He was born on the day before Christmas Eve, 1960 in Prague. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in the studio of Arnošt Paderlík. After the completion of his studies in 1985, he earned a living as a cemetery headstone engraver and a night watchman at the National Gallery in the Anežský Monastery (together with Václav Stratil). In 1990 he left for a residency in Paris. After returning he taught for many years—first as an evening drawing class instructor, at the Žižkov Elementary Arts School, in the department of architecture at the Institute of Drawing and Modeling in Brno and finally at the Gallery of the Central Bohemian Region in Kutná Hora. He lives and works in Prague. Representation in Collections: City Gallery of Prague and Museum Montanelli.
I moved into the apartment at 8 Sněmovní Street in Prag in 1982. Originally an early Baroque building, rebuilt in the Classical style by architect Josef Fanta, it boasts the largest balcony in the Lesser Town. My room was so large that the son of the previous tenant, Mr. Jandus, used to ride his bicycle in it; with the adjoining balcony, it felt like a 19th-century salon to me, a salon artist who made a living doing portraits of royalty drawn to order from live models. The mysterious atmosphere of the Lesser Town permeated my paintings, drawn entirely in micro pencil and black and white.
In 1997 I was forced to move out by the new owner of the house. I lost part of my identity. Then began my pilgrimage through the apartments I used as a studio. My wife Klára and I moved to Nové Město na Moravě, where we changed 3 addresses, then to Kutná Hora, where we moved "only" twice. In Prague, I started living in a 2-bedroom apartment on the 11th floor of a prefabricated flat in Bohnice.
After I left Sněmovní Street I started drawing not only at home, but also in the apartments of my friends and acquaintances. After a while I drained the space energetically, let's say burned it down, and I had to go elsewhere. Again and again I looked for new objects, their stories and connections. It was easier in Moravia because there were friends and acquaintances who allowed me to draw in their apartment during the day when they were at work. In anonymous Prague it is much harder - trust is less common.
Mikkel B. Tin
Tomáš Smetana’s drawings
A personal tradition
An artist who is true to himself becomes the carrier of a personal tradition. From work to work, from day to day, from movement to movement of his hand, a continuity develops that will define his style. In that sense, tradition is a certain skill acquired over time and embodied as habits. But tradition also widens our access to the outer world: as a tacit competence it facilitates our present and future encounters with the world.
In his philosophy of the body, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty defines the acquisition of a habit as an “extension of existence” (2010:176), and the habit as a tradition in the body. Bodily traditions provide a framework but their life depends on their proving relevant in still new settings.
According to Merleau-Ponty, bodily traditions are essential in artistic creation – and Tomáš Smetana’s work provides a remarkable example. The following text is based on two interviews with Smetana in 2010, one in Paris and another in Žďár nad Sázavou – as well as on passages from Merleau-Ponty’s writings.
One may justly say that the artist Tomáš Smetana, in his drawings, creates his own tradition. One could also say, however, that it is his tradition that creates the artist Tomáš Smetana. It no doubt is for personal reasons that some people feel a stronger need than others to perceive themselves in continuity and tradition. A personal tradition provides the artist with a continuity that makes his work both unique and recognizable. As for Smetana’s tradition, it involves a technical mastery based on many years of practice and embodied habits, skills that now allow the artist to create with that special blend of concentration and absent-mindedness that characterizes habits. “The work flows all by itself. I don’t need to concentrate, I can leave myself and move about in space. What’s important is to keep on for a while, give yourself time. A drawing can’t be finished in a single day. I don’t draw in order to make a drawing, I draw in order to feel the time passing. The main thing is to fill the day with some kind of activity and avoid bothering one’s family.” (Smetana 7.10.2010)
Duration, thus, is important for Smetana; both when it comes to the techniques and the motifs he elects.
