Portraits of Artists 21

Conversation with Jan Knap

Jan Knap: "To be or not to be", that is the question. 

Hector Obalk: You are fantastic on the screen, you know. 

JK: It's not me, you know. Sometimes I do drawings very elaborately to save time on the painting. That means the drawing is very precise and then you spend less time seeking on the canvas. Because I begin very confused, some people think I begin with the drawings. It is confusion, and then you move the things till they get their own spot.

HO: Does it happen that, for example, a person, a woman, a baby, a tool is here, on the left of the painting and then you move it and put it somewhere else?

JK: Yes.

HO: And can it happen that while you are seeking, trying to do your best, you become really disappointed with your painting, you just abandon it, or burn it?

JK: It happens, it used to happen more often. Now I've gotten to the point that if I have put time in it, it gets along. It is not like it used to be, that I painted a painting and it got worse than it was. Now it is constant. I can miss the point, the more time I spend till a certain point, the preciser it is.

HO: The "holy" subjects, if I may say "holy", began four, five or six years ago?

JK: They began 12 or 13 years ago. They were very sketchy, they were very caricature-like.

HO: And you passed more or less directly from caricature to something less caricatural.

JK: Slowly, (.) I guess.

HO: And around when, you would say?

JK: Around when I got away from the group "Normal", in 1985, and then I saw that I was alone with my own stuff, got to organize it and then it came slowly. The paintings you have seen at (Paul) Maenz, some people say they were the best. But I could not paint in those days, they were very simple, out of necessity, very styled, because I could not make space – flat colours.

HO: The paintings were always little?

JK: No, I like to change. I like to paint large pictures too.

HO: But a large picture is never larger than one meter.

JK: No, it has to fit through the door.

HO: And when you began these "holy" pictures, less caricatural, was it other subjects or only this sort of subject? During the past five, six or seven years ?

JK: I also slowly started to use real subjects out of the Bible, the Gospel. It was my desire to, because this is the extreme. Even if somebody accepts the fine family, nobody accepts that kind of subject.

HO: You wanted to concentrate?

JK: I think that where the biggest resistance is, that is the way to go ahead.

HO: I remember a little stil-life with some apples or oranges and musical instruments.

JK: That was the only stil-life that have I made till today.

HO: An exception.

JK: An exception. I would like to do them, but I also have to have an idea in painting, a meaning, a symbol. This is difficult to put into stil-life.

HO: I did not like it either. But concerning these "holy" subjects – you concentrate on the New Testament or do you sometimes go to the Old?

JK: Wait a second. No, it is the New Testament. Actually the very beginning of these subjects with the boy Jesus. The very first idea of it was the desire to paint Jesus. Once a monk in Italy told me, looking at my pictures: "Ma Giovanni, tuo Cristo, deve anche crescere!"

HO: Say it in English:

JK: "He has to grow up, when do you make him adult?" I do not know. I sometimes do the Resurrection, but what most interests me really is this child aspect, because it is the most direct, what is the word – not primitive, not naive – but innocent.

HO: Good.

JK: I think that the 15th century, was when people already began to observe nature, but did not yet start to copy, to use a model directly. This is the point where we can enter art again. This is the door where the Renaissance, our civilisation, passed one important stage. Well, I am not a philosopher, I'm not an historian, but. .

HO: What painters do you especially have in mind when you say that?

JK: Names like Antonella da Messina, but even French 15th century is very interesting – all these, you know them, I cannot even pronounce their names.

HO: How old are you?

JK: I am 43.

HO: So you began this long period when you were around 30. In your childhood and before becoming 30 years old, you had had a long journey through modern and contemporary art which has nothing to do with the painting of "holy" subjects.

JK: Do you mean, "how did I start painting?"

HO: You make it clearer!

JK: Yes, I have already been painting for 25 years, around, and I did – as everybody did in the sixties and seventies – admire modern art. I remember, I was 17 or something, and I saw Antonio Saura, in Prague. Immediately we started to do these imaginary portraits of . .

HO: [laughter]

JK: And that's how I got into Expressionism. And over the years when I was in Düsseldorf, it calmed down to this precise purism – I never liked the "Zero" artists. Ever really, but this was the spirit of the time to be pure. So I did geometrical paintings, and I also touched the Concept Art, of course. But, I actually left the Academy, I know exactly I was thinking, if this is art, then I'm not part of it, I have nothing to say. For me, when you are 25 or 22, you are not able to say this is impossible. No, you accept it. This is Beuys, it's Mack, or I don't know what, Jackson Pollock. Even though I felt I had a feeling for the sensuality of all these ideas, not that I was ignorant, but I felt that I couldn't step on to this boat.

HO: There are many toys in your paintings, many children, many clouds in the sky, many details in the houses. However, when we talked together for the first time in front of the painting, you told me that you are an abstract painter. What did you mean?

JK: Well, that I never use the term "modern". There is a need for a large degree of abstraction. Even though you go into particular detail, but it's always – it's not any chair, but it's this chair. It's not any child, but it's this child.

HO: When I hear you, I understand more or less that your work, to your mind, is in total conflict with modern and contemporary art. You know, I didn't know you, it could be I hear a guy that explains to me his "holiest" pictures are in the mood, in the evolution of modern art. Are you telling me you are dealing here more with conflict and with going away?

JK: But again not to this extreme, no. I believe that in my pictures it's all in there – from Cezanne to I don't know who. Everything is in it, and I am not, I do not hate modern art. I just dislike it, I just don't want to participate, or I see how empty the extremes are which are so common today.

HO: Would you accept hearing that you are, or wish to be a classical painter, or is this word not at all a word that you would claim? What is your position?

JK: Oh, classical today is a very beautiful, it's a compliment, and it would be for me. Today very few people understand or know what it means, classical, it's like so many key words, out of reach. In the sense, as I understand it, it would be a great compliment if somebody tells me this is a classical work. It doesn't mean to me, for example, ready for a museum.

HO: Of course, but at the same time, did you work so much.

JK: I hate museums, by the way.

HO: Did you work so much at school to become a classical painter? Because the point with many painters like you – they also exist in France and elsewhere maybe – it is that they learn, finally they learn the technical practice of painting many years after they are 20, maybe at 30, 32, 35, they finish their schooling, when they are 30 or 40. Now you are 43, and I am sure that you have made progress, if I compare your trajectory to the trajectory of a 19th century painter.

JK: They all knew that you find out at 40, they knew at 17.

HO: You agree with what I say?

JK: Yeah. That it is possible to learn these things. For example, I was exactly 35, when I found out, by chance, what it means to make "air" in the painting.

HO: What is "air"?

JK: That means distance. That is simply based on the use of cold and warm colours. You can have warm blue as well as cold blue. Or, any colour you can make tones warm or cold, if you blend them together they vibrate, and then they give the feeling of space. The technical part is very important because without this manual work, without this manual approach you can't understand many things, they remain just words. I think the brain is very dependant on this doing. If people stop doing things with their hands one day, intelligence will be something else than it is today.

(Vienna, May 1993)