I look forward to unleashing the colours

Petr Volf in conversation with artist Michael Rittstein

Artists often have a somewhat aloof attitude to sport. They give the impression that sport is a foolish activity best left to others. What is your experience in this regard? Do they not consider you, as a person who used to swim competitively and who still has a lot of friends from the world of sport, slightly odd?

In the seventies the hippies did not swim much, let alone artists. And to swim for the Academy of Fine Arts? That was completely out. We nevertheless swam in the university league. Swimming is not “cool” among artists even today, and I guess that’s the way it will always be.

Is it an act on their part?

I rather think it is a defensive reflex on the part of bohemians. They like to get up late, and they can use their dismissive non-conformist attitude to justify their laziness. They are slightly afraid of sport. Also, if you are not able to master at least one sport to a reasonable standard you won’t be very motivated to participate. I therefore wanted my sons to be able to take part in a sport to a standard that gives them pleasure. Playing a sport without sufficient ability is a form of suffering, and to overcome this requires a degree of self-denial. At first nothing feels right, and it is the same with painting. Only after ten years of drawing did I start to feel that what I was producing was worth keeping and not immediately throwing away.

What have you learnt from sport?

It is generally the case that sport sorts out the men from the boys. It reveals whether someone is just full of hot air or whether they are really able to work hard to achieve something. The fact that I was for sometime training twice a day enabled me to achieve something. I knew that if I decided to give training a miss in the morning, the next race would be an embarrassment for me. No gain without pain.

Once I have an idea I need to put it on
paper, or I am nervous that I will
forget it and miss the chance of producing
a good painting.

How were you introduced to swimming?

My father took me to the Vinohrady Sokol where the CKD swimming club trained. There I learned to swim. Then I went to swim for many years at AXA and at Slavia. The conditions were tough and not comparable with today. If the water had been twenty- seven degrees we would have boiled. Old

swimming pools often just had one working boiler, and when we arrived at five-thirty in the morning the water was, to put it mildly, invigorating. We were children then and after training, even in the winter, we travelled to school in an open tram. I then swam for Slavia at university, training along with a couple of guys with ambitions to be national champions. There were not many swimming pools, so there was not enough room for everyone. This meant fierce competition for facilities, and clubs had to show results. It was training twice a day or not at all. This provides a good comparison with art. As soon as I started to study at art school it did not go so well because swimming is very time consuming – it is necessary to put in lots of lengths in a session. Instead I preferred to paint, but I still swim today. Mainly at the YMCA pool, and I think I am the person who has been swimming there the longest – certainly fifty years.

Is it not strange to spend so much time in the water with eyes focussed on the tiles at the bottom of the pool?

It’s not like that. You don’t look at the tiles, you look into yourself. It is not lost time. In the water I compose lots of paintings. In the summer I swim every day, and in the water I have many ideas. I often say to myself that I should have a note pad on the side so I can make quick sketches. Once I have an idea I need to put it on paper, or I am nervous that I will forget it and miss the chance of producing a good painting. Several times I have run from the pool in Kdyne, close to our cottage in Brnířov, to the kiosk to borrow a pen and scrap of paper. Such things happen to me quite often.

What is so attractive about the water?

Water, as every element, has great energy, and I like energy. I used to draw at the Podoli pool from the windows below the water level. Just me along with the voyeurs, although when I think about it I am also basically a voyeur. I have spent my whole life observing people. In the 1970s, when I was just starting out, I painted lots of pictures on the theme of swimming pools and swimmers. It is not just sport taking place in the pool – it is the workings of the body, the basis on which I view most things in life. For me the time I spent in the water was not wasted. On the contrary it was the best use of my time during which body, soul and sight all came into their own.

Swimming has a sporting character whereas bathing has connotations of relaxation, but it still appears in collections of art with a sporting theme. Is this not a misrepresentation?

Bathing is bathing; it is not a sport. Many people are mistaken in the idea that by splashing around in the pool for an hour they are doing something for their body. Maybe they are, but it is not sport. I like expending large amounts of energy, giving meaning to activities. Long swimming sessions, around two thousand metres, suit me the best. It is normally an interesting routine. To start with I am not very enthusiastic, then I find that I am able to swim faster without feeling exhausted, then I have to ease off, but I can feel the endorphins flying around my body lifting me up.

It requires a skill to swim well so that one doesn’t have to reach out for the sides out of breath after a short while. It is not easy to swim at a tempo fast enough to burn off calories and improve fitness...

