If you were to come into this world fully conscious and determined to make socially relevant art surrounding some of the topsy-turviest sociopolitical events of the 20th century, you could do a hell of a lot worse than to be born in (then-) Czechoslovakia in 1937. Jaroslav Malina (pronounced YA-ruh-slav Mah-lee-NAH) was endowed with the ironic good fortune to be born about a year before the Munich Agreement; then, after spending a World War II childhood under Nazi occupation, grew up in a Soviet-dominated Communist state. Malina the artist chafed under the official style of social realism as well as the travel restrictions of the post-war Communist period, and was an angry young man during the Prague Spring of 1968 — after which he created defiantly Modernist paintings, lithographs, and some of the most complex and evocative set designs anywhere in Europe (his set design for a production of Hamlet unsettles with powerful gravitas). One of Malina’s collaborators in dissident theater was playwright Vaclav Havel, who assumed the presidency of the country after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and governed through the peaceful split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Now 72, Malina has gone from dissident designer of theatical samizdat to, incredibly, government appointee, having presided over the Acadmeny of Fine Arts and served as three-time commissioner-in-chief of the Prague Quadrennial, the world’s foremost international theater-design exhibition. Never a mere functionary, Malina’s body of work encompasses elements beyond the political; he often slyly recalls the abstract Surrealism of Miró and Klee, while in other works employs the ornate surfaces and lyrical eroticism of Austro-Hungarian masters such as Klimt and Schiele. Still other designs play with the menacing forms of Art Brut. His current work in painting and for theater is no less fascinating, and reflects a preoccupation with the vast social problems and economic uncertainties arising from the Czech inclusion in the European Union.
But none of this would matter much to a San Antonio audience if the McNay’s Malina career retrospective weren’t such tremendous fun. Jody Blake, curator of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, is a Prague Quadrennial attendee herself, and an enthusiast of the complex and dynamic forces of Eastern European theater. This show combines set-design models, sketches and photography, a video of the genial, puckish Malina himself, as well as Malina-designed posters and even photo stills from his film work. Interestingly, the McNay has a history of exhibiting theater-based artwork from eastern Europe — yet another legacy of Robert Tobin’s theatrical personality and interests.
Jaroslav Malina: Paintings and Designs
Through Mar 8
McNay Art Museum