Jitka Válová: C’mon, Why Aren’t You Calling Me Jitka?

(Born in 1922 Kladno – died in Kladno 2011)

Jitka Válová was a member of the artistic groups Trasa (Path) and Umělecká Beseda (Artistic Forum). She was strongly influenced by the industrial environment of the Kladno steel works Poldi, where she was working as a forced laborer during the war. Though she worked in printmaking and painting, the foundation of her work was drawing. Her life and work have always been profoundly intertwined with that of her sister Květa (Born in 1922 – died 1998). The assistant of Jitka Válová, Majka Vydrová had been present during the interview (credited as MV).

Q: Do you have a visual record of your youth? 
A: Well, when we were young we were always doodling, but mom never saved anything. She knew that there wasn’t much worth keeping, but I’d still be happy if she had saved some of those scribbles. I used to love drawing horses, but I always had problems with the back legs, so I just drew them like the front ones. I knew the hind legs couldn’t possibly have knees like the front legs, but it never occurred to me to go look at a real horse. That was only when I was young, though, after that I did think to do that.  
Q: When we talk about you, we also of course have to mention your sister… By the way, today is Květa’s name day.
A: Květa’s name day is the fourth of May.
Q: OK, well today is Květoslava. In any case, you had two other siblings, of whom not much is said. 
A: Yeah, well they were never that interested in art, they hardly even knew how to draw a line.
Q: Weren’t you and Květa a bit removed from your siblings?
A: Yes, but they didn’t mind and neither did we.
Květa was worse off than me. I think that she had greater talent. She was more original, and she had this incredible sculptural robustness in her. I mean, those figures of hers… but we didn’t even know that Květa could become a sculptor. We didn’t know where to buy clay. We were completely dumb. I still can’t believe I got accepted to AAAD (School of Applied Arts, today the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague). We knew nothing about art. We were just a couple of dense Kladno girls.
Q: And how do you remember your schooling?
A: Well, I don’t really. I can tell you, though, that when we were in our first year of high school I was really hungry for education. We had this professor that was such an asshole. We had him for Czech… no, wait, for history and geography. Anyway, he picked right on us because we only had one atlas between us, and he would harass us every lesson. After a while I was like “Asshole, I don’t give a shit about you”, so we left high school and I really regret that, because you can’t make up for education by yourself. Man, he was a prick. And he was so stupid, too. Stupid as a… Well, I don’t want to say like what. 
Q: What do you remember of the war?
A: Not much at all.
Q: Has it ever come back to you in your work?
A: Nope.
Q: No?
A: We somehow weren’t that engaged in it. We could have done something, but none of us really tried that hard. I mean, I didn’t form any group to fight Nazism. 
Q: And what was your art education like?
A: Well, we first went to study a glass school, which was a mistake as well. We just weren’t oriented. We should have gone to study in some Prague graphic school. I can’t remember who told me to, but I ended up going to study glass in Železný Brod. I made some stuff there, some commissions, but I didn’t really enjoy it. 
We shouldn’t have gone there. Květa didn’t go to any such school; she went to some private place. Anyway, after that she went to study with Filla. She went there a year earlier than me, and I was still with Kaplický, but he didn’t really suit me either. I was pretty temperamental, and he was a philosopher, and what did I know about philosophy? Nothing. I just wanted to experience life, but Filla was far more sensuous. I really loved studying with him, he was a great teacher.
Q: How was the atmosphere at AAAD when you studied there?
A: Great. I loved being there.
Q: And what was the school like then?
A: Well that was the time of… what do you call it… socialist realism. We didn’t have to do that stuff, though. We were students of Filla’s, and he was great – I really loved him. He was a lovely boy, even if he wasn’t a boy. 
Q: And how were you classmates? 
A: All excellent. But, yeah, I have to say that I don’t even really remember them. Jarcovják’s already dead, I think. Then there were some girls…
MV: Grygar, Pacovská, Menšík? 
A: Grygar. Pacovská, now she was fantastic. Yeah, and Grygar was doing these toys now. They were these birds that had had their legs dipped in paint. And they did these… that stuff was just silliness. But it amuses him. 
