"These pictures should be banned!" railed Joseph Beuys in the early Seventies against the works of Milan Kunc, whom he had previously accepted into his class at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. The Czech, at the time almost thirty, took the slander as a compliment and called his controversial professor - who was soon to be expelled from the academy - a scholar.

Gerhard Richter, the other academician under whom Kunc subsequently studied, recommended that he seek his fortunes in advertising. A promising omen for his future, thought Kunc, who was aware that an international star of contemporary art, Andy Warhol, had found his way into the Pop Art scene through advertising. Thus the emigrant was able to gradually develop his concept of false conclusions and systematically deepen his dissident views on modern art.
Milan Kunc has been living in Cologne for the past two years. In a romantic old building he has set up a bright and spacious studio apartment where the visitor will find whole piles of slides, photographic prints and file cards alongside the easel and palette. The artist has cleared a working space for a student at his desk in order for her to organize a catalogue of over 1000 works: A major Kunc monograph is currently being prepared in Italy.
Abroad - in Milan, Amsterdam and New York - Kunc is having more success than at home, although he is gradually making progress in West Germany as well. Two of his paintings appeared recently at the Frankfurt trend exhibit "Prospect 89". Admittedly, he still views the goings-on at such events with some doubt. In 1988, he said in one of his typically simple and concisely formulated statements: "What is the difference between a good and a bad house painter? The same as between a 'Neuer Wilder' (Neo-Expressionist) and a 'Neo-Geo' painter."
Born in Prague in 1944, Milan Kunc developed a skepticism towards the avant-garde from his long-standing involvement with the pictorial world of political ideologies - at first an unavoidable, later an intentionally sought-after confrontation. In 1964, he began his studies in Prague at the Academy of Arts. Alongside the obligatory Socialist Realism and its craft-like painting tradition, surrealistic tendencies were tolerated at the academy - a surrealism whose subversive language had been used and unterstood in Czechoslovakia since the Twenties. Both styles appear time and again in Kunc's work, yet with reversed premises.
One year after the 1969 invasion of Soviet troops destroyed all hopes of the "Prague Spring", Kunc obtained the opportunity to study in Italy the paintings of the Old Masters, whom he admired. It was during this trip that he decided to emigrate.
Kunc went to Dusseldorf and continued his studies at the academy there. He tried his hand at all conceivable styles - abstract, expressive and monochromatic. These experiments on the canvas soon won him a reputation as a maverick: Painting pictures was thought to be reactionary. He began to copy Rubens and eventually started painting teddy bears at picnics or a parrot mimicking the telephone: "Rring, Rring." Paintings of this kind he brought to his professors as "hand-made oil paintings" to be critiqued, works which he declared to be masterpieces of his self-created style "Embarrassing Realism." The concept of this style was based on what he calls "controlled foolishness."
At that time, Kunc also painted a series of pictures showing fragments of idyllic landscapes fraught with pieces of war machinery. His "Melancholische Herbstwache" ("Melancholy Autumn Patrol", 1977) portrays a German soldier standing in front of a body of water - a landscape scene just like those yellowed prints that were hanging in many German living rooms during the war and which are still treasured in some places today. The tank and the patiently posing prototype of the German warrior look as if they had been cut out of a children's picture book and superimposed upon the oil painting. The lonely swan on the lake, the camouflage coloured autumn scenery and the unmistakable reminder of pseudo-realist pictures from the Third Reich: All combine to create an embarrassing - at least in the Seventies - collage, a forbidden pop blend of German history.
Milan Kunc was also on hand when Punk music left London and found its first fans in Dusseldorf in 1978. The Czech quickly developed an Eastern European variation of the punker outfit: He substituted the "No Future" buttons and safety pins with the red-gold emblems of Soviet hero decorations, with medals, scarves, chains and badges. In his daily get-up, Kunc looked like a fervent, though slightly over-decorated Communist youth group member who had accidentally stumbled into the West.