A skill learnt and mastered over a period of time brings pleasure and satisfaction. It is the same with anything that we throw ourselves into. Such as a person who starts drawing and reaches the stage where the drawings are no longer embarrassing, or a carpenter when the doors close smoothly on a newly made cabinet.

Which swimming style suits you the best?

In competition I swam breaststroke, but I can swim the other styles too. A swimmer should know them all. Breaststroke I know the best. When swimming I alternate styles with the exception of butterfly. I only swim butterfly if I am in the pool alone. When I swim backstroke I contemplate the heavens, as I like to swim outside in the open air from May to October. I go whatever the weather, in the rain, storm, or strong wind that blows leaves across the surface. Outdoors you feel the power of the elements. I also like to swim across a large surface, such as the reservoir in Hostivar close to where I live.

How do you feel when you go several days without swimming because, for example, you must install an exhibition or go abroad?

If the truth be known I feel terrible. I am in a bad mood, lacking energy and tired. These are my standard withdrawal symptoms. In the water I cast everything aside and just enjoy the feeling of movement. As well as swimming I also cycle from Záběhlice, where I live, to my studio in Vysočany. It always takes an hour and is peaceful, because there are cycle tracks. Occasionally I fall if there has been frost and frozen puddles, but I see this as a hazard of cycling. On the way I see pheasants and wild animals, so it is easy to forget that I am in a city.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on a painting for the Czech Olympic Committee that will be displayed in London. It is conceived as a wall in five ten metre sections, so an extremely big work. It appealed to me that the Czech Olympic Committee does not want to present itself just through sport, but also through culture. It is a modern enlightened approach. We will see how the picture turns out; I have it roughed out in several ways. In particular I like painting the sports that are closest to me. I follow a lot of sports because I find sport attractive. I like, for example, swimming, athletics and rowing, sports where a person is performing for himself. I don’t seek out the team sports so much, but I also like confrontational sports like boxing.

What attracts you to boxing?

Primarily it is very photogenic and, from this perspective, one of the most beautiful sports. Boxers exhibit fantastic body movement, and there is also a certain animal quality to the confrontations. There is a certain free morality reflected in the sport. I always like to watch boxing. And of course like most men, I occasionally get into a scuffle, so it also interests me from a practical point of view.

Which sport is the most difficult to paint?

I think none are particularly more difficult than the others. It is possible to portray sports using a vast array of techniques, expressions and shortcuts. I am always interested in movement. Painting sports came naturally to me because from the age of sixteen I cut out photos of sportsmen from magazines. I observed a lot from these. The entire Baroque art of motion can be seen in sports photos. The photos of tennis players and goalkeepers can be really wonderful – unbelievable positions and a balance that is hard to understand. Also inspirational are the extreme emotions reflected in the sportsmen’s faces; they reveal an awful lot about a personality. Also telling are the moments of supreme concentration, the joy of victory and the despair of defeat.

Do you still have any lingering doubts about your art?

Yes I have doubts. They become greater with time, and because I work every day, these doubts are nagging me continually; creating a painting is always a compromise between the idea I have in my head and what actually appears on the canvas. In my studio I turn all my completed paintings to face the wall so I don’t have to look at them. I don’t tend to like them when they are freshly painted. With the passage of time I am able to look at them, for example, when they are hanging in a gallery and forgive them their faults. The completion of every painting represents a defeat of sorts, even if it’s a close run thing. When I can finish a painting and call it a draw, then I’ll be satisfied.

Are you serious? Your paintings exude confidence and perfectly thought through composition – there are no obvious weak areas.

I am being totally honest; I am not putting on a pose. I am not satisfied with any of my paintings and I am aware that my pictures are not to everyone’s taste – some people I’m sure find them unbearable. I am not one of those artists indifferent to people’s reactions; I am happy when art communicates. This does not mean, however, that I want to cheapen my values just so I can be accepted by a wider audience.

I am certain that of artists who create a certain „narrative“ in their work, you are unique and stand alone.

I agree. Some critics, however, see too much of a plot in my pictures with an over emphasised message. I would not enjoy doing it any other way. We are all made differently and enjoy different things. On the other hand, it is clear that figurative painting is not for everyone because painting a figure is not easy. I am interested in communicating through the forms I depict in my art.

How do you identify a high quality picture?