Actually, there were a lot of us. We were the largest class. There were fourty of us. 
Q: Really?
A: Yeah, there were a lot.
MV: Valenta was there. Podhrázský. 
A: Valenta, he was from Kladno too. Podhrázský was excellent. He was a gentle boy, but he’s already passed as well.
MV: Čechová. 
A: Olga Čechová. 
MV: Kafka. 
A: Yes, Čestmír Kafka. He was kind of a leader. He went on to found Trasa. That group that was more or less people from Filla’s studio. And when we had our first exhibition, we were joined by sculptors. Zoubek was there, and…
MV: Kmentová. 
A: Yeah, Eva Kmentová, she was one a hell of a sculptor. She was really outstanding, that girl. Olbram (Olbram Zoubek, Kmentová’s husband) says that their kids got their work ethic from him, but their talent from Eva. Yeah, she was a lot better than Olbram. She was exceptional. Even as a person she was exceptional
Q: And what kind of exhibitions did Trasa do?
A: Trasa didn’t have any particular character. Everybody did what they wanted. 
Q: Right, but you did do group exhibitions, and I’m wondering if you also had solo shows.
A: Yes of course. We actually had a lot of solo shows, at least one a year, but often more.
Q: Did you work with curators, or did you choose the work for the shows yourself?
A: No, the initiative was mainly taken by Čestmír Kafka – he worked everything out. He was such a smart lad. Unfortunately he’s already dead as well. His wife Olga Čechová also studied with Filla, and she just died recently. I was at her funeral. She was also a special girl. She mainly did graphic design, though. 
We had exhibitions in Kladno, and we knew a lot of people there. Everyone from Trasa exhibited there, and even some who weren’t in the group. We always ended up at our place after those shows, and we had decadent parties there. Actually, not that decadent, we didn’t have money for that, but we always did meet up there. There were a lot of those shows. The Communists didn’t understand that shit anyway, so we exhibited whatever we wanted. Those were great exhibitions. 
MV: Jiří Hanke was also very active in Kladno, wasn’t he?
A: He was more into photography, though.
MV: And Franta Tomík put things together there as well, right?
A: Franta Tomík knew a lot of painters. Actually, he was a painter as well. He was a young boy then, and he was always taking care of transport when we all needed to go somewhere. He was on top of that stuff.
Q: Then there were those exhibitions in Cheb. That was sort of a breakthrough, right?
A: Yes.
Q: But the first solo exhibition you had was in ‘66 in Václav Špála Gallery, wasn’t it?
A: Květa and I showed there together. 
Q: And after that you didn’t exhibit until the 80’s… were you living off your art?
A: Ha! Not at all, I was living off my mom. She was getting a pension payment of 450 crowns a month, and she fed us off that. What’s more, she saved us a bit every week and bought each of us a box of cigarettes. I don’t know how she was able to save anything at all, and she of course didn’t smoke.
Q: And how many years did she support you for?
A: A long time. I don’t even know. Yeah, I feel like it was until I took a pension myself. Money seemed to avoid us. Whenever someone came to us they’d tell us to give them some works of ours. And we always did. Idiots. We never asked for money, and it never occurred to them to give us anything. Whenever we sold something, it was always to a gallery. Otherwise, we wouldn’t let go of our paintings, so I guess we weren’t that stupid, after all. Yeah, and we sold paintings every year. Well, one
at least. 
Q: And how did you find your subject matter?
A: I was inspired by what I saw around me, but I guess I was primarily interested in the emotional side of things. I had a way with people that wasn’t exactly professional, but more sensitive. There was, for example, some work that I liked, so I painted it. When we were working as forced laborers in Poldi Steel Works, we drew all the time. The workers there usually weren’t doing nothing, so they would stand around in this position for a while, or we would draw them working, and we really enjoyed that. Mostly I was drawing there, actually. 
Q: And did you ever do anything like a commission there?
A: Not at all. Those guys didn’t buy anything from us. We actually even had an exhibition in Poldi Steel Works, and they didn’t even come, so of course they didn’t buy anything. We didn’t sell at all. I have no idea how we survived, but we did.
