T E X T S . . .

Pavla Pečinková (text about Kurt Gebauer)

THE WORK of Kurt Gebauer seems to bring together all that is Czech: permanent irony, the skill of Czech hands, Baroque shapes of obese ladies, the ability to improvise and remain optimistic under any circumstances... He has the lively Švejkesque eyes of a smart observer of the "Bohemian Pond" but he knows also the sad shadow cast by Kafka's view of the absurdity of the modern world.
He stands firmly on his own feet in the present. He would not be inspired by a subtle search for transcendental spheres of meaning;
he cares about things, people and life which are here and he tries to name them or to touch them directly and without inhibitions.
Like a real man he is interested above all in two spheres of life's reality: women and politics. In his most successful realizations, such as Bohemian Pond and An Attempt to Prolong Enthusiasm, he accomplishes a perfect combination of both inspirations.
He does not honour Art, and his works which he calls political-ironical installations, topical installations or open-air games are made from life, about life and for life. Nor has he ever been a Career man. After 1968 he realized that it was impossible for him to try to achieve an official position, and he responded to his time not the way it was required, but the way he felt and had to, so his sculptures involuntarily became a political slapstick, spontaneous expression as well as an accusation directed at the absurdity and feeble values of the normalization years. His Hypertrophied Parrot convincingly expresses the viewpoints of a consolidated Czech citizen, his Saluters capture the character of a Czech politician, his Bohemian Pond laughs at life's common values... However, even when the spontaneous response to a topical political situation is often an impulse for Gebauer's pieces, they are not just inverse propaganda, but their ambiguous meanings and subtle play between reality and absurdity transform this direct comment on contemporary time into a more general statement about contemporary man and his life. Gebauer's expression is in most cases accompanied by that substantial and intangible something which creates a timeless testimony out of humorous commentaries relating to their own period.
Gebauer studied at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in the 19605 under Makovský and Lidický. It was the time when Beatles sang All You Need Is Love, Czech culture was discovering Neo-Dada, Pop Art and New Figuration, and when Jindřich Chalupecký was writing his Art Today: "Mankind will not be able to live without art. But maybe art will have to start from scratch. <...> because above all it will be necessary to forget about art: to go back where art is not spoken about, back to simple life and its real needs. Only from there can art draw the strength to become what it should be: the practice of humaneness, satisfaction with life, a reason for society, an impulse for history." These were the key impulses forming Gebauer's beginnings.
He started with the classical craft of stone carving, and the classical feeling for sculptural form, the ability to imbue matter with life has stayed with him even when he worked with non-sculptural techniques. He soon abandoned classical sculpture and took up assemblages, experimented with all kinds of materials (often with junk), and mastered in an original way the technique of 50ft sculpture made of textile, plastic materials, wires, wicker and anything else, even raw vegetables, finally arriving at installations and actions, also touching on Body Art and land Art. He is fascinated by art not as a form but as a process. His generation stopped believing in classical artistic techniques and became convinced that "art can be made from anything". Gebauer, however, belongs to these few who are able to create a real sculpture from anything. He remains a figural artist, although he constantly tries to cross the boundaries of Art.
Although he is outwardly shocking and provokes with numerous practical jokes and gags, dwarfs and political caricatures, changeable expression as well as various technical procedures, from figures cast from a live model through blinking electrical installations to sets of rough stone, Gebauer's development is internally quite continuous and concentrated. In fact, Gebauer consistently develops several bas k themes which obsess him, which he periodically returns to and which are constantly interrelated: these are the "monsters" and "monuments", panoptical figures mocking degenerated human and political values; "female-swimmers" and "goddesses", semi-ironically and semi-seriously interpreting the eternal theme of woman as the basis of life; "restless young girl", related to traditional figuration, balancing his sarcastic view of the world by pointing out its fundamental, vital force; and finally, general studies on the theme of nature and man. Female Swimmers, the sculptures with which in 1969 Gebauer switched from traditional materials to technological experiments, represent the first originally clear-cut version of his interpretation of woman as both a symbol and object of erotic desire. Floating female forms, representing the classical sculptural ideal in a non-classical, ironic way, but with a classical sense for female forms and their sensual appeal, remain Gebauer's dominant motif which quickly earned him recognition. Wherever you meet Gebauer, you will discover new embodiment of feminity, as a rule in the form of curious combination of woman, angel, goddess and monster. This applies to Libuše from 1973 with the elementary gesture of the woman-goddess, painstakingly modeled after his own wife and mocking academic sculpture; casts of female busts at Prague's Lesser Town's backyards; stone figures at the symposium at Přední Kopanina; as well as ethereal figures fluttering between poles of Mutějovice hop-fields. Faithful to his conviction that an artist, by means of his art, should complement and compensate the world for what it lacks, he systematically builds around himself tiny territories of erotic idylls, artificial sentimental and humorous asylums in various forms and materials, offering refuge from the desolate outside world.
