Jitka Hanzlová's masterful compositions at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

By Sophie Furse | 29 November 2012
A photo of a young woman in a pink suit staring at the camera in the countryside
Jitka Hanzlová, Untitled, from the series There is Something I Don't Know (2000-2012)© Jitka Hanzlová

Exhibition Review: Jitka Hanzlová, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Scotland, until February 3 2013

The formal composition of art – colour harmony, mass balance and the way your eye is drawn around a picture – is not something we hear about often.

But in Jitka Hanzlová’s Untitled (Julia), made between 2000 and 2012, a twisted hand sends your eye hurtling down a reddish pillar of leg, only to be pointed back up into the frame by a thin crease, itself perpendicular to a fold that extends entirely across the figure into an obliterating cloud of wintery twigs.

Commentary on Hanzolvá’s work focuses on the artist’s personal background as a key frame for regarding her work. It could be said, however, that the internal push and pull of her images is their most impressive feature.

Each theme she has selected, from the women of Brixton and inhabitants of her German city to horses and flowers, is furnished with pictures more majestic for their exquisite composition than their context.

Hanzolvá fled the former Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia for Essen, East Germany, in 1982, and this self-exile is seen as the catalyst to her creativity. Her “first” artwork is the photographic series made on returning to her hometown, Rokytník (1990-1994).

The images are barren but ultimately composed, with isolated figures or objects, carefully framed by their surroundings, dominating her subject matter.

We are perhaps used to the “exotic” in photographs, but her pictures, as a returning outsider, are striking in their lack of this. Her sensitive eye appears only observational and touched by humour.

Two half-naked boys lie on an empty damp road in what must be a game. But their faces are mildly distressed, and the pastoral setting’s sentimental potential is offset by the expanse of the picture dedicated to the glistening, tarmac road. Her work’s ambiguity is part of its delight.

In contrast to her “snapped’ images of the people in cities, her portraits, There is Something I Don’t Know (2000-2012), take on a new set of precedents.

Strong art-historical references situate subjects in Renaissance style windows, in profile and with dark backgrounds characteristic of the western art historical canon.

Almost therapeutic, her staged portrait images reveal honest, human depictions which are near-absent in a society flooded by portraits which glamorise, sexualise or sentimentalise their subjects.

Hanzolvá’s images refer instead to a longer visual history, but excluding the prestige associated with the ‘portrait’, Hanlova offers us purely aesthetic terms.

This exhibition makes for an engaging visit. The pictures are printed small enough to maintain their understated beauty, but too small perhaps to demonstrate their mastery.

Be sure to visit for the full range of her work, ripe for comparison with a remarkable collection in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s newly refurbished interior.

  • Open 10am-5pm (7pm Thursday, closed December 25 and 26, 12pm-5pm on January 1). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @NatGalleriesSco.

More pictures:

A photo of a white horse straining its neck inspired a sparse, white-walled art gallery
Untitled, from the series Horses© Jitka Hanzlová
A photo of a white-leaved see-through plant with a red bulb against a black backdrop
Untitled, from the series Flowers© Jitka Hanzlová
A photo of a young woman in a baseball hat and tracksuit top standing on a city street
Untitled, from the series Brixton© Jitka Hanzlová
A photo of a series of different coloured towels hanging on a wooden line in a field
Untitled, from the series Rokytník (1990-1994)© Jitka Hanzlová
A photo of a square building with yellow and pink walls and a green plant under it
Untitled, from the series Here (2003-2010)© Jitka Hanzlová
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