Kunc designed poster boards and signs for quasi-religious processions. On the one side of the placards he combined popular symbols of the West - Superman, Mickey Mouse and hamburgers - with the Eastern hammer and sickle. The other side he decorated with the camouflage colours common to both East and West. In 1978, friends of Kunc carried his modern icons, his holy relics of consumerism and ideology, through the city of Wuppertal. But the demonstration pleased neither the branch managers of McDonald's nor the leftist community.
In 1979, Kunc was able to continue his work completely undetected in Moscow during the preparations for the subsequently boycotted Olympic games. He had his picture taken as a contented communist in front of PepsiCola stands - "Consumerists of the world, unite!" was his slogan. He posed as an artistically ambitious sailor who enthusiastically seizes his sketchbook in front of a monumental red star in order to record the great moment for posterity. But such demonstrations weren't only driven by the subversive desire to celebrate the involuntary absurdity of communist idylls come true. Kunc was moved just as much by the earnest goal of countering the fears created by frosty East-West relations - thus the camouflage colours on the back sides of his symbolic collages.
At one point he was so animated by the artificial pathos that he began to take it seriously as his compulsory routine. Kunc constantly wore brownish Eastern Bloc suits complete with discipline, tie and ironed creases; he looked like a recently freed fashion model for medium-level party officials. Even the punkers could only shake their fluorescently-coloured heads.
In 1979, he drew an end to his "East Pop" phase - such was Kunc's name for his version of Pop Art - and returned to painting. He painted publicly on billboards together with Jorg Immendorff, who was active at that time in the Green Party; subsequently, he founded the "Normal" group with his colleagues Peter Angermann and Jan Knap. The group created somewhat of a sensation in other countries, most notably at the llth Biennale of Paris, where they painted several large-format works collectively; in West Germany, however, the group was less than welcome. When Kasper Konig, organizer of the 1984 "Von hier aus" ("From Here On Out") show in Dusseldorf, offered the "Normal" painters their own room at his exhibition, they worked on it as a group even though they had all gone their separate ways since 1981.
In the meantime, Kunc's painting had become more dynamic - in spite of the fact that the members of "Normal" had differentiated themselves from their "wild" colleagues with the claim that they were developing an "Expressionism with cultivated strokes."
Kunc changed his style from picture to picture. Carefree compositions were arranged quickly with a thick brush, sometimes illuminated in loud colours, sometimes with a conscious simplification of all spatial problems. The results of this method remind one in many ways of the human imagination tumbling forwards under the influence of hallucinogenics. Titles such as "Psychedelischer Nachmittag" ("Psychedelic Afternoon", 1983) only confirm what can be clearly observed in certain compositional elements.
Kunc experimented simultaneously with different perspectives. The flatness of a stage backdrop and an exaggerated foreshortening combine to create a narrow, steeply exposed space that closes itself off as if it were the side view of an optical illusion. In the painting "Der Wald" ("The Forest") from 1983, such reverse effects are carried out to their extreme. The modern "Diana" (1980) penetrates a crookedly unbalanced space in which she, stiffened into an immovable wooden figure, is in danger of tipping over. There, one could observe the use of formal and substantive Patterns. A design of curves and points moves repetitively and jerkily over the canvas, while the situation is constructed with standard motifs: a large naked woman, a small man in a suit, a rabbit, baby carriage, home and car. Distortion is added to the often-used technique of reducing perception to banalities and cliches, and the scenes are often staged in the shadow of an oncoming disaster.
The 'superman' in "Mythologische Landschaft" ("Mythological Landscape", 1979) is one of Kunc's banalities with which there is something wrong. The hero of the omnipotent movement and the combatant of evil has laid down on the grass and is dreaming. Near the bottom of the picture, a toadstool protrudes from the ground. From there, a space opens up over the resting figure and reveals his dreams. Two black swans upon a shimmering red lake are haunting him in his mind. Only a narrow strip of green separates the water surface from an illuminated red sky strewn with stars. A castle shines in the distance, and a unicorn saunters by with a naked seductress on its back. Playing a flute, she rides past against the red sky, pink like the clouds and the tensed muscles of the hero, who with open eyes forgets about preserving order in the world.
