Margita Titlová: I Am Interested in Power That Has Yet To Be Discovered

(Born in 1957 in Prague)

Margita Titlová’s work represents a wide spectrum of artistic production, including painting, drawing, film, photography, and installation.
She often works with her own body, combining this subjective stance with the objective knowledge of science. She is currently working with principles of thermovision and is teaching at the Faculty of Arts, Technical University in Brno.

Q: Tell us about your artistic models from childhood or from your studies.
A: The time when I studied had its characteristic features. I was interested in artists who, in the times when politicians on TV clapped and chanted “with Soviet Union forever”, were persecuted and could not exhibit. Art was means of self-expression, individuality, creativity, and one’s courage and stance toward society. This type of art wasn’t exhibited in galleries. For example, at that time Boštík was making abstract paintings and wasn’t allowed to exhibit. Back then I was interested in abstraction, because it was not didactic, and most importantly I was interested in action and conceptual art. 
Q: And had you already started making abstract paintings at that time?
A: In the eighties I had just finished school, and the teachers there just were as they were. At that time I was trying to set myself free from academism. My goal was to not be in the system, to set myself free from it somehow, to get out and find my own form. I was making one painting or drawing per day. I was working on large formats 5x3 m or 2x3 m, or using roles of paper, which had been brought to me (to my great surprise) by Adriena Šimotová. That was very important, as I did not have to worry about the material. Expressive painting was leading me out of the grey boredom and giving me a sense of adventure.
Q: Who were your classmates?
A: The 1980s were about meeting people who were seeking alternative positions in art. They were linked by their interest in free expression by the means of many forms of art, not just among the Academy students. Information was passed as samizdat or by imported catalogues. Communication existed also among those who could not study. In this time we were in touch with Milan Kozelka, who lived in Templová Street in a room with one window where many people met. I met for example Kovanda who used to work in the Municipal library. He once unlocked the library for us and we had a secret exhibition there in the night. Our friends used the rear entrance to get inside. In those times there were many various private activities, exhibitions, actions in apartments, studios, basements and attics.
Q: When was that?
A: That must have been around ‘83 or ‘84. Everyone involved knew each other. We used to meet up in each other’s studios, so we knew who was painting what, even if they weren’t allowed to exhibit. We actually used to meet up with each other a lot more then than we do now. We really had to see each other, because the number of people doing anything was small. The whole generation knew each other very well, we would meet, party together, communicate. It also wasn’t detached from the generation of Adriena Šimotová, Boštík, Nepraš, and so on. Poets, writers, and actors all used to mix; the artists weren’t closed off from everyone else.
Q: Did you critique each other’s work?
A: I think we did quite a lot of critiquing. What I look back on it, I’m glad it was that way. There were definitely a lot of different approaches to expression and to working here.
Q: Of the people you used to be in contact with, have any changed?
A: The worst thing for me is that a lot of women have disappeared.
Girls from my generation either went abroad, stopped actively exhibiting, or stopped making art altogether. Unfortunately, the number of women who kept at it, who took risks, is quite meager. Maybe they are working somewhere in private, putting their work in drawers. They didn’t enter the public life so much. Because when you exhibit, you change society, whereas when you put your work in a drawer, you tend to focus on your own body and mind. Perhaps some women are only concerned with those kinds of intimate matters.
Q: Who from that time would you most like to catch up with?
A: I would be curious to know what everyone’s doing. I would be interested to know how the women ended up, even if they stopped making art. That isn’t all that important, really. What is, however, is that they are living a creative life, and they have been able to put their artistic inclinations to use in other activities. That will one day be the concern of curators.
Q: How do you feel about the fact that you are the only woman to have been included in the exhibition of painting from the eighties at the Vaňkovka Gallery in Brno?
A: It is up to the curator, how he conceives his exhibitions. That exhibition was curated by Richard Adam, who is a private collector. He loves painting, so he only put paintings in the show. Of course, if that period were to be mapped from another perspective, the show would have to include sculptors, performers, and other artists who worked in forms besides painting. That show is just a thin slice of that time. Like when you cut a geode, you get one result, but if you cut it from another angle, you get a completely different one. 
