Art & Oncology: Unexpected Intersections At the Masaryk Institute on Žlutý Kopec
Brno is no stranger to unusual art exhibitions in unusual settings. Brno Daily’s Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo reflects on the curious intersection of art and oncology at the Masaryk Institute on Žlutý Kopec. Photo credit: Cathy Khoury-Prinsloo.
In Brno art is omnipresent. In the museums, galleries and churches. Even in the coffee shops, where art hangs on every wall and it’s almost imbibed into the bloodstream.
We sip and glance, satisfying two appetites simultaneously.
And then Brno ups its gallery game several notches, offering an exhibition in a setting that messes with notions of easy art consumption, and redefines the concept of appropriate art spaces.
Like the Masaryk Institute of Oncology. This hospital is currently exhibiting paintings by Romana Štrynclová on the walls of the second floor, right between the Mammogram and ECG department, and also alongside the specialist oncologist rooms.
Štrynclová’s paintings here predominantly feature women. On one wall there are three bold, striking works depicting nude women. For a split second these works may seem to some to be insensitively chosen, given the location.
This is simply because a mammogram sometimes reveals terrible, albeit life-saving news about a woman’s body. On this hospital floor some women will begin a difficult journey leading to drastic surgery, affecting their quintessential female shape. Some women will lose