Jan Jedlička. A Process As Old As Humankind Pavel Klusák

Jan Jedlička has explored the landscape since the 1970s. His diverse range of forms and unique approach are now reflected in a retrospective exhibition at the Municipal Library that takes you on a journey through the space-time of Jedlička’s life. After years exploring the landscape of the Maremma region in southern Tuscany, this painter, printmaker, photographer, and conqueror of pigments has turned his gaze on the Czech landscape.

Jan Jedlička, Horizons (Prague), 2018
Jan Jedlička, Horizons (Prague), 2018
Jan Jedlička, Città dei vivi – città dei morti, 2004
Jan Jedlička, Città dei vivi – città dei morti, 2004
Jan Jedlička, Città dei vivi – città dei morti, 2004
Jan Jedlička, Città dei vivi – città dei morti, 2004

P K            Your first works with pigments were made on Elba. How did they come about?

J J            There are abandoned mines there, all related to iron. Besides the iron ore that was mined there, Elba also had red chalk: colored compacted earth in a natural state, that was processed on the island into red chalk for drawing. So there were red  pieces  of  earth left over in the mines, but surprisingly also shades of blue and purple. That fascinated me. And I began to turn them into paints.

P K            Did you use your own method or an old recipe?

J J            It’s a process as old as humankind. Before, colors were taken exclusively from – where else? – nature. Of course, leaching colors is something you have to experience: Some pigments are heavy and sink to the bottom, while other float to the top…

P K            How did you discover “your” landscape, the Maremma of southern Tuscany?

J J            The geological layer stretches from Elba to the mainland – hence my first impulse to set out for the Maremma, the Italian region that I first visited in 1977 and where I return again and again to this day. It is where I would visit my friend Mikuláš Rachlík, whom I knew from the academy. In the 1970s, we went on trips in search of Etruscan interventions in the landscape. I was always immensely interested in what time and nature had done to ancient alterations to the landscape. And so I began to systematically work in the landscape of the Maremma.

P K           Which technique was your first?

J J            It’s important that I began to do them all together. I would walk around decorated like a Christmas tree: camera, folders with papers, carrying case. I “documented” my pigment expeditions in pencil drawings and photographs – back in the day with Polaroids.

P K            The Prague exhibition also includes your mezzotints.

J J            Mezzotint was the first reproduction technique: It was used in the seventeenth century to reproduce paintings. Its association with photography was important for me: It is I who brings out the light in them. The original plates aren’t completely black, but have a fine structure. Before you is a pure velvet black. I polish the places that are supposed to be light in the print, and thus bring light into the picture. There is nothing haptic in photography. The process of printing returns the body, a physical element, into the picture. Some of the mezzotints are up to two meters tall. They are not small-format pieces, sketches, anecdotes. Mezzotint has the kind of dignity found in the landscape itself.

P K            What draws you to this region? You have now spent five decades engaged in dialogue with its unceasing transformation.

J J            The Maremma is forty kilometers wide on average. When you come there, an immense space with a strange light opens up before you. You cannot encompass it all at once: The landscape invites you to walk it, to explore its various segments on foot. It has almost American proportions. The Medici started draining this land because it was covered in marshes, uninhabitable. Entire cities would empty out in the summer because of the mosquitoes. There are songs like Maremma amara – Bitter Maremma. People spoke of this land as a poisoned land. During the reign of the Medici, they diverted the flow of two rivers. Large ponds were  built  for  the  sedimentation of silt, and the process of draining the marshes began. Over time, this wasteland was transformed into fertile soil.

P K            So you saw that creative work with land, with the rolling surface of the Earth, has a long history in the Maremma.

J J            I tried to bring it all together. The bright colors that I took from there come from the region’s hills and mines. Oxides of iron, manganese, copper. Uncolored pigments – meaning with less distinct colors – come from sediments.

Jan Jedlička, Maremma, orizonti verde, 2017

P K            You have put together a surprisingly diverse catalogue of colors that reminds us of the rich scale of colors found in non-living nature…

J J            It requires an entire lifetime. It takes a long time before you find something. Things also happen by chance. I would go to construction sites, along the road, or when they cut through a hillside. The layers of earth were like a cake – all you had to do was take a slice. But I had to go right away. With the first rains, the layers on the surface blend together into one single neutral mass.

P K            What cannot be found in nature?

J J            Shades of blue are relatively rare. Azurites can be found only in bits and pieces – unless you know where to go and dig.

P K            Is it solo work?

J J             Yes, because you have to be patient. Sometimes I go with my family, with my son, and it’s a nice trip. But for the most part I would explore the landscape on my own. There’s a documentary film in which I look like a pilgrim, but you can also see a car, without it which it would be impossible. If you gather five kilos of stones somewhere and have all kinds of equipment hanging off you, you need some way of transporting it all.

P K            What does your working rhythm in the Maremma look like?

J J            I first decided to work in the Maremma in 1977. Since then, I return there several times a year. But I also need to take breaks: Once the landscape becomes an everyday affair, you begin to lose your sensitivity. You stop seeing differences. Whenever I have spent some time working there, I always begin to feel – after about a month, let’s say – that I no longer differentiate as much. That’s when it is time to disappear. And after some time, to come again: Things change in the landscape in the meantime. The landscape is always changing: Places change enough just with the seasons. You can see photographs from the same place over the course of a year in the book The Circle / Il Cerchio.

P K            The world has changed so much since the late 1970s, in ways that nobody could have predicted: society, politics, technology, the environment, the climate. What specific changes do you see in “your” landscape?

J J            Mainly: I could not do all those things there today. The Maremma has been fundamentally changed. In the 1970s it was still wild. Nature ruled by its own laws: Everywhere lots of insects and birds. It was alive. Today, all those places are sprayed – because of the tourists. You won’t encounter a single mosquito, but that also means the birds are gone. Everything is organized. Before, I could walk the countryside freely, but today everything is closed off and protected by cameras. There’s a national park. Today, I could not go on such long hikes along footpaths and dikes.

P K            This situation produced your recent book of photographs, 200 m.

J J            Yes. I discovered that today I can move freely along just 200 meters of shoreline – that’s all that is left, unclaimed. I photographed a sandy beach, the sea, and the sky from just this one segregated place. Every photograph is square and done in black-and-white, since even the area where I took them was a square measuring 200 by 200 meters.

P K            You work with pigments in the Czech Republic as well. You were even contacted by a UNESCO committee that wanted to promote the use of natural “Prague” pigments in new buildings and renovation projects.

J J            They borrowed my catalogue of Prague colors, which I had collected in Prokop Valley, at White Mountain, in Divoká Šárka, and near Kbely – wherever some original nature had been preserved. The committee wanted to implement some rule that these “natural” colors would be used in Prague. I don’t actually know what happened with their proposal. But when I walk through Prague today, I can see those colors on buildings.

P K            Does Bohemia have its own specific color?

J J            Bohemian Green Earth! The Italian Gothic worked with a color by this name. The Sienese school used it with carnation, the tincture for skin color. It may have been the Venetians who imported Bohemian Green as a valuable commodity. As late as the 1980s, they would buy it from Czech art restorers in West Germany, who sometimes imported it there. Today, you won’t Bohemian Green Earth anymore. I have a few pieces left.