It is simple. When I see such a picture it must evoke an immediate feeling that I would not be able to paint it myself. This attracts me to a painting, as does the knowledge that I have not seen anything similar before and that the feelings I am experiencing I could not experience anywhere else but in front of the picture I am looking at. These are for me two fundamental things – and at the same time I don’t care whether it depicts open space or a figure – if the picture does not clearly speak to me then I am less interested in the work. I can do without it. If I feel subconsciously that what is to be viewed I can find in a much more convincing form elsewhere, then I no longer have to go to the gallery. When I am looking around a large international biennale I only stop where I hope I can find the desired experience. I am always searching for and wanting to see work that gives me this feeling. Everyone probably has this in different ways; some people believe that when experimenting, experimentation in itself means quality, which is the essence of art. This is a mistake. I don’t have anything against experimental art, although I am angry when theorists are preferred significantly over painters.

Do you experience similar feelings when painting to those you have when engaged in sport?

It is similar, when painting I also go through euphoric stages. In addition, painting large canvases is a very physical process. During a day I have to bend down perhaps a thousand times, because I have to lean over the canvas that I have set out on the floor. The next day I feel strange and my legs hurt when I walk upstairs – then I remember what I did the day before. I Painted. In my case painting is a very physical activity, and I would compare it to dancing. And even when a painter is seated, he must always reach the alpha state where the hand and head are very closely connected and the brush seems to move across the canvas almost of its own volition. The same can be experienced in sport. When you are running through the countryside you can experience stages where it seems you are running for free, without effort. This is when running is a real joy. There are so many parallels that it is hard to imagine at first. If I am not in good physical condition I will not be able to paint large canvases, which require full commitment. In order to see a three-metre painting from a distance, I walk kilometres at my cottage, because I have to go down to the stream and over the neighbour’s fence in order to see it all. If I added up the distances covered when I completed each picture the result would be interesting.

In Prague your studio is on the ninth floor. Do you walk up the stairs to help keep fit?

Yes, but more out of necessity than to keep fit. Some pictures will not fit in the lift and have to be carried. My record is thirty-six ascents carrying paintings. When I have an exhibition I must carry all the paintings myself; no institution will do it for me. When I look back it seems that I am always carrying something.

Your sporting inclinations are well known in artistic circles. Do you pass them on to students who come to you at the Academy of Fine Arts?

I don’t impose sport on anyone – a lot of the lads who come to my studio have already been involved in sport, and they are happy to come swimming with me. It is about a different form of communication than is possible in the studio. I like people who stand out, strong personalities – sport is not a condition. By the way, I know several people who took up sports for self preservation. When we went swimming whilst studying, a lot of musicians found that they could play the violin better after swimming and relaxing their stiff muscles.

Do you enjoy teaching?

Yes I still enjoy it. Contact with young artists is challenging because it does not allow me to slip into a thought routine. I have to do more than just concentrate on my own work; I must also look for answers to the creative problems of others. One of the reasons why I enjoy teaching so much is that I have an excellent assistant, Roman Franta, who, by the way, plays the drums and a very good game of tennis.

What attracts you most about painting?

Dreaming. The fact that I can dream. I also really like working with paint, it is like a living organism and as such it offers me an adventure. I can’t do without this. I purchase buckets of paint and I then transfer their contents onto a canvas and a painting is created. I look forward to releasing the paints. My whole life I have enjoyed the feeling of anticipation of seeing appear what I want to create. Some people get a kick from building a house or buying a new car; for me I just need to paint a picture. It is very practical. I consider time spent painting as time well spent. I do not have anything better to do with my time. In the past I enjoyed travelling abroad, seeing new places, but in recent years I don’t enjoy going anywhere if it means I can’t paint. Of course I can sketch and draw, but when travelling I can’t let the paints out, and that is a dilemma.

Where do you take inspiration from?

Everywhere and all the time. Even now, whilst we are sitting here and talking, I am finding inspiration. I don’t draw inspiration just from interpersonal relationships. I can also be inspired to paint from reading a newspaper article, watching television, the countryside, or from things I overhear or feel; everything overlaps and is combined into a form of expression. Yesterday (Sunday) I spent four hours sketching in watercolours, which relaxed me beautifully.

To me you always give the impression that you don’t have many doubts about the purpose or meaning of your art and that you know exactly what you want – as opposed to the many chaotic artists who don’t know where they are heading. You just paint.

But I don’t know what actually drives me to this. It is an irrational activity. My character is simply made in such a way that I have to paint. I see it in the students that sign up for my studio. It is somewhat of a dilemma because I have to look primarily for people that will clearly paint because they have to, but there are not so many of these; they are a rare breed. I also have to consider whether they are able to create space in their lives for painting.

What do you mean by „creating space in their lives for painting“?

