Voyage to Iceland at the National Gallery

A conceptual show a the Sternberg Palace has new Baroque paintings

The exhibition Voyage to Iceland has some 30 Baroque-style paintings by modern Czech artist Hynek Martinec. It will be at the Sternberg Palace, in front of Prague Castle, until Aug. 26. The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery in Prague and Galerie Rudolfinum.

The idea is that the paintings were part of a project in the 1700s meant for Iceland, the island nation in the North Atlantic, but for technical reasons the project was never finished. This pure fiction is a jumping point for the artist to riff on the themes and motifs of the past.

“In 1729, Iceland was a country wracked by violence and poverty. That year, the scholar and manuscript collector Árni Magnússon (1663–1730) invited the renowned architect Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer (1689–1751) to build a cathedral on the icy island. …Dientzenhofer undertook the adventurous journey to Iceland in 1733 to find a suitable place for the building. … [B]ut did not find a suitable site, and so he returned to Europe to continue his other building projects,” the introduction on the gallery wall states, without hinting at the nature of the conceit.

“Fortunately for us, the designs for the planned cathedral have survived, as have several Baroque paintings intended as part of the building’s interior decoration. It is truly exciting that the National Gallery in Prague is now presenting a part of this ambitious project that, due to these unfavorable circumstances, was unfortunately never realized, causing Iceland to forever miss out on the Baroque,” the introduction concludes.

The paintings, though, show a lot of modern influence and likely won't fool anyone for very long that they were recently rediscovered. Hynek Martinec was born in 1980 and studied art in New York, London and Prague.

Elements of surrealism can be seen in many of the paintings, with oddly distorted faces and anachronistic objects. Virtual reality goggles can even be seen in one piece, if you look closely. Animal skulls seem more like something from 19h century visions of the American West than from Baroque still life. Titles of the paintings include Rembrandt’s Hip, Flogging a Baroque Horse, and Circus of Nightmares. Some actual classic Baroque paintings are mixed into the same space, in an effort to support the idea that the new works are actually rediscovered old ones.

‘The collection of Hynek Martinec’s paintings illustrates a fictitious story about an attempt to build a baroque cathedral in Iceland in the 18th century. Although the erection never materialized, the National Gallery displays a collection of paintings intended for its decoration,” Otto M. Urban, a curator of the National Gallery in Prague, explains the mysterious story behind the exhibition.

While the Sternberg Palace generally focuses on ancient art to the Baroque era, it was chosen for this show because the images are thematically connected to the National Gallery in Prague's artworks there.

“I choose the artists according to my mood or exhibitions that affected me. But primarily I have to admire them. and my works seek to remove the time boundaries and to interconnect with artists which I like and would like to meet in person,” Martinec said in a press release.

Martinec says an artist reshapes the past into a new language for future generations. “I found it natural to engage in the Baroque and attempt to create a bridge between Baroque art and the present time. I have always dreamed of exhibiting and juxtaposing my works with other artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Anthonis van Dyck, Rembrandt, and many others that I admire. It was in the National Gallery collection of art where I, as a student, explored the legacy of baroque art. Returning to the Sternberg Palace with my own exhibition after several years is truly inconceivable,” Martinec adds.

Martinec was born in Broumov and currently lives and works in London. He creates his paintings by combining individual motifs taken from both details and full compositions of great artists from the late 16th to the 19th centuries. He has had solo and group exhibitions in Prague, London, Paris, and New York.

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