Q: Were there more men than women at the Academy when you were studying there?
A: There were always more men. Now, of course, it’s a little different; there are a lot of women who apply to study in my studio who are very capable and talented. Back in those days, though, some studios had two or three girls, and maybe fifteen boys. The professors were also all men. We actually didn’t have any female professors.
Q: And how long have you been teaching?
A: Perhaps since 98’. The first female professors of fine arts after the Revolution were Adéla Matasová at AAAD (Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague), and Jitka Svobodová at the Academy of Fine Arts.
Q: Do you feel that it’s important to have female professors at the art academies?
A: I think that in the exact field there shouldn’t be any difference between female and male pedagogues. In art academies it is quite different, however. The kaleidoscope of men’s and women’s perspectives is an important objective environment reflecting the society. I completely understand the attitude that there is only one art. However, I don’t think that is totally relevant. Yes, quality is quality, and good food is good food, but you can cook with many ingredients. And it is these ingredients that make art interesting. Women’s experience, the way they see the world is simply different and indisputable. Women have a direct experience of belonging with the principle of the natural circle, the birth of a child. Still, it’s necessary to say that we are speaking very generally, and such generalizations tend to ride roughshod over many subtleties that make life interesting. When we limit ourselves to only men’s and women’s perspectives, the details get lost. We must therefore always take into consideration that some women are a little like men, and some men are a little like women.
Q: How does that special feminine quality manifest itself?
A: In the spiritual field one doesn’t have to sort out male and female art. This division was only justified by the fact that in the past art used to be an exclusively masculine affair. It is man’s world we live in, and women speak out in this space. Thus there is something new that tends to be labeled women’s art. I also think that women have peculiar experience they can introduce to art. I see art as the manifestation of the society, the spirit of the period and the time we live in. That which is feminine – and this is not limited to my work – is related to some sort of “self-awareness”, to the consciousness of forming of one’s thoughts and feelings. And when this happens then the work is authentic and feminine. In my opinion if in general the work lacks that pursuit, an individual statement, the oxygenation of the society, then the work is​ no longer authentic. 
Q: Do you think that also applies with regard to choice of material? Do you think a woman would choose to work with lipstick rather than a man?
A: I was surprised when some students, men, started embroidering their paintings. I told them: “You’re taking one of our strongest tools away from us!” I was joking, of course. I do think, however, one tends to work with materials that one is most familiar with. Lipstick, as a material, would probably be a more natural choice for a woman than it would be for a man.
At the same time artists don’t want to submit to taboos. They don’t want to be subordinate to any regime or order. That has to do with form as well. Of course there are mediums, which can be more familiar to women than to men, but I think above all an artist looks for freedom.
Q: Could you just return to your performance work from the eighties?
A: One couldn’t freely exhibit in those days. Even at school, what we were and weren’t allowed to know was dictated to us. We always got our information about the way art was being made out there from outside school. For me it was always important to take a breather and say to myself: “I’m standing on the Earth, which is round. I am here, and the only thing I can believe is that I can see my own hand. I see my hand, and maybe then my shadow.”
I started working with certainties, things I knew to exist, which I could touch, could see, and which moved with me. I started to touch my own shadow and work with completely elementary things. I abandoned painting, which I had been taught for six years. How to paint, what to paint, and the kind of expression, which was encouraged at the academy. I think that with art one can express one’s life and experience. On the one hand, craft helps, and you learn that at school, but thought
is also important. For me it was important to leave painting and come back to myself. That was how the first photographs, the captured performances, came to be. I wasn’t making them to exhibit, though. For me it was important to see the work, to touch it, to look at it, learn from it, and then for example, make drawings from it. So I turned on the light on the wall, and when I saw my shadow, the first thing I did was touch it. Then I started working with lipstick, because the pigment in lipstick
is very high quality. Lipstick flows very nicely and makes beautiful marks on paper. For me the work was about the physical touch of the hand with that superior pigment. I know that sounds really feminine, but the work was also about the grade of the coloring in the lipstick. After that it was only another small step from touching my shadow to damaging it, to destroying it, to communicating with it, or to drawing into it. In the end I didn’t need an outline of the body at all, just a plane spread out before me that could function as a space into which I could freely move.
