Towards Feminist Figuration: On Martina Smutná’s Painting

Published January 11, 2020

This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme. Czech painter Martina Smutná focuses not on the body, but on gesture, on work. This conception encompasses a statement, an answer to a question which preys on her mind. What kind of painting can be called feminist?

“Just a few years ago, I wouldn’t have painted a picture like this. I’d have been convinced that it was terribly grandiloquent,” Martina Smutná says as she pulls one of her latest canvases out from a stack stored in her studio. In the painting, a mother is striding briskly somewhere with a child slung on her back and a plastic carrier bag in one hand. It is a genre scene of the kind we observe in great numbers every day, even though this one is actually being played out against a landscape of post-apocalyptic appearance. All that stretches out around the central characters, whose complexions are the rosy red of prawns thrown into boiling water, is arid, dark brown soil devoid of even a single blade of grass. In the second painting of the same series, two teenagers are sitting in the midst of an identical, barren landscape, their gazes fixed on the screens of their smartphones. A final scene completes the triptych. Three figures are seated at a table laid with a check cloth. The table is completely empty, yet the central characters are twisting cutlery in their hands as if they were striving either to recall how to handle it or to perform a mime of suppertime. Although the head of one of the figures is adorned with a silver-haired wig in the fashion of the eighteenth century, evoking associations with a Rococo fête galante, the situation is rather more reminiscent of a wake.

Smutná’s triptych is a reaction to the spectre of the rapidly accelerating climate crisis, but with no descent into the typical extremes of helpless apathy and cultural catastrophism or naïve, proselytical activism. She seems to be in no doubt as to the fact that, when it comes to the fight against that crisis, artists have more or less the same agency at their disposal as philatelists and sellers of used Volkswagens. As with the mother in her painting, all that remains is to do your bit, which, in this case, means… telling a story. Sometimes, though, the most difficult thing of all is precisely that; telling a simple story.

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