Light in Ladakh, a mystical place high in the mountains of
the Himalayas, is intensely bright. It delineates every feature
of the landscape, natural or man made alike, by a sharp outline,
as if the formation was chiseled from the rock. In this
harsh, hard edged world of intense beauty our reading of
the vast distances is also effected by this penetrating light
that suspends the accustomed reading of perspective and
of the interplay of background and foreground. One is
reminded of the atmosphere in Surrealist paintings or the
carefully calibrated lighting in the recent Sci-Fi movies.
Landscape itself is dominated by monasteries perched
on the cliffs overlooking the low laying areas. All aspects
of life of the province are governed from these imposing
When Tonda Málek came to Ladakh he was smitten by the inherent spirituality of the place that is inextricably woven into the fabric of the everyday. He came as a resident artist with the members of the Save Alchi group established to protect and restore the ancient monastery of the same name. When Ladakh region was discovered as a tourist spot in 1974 it also became pray to the developers. Being one of the highest and most arid inhabited place on earth its ecology is extremely fragile. Any abrupt change can have devastating consequences and groups, such as the Save Alchi program were created to try to reverse the tide.
Málek who is an insatiable traveler, became fascinated by this place. He soon realized he could not capture the visual aspects of this territory nor comprehend its spiritual underpinnings in one visit - he has returned ten times since his first visit, and he is planning a trip for this winter. The year 1993, when Málek began his travels to Ladakh, was also a year when Ladakh obtained a semiautonomous status from the central Indian government. Set deep in Himalayas, on the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau Ladakh is also called Little Tibet. Being under the Indian government its heritage was spared the destructions that afflicted many other parts of Tibet. Buddhist monasteries, with buildings dating back to 12th or 11th centuries, feature walls adorned by the richly colored frescoes and display a multitude of statuary. Their strong colors attracted Málek's attention and are being echoed in some of the paintings. Málek is intrigued not only by art but also by the lifestyle and customs of the indigenous population. However he decided not to include any figurative motives in his Ladakh work so as to avoid the ethnographic romantization of the "natives".
It is the architecture and its seamless placement in the mountainous environment that fascinates Málek the most. He does not, however, produce the true to life rendering of the landscape. Rather he takes liberties with the visual reality to express the unique character of the place. In the largest of the paintings, the depiction of the castle in Leh, Málek alters the natural configuration of the mountains to accentuate the monumentality of the castle. The images of the landscape are not therefore literal translations of the existing situation. Artist himself see them as indirect "portraits" of the depicted territory. This attest to Málek's long standing interest in portraiture. He created many outstanding works in this genre before his involvement with the Informel in the early 1960s and reaffirmed his interest in the portrait of Samuel Beckett of 1967-1969.
In many cases Málek combined the truthful likeness of the sitter with the unexpected rendition of the background that frames the figure. Portrait of Mrs. Gross, 1981-1982, presents a sensitive study of an older woman painted with the extensive use of yellow and shades of blue. The quiet contemplative mood of this picture is strengthened by the centrality of the book held by the sitter.
Portrait of Bertík ©ipek of 1982-1983 displays empathy and understanding of the psychological problems afflicting the young sitter. Here Málek puts his deeply felt humanism on full display. In this painting there is a partially developed landscape motive in the background pointing toward another longstanding interest of the artist-that of depictions of the landscape or cityscape. In Málek's early figurative scenes such as Bufet na Palmovce, or cityscapes with a strong landscape elements such as ©pejchar, both 1957, we can witness the strong predilection for expressionistic mood and reorganizing of the elements in order to achieve the optimal dramatic effect. At the time Málek was interested in the work of other expressionists such as Bohumil Kubista, George Roualt or Edward Munch whose 1905 exhibition in Prague influenced the whole Czech modern movement and the generations to come.
Málek's involvement with Informel and his participation in the now legendary Konfrontations is sufficiently discussed elsewhere, therefore I shall rather trace the predilection for representation that is so strongly demonstrated in the recent work from Ladakh, Cambodia and California. Accepting an invitation of the German Apsara Conservation Project at Angkor Vat, Málek went to Cambodia in Spring of 1998.
Here again he became a frequent visitor into this world of the past. In contrast to Ladakh the monuments in Angkor are no longer functioning but were abandoned long ago. For centuries now the man made architecture is engaged in an uneven struggle with tropical vegetation. The trees envelope some of the walls by the roots formations that are almost reminiscent of human limbs. In the Ladakh paintings and watercolors Málek uses strong primary and secondary color. In the works from Angkor he limits himself to the use of pencil and very pale washes not to accentuate the exoticism of the place or to succumb to the romanticizing historism.
The last series of works that I had a chance to see in person vere series of renderings of California landscape. Many years ago Málek came there to visits his friends from Sweden and again he established an almost permanent base there by teaching painting and drawings. He had returned many more times. His drawings of the divers aspects of California are usually quick studies that capture the great diversity of industrialized as well as pristine environment.
Tonda Málek could have hardly imagined the distances he would travel and the variations in his own work he was destined to experience until today. His adventures began early on when he found himself studying art in Prague in the 1950s, became an inextricable part of the vanguard in the 60th, and went into exile after the Russian invasion in 1968. After that he established himself in Sweden and later in Germany. Now he spends long periods of times living and working in India, Cambodia and California. The foray into abstraction seem to be abating, replaced by the renewed interest in the figure, portraiture and landscape painting and drawing. Moving comfortably between these categories, as well as between the continents, Málek seems to have attained a resolution to his life and work.