The method by which Smetana draws is very slow indeed. “It is a certain kind of very slow method of reconciling myself with my own thoughts. To me, it’s not so much about the drawing, it’s more about contemplation, a certain way of being present. The experience of spending hour after hour in the same place. This puts its mark on the drawing. The slowness, the process of maturation and the process of thinking are important.” (Smetana 30.7.2010) Smetana emphasizes his work being handicraft. “It is nothing other than graphic handicraft. A craft I have taught myself. Thanks to the hundreds of drawings I have crosshatched.” (Smetana 30.7.2010)
In all truth we can say that drawing for Smetana has become a habit, that he has drawing in his fingers. He has been “crosshatching”, as he puts it, since the start of the 1990s. He no longer needs to be fully consciously present in order for his hand to work and find the solutions he needs. Even the largest formats he patiently crosshatches with minute lines. True, his crosshatching has been more or less dense, yet recently he has been thickening many surfaces so long that they acquire a dark, almost velvety depth. Using the micro-pencil and the thinnest leads he can find. He is convinced that the energy he invests in his work process accumulates as energy in the picture. “I deliberately restrict myself to pencil and fill the entire surface. I thicken the drawing with energy.” (Smetana 30.7.2010) But he does this also in order that the small, rhythmical movements of his hand, required to crosshatch the paper and now part of his motor skills, will have time enough to put him into this meditative state in which the hand works while the mind travels. At such moments he feels most creative.
Then, shortly after 2000, he began to use crayons, though these have a different function. “When I draw using crayons, I draw harshly, I work off.” (Smetana 30.7.2010) The surfaces then almost begin to glow, intensely satiated. Other times he may colour part of a pencil-drawing in Indian ink: “This is about emphasis. Indian ink is transparent and the volumes continue to be visible. As in old photos.” (Smetana 30.7.2010) While crayons produce impermeable surfaces, Indian ink creates transparent space.
He may outline architectural elements using a ruler, otherwise he builds up his drawings with these tiny lines, one alongside another, tens of thousands of them. Smetana’s drawings may at times be extremely detailed, but never punctilious, perhaps exactly because his hand is not overruled by his mind. Hand and mind hold each other in check. He monitors his work with that distracted attention which is Merleau-Ponty’s definition of habits, which are „neither a form of knowledge nor an involuntary action”: but “knowledge in the hands” (Merleau-Ponty 2010:166). He has no image ready from the outset, only an unclear idea that his hand gradually clarifies to him. “I don’t decide about the future. I proceed in such a way that I make my decisions one after another, each on the basis of the previous one.” (Smetana 30.7.2010) “You sometimes have a feeling that the drawing is becoming interesting.” (Smetana 7.10.2010) “I never make any rash step. I put down something on the paper and then the next thing occurs to me, and this continues until I have the whole drawing.” (Smetana in Černá 2009:46) It is of course Smetana who draws his drawings. But what he experiences is that the drawing appears, that it is thanks to his tiny pencil strokes that the drawing comes into being.
The drawings are clearly figurative, though not directly naturalistic. They represent people or objects or both together. “To begin with I stylised. Now I approach realism.” (Smetana 30.7.2010) Perhaps a kind of “fantastic or magical realism” (Smetana in Uhlář 2010). The people he draws are friends and acquaintances or members of his family, and the objects are such that are at hand: furniture, toys, shoes, wallpaper, carpets; still, the shining, often also translucent surface of glass, plastic film, mirrors, pots and pans occupy a special position. “Still life is a reflection of the past.” (Smetana 7.10.2010) A reflection which is not a simple reproduction of the past: Smetana’s still lifes take up the life we lead in the present and which we can decide to ignore or make our own. His work is a constant process of re-collection in which the items of the everyday are revisited, scrutinized, taken up into or left out from the personal tradition he is forming through his art.
