Mikuláš Medek was the grandson of the impressionist Antonín Slavíček, the son of General Rudolf Medek, and his brother was the well known journalist and writer for Voice of America Ivan Medek. After 1945, Medek began studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. However, after the communist coup d’état and as the son of a legionnaire and general in the army of the First Republic, in 1949 he was expelled as part of the purges. He worked as a labourer for Škodové závody in Smíchov, Prague, while on the side working as a graphic designer and restorer. He never gave up his art work, and worked with Karel Teige, for instance, whom he assisted in the publication of art anthologies. His painting, which he worked on without interruption and diligently, was strictly a private affair.
His uncompromising approach, both in his civilian life and in his work, brought him recognition and made him a kind of guru to the young generation on the unofficial art scene at the end of the 1950s. His name was closely linked with a circle of artists associated with the beginnings of Czech informel, which was exhibited at the legendary private exhibitions Confrontations I and Confrontations II. Medek was invited to participate, though in the end did not exhibit (though some literature mistakenly lists his name amongst the exhibitors). However, he was a kindred spirit both artistically and philosophically of the young generation and visited the exhibitions.
Medek created his first works while at AVU in 1945. At this time he was influenced by surrealism. “In Medek’s early works we see an interesting approach to the principles of European surrealism, something we could call surrealistic mannerism, i.e. a late, syncretic phase of a certain artistic opinion that uses a readymade, fully developed aesthetic and symbols in order to express completely new, personal worlds and to attain different objectives.” (František Šmejkal). The work of this time reveals traces of Miró, Klee, Dalí, Ernst, as well as Toyen (the cycle Onion World / Svět cibule, 1945-1947, Infantile Landscape / Infantilní krajina, 1947, Midday Smiles / Úsměvy poledne, 1949, etc.).
However, at the start of the 1950s Medek fell under the influence of existentialism. The figure begins to dominate in his paintings, becoming witness to Man’s disquieting, lacerating and hopeless situation. The existentialist concept of human existence suited him both in terms of the intellectual trends of the day and as a reaction to the intolerable situation of a person living under the repressive yoke of the communist regime. The figures (mainly female) in these paintings are mercilessly deformed and placed within an empty space, “so that they experience the dreadful drama of their brutal animalism, sadism, anxiety, ugliness, eternal solitariness and horror.” (František Šmejkal). Certain scenes of everyday life are made absurd (Large Meal / Velké jídlo, 1954-56, The Kiss / Polibek, 1955). At the end of the 1950s, Medek’s figures are gradually stylised. Both they and the space around them are flattened out and lose their descriptive details. This represents an intermediate stage in the movement towards abstraction.
The first paintings of this new approach appeared in 1959 (e.g. Red Venus / Červená Venuše, 1959). Forms bearing only a slight resemblance to the human figure were created using a new painterly technique: as well as oil paints, Medek begins to use enamel. This enabled him to fill the surface of the canvas with thick sediments of paint that he subjects to further processing (incisions, scratches and cracks). After 1963, various features and symbols accumulate in Medek’s paintings, which become more dramatic (The Grim Reaper for 21,870 Delicate cm2 / Smrtka pro 21 870 křehkých cm2, 1964). The figure returns in a roundabout way, albeit very allusively. Motifs featuring screens, circular targets, funnels, rectangles, wheels and levers appear. Many of these paintings oscillate between a depiction of a highly stylised human figure and scenes of strange mechanisms that come alive in the form of enigmatic beings (Holy Gourmand / Svatý jedlík, 1966). Medek’s paintings became a complex mental construction of ambiguous symbolic systems, an artistic metaphor for the existence of Man, who finds himself in a tragic, grotesque situation and is thrown into an absurd world filled with pain and a bleak destiny.
During the normalisation period after 1970 Medek was again blacklisted. He was unable to exhibit or create works for public spaces, and it was forbidden to publish his writings. An important cycle of this time is entitled Mobile Graves / Pohyblivé hroby. The jagged torn materials of his previous work are confronted with structurally clearer forms of rectangles and balls (Large Mobile Grave / Velký pohyblivý hrob, 1973).
Medek’s paintings are a response to surrealist, existential and informel currents and the artistic trends of the 20th century. However, he reworked the surrealist tradition through irony, and while accepting the gestural concept of informel, through a laborious process of transformation he rids the image of its testimony as immediate record, the result being often very ornamental.
Mikuláš Medek died in 1974 at the age of 47 as a result of complications associated with diabetes.
In 2002, the Rudolfinum Gallery organised a retrospective of Medek’s work. A symposium was also held that examined the relevance of his work to the present day. Several young art theorists spoke at the symposium who had not known the artist. Their contributions were often critical in spirit, seemingly aiming to demythify the artist and his work and question his standing within a global context. Their contributions took issue with the heroisation of Medek as a famous outsider stigmatised by the times he lived in, which he in turn also stigmatised.
Realisations in public spaces and architecture
various pieces for Czech Airlines
14 obrazů křížové cesty pro kostel v Senetářově
oltářní obraz pro kapli v Kotvrdovicích
oltářní obraz pro farní kostel v Jedovnicích
2002 Mikuláš Medek, Gema Art, Praha
1970 Mráz Bohumír, Mikuláš Medek, Obelisk, Praha
1963 Jan Koblasa, Mikuláš Medek: Výstava obrazů z let 1959 – 1963, Svaz československých výtvarných umělců, Ústí nad Labem
2010 Klimešová Marie , Roky ve dnech (České umění 1945 - 1957), Galerie hlavního města Prahy
2003 Zdeněk Primus, Umění je abstrakce (Česká vizuální kultura 60. let), Kant, Praha
1997 Nešlehová Mahulena , Poselství jiného výrazu (Pojetí informelu v českém umění 50. a první poloviny 60. let), Artefact, Praha
1994 Chalupecký Jindřich , Nové umění v Čechách, Nakladatelství a vydavatelství H&H, s.r.o., Jinočany
1994 Ohniska znovuzrození (České umění 1956 - 1963), GHMP
1991 Český informel (Průkopníci abstrakce z let 1957 - 1964)
1991 Brabec Jiří , Gruša Jiří , Hájek Igor , Kabeš Petr , Lopatka Jan , Slovník zakázaných autorů 1948-1980, Státní pedagogické nakladatelství, Praha
1987 Grotesknost v českém výtvarném umění 20. století, GHMP
1969 Effenberger Vratislav , Výtvarné projevy surrealismu, Odeon, nakladatelství krásné literatury a umění, n.p., Praha
1967 František Šmejkal, Fantasijní aspekty současného českého umění, Oblastní galerie Vysočiny, Jihlava