At the same time as Female Swimmers there came Strong-Minded Bullterrier which began a series of seemingly innocent, facetious objects with a transparent provocative political subtext. For the first time, Gebauer's original irony was fully displayed, which would from then on characterize his attitude to the world and place him j within the context of Czech non-conformist art of the 1970s as a representative of Grotesque Figuration.
Strong-Minded Bullterrier, whose expression can be directly attributed to the depression and bleak delusion of the early I 970s, was followed by Hypertrophied Parrot, Well-Fed Fish and other unseemly creatures which grew complacently fat in their cage - symbols of dull, consumer-based and passive human existence in an enclosed space. From here, the next logical step was the series of Gebauer's monsters, panoptical beings sadly mirroring our tragicomical world: Cows, inspired by Communist "notice boards of honour" typical of the time; ambiguous Dwarfs; and finally Monsters. They appeared in 1987 for the first time, and their telltale installation in com post symbolized the morass of the final totalitarian years; shortly afterwards they became a basis for the series My Country. And because after November 1989 they did not vanish, they appear in a revamped, "old-new" form in Gebauer's works up to now.
In addition to first prototypes of Monsters, Gebauer also developed in the 1970s classical lyrical figural snapshots, such as On a Swing, Handstand and Running Girl, representing the opposite pole of Gebauer's sculptural range: on the one hand, bitter irony and persiflage of life and art, on the other, the search for salvation on the ruins of Art and in the landscape of childhood. Gebauer periodically returns to figures of girls, little girls and children, embodying movement, playfulness and pure life, and he tries again and again to capture the intangible and materialize the immaterial.
Subtle ironic distance, ambiguity of expression, the application of non-classical sculptural materials and an intimate scale make it possible for the sculptor to avoid academism. Nevertheless, even when scaled up to monumental proportions in classical bronze, these statues retain an urgent and anxious lively expression, confirming Gebauer's masterful skill in sculpture.
In the I 970s, there opened another substantial field in Gebauer's art: environment, which surpassed the traditional enclosed three-dimensional space of a sculpture. A design of children's playground for housing projects in Ostrava-Fifejdy, a specific oasis of fairy-tale world full of metamorphoses where clay, concrete and stone come to life and become mysterious beings who enrich and, paradoxically, humanize our rational world, was Gebauer's first attempt at landscape sculpture. The imagery of this artificial landscape reemerged again in several of his installations of the 1980s, also even in variations on Monsters. Gebauer consequently focused on the principle of merging sculpture with nature in a number of collective actions staged by non-conformist young artists aimed at the interpretation of a chosen space, for instance the confrontation with the landscape at the Mutějovice hop-field or the symposium at Přední Kopanina. In his Beach at Přední Kopanina Gebauer came to terms with stone as sculptural material, though he no longer worked it in a classical way any more. He composed monumental figures from found stones and managed to imprint the image of a woman offering herself even in the raw, unworked sculptural matter. This installation, made of stone but still of a transient nature, in which Gebauer for the first time tried to build a sculpture and space by means identical with those of nature itself, anticipated the approaches he adopted in studies of the 1990s focused on the relationship of man and nature.
During the 1980s, the political aggressivity of Gebauer's slapsticks increased; changing from passive resistance to an offensive. His monsters no longer had a private character; the humorous symbols of limited existence developed into sarcastic monuments which embodied the omnipresent Communist demagoguery. The more meditative Cage-Heads and monumental goddesses, in which Gebauer attempted to give a more general human characteristic, remained more or less in the background of these topical pieces.