“I carry a suitcase and put things inside it that, after all, are pretty random: my father’s ashtray, my mother’s shoe. I’m not completely serious about it, it may be that it isn’t my mum’s shoe. It becomes a kind of legend, I create my own personal mythology.” (Smetana 30.7.2010) The high-heeled shoe that perhaps belonged to his mother and perhaps did not and in which, Smetana says, she went dancing, already features in some of his earliest drawings. He has taken it up and incorporated it into his “personal mythology”. Even if it were fictive, it is nevertheless real, because it has the ability to make the dead person present in Smetana’s tradition.
This relates not only to his mother but to an entire world of the past. “I have a number of objects that appear again and again in my drawings: a First Republic rug, a cubist writing table that belonged to Aunt Vlasta, a hatstand, a chair, a pouffe – things I have a certain relationship with. They are souvenirs, relics from a time when there existed entrance halls, salons and bedrooms, an era with certain aesthetic and human values, an epoch with a certain sophistication. In those days, also good workmanship was appreciated.” (Smetana 7.10.2010) Items from the past played a different role under communism than they do nowadays. Now their value has fallen, Smetana says, now we find them in coffee bars and restaurants as decorative props that mean nothing. But back then, in the communist era, they were rare and full of significance. The few items that his grandma still possessed were not only fragments that reflected the world the communists scattered, they were not only relics from a world that Smetana had never known; they were affordances in his own life. When he visited his grandma as a boy, she would tell him stories about her father who had been physician-in-ordinary to the Bulgarian Tsar, and about her husband, Smetana’s grandfather, bishop in the Evangelic Church in Czechoslovakia. Those were colours and sound very different from the ones Smetana encountered in the block of flats where he grew up, colours and sounds he could choose to either take up into or leave out of his own tradition.
It is not out of nostalgia that Smetana draws his aunt’s desk. He does not need the property that the communists expropriated. He needs no more than a shoe, which in reality does not even have to have belonged to his mother in order to make her present. In any case, it brings her close to him. Tradition is not a museum. It is, in Merleau-Ponty’s words, “the power to forget origins and to give to the past not a survival, which is the hypocritical form of forgetfulness, but a new life, which is the noble form of memory” (Merleau-Ponty 1964:59). The tradition Smetana establishes is no return to the past but an expansion of the present and an opening onto the future. “Sometimes an object has a past and can tell a story. I collect stories that relate to my drawings.” (Semtana 7.10.2010) What happens is that the insignificant acquires new significance when Smetana chooses to take it up in his drawings, and quite particularly when he takes it up again and again, and insists on these objects as links in a personal tradition.
Neither would it be correct to say that Smetana is subject to the circumstances in which he creates or the people he misses. It is he who, taking them up into his work, appropriates them and, including them in his universe, ensures for them a new life.
In his description of the creation of an artwork Merleau-Ponty criticizes both the biographical approach taken by art history when it perceives artworks as reflections of the external life of the artist, and the psychoanalytical approach which perceives the works as reflections of the artist’s inner world. Both perspectives are reductionist to the extent that their deterministic explanations overlook the creative transformation of the circumstances of an artist’s life, which is what distinguishes the artist as artist. “If we take the painter’s point of view in order to be present at that decisive moment when what has been given to him to live as corporeal destiny, personal adventures or historical events crystallizes into the ‘motive’, we will recognize that his work, which is never an effect, is always a response to these data, and that the body, the life, the landscapes, the schools, the mistresses, the creditors, the police, and the revolutions which might suffocate painting are also the bread his work consecrates. To live in painting is still to breathe the air of this world – above all for the man who sees something in the world to paint. And there is a little of him in every man.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964:64)
Smetana speaks of “A mental process consisting of learning to perceive a meaning and an aesthetic value in every object” (Smetana 30.7.2010). When he takes the objects, and people, up into his drawings, this is more than simple reproduction of people and things in his surroundings. It is a special form of re-cognition. “The ‘known’, says the hermenutist Hans-Georg Gadamer, enters into its true being and manifests itself as what it is only when it is recognized. As recognized, it is grasped in its essence, detached from its accidental aspects.” (Gadamer 2006:114) The definition Gadamer here gives of the term “recognition” comes very close to Merleau-Ponty’s term “reprise”, the act of taking up again something from the past and including it in a present tradition.
