Valentine’s Day would be lonely indeed without a blog from Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art. Here he explores the lovely, love-related lithographs of Jenny Doležel.
The Friends of Te Papa naturally love our museum and, probably in deeper emotional terms, their significant others. Accordingly, they are celebrating Valentine’s Day in high style. They will get a short lecture from this author on Jenny Doležel’s lithograph, The Game of Love, and then, acrylics and brushes in hand, they will be painting their tributes to Doležel and to the theme of love in general. Canapés and sparkling wine will be consumed in the course of this scintillating evening.
Check out us Czechs!
I feel for anyone who can’t make it, and for your benefit, here’s the next best thing, a Valentine’s Day blog on the artwork and the artist. I admit to a soft spot – if not yet love, we haven’t met – for Jenny Doležel. We share Czech ancestry – meaning we’re both a bit subversive and ironical with a highly developed sense of the ridiculous – and we’re both in love with art, albeit in different ways.
An artist at two
Born in 1964, Jenny Doležel knew from the age of two that she would become an artist and some 20 years later had graduated from the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland. Her art made an instant impact on the New Zealand scene, and she won the Wallace Prize in 1993. Her admirers are varied – Hamish Keith (chatty yet smart), Michael Dunn (cooler and a bit more intellectual), and Linda Tyler (feminist and super bright!).
Cartoons, puppets, and mime
All three of them in different ways responded to Doležel’s art, which both in style and subject is unique in New Zealand and immediately distinctive and recognisable. She says some of the biggest influences on her came from cartoons in Czech newspapers, posted to her family in Auckland by her grandparents. Czech puppetry, mime, and the Laterna Magicka – a kind of multimedia performance way ahead of its time – surely made their impact too.
Bosch, Baj, and Fomison
In art historical terms, she has looked intelligently at Bosch, Goya, and also, I suspect, the wacky Italian artist Enrico Baj (1924-2003).
Closer to home, Tony Fomision was a likely inspiration, though you can’t get anything more different between his grim, gothic monochrome, and Doležel’s violently strident, sometimes downright lolly, expressionistic colours. She observes: ‘Colour is a prominent formal element I employ to characterise and stage the “performance” – the often garish costuming gives a sense of character but can work either in harmony or in discord with the dynamics playing out.’
Art for youth
The Game of Love originated in the Muka Youth Project, established in 1987 by two Belgian immigrants to New Zealand, Magda van Gils and Frans Baetens. It was – and is today – a unique way of acquainting young people with contemporary art. The New Zealand and international artists commissioned by Muka produce small scale lithographs, exhibited at prominent venues and on sale to young people aged 5-18 in exhibitions where adults are excluded. Artists’ names are covered up and prices are set initially at a low level to encourage young people to buy the prints. Many of the 34 works by Jenny Doležel in Te Papa’s collection are Muka prints.
A relentless psychological control
Her art has a special resonance with children and she values their spontaneous responses. Hamish Keith warns: ‘Her fantastic creatures and elaborate grotesques can be misread for the stuff of children’s books and the nursery toy box given just a slightly sinister edge. But penetrate beneath that layer and the encounters in her work are all about a relentless psychological control, both the power and the burden of it.’ This is vividly rendered on a large scale in her Aotea Centre, Auckland mural, The Circus of Life (1988-89).
Like a puppet on a string
But let’s now play The Game of Love. It’s a large, artist’s trial proof, measuring 720 x 520 mm, a lot bigger than standard Muka prints. A figure with a heart-shaped head and massive grin glows with enjoyment as he/she (we often don’t know) manipulates three strange puppets, who don’t look as contented – though there’s a smirk on the pinkish one in the middle. What is the role of the strange blue creature in the foreground?
A broken heart
And what about the strange, two-headed, owl-like creature separated from them on the right? Why are they wearing dungarees? Couldn’t this just be the artist herself, who appears in stylised forms in many of Doležel’s works? On the left two distorted creatures constitute a broken heart, yet they look as if they are enjoying themselves. Is the puppeteer cruelly creating a broken-hearted situation?
Jenny Doležel perhaps wisely refuses to confirm or deny any personal, autobiographical component in this work – or any others by her. She told me as follows: ‘All my work relates to me in some form but never directly from my life events. It deals with ideas of power and what is concealed in the dynamics and characters. They are being orchestrated as if to the audience, to figure out the interactions, watching the play unfold.’
Doležel answers similarly when I ask who is that sinister, smiling, glowing puppeteer? Was she in love with someone at the time of the print (1989)? Was there a cruel puppeteer pulling the strings in her life? She nicely puts me in my place and says in as many words: ‘Go figure!’, and repeats: ‘These works are not directly about me or my world.’
She didn’t deny that two other love-related works in Te Papa’s collection, Love Each Other 1 and II, were ‘as you put it, more benign’ than The Game of Love. But she reminds me (and other viewers) how using various formal combinations of colour, space, and form can radically alter the dynamics and interactions of a picture. She does her own thing here each time.
An international artist
Jenny Doležel has spent much of the past 25 years living and working in Europe, but since 2010 more time in New Zealand. She explains: ‘My life and work took me to Germany in 1989 with a scholarship and now I’m currently based in France, working on commissions and preparing for exhibitions. My work still involves the same interests and dynamics that my practice has always been about.’
Even though she is careful to exclude the personal, Jenny Doležel is nonetheless delighted by Te Papa’s Valentine’s Day Paint + Wine Night, saying she has ‘always welcomed discussions and response to my work’. She will certainly get it from the aspiring Friends’ artists and also, I hope, from readers of this blog!