Attention was attracted chiefly to a number of political-ironical installations which became evident symbols of the absurdity of the crumbling regime. Here we can place the Dwarfs which brought Gebauer such fame. They were not merely an innocent sculptor's joke aimed at the "genocide of dwarfs in Bohemia", as the artist himself claimed in his defence, but rather an appeal directed against the genocida of human freedom and authenticity. Their imagery was directly developed by Saluters, stupid puppets with a decreed gesture, installed to be viewed from only one angle on a platform at Prague's Palace of Culture, saluting the audience of the Rockfest 1987, which already represented an obvious and open parody of Communist politicians. The politically involved character of Gebauer's installations culminated at the exhibition Forum '88 in the grand gesture of a crumbling statesman. The monument had shreds hanging from it and a red carpet leading up to it, which could be interpreted also as a pool of blood, and featured a protruding head of the familiar Monster. And finally, at the end of the 1980s, the Rocking Monument emerged which explicitly indicated that shabby Communist monuments would soon be on the move and the weather-cocks would turn.
The political upheaval of 1989 provided Gebauer with a new social role and was directly reflected in his work; from landscape-sculpture he shifted his focus to action-sculpture and life-sculpture. As soon as in the summer of 1989, i.e. before the Velvet Revolution, Gebauer realized the first of his "topical installations" Behind Marianne in which the reason for realization was no longer the artifact but the action as such. The topical actions which he then organized in the early 1990s represented a unique statement about the contemporary events and issues: Red, Blue and White Volcanos welcomed the inauguration of Václav Havel as president;
Flag-Cutting responded to the disintegration of Czechoslovakia. The most significant work of this nature is Gottwcage, developed from the previous cage-heads, dwarfs, monuments as well as pyrotechnical group sculptures. This 'eccentric monument, erected upon the pedestal of a removed statue of Gottwald, the first Communist president of Czechoslovakia, optimally combined a sculpture and action as well as art and political reality: the paper facade of a gigantic dwarf Gottwald was set on fire during its ceremonial opening to the accompaniment of cheerful fireworks, and all that remained of the demagogic monument was a crooked iron skeleton which would probably rust and disintegrate with the passage of time. This event earned glowing recognition, something contemporary artists enjoy only exceptionally.
Nevertheless, after the post-November 1989 fireworks euphoria Gebauer's work began incorporating irony again. Realizations such as An Attempt to Prolong Enthusiasm, Up and Down, Self-Centred Notice Board and Revamped Monsters prove that his sensitive observation of public matters have not been mechanically and opportunistically tuned to new political waves and that his art has not ceased to be the consciousness of society.
Gebauer's political installations of the 1990s are balanced by realizations, called "nature games" by the artist, which focus on the relationship between nature and man, i.e. nature and art. It is nothing so radically new with him; he let nature intervene in his work as early as in 1973 in his Charming Spitfire: a wicker female swimmer was pecked and thus given its shape by birds. Natural processes also played an essential role in installations in Mutějovice and Přední Kopanina. Now his collaboration with nature is more intentional. In the realization Beach /I in Nice, France he let a pebble figure fall apart in the sea waves; in his Head-Rock at the symposium in Hořice he tried, on the contrary, to adjust himself to nature and made a simple composition of quarry stones which he left almost untouched by sculpture tools.
Similarly to Rockhead from the symposium in Wei Hai, China, he confronted the "eternity" of stone with the "transiency" of the life of grass, and he merely finished working the shape of a block of quarry stone to make it an organic part of the landscape again, though at the same time retaining its human message.
Thus Gebauer's figure have progressed from an elaborate imitation or cast of a person to a statue which almost loses the character of a human work. The ironic commentator of the human panoptical stage silently stops before the events of life and nature...
"because above all it will be necessary to forget about art: to go back where art is not spoken about, back to simple life and its real needs. Only from there can art draw the strength to become what it should be: the practice of humaneness..." Gebauer's story is not concluded with a "happily-ever-after", It remains as open as the future of society itself with whose fate his art has developed and merged.

Pavla Pečinková, May 1995