In the Eighties, Milan Kunc has systematically sought out motifs from all sorts of trivial pictures in order to find the elements of his "modern icons": tattoo symbols, the deer and sunsets of kitsch factories, dreamy lovers and the cosmos behind the moon, comic strip heroes, goblins from carnival rides, fair curiosities, decorations from poetry volumes, wallpaper flowers, fairy tale illustrations and children's toys. All of those things can be discovered in new combinations or in colourful paraphrases of famous paintings by Velazquez and Titian.
At the same time, one encounters the no less trivial symbols of civilization: the grey shadow of atomic powerplants, endless streets in their black and white patterns, tourists on a sandy beach, flashy nuclear explosions, old car tyres, telephones, televisions, money and gold.
Kunc will disclose information about the meaning of his pictures only with hesitation and care. He hints that the emphatically simple compositions are intended to penetrate the subconscious daydreams of everyday life. They are to slip like disguised puzzles quietly among the ideas propagated by the mass media, to work as errors within the memory like computer viruses, to become problems when the drawer in which they are to be stored is shut.
These pictures have often been misunderstood as ironic commentaries on normal life and its errant desires - a view expressed recently by the organizer of the "Prospect 89" exhibition. But ever since ~Kunc stood in lonely opposition to the "picture-hostile" concept art of the Seventies, he has refused to march in step with the times. He has discovered that even free painting, once again respectable, is surrounded by taboos. Accused of having become naive or gaudy, Kunc responded with pictures and words: He stepped up the use of those unbeloved red hearts and the stag with hammer-and-sickle antlers, and attributed corrupted taste to those critics who could find no serious subject matter within them. "Whoever finds my pictures kitschy," he proclaimed, "is a weakling"
Yet that wasn't all. Kunc further concluded: "Modern art has become avantgarde kitsch "That is doubtlessly one of the most unusual opinions that has been expressed to date in the age-old conflict between avant-garde and kitsch. If one probes a little deeper, Kunc postulates an exact reversal of those values that defined the opposites "art or kitsch": That which was condemned as kitsch - at first by the avant-garde and then by generally accepted doctrine - harbours within itself the potential energy for a positive art of the future. For it confronts one's aesthetic judgement with real problems, while an aging, weary avant-garde readily submits to the ruling taste for superficial, harmless and constantly changing pleasures - and thus meets all requirements for "kitsch" as it could be defined in any dictionary.
The fact that unaffected simplicity is not so easily attained is related to the blind charm that has often accompanied terror, genocide and the misery of war. Although the oppression of modem art under Hitler and Stalin can be attributed more to the anticipation of broad public support than to the kitschy tastes of those in power, the natural desire to look with glowing eyes at a colourful painting has been ruined ever since. After 1945 a new, comparatively complex situation arose in the West; in the East, red-drenched kitsch persisted much longer, including certain monochromatic or minimalistic phenomena like those accompanying monumental projects.
After his "East Pop" phase, Kunc studied the symbols of his exile, and began to sense the necessity to shift his emphasis onto more positive things: "An artist must always be excited and sing praises to the world. It is his noble duty to illuminate those who are desperately groping in the darkness."
According to Kunc, the avant-garde suffers from an inability to communicate a true message; it is afraid to show emotions and believe in the future, the power of love and harmony. For Kunc, every picture is a source of energy, a potential power which outlasts time. Therefore, Kunc tries to create with every picture an eternal work, a "masterpiece".
He stands behind this belief with no trace of irony. Traditional themes such as "landscape" and "death" interest him increasingly, and in the past few years several series of portraits have been done.
In describing his subjects - whether they be melancholy images of modem Narcissus or pieces of fruit - the artist is most concerned with reproducing the mood of a surreal still life, the standing still of time in a room of sculptures. His paintings are becoming simpler and more refined. He executes his works with increasing care and has been reworking several for some years.
Milan Kunc's great optimism, it appears, has troubled the public and critics more than it has some of his art colleagues. Cologne's Jiri Georg Dokoupil, the Italian Salvo and the American painter Julian Schnabel all own pictures by Kunc - which is for the artist, after all, the most important acknowledgement.

Roberto Ohrt

published in ART MAGAZIN Nr.6 1989