At that time I was able to work on big drawings. I believed in it, because I knew what I was doing. It wasn’t anything predetermined, like “now I’m going to paint something”, but I started working with emotions and the movement of the hand. I needed my hands to work in different ways, sometimes aggressively, sometimes gently, and to express my emotional experience, and that was how the performances started.  
I was also interested in how one actually looks in space, so I started working on photographs, in which I styled myself to fit into a particular environment, for example, the forest, with a tree and water. I started to alter the spaces. And again, these weren’t works that I wanted to show to anyone. I mainly wanted to look at them, so that I could ask myself: “I’m here standing on the Earth, but what does that actually mean? What is the weight of my body? What happens when I tie myself to a tree so that when I lean, the tree leans with me? What is the weight of my body, and the ability of the tree to withstand it?” I started to do those types of things because I myself wanted to try them. I wanted to find my own style, my own view of things, my own way. I looked for that through things I could believe in, through my own identity and emotions. 
Q: This corporeal theme reminds me of a survey done about women’s art, which Věra Jirousová published in Výtvarné umění (Visual Arts) in 1993. One of the questions that was asked of the women artists was whether women deal with their own physicality more than men.
A: Well, that’s really how it is. I have a lot of female students who are always coming back to that theme. I let them go through that, because I know it’s just the first step for them to get further. Some of them don’t move off that theme, but others do experiment, end up working in new ways, and become interested in other things. The truth is, though, that women do have a closer relationship with that subject matter. I think it’s probably because if women want something to build on, they have practically nothing, because our art history is more or less nonexistent, so they have to start from themselves. For women there are very few things to relate to, something like an icon. We haven’t worked out what those are for us. We look for ourselves, and we create, so that’s why we start from ourselves.
Q: And do you have any role models among women artists? 
A: I’m not the type of person to say that, from the whole amazing world of color, the only one that interests me is cyan (which, of course, is a lovely color). Women’s thought as a whole appeals to me. So even women who are not that well known can compel me. I am interested in power that has yet to be discovered, in things that have yet to be said. 
I recently had an exhibition in NOD Gallery, and in that show I focused on women who interested me for one reason or another. For example the Chinese Queen Cchi’, who came to power thanks to having been a concubine. I was also interested in a number of different healers and witches. For me the search for, and recognition of, women’s power is very important; their emotional and intellectual strength, and the strength to deal with changes in their lives, which may have brought them to the way they work. 
Q: Do you think there’s anything that could connect all these experiences?
A: I personally think that women’s art is something completely different than men’s art. The whole history that we have to reckon with was made by a society of men. Philosophy, science, even art, men made it all. Women didn’t have the chance to contribute. I therefore think that the female approach is different and, in my opinion, it’s compelling. It’s important to support it and to find its otherness within it. 
Q: What’s your understanding of feminism?
A: I find it intriguing that a lot of female artists don’t want to be considered feminists. That has to do with what I was talking about. They don’t want to stylize themselves into one position, because it would tie them up. They want to remain free from any fixed definitions or attitudes and yet they still frequently behave in very feminist ways. I support my students to study feminist stances, to take their bearings and make their own opinion. I keep my free and critical view, because it can take me farther. 
Q: So what does feminism actually mean to you? I ask because everyone seems to have their own definition of it, everyone sees it differently. 
A: Definitions are a bit rigid and limiting. Life rushes by and changes in time. This I think, is the reason for women artists disliking definitions, because life evolves and changes, but definitions stay the same, and are actually always a little bit outdated. Rather then being interested in definitions I care about “maps of the society and relationships.” What’s key is an analytic view of who you actually are, and what society you are in. It’s important to pose questions about why you do the things you do, why you are fighting against something, what you have a problem with. I don’t find definitions organic. I see it more as gardening: fertilization, planting, hoeing etc…
If the theories stay the same, remain static while the society around them is changing, then when you mention “feminism” to a woman, she will tell you: “I want nothing to do with it.” Kaja Silverman in the book Fidelity in Motion speaks of stubbornness of the human psyche and that also the feminist theory can be tiring.
