Background: A few months ago I wrote about artistic depictions of Usama bin Laden. I posted a painting of my own and the works of three well-known artists, Werner Horvath (Austria), Sokari Camp-Douglas (Nigeria/UK) and Hassan Musa (Sudan/UK), as well as one (or more?) Bengali folk artists. Recently Werner Horvath came across that post and left some comments. I followed the link to his website and was fascinated by his Virtual Museum of Totalitarian Art. Subsequently I got in touch with him and asked him for an e-nterview. Q & A, posted below.
Lapata: Tell me about your collection of totalitarian art, which is fantastic. Do you personally own all of these paintings? If so, is there a non-virtual exhibit of them, or do you keep them in your home? What made you start collecting this kind of art, and when did you start?
Werner Horvath: Approximately 15 years ago I visited the art museums of Paris, France. I was so fascinated by the art displayed there, that I decided to become an art collector as well (a painter I have been all my life, even during my 25 years in the medical profession). But what kind of art should I collect? Well, counting my money, I knew I could either “collect” one single painting of a famous artist (at least a small one), or I had to find another way. At the same time I saw paintings in the style of Soviet Socialist Realism in Austria. Nobody liked them; therefore they were cheap. And when I looked at the paintings more closely, not through the lens of the propaganda of that system, I began to understand their beauty. For example look at these two paintings done by the artist Vladimirski: “Roses for Stalin” and “Black Ravens”. They show the two sides of the soul of Vladimirski. In creating the Stalin picture, he was a propaganda artist, perfect in technique, but totally keeping within the system. But how the work “Black Ravens” could pass censorship, is still unknown: the “Black Ravens” were the cars used by the KGB to arrest civilians, often in the wee hours in the morning. They were notorious in creating an atmosphere of fear. Fascinating these two sides of an artist being part of a repressive system, isn’t it?
I became hypnotized with these artworks, I had the opportunity to buy a lot of them before interest in Socialist Realism developed very rapidly, and before there was the insatiable demand for such of art as there is today.
When these paintings grew too expensive, I had to change to another kind of art, and I was lucky again. A friend of mine, Prof. Prinz, head of the ethnomedicine-department of Vienna’s university, showed African art to me. Since that moment I’ve been collecting political paintings of the Congo. I get them directly from the artists, and the paintings fit very well into my collection of political art. You can see them here.
But until now I have only displayed my collection in a virtual way, via the internet, except the paintings created by myself, which are very frequently presented in “real” exhibitions.
Lapata: Tell me about the Saddam Hussein paintings in your collection. Where did you find them? Also, explain the ‘mystery’ of the seal. Do you think it is the artist’s signature? Or perhaps a mark of ownership?
WH: The story of the Saddam paintings is a very short one. When American soldiers invaded Iraq, photos of political art depicting Saddam could be seen in the newspapers. Most of them displayed Saddam as a powerful man, and most of them were destroyed. I wanted to get some for my collection of political art and did a search via newspapers and the internet. In the end, I did not get any of the paintings I wanted, although the former chief of the Baghdad art museum is living in Austria now, and he was one of the artists who had created these pictures. The only paintings I could purchase were the ones you can see here and they are not typical. I got them shipped from Amman, Jordan, but the guy who sold them did not know anything about the painter. Not even if he was from the Iraq. And the third picture, I got from there (Qaddafi) has the same seal as we found on the two Saddam paintings. I do not know if the seal is the sign of the painter, the owner or a museum or something else. And I do not even know if these paintings are worth anything…
Lapata: Tell me about your choice of subject? Do you pick whatever seems important to you, or do things just strike you as interesting?
WH: The process of creating my own work is the following: I take a photo from a newspaper, a magazine or from the internet; I prefer an iconic image because it will be better recognized by people later. I do sketches using colored pencils, but only using 4 to 6 of different degrees of darkness, similiar to greyscales. When the sketch is good enough I transfer it by hand to canvas, marking the borders of one color to another, sometimes using a grid. Then I paint the first layer with acrylic colors, always keeping the same greyscale I used in the sketch, but dividing the segments into smaller shapes and different colors. The most important process is the last one: I overpaint the whole picture with oil colors, creating the shadows to make it more three-dimensional. In this photograph, you can see the process I used to create my version of the Mona Lisa.
Lapata: You describe yourself as a Neo-Constructivist. Can you talk a little about Neo-Constructivism? Is this a philosophy that interested you outside of painting?
WH: The term “New Constructivism” is taken from a philosophical theory and based on the works of Vico, Uexküll, Glasersfeld and Watzlawick, to name a few. The theoretical background is explained in detail in a stage play in form of a text-collage, called Jahrtausendwende – Die Theorie des neuen bildenden Konstruktivismus (in German). I try to show in my paintings that the reality we rely on is not so real at all. The world that we live in is understood only as we construct it ourselves. For example, colours only exist in our consciousness, therefore are not “real”. The same is true for objects and relationships.
Lapata: I see from your bio that you are/were a radiologist and that you have participated in many conferences for doctors who are also artists. Are there many doctor/artists? Do you feel like your medical training has influenced your art at all, or the other way round? Or do you feel like they are two separate worlds that are difficult to reconcile?
WH: I can only talk for Austria: Approximately 100 medical doctors are working as artists in this country of 7-8 million inhabitants. That is not very many people. 60 of them have joined the “Austrian Medical Art Club“.
I personally decided to leave the medical profession at the age of 50 and have been working as a freelance artist ever since. I opened a studio called “Villa Arte” in Kastellos on the island of Crete (Greece) in 2003 and also my “Atelier Horvath” in Linz, Austria, where I work during the winter.
Lapata: Tell me about your two ateliers in Austria and Greece. It is not common in the US for an artist to have the equivalent to an atelier. What is the function of the atelier? Is it a gallery? Do other artists show their work there, or do work there? Are these ateliers open to the public?
WH: My atelier in Linz, Austria, is a kind of gallery. Friends and customers come to see my latest creations, and some of them can make their decisions about which artwork to buy. But during the last year the function of my atelier has changed a little bit: Linz will be official European Cultural Capital in 2009, and a group of artists is preparing projects here or this reason. Therefore we meet in my atelier; it is small enough to come together, and it is big enough to offer extra space for talking one on one. I hope from the bottom of my heart that we will be good enough. The studio in Crete is different. It is far South: that means sun, heat, no rain, also a little bit loneliness; and it is an open house for artists and art lovers to relax, sit together, eat and drink, swim in the sea and walk in the mountains…but also to work. Of course there are exhibitions held there too, but not for so many people, only for friends and neighbours to see what the “wicked artists” have been up to for the last three weeks. It is not a place to sell paintings, but it is a place to create a lot of them. I am there for the whole summer. I go there wearing gray winter in my heart, with all my sorrows, my depression. And I always come back to Austria renewed, because I have found colors again.