Q: Is there a specific topic you are interested in at the moment? 
A: Now? I don’t even know. Actually, what am I doing right now?
MV: Pastels, charcoal.
A: Yes. I started using charcoal and pastels. I mainly enjoy doing large stuff, but I just can’t do it anymore. I mean, I’m small, I can’t reach anywhere, and I get dizzy. I can’t climb like that anymore. I used to put a chair on a table and draw that way. I especially liked to make my final projects for school big. That last one was something like 4 x 4 meters, or maybe even bigger. I can’t remember exactly. Anyway, I made that at AAAD. I used a table that had another on top of it, I think. In any case, I couldn’t climb up on anything like that nowadays. I recently made a drawing of the shrubs growing outside my window. 
Q: Did you use to have some kind of working regime?
A:  I only work when I feel like it. I’m pretty undisciplined, but I almost always feel like making something. Květa and I mainly worked at night. During the day we were at AAAD. I used to be able to survive for three
or four days without sleep. We used to work at AAAD during the day and at night work at home. I really didn’t mind not sleeping. For me that wasn’t a problem. It’s only now that I sleep like a log.
Q: What themes are you working with now? Are you still interested in music? 
A: Yeah, I worked with music for a long time, making those poured drawings. That was good for me, because I had them done quickly. I had to start with the music, to draw to it, and it would inspire me, mainly the rhythm. Rhythm is the most important thing. And then, girl? What did I do then? 
MV: Roots and lilies.
A: Yes, I fell in love with roots, they’re so gorgeous. I finally discovered nature; I fell in love with lilies too. I know they are deliciously fragrant, but as I have no sense of smell I can’t appreciate them, and that’s a shame. They have this amazing silky quality to them. I realize that I have always loved nature, but not as intensely as I do now that I am older. I am amazed by it, by its unsurpassable blazing richness. Those millions or billions of caterpillars… It’s terrible. And then they get squashed by cars. That’s… that’s real nature.
I was actually just thinking about that. I looked back on my life, how I’ve lived, what the beginning looked like, and I came to the conclusion that there hasn’t always been something here. Before the world came to be, what was there? My answer was ‘nothing’. But what actually is ‘nothing’? We don’t know what nothing is, and we can’t recognize nothing. And what if that nothing is, in fact, everything? What if it contains the beginning, the start of everything? Where did it all come from? Not knowing that pisses me off.
Q: And do you believe in anything?
A: I do. A person can’t really… I’m convinced that the world came from nothing, and yet there must have been some spirit or being that brought it into existence… no-one can really know, because none of us knows what nothing really is. We can’t understand it, because there is always something around us. I don’t know if anyone can feel or recognize nothing. We can’t do that, I think, because we aren’t nothing, so we can’t get to know nothing. I would like to, though. When I just stand, sometimes I feel like I am nothing, but even that isn’t really nothing. I’m convinced that even when I die, even that won’t be nothing. 
Q: You think so?
A: I’m convinced. I mean, you can’t destroy matter, so how could you destroy spirit? I think the lowest form of spirit is matter, and the highest form of matter is spirit. Both are intertwined; nothing is created, and nothing is destroyed, as long as there is life. I don’t know what life looks like elsewhere in the universe, but there can’t be nothing there. There is something everywhere.
Q: That’s certainly how it looks so far.
A: Or we just can’t see it.
Q: What do you most like to remember about your life?
A: Man, I don’t remember much, but I only have good memories. I don’t remember anyone pissing me off too much, or having enemies. I think we always had friends around us. 
MV: You keep talking about Květa.
A: Yeah, I know. You know, Květa, she shouldn’t have died. I feel her around me all the time. She definitely left me a part of her soul, and I definitely gave her a piece of mine. She took it with her. I dream about her every day, and I see her like if she was still alive. There have been so many times that I have had to remind myself that she is dead, and yet I see her right there in front of me. She had been so close that I could touch her, but I never rise from the bed to do so. I’m happy to stay in bed. 
Q: Do you remember anything concrete from those dreams?
