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Issue 237

Vojtěch Kovařík Portrays a Forlorn Hero

At Mendes Wood DM, Brussels, the artist shares a more nuanced and melancholic vision of Hercules, one of art history’s most triumphant figures

BY Wilson Tarbox in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 04 MAY 23

Vojtěch Kovařík’s exhibition ‘The Labours of Hercules’ at Mendes Wood DM tells the story of one of art history’s most frequently illustrated iconographical subjects. Although the title alludes to the 12 tasks carried out by the classical hero Hercules as penitence for having killed his wife and children – after his stepmother, Hera, turned him temporarily insane – only one of the 12 paintings on display directly references its subject (Hercules Dips his Arrows in the Hydra’s Poisonous Black Blood, all works 2023). In marked contrast to the exalted attitudes of most representations of the scene, Kovařík does not depict Hercules triumphantly in medias res. Rather, the viewer is treated to a quiet, even melancholic portrayal. The massive, marble-white figure of Hercules is almost too big to be contained within the picture frame, and there is a look of forlorn concentration on the hero’s face.

Vojtěch Kovařík, (Portrait of) Hercules with his head in his hand, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist

The statuesque figures in Kovařík’s paintings emote through gestures of classical sculpture. As a child, the artist and his siblings were shepherded by their parents to various museums and, every summer, from their home in Czech Republic to Greece, familiarising them with classical mythology as well as with the canons of painting and sculpture. The kaleidoscopic collage of influences is evident. The viewer can perceive, in the treatment of figures, the intentional maladdress of Pablo Picasso’s neoclassical period and, in the approach to colour and texture, the bold language of advertising as interpreted by Fernand Léger. There is the monumentality and solemnity of the sculptural figures of art deco, as well as something of the exuberance of socialist realism.

vojtek kovarik
Vojtěch Kovařík, Hercules and Omphale, 2023, exhibition view, Mendes Wood DM. Courtesy: the artist

Expressivity in Kovařík’s work arises from the formal qualities of painting. Emotions are elicited by contrasting hues (Virtue), tones (Pride) and textures (Hercules and Omphale). The artist’s blend of acrylic, oil and sand produces some delightfully haptic surfaces which pass sensuously from flat and smooth to slick to textured.

One fine example is the sublime, large-scale painting Atlas Holds the Firmament on his Shoulders. A balustraded railing on the second floor offers a sort of balcony to examine the painting at eye level, and thereby appreciate the delicate fluting in the black paint that defines Atlas’s hair. The soft red and blue glow of the heavens gently sculpts the figure’s contours, caressing his flat, bulky silhouette into three dimensions. It is a breath-taking masterpiece in a show of powerful, well-executed paintings.

Vojtech Kovarik
Vojtěch Kovařík, Pride, 2023, exhibition view, Mendes Wood DM. Courtesy: the artist

What makes Kovařík’s work so beguiling, however, is not simply how it imitates the art of the past but how it digests and, ultimately, departs from it. Each of the four times Hercules is depicted, he is represented with different coloured hair and skin. He appears androgynous and timeless, the same age in Young Hercules Strangling the Snakes (a scene that is supposed to have occurred during his infancy) as in Hercules and Omphale (when he was a grown man in servitude to the Lydian queen). This fluidity of gender, age and skin tone imbues the work with a subtle irony, given the right-wing’s attachment to classical antiquity as a paragon for ‘Western’ culture. It also nods to the absurdity of the backlash over the gender and/or skin colour of actors in film and television remakes, such as the media storm that followed rumours that Idris Elba could be cast as the next James Bond. Kovařík’s paintings illustrate the triviality of such concerns, particularly considering that these myths are the product of an ancient oral tradition, differing from one telling to another. The paintings translate the plasticity of the oral myth and the beauty and ambiguity that this malleability engenders. In so doing, it opposes an ideology that sees identity as fixed, unchangeable, and tautological.

Vojtěch Kovařík'sThe Labours of Hercules’ is at Mendes Wood DM until 27 May 2023.

Main image: Vojtěch Kovařík, Humiliated Hera, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artis

Wilson is an art historian, journalist and critic based in Paris.