The point from which it is possible to change and to create, is the relationship of parents toward their child. It is a fractal of which the emotional whole of the society is created; the time when the fine threads of experience, feelings of safety, joy or fear and loneliness arise. For these emotional bonds and values feminists should take responsibility. The touch with tabula rasa, where experience is recorded, led children, women and men to the consciousness of their own identity, so that they can develop it, not be ashamed of it, and so that they can enjoy it and feel free within it. This is the core of the matter for me.
Q: What was your upbringing like? Do you remember who played what roles in your family?
A: I guess we had a very strange family. My brother, who is three years older than me, is a psychoanalyst. We both needed to search for something, discover something. Otherwise, half of my family were musicians. My mother’s family were violinists and cellists. Our upbringing was fairly liberal. My father was never the overbearing, door-slamming type. I only got hit once in my life, and I moved out immediately after. My aunt was the one who hit me, and she did so because I had gotten home very late from a party. By the next day I had already
moved out. My family was really crazy. Everyone had so many problems. My brother and I grew up something like this… everyone loved us, but no one had much time for us. 
Q: Was your mother the homemaker? 
A: No, my mother was a translator. She died around the time I was in 8th grade, so I had time with her only as a small child. After that I lived with my aunt, from where, as I mentioned, I moved away soon. 
Q: It’s interesting that quite a number of women who for one reason or another have had absent mothers end up dealing with their own femininity.
A: Well, I am interested in psychoanalysis. What have feminists experienced? What’s their background? Where does the position of determination arise?
Q: Do you think there is anything that predisposes you to becoming a feminist?
A: If self-reflection is missing then that can be damaging. If people, who want to change the society, have an unresolved personal problem and apply this problem to the society as a whole, then they tend to use their theories in a compulsive way. And compulsiveness that stems from some kind of a problem is always dangerous. I don’t like it when men criticize this, and yet I myself am also a big critic. I think criticism can help expose problems and make something more authentic, more conscious come out of it.
I am interested in spiritual matters, in which women are strong, for instance healing or caring for someone and in things that we actually don’t know about, that are subconscious.
Q: Do you feel that Czech society is sufficiently receptive of the spiritual view of the world?
A: We Czechs are sort of in the gray middle. With us it was the outcome of the communist period and then the transition to the capitalist system leading to the consumerist life style. In this environment I find the women’s art curative. I was captivated by responses of artists working with the public, like for instance Kateřina Šedá and her projects with people living in housing schemes or in a village, and also the Ztohoven group.
Q: What is your opinion of exhibitions in which only women participate?
A: It’s definitely important for women to exhibit together. I think that women should show together, who either understand each other, or those that have diametrically-opposed views. Women who make art,
and who are searching for a form of visual communication, new impulses, and new iconography.
Q: So what is your opinion of women’s activism in art?
A: We need more ease and humor. Activism is didactic and does not create new communicative possibilities. The generalization of problems in the society creates a collective blame, that men and some women tend to resist. What is missing in this view is delicacy and complexity of relationships among people. I understand men who don’t want to carry the whole responsibility. For instance a father who wishes luck for his daughter and helps her to study. By pointing out blame one creates a wall. If I instigate conflict, it doesn’t lead to a communicative process. That in turn doesn’t allow other women or men who want to harmonize society or might have another point of view to get involved. 
I think that’s one of the reasons why feminists are in some sense isolated from the rest of society. A broader platform is missing, open to the current problems of women, a debate on the search for values in society, and a generally more accommodating media representation. Why don’t feminist’ ideas resonate with other women? Why aren’t they able to communicate in such a way so that more women start to think about what they are saying? Why is it an exclusive group? It’s a bit of a shame.
Q: Well, that’s a nice stopping point for our discussion, but hopefully we can continue this another time.
A: I would be interested to hear what the other women you are interviewing have to say.
Q: It varies. Everyone has taken a different path, and it’s really visible in their work.
A: I think female artists are just as important as mothers. I can imagine such an outsider art drawing where one tree has roots in the skies and the other in the earth and their branches intertwine... Together they can change society. Some can change it from a spiritual position, from the top, and the others, who are at the beginning, can change it from the bottom.