fortress ruins to explore. I was also fascinated to read that their father was deeply attached to folkloric traditions, and that, ‘already a free spirit from a religious point of view’, he had become an atheist after the Pope had blessed guns of war during the First World War. Prior to studying in Prague, both Marek brothers attended a local arts and crafts institution where they learnt skills such as engraving and stone setting for jewellery (they would both later use these skills in Australia to gain employment). In all of these experiences that shaped Marek’s formative years we can sense how he might have been predisposed to embrace surrealism’s liberationist principles, as well as the desire for enchantment and celebration of the elemental creativity of nature.

The most astounding display of these proclivities in this exhibition is in Marek’s animations, which constitute a highly unusual and accomplished oeuvre in their own right. Here we can perceive the importance of theatricality to the existential questioning that preoccupied Marek and other surrealists. The trickery, absurdity and playfulness that enliven the stage suggest a world in which imagination alone, if nourished enough, could enable one’s subjectivity to be invented afresh. Like Four Dimensional Drama, each of Marek’s tenderly constructed animations persuade us of the existence of another little sphere of being. Some of these interpret classic fairy tales (a favourite for me was ‘a ship a-sailing’), while others are allegorical tales about power, innocence and childhood. Their style of storytelling and characterisation is highly innovative and multifaceted: Czech puppetry provided inspiration in some cases and there is also a trace of expressionism, which had a strong foothold in Prague in the early twentieth century. Marek’s animations harness the expressive properties of very simple materials (coloured paper and magazine cut-outs, fabric, woodgrain) when collaged and set in motion, and his lightness of touch with these materials allowed him to disassemble and recompose characters as they face mishap or are affected by emotion. This quality attests not only to his ability to give material form to speculative thought but the skills in small object making and metalcraft he attained as a teenager. As Mould writes in the catalogue essay, these films highlight ‘the artist’s highly individual path in developing techniques of animation that were painstakingly slow but also entirely original, with each film technically challenging the limits of the medium’. The more extended and introspective Cobweb on a Parachute, which features the artist himself, is also a significant film. Arthur Cantrill’s essay ‘The Films of Dušan Marek’, which can be downloaded from the Sydney University Museums website, is very enlightening, and makes the argument that Marek should be recognised as a pioneer of Australian animation. I am certainly convinced.

Dušan Marek: Art/Film Post 1960 clearly tells an additional story: the championing of the Marek brothers’ work by Stephen Mould. While there are two works from the Sydney University collection and several from private collections, the majority of the paintings and works on paper are in fact from Mould’s own collection. Mould has curated the exhibition with a great deal of care to provide entry points into the many facets of Marek’s artistic career. The gestalt was somewhat mystifying at first take, but it was immediately comprehensible once I understood Marek’s life story. While it is surprising that Marek (who died in 1993) is such a marginal figure in the story of Australian modernism given the quality of his work, this circumstance does appear to echo the outsider status of the artist during his life. It seems he never quite felt at home in the different parts of Australia in which he lived, and perhaps he isolated himself to preserve his sense of autonomy within a parochial culture. We still have much to learn about how Australian culture has been shaped by such migration narratives, and I certainly feel indebted to Stephen Mould for the work he has done to ensure Dušan Marek is introduced to new audiences.

 

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