It means setting up a studio, managing finances so materials can be afforded, and most importantly being able to devote time to painting without being distracted. There are people who were talented but unable to create the necessary space and conditions to work freely. Their talent is combined with a certain degree of pragmatism. I also have my demons, but I keep them to myself as there is no sense in wearing them like a medal. I am well aware that before I started painting I had serious behaviour problems, but as soon as I started to paint these went away. I turned from a wolf into a lamb.

You were badly behaved as a boy?

To put it mildly. At middle school I was always being threatened with expulsion. I was a rebel and provocateur. I was prepared to risk expulsion for a well timed comment. Occasionally I got into a fight, but that was not the major problem. Art helped me because everything that had been haunting me could suddenly appear on the canvas. At the Academy I calmed down completely...

Do you listen to music when you paint, or do you require absolute peace and quiet?

I always listen to something.

What type of music?

Everything possible, from hard rock to mood music. I grew up on Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Rolling Stones, I liked the Sex Pistols. I can put on Metallica or just as easily Johnny Cash’s last album, which made a big impression on me, or even Brian Eno. Sometimes I go to a rock and roll concert and dance – I like moving to music.

Is the music you listen to reflected in your paintings?

It works both ways. When I want to paint something with more energy, a dynamic element, I put on some faster music. The converse is also true. Once in a while I buy a CD. I look forward to playing the new Neil Young and Jack White from the White Stripes.

Do you have any artist heroes?

I won’t give you any specific names; I would have to think hard about it. However, I am always delighted when I come across a picture I like.

Do you take chance into account when painting?

Very much so. It’s a game; I provoke it and then let myself be led. The random chance element activates the subconscious; it’s like when you sit at a table and stare down at the linoleum on the floor – suddenly you can see figures. There are two approaches to painting; the first is to work according to a rationally devised plan, and the second is to consciously leave room for chance, including chaos. For me the second approach is the most attractive because I thrive when things are changing, and I also change in myself.

An energy radiates from your paintings that continually makes the viewer feel uneasy; it is a provocative energy. Is that your intention?

I don’t especially strive to achieve this, but it is interesting that it always seems to be the case. I like it this way, but I don’t have any formula for it. I always attempt to get the most out of the acrylic paints I use. Sometimes I paint in cooperation with amateurs. At the gallery where I am currently exhibiting, I set a theme – perhaps landscape, or people and animals. Then I put a four-metre canvas down in the middle of the room and start to paint. At a certain stage I let others join in; always with background music playing. We all then get onto the same wavelength. Everyone puts what they want into the picture as best they can. Then when I feel the time is right I will stop them working and let the picture dry. Later I will work on it again alone, and from the chaos emerges something interesting.

You also painted in Madrid at a congress of psychiatrists that discussed the relationship between psychiatry and art. How did you get involved?

I was invited by Professor Cyril Höschl, and it was my task to paint a picture in front of three and a half thousand psychiatrists during the opening ceremony. Above me was a cameraman recording what I was doing. It went quite well; in just two hundred minutes a large painting came into being which drew applause from the auditorium. It was a unique experience because painting is a solitary activity – just the artist and the canvas. Then suddenly to have an audience of thousands... However, it was not all improvisation, I worked out in advance what I would paint – a group of a speeding cyclists.

What was the purpose of it?

Simple. A work of art should serve as an expression of the artists psyche. When it was finished everyone crowded onto the podium and inspected the picture in detail. Cyclists were ideal for such purpose because they could be painted without details whilst still containing everything important. This is the essence of movement.

Are you attracted by other media, such as video or film?

At the moment I am completing a drawing project; annually I produce around a thousand drawings. In total I already have fifteen thousand of them. I want to photograph them all and then make an animated film from them. It is something I’m very excited about. However, it has occurred to me that after expressing everything in my drawings, will I still have the desire to continue painting? Time will tell. I also worked with director Jan Němec, which was a very interesting experience. He asked me to paint a picture based on a script that he had written with Václav Havel and which would then become the basis for a film. And so it turned out. The result was a gangster film about the theft of hearts, which was shown in art cinemas. Director Němec took the picture to the studio and filmed it from all possible angles, in detail, in even greater detail, cross-sections of colours, layers. In total 8 hours of film on one painting! Only a fraction of this was actually used in the final film. I would therefore like to edit the footage with the director into a separate picture. It is a challenge for me to look at a painting in a slightly different way than I am used to. It is also a great opportunity. A ten minute film would capture everything; it would not need to be any longer.

What will it be called?

The Painting.

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