The work of Adriena Šimotová is typically a world originating out of an extreme sense of threat. The insistence with which this experience of the polarity of human existence – its presence and absence – is communicated springs not just from the artist’s own fateful personal experiences but from her sensitive perception of the world. Šimotová describes here impressions from the war, which was her first encounter with the tragic side of life. Later the early loss of her husband and then her son had a profound effect on the artist’s life and left a powerful imprint on her work. She is also however influenced by her intellectual interests – for example, reading Marcel Proust or Martin Buber’s I and Thou, in which she found something akin to her own fragile, existential approach to the world and life.
Adriena Šimotová entered the art scene in the second half of the 1950s. Her sensitive perception of reality collided roughly with the harsh era of Soviet Stalisnism and its dictated dogma. Like many of her fellow students, she looked to the interwar avant-garde and especially French art for something to seize on. In 1954 her husband Jiří John became acquainted with painter Václav Bartovský, an older colleague, who with his gentle elegance and cultivated and sensitive painting, oriented towards French painters (e.g. Matisse, Bonnard), made a big impression on the young artists. Gradually a group of young artists united by a common outlook formed around Bartovský. In 1958 an exhibition of young artists was held at the House of Art (Dům umění) in Brno. The year 1958 was a turning point in Czech art: the political situation had begun to thaw slightly. In Brno a generation of young artists with a strong sense of shared outlook came together at the exhibition. They included Adriena Šimotová and other artists who in 1960 formed the group UB 12 (the members of UB 12 were V. Bartovský, V. Boštík, F. Burant, V. Janoušek, V. Janoušková, J. John, S. Kolíbal, J. Mrázek, D. Mrázková, V. Prachatická, O. Smutný, J. Šetlík, A. Šimotovýá, A. Vitík, from 1962 A. Kučerová and from 1964 J. Zemina).
The early period of Šimotová’s work was influenced by the atmosphere in the artistic circle of UB 12. From the outset she showed herself to be a painter with a feel for the pure, visual quality of colour. Paintings like Mirror (Zrcadlo, 1962) exhibit even stronger ties to pre-war development, but in 1963 her work underwent a change. Šimotová moved towards a more abstract form of expression, though reality and usually landscape remained the prime motive. Mahulena Nešlehová classes these works within the wave of ‘poetic contemplation’, which is close to French lyrical abstraction (emerging after 1945 in the work of Wols and Hartung). Šimotová’s paintings, however, were at that time less existential than the French work and inclined towards statements about the search for harmony in life. Increasingly, concrete lines and symbols made their way into these lyrically quavering images, such as in the painting Mapped Landscape (Zmapovaná krajina, 1965), which, as the title indicates, is not so much about capturing an impression but about ‘mapping’ or somehow surveying a territory. Devices other than just painting techniques also appear in this painting (pasted paper).
In the late 1960s a movement that acquired the name New Figuration moved to the foreground of Czech art. It mixed the pop-art influences with an attempt to capture figures in new contexts. Some artists in this circle gravitated towards a grotesque concept (K. Nepraš, K. Gebauer), others captured the more philosophical level of everyday situations. Adriena Šimotová’s work also began to evolve along the lines of this movement around the year 1970. Her paintings, on subjects such as hair-combing and washing, alluded to the beauty of everyday tasks and to what she referred to as ‘delimitation’, which she understands as the relationship between humans and space and how they interactively shape each other. By this period her husband Jiří John had fallen ill and he died in 1972.
After the premature death of Jiří John, Šimotová could no longer go back to bold colours and painting. This was also a time when the traditional devices of art were being abandoned all over the world. One new tendency that emerged in her work emphasised the senses in the present, and this was induced by means of haphazard installations and the tactile quality of the materials used, underscoring their ephemeral, variable, impermanent and volatile qualities. Robert Morris coined the term ‘anti-form’ (1968) and spoke of the dematerialisation of art. Many artists’ work began to be statements about the fragility, elusiveness, and unpredictability of existence (Eva Hesse). The shift in Šimotová’s work was not just a reaction to what happened in her private life, but came from a sense of a need to find an adequate means of artistic expression. New expressive devices such as fragile paper and soft materials were exactly what she needed to express her feelings about the fleetingness of life. The way the unorthodox media emerging in art at that time are combined with personal reflections on death and the transience of existence is extraordinarily compelling in Šimotová’s work.
Over the course of the 1970s and later Šimotová was creating work that largely employed paper in its various forms, allowing her to work with its fragile and yielding qualities, lightly perforating, tearing, crumpling or shaping it. A key theme is the figure as a vehicle for depictions of man confronted with extreme situations in life. The psychological impact is then amplified by the artist’s emphasis on the material’s tactile quality, evoking a sense of physicality or a sense that we have before us the traces of the recent presence of a human body (or parts of one; heads are a frequent motif). Sometimes these traces are found in genuine imprints: the artist would imprint her own body or the bodies of her friends in the painting. Only occasionally would she add colour to the paper, her primary shades being Klein blue or the red of human tissue. The presence of the physical aspect runs right through her very sensitive body of work, her work is permeated by the ‘language of touch’. Šimotová managed to transform ‘poor’ materials using her hands (crumpling, overlapping, perforating, tearing) into lofty statements with metaphysical dimensions.
Although the work of Adriena Šimotová tends largely to revolve around the same subject, it has nonetheless undergone remarkable changes. If we compare, for example, works from the 1960s with works from the past decade, the size of the difference is obvious, even though in both periods she is dealing with the philosophy of human existence. Her earliest works relate more to physicality and to a direct experience with material (though they also touch on spirituality). Objects such as Solitude (Osamělost, 1977) or Support (Podpírání, 1984) are in a way more narrative: we can glean from them more memetic points to seize on that direct us toward their meaning. With the passage of time, however, there has been a growing tendency towards greater abstraction of real shapes in her art and a strengthening drift towards ‘dematerialisation’ in both the formal and the intellectual sense (Intimacy without Gravity / Intimní stav bez tíže, 1992). Everything is more fleeting, far harder to capture and describe, and increasingly fragile. The physical aspect has not vanished, it is however more subtle and flitting. Legibly represented figures or objects alternate with shapes whose relationship to reality is often indicated by nothing more than the name of the work (Large Mirror / Velké zrcadlo, 1990). This elusiveness is then achieved late in the artist’s life, as the statement made is not about a flesh-and-blood world (Revelation / Vyjevování, 2010). Forms are sublimated and dissolve into a cosmic vortex of prime matter, becoming unglued, cloudy, flitting, and fluttering particles. As if Šimotová were uttering the old Biblical (but essentially now scientifically proven) words: ‘for dust you are and to dust you shall return’.
Hodrová Daniela: Zář, A2 kultruní týdeník 10/2008