In the process of recognizing and taking up again things from the past, we organize what first meets us as a chaos. To organize is to master, and taking up lived experience means to shape it, to fit it into a composition. “I rearrange things until I find the ideal composition. Aesthetic pleasure is essential, I have to like it. I exert myself to create order in the composition, in the distribution of planes. I work from the whole to the details, to the particulars, and then back again to the whole. I create unreal spaces, abstract compositions. I try out various formats. But I’m still only at the start. I concentrate on keeping the surface clean. Clean as velvet. Certain moments are complicated, certain surfaces tedious. On must alternate between tedium and concentration. The entire body is involved, the tension keeps growing towards the end, towards the decisive moment.” (Smetana 30.7.2010)
The body and our view of the world
We all have a body and it is our body that determines the angle from which we view the world. Without the body and a viewpoint we would see no world at all. On the other hand, the world we see is always deformed by our angle of view. Nobody will ever see the world as it is “objectively”. It is this deformation that makes the world our world and allows us to perceive the world as meaningful, as a life-world. However, our experience of this meaning depends on an important condition. “There is signification when we submit the data of the world to a ‘coherent deformation’,” writes Merleau-Ponty (1964:54) with a quotation from the author and art historian André Malraux. While deformation is a necessary consequence of our embodiment, coherence depends on our creative abilities and will. To perceive meaning is first of all to create meaning.
The body influences not only our view of things but also our creative abilities. “Our handwriting is recognized whether we trace letters on paper with three fingers of our hand or in chalk on the blackboard at arm’s length.” Since, Merleau-Ponty continues, “it is not a purely mechanical movement of our body which is tied to certain muscles and destined to accomplish certain materially defined movements, but a general motor power of formulation capable of the transpositions which constitute the constancy of style” (Merleau-Ponty 1964:65).
We all have a body, but if our eyes and hands deform our impressions, they also have the power to form our expressions coherently, in other words to impart style to them. This is the special task of the artist and his style is nothing but the coherent deformation that he inflicts upon the world he paints. “For each painter, style is the system of equivalences that he makes for himself for the work which manifests the world he sees. It is the universal index of the ‘coherent deformation’ by which he concentrates the still scattered meaning of his perception and makes it exist expressly.” (Merleau-Ponty 1964:54-55) Coherence means connection, and we understand that coherence is decisive not only for the painter’s style but for the painter to find a meaning in what he sees around him, and in order for him to express this meaning meaningfully in what he paints. After all, coherence is just another word for the tradition that he makes exist for himself and for others when he decides to take it up.
Smetana is a master of drawing the objects he selects as his motifs. He depicts them clearly and distinctly, even when they are complicated and full of details, such as a wallpaper with Japanese ornamentation. He is proud of what he calls the academism of his work, i.e. the masterly depiction of a well-organized composition or a model from life. There nevertheless is something odd in his drawings that is not at all in keeping with academism and of which he is even more proud. A kind of awkwardness in the way he draws, a certain ubiquitous stylisation; and his perspectives. As in the case of Cézanne – and far more spectacularly in M. C. Escher of course, Smetana’s model – certain objects are seen from one point, while others from a different point. Often this point is so high that the vanishing point lies beyond the surface of the picture.
Classical central perspective is based on geometrical laws. In that sense, central perspective is an attempt to reconcile the subjective viewpoint with an objective presentation of reality. But Smetana is obviously not interested in any objective presentation of reality. In order to be objective, representation would first of all have to exclude artistic freedom, and it ceases to be objective as soon as the artist imprints his style on it and makes it artistic. However, Smetana is not interested in objective reality either, since such reality is devoid of meaning. It may possess properties, but one can speak of meaning only within a concrete lived situation. What Smetana brings about is a certain unreality, and his peculiar perspectives make it clear that it is not objective validity he aims at; if anything, it is an artificial space, i.e. the special space of art. That is where he can find himself and where we can find him. The objects Smetana uses to fill up the space are not interesting by virtue of their objective properties. They only become interesting in that light, that perspective, in which he decides to see them, subjecting them to that specific coherent deformation which becomes his style. That happens when he rescues objects and people from the past and allows them to exist in the present. When he loads them with meaning and makes them part of the tradition he creates.