A: No, nothing concrete. Only that Květa flashes by. Yeah, I actually dream quite often that she and I have to hand in some work, and we don’t like it. Neither she nor I. I have that dream very often. I don’t really believe in myself, I have no self-confidence. None at all. I can safely say that I’m definitely not full of myself. I don’t think anything of myself. 
Q: Are you planning any exhibitions at the moment?
A: Yeah, I’m going to have one in Litoměřice in mid-January. I’m going to show some recent works there. In my old age I have fallen in love with nature, and with lilies in particular. They are such pure, beautiful, beautiful flowers. I am completely blown away by them. And they smell so gorgeous. To some people, their fragrance is so strong, it’s overpowering. But I don’t mind, because I can’t smell them. I have no sense of smell, but I still really love lilies. This one boy actually told me that the lilies are the best work I have ever made in my life. I told him to go fuck himself, that he didn’t know shit about what I had done in my life. He has known me for two or three years. I told him he knew nothing about the work I had made before. Still, they’re not bad. After all, I do make them with love, and that’s visible. You know, when someone does something that they’re interested in, then you can sense that. That’s probably the case here. I definitely sense it in those works.
Q: Did you and Květa know anyone from the Academy of Fine Arts?
A: Sure. There was actually a bit of emulation between the AAAD kids and those from the Academy. They used to think that when they are from the Academy… Bullshit! They were just like the AAAD kids. We had friends in both schools, though. They did think slightly more highly of themselves, though. I didn’t care though – to me it didn’t matter. They didn’t show off too much in front of us.
Q: Did you have any foreign influences? How informed were you? Did you know what was going on in the West?
A: We didn’t know anything. Nope, we didn’t.
Q: But Chalupecký... 
A: Yes, Chalupecký once came to visit the studio, and he was satisfied with what we were doing. But we definitely weren’t meeting with him regularly. But he was great, Chalupecký. You don’t get art historians like him any more.
Q: Do you think it is harder to make art today, when there is so much information, than it was in socialist Czechoslovakia?
A: I think it doesn’t make a difference.
Q: It doesn’t?
A: Hmm, it depends on who you are, and if you are accepted. We were never given the green light, and we never kissed anyone’s asses. No one was worth it to us, and we wouldn’t have even known how to do that, you know?
Q: Is there any contemporary art you like?
A: For sure. I am pretty impressed by the younger generation. For one thing, they have imagination, and for another, they are good at craft, and they definitely have ideas.
Q: What was it like when you and Květa shared a work space? Was it distracting?
A: Yes, it made me angry. Especially when we needed to stand back. We were always bumping into each other, because we had this small room. It was only 4 or 5 meters wide. I can’t remember. Květa used to mainly make wide paintings, and I used to make tall ones, so I would work downstairs, in the room, where the ceiling was higher, and Květa would work in the loft, where the ceiling was just around two meters high. When we were working, we used to hate it when the other would come to watch. If I went up to see what she was doing, she would tell me to get out, that she didn’t want to see me. Or I would tell her to leave me alone. Even today I still hate it when someone watches me working. 
Q: But you were always the first to see each other’s paintings. 
A: Of course, we had to be. When we were working, we didn’t want the other to see, but when we had reached a stopping point, we would always ask each other to come to look. Or we would go to look on our own accord. 
Q: And did you agree with each other’s opinions? 
A: We always had to admit that we had the same opinion. We were very similar. Whatever Květa thought, I tended to think too. We never had different opinions on anything, not only on art.
Q: Well, twins influence each other.
A: Yeah, it can be a crutch. Especially when we had the same exact opinion on everything. When someone used to ask me “What do you think?”, I’d answer with “We think… ”, and then they’d always tell me to answer for myself, not for both of us. I would say that I think the same as Květa, and Květa thinks the same as me. We had the same outlook on everything, even on the smallest nonsense. 
Q: How did you see men?
A: Well, to tell you the truth, I fell in love, but always platonically. Men pissed me off, I have to say. I would fall in love with them, but it wouldn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t love exactly, it was something else. The only real love is platonic. I have fallen in love platonically many times in my life. I have figured love out, and it has had an effect on me. 
Q: And did that affect your work?
A: I think so. I think one can sense that from my work.
Q: And do you associate that attitude with a particular piece of work?
A: No. I also used to love animals, and I have done a number of paintings where that’s visible. Wait, what were they called? Poslední dotyk and První dotyk (First Touch and Last Touch). I used to go to slaughterhouses a lot, I was really interested in that. I felt really sorry for those animals, but I had to go there, even though I didn’t like it. I painted this bull just as it was, hanging. Only the thorax was visible, about halfway down the body. And underneath it was a person touching the head of the bull. That was the last touch. I liked that. I have no idea where that painting is. 
Q: Did you have any animals at home? A cat or a dog?
A: A dog, yes. We love dogs, we’ve always had dogs. German Shepherds. And now we have a… what’s it called?
MV: A Labrador.
A: A Labrador. They’re not better than German Shepherds, though. German Shepherds are a lot smarter. And gentler, too. That bitch we have now is a good-for-nothing. When she moves, she’s like a bulldozer. Either I move, or she’ll shove me out of the way. She’s pretty big, and what’s more she’s got this big frame. German Shepherds are leaner and more elegant. 
Q: Did you ever paint them? 
A: Never. Květa used to paint them often, but I never did. I should have painted some, but for some reason I didn’t enjoy it. 
Q: Did you and Květa influence each other? 
A: Not really that much. We both worked completely differently, and it never occurred to us to be inspired by the other. We were each into our own thing. Květa gravitated more to material, and me to drawing.
Q: And can I just ask, our project is about women and we are interested in questions of gender. Did you ever deal with those issues either in your personal life or in your work? Did you, for example, sense a difference between yourself and men?
A: No. I don’t know. Why should I feel greater respect for them?
Q: No, that’s not what I mean, but…
A: I treat men the same as I treat women, I just don’t care.
Q: And is there such a thing as “women art”?
A: I don’t see any difference. Only that men wear pants, and now I wear them too. No, I don’t think there’s a difference.
Q: Have you ever felt that you’ve been treated differently by a curator because you’re a woman?
A: I never paid attention to any difference in treatment, or maybe I just didn’t notice it. To them it didn’t matter.
Q: What do cigarettes mean to you, seeing that you’ve smoked your whole life? 
A: A lot. Like I’ve said, they’re going to have to bury me with them. And a lighter I can use in that condition. To me quitting smoking isn’t worth it anymore.
Q: You still like it?
A: Ha ha. You’re all nonsmokers, aren’t you? Good for you. Today you’re inhaling with me, though.
Q: Do you have any life advice for us?
A: I’d have to think about that. I need advice myself. Whatever you do, don’t yield to anyone, you know? When someone’s kissing your ass, ignore it, because they definitely want something from you. No one’s
going to give you anything for free, not even friendship. That means that they’re going to sponge off you when they need to. And you can’t let people bullshit you. When people need you, they’ll tell you what you want to hear, but don’t buy it. No one’s worth that. You shouldn’t always push too hard to what you believe, but on the other hand you shouldn’t let yourself be too influenced by others. You can believe something and then later realize that it doesn’t make any sense, that you’ve been wrong or misled, and have bought into a lie. So, don’t be convinced by anything that you haven’t really seen yourself, that you haven’t experienced yourself.
Q: And who has influenced you in your life?
A: I’ll tell you who: my mother. My mother was tolerant and fair. I don’t know anyone like her, like the way she was. I never heard her swear like Květa and I used to. And I never saw her hurt anyone, or even touch anyone in a bad way. She was really a saint. I think that Květa really took after her. Me, I’m not that nice. 
Q: What’s the meaning of life?
A: Well, you shouldn’t live like a pig, and you shouldn’t sell out, and you should find a goal you’d like to reach. It doesn’t matter what it is, but you have to have a target. If you don’t know what you’re living for, then what are you doing here? You can devote your entire life to even the slightest little thing, it doesn’t have to be some grand ideal.
Q: Well thank you very much for finding the time for us, Ms. Válová.
A: C’mon, why aren’t you calling me Jitka?