Tradition begins with our angle of view, “and this is what I mean when I say that I perceive with my body or my senses, since my body and my senses are precisely that familiarity with the world, born of habit, that implicit or sedimentary body of knowledge,” writes Merleau-Ponty (2010:277). This is not only about sensory perceptions and motor skills that we acquire through practice and that settle in our body. It is also about an intimacy with the world acquired through interaction with it. On the other hand, tradition presupposes choice too. That is why, according to Merleau-Ponty, we must decide to take up this implicit knowledge in order that the tradition exists for us. Tradition is not fate, it is a choice, and a choice we must confirm again and again. And each time it is ourselves we choose.
Tradition, in other words, imposes a set of rules that we must respect if we are to become bearers of tradition. Without rules there is no coherence, and without coherent deformation there is no style. Smetana sometimes creates large drawings, sometimes small ones. Some are coloured, many are black-and-white, some are both coloured and black-and-white. Some are still lifes, others portraits. Even so, his style abides by strict rules and is unmistakable. This has to do with the technique that he has practiced, developed and acquired. It guides his hand while his mind roams free. And he can be absent-minded only because he has the rules in his body: clearly articulated volumes, completely flat planes, no shadows or only hints of shadows, and a depth almost always limited by a back wall. Items without organic cohesion but often with surfaces that reflect each other in complex interplays. Balanced arrangements, static, completely motionless, without the slightest movement even where they continue beyond the boundaries of the drawing. An even crosshatching, freer or denser or completely compact, often such that an ornament or a contour is the chink left white in between surrounding surfaces drawn black.
The rules of the game operate as a frame around the drawing while at the same time opening up a space for the game, a space that Smetana masterfully exploits when drawing. Each new sheet may be seen as a chess board, and Smetana moves the objects of his tradition as a chess player moves the pieces of the game. The game is repetitive and yet always new: reprise and project as in any tradition according to Merleau-Ponty. This explains the pleasure of the game experienced by Smetana when drawing, while the rules he abides by keep challenging his inventiveness. Sometimes he wins, other times he loses, but with every new drawing he stands out more distinctly. Tradition is essential to a person who wishes to see himself clearly, and Smetana is clear to others too.
Černá, Kateřina (2009) “Dělám si dobře”. In Art + antiques. Prague January.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2004) Truth and method. Translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. London and New York: Continuum.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2010) Phenomenology of perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London and New York: Routledge Classics.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1964) Signs. Translated by Richard C. McCleary. Northwestern University Press.
Smetana, Tomáš (30.7.2010) Personal conversation with Mikkel B. Tin in Paris.
Smetana, Tomáš (7.10.2010) Personal conversation with Mikkel B. Tin in Žďár nad Sázavou.
Uhlář, Břetislav (2020) “Pozoruhodné obrazy Tomáše Smetany kreslené mikrotužkou HB 0.3 mm”. In Moravskoslezský Deník, Ostrava 12.1.
A Norwegian version of this text, including 14 reproductions, was printed as a catalogue on the occasion of Tomáš Smetana‘s exhibition in Oslo in 2011. Originally the text was written for Mikkel B. Tin‘s book Spilleregler og spillerom. Tradisjonens estetikk („Rules and leeway: the aesthetics of tradition“), published in 2011 by Novus Press, also in Norwegian though with an English summary. The book features a number of artistic expressions apt to illustrate various aspects of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s aesthetics, which is the main topic of the book.
(Translated from the Norwegian original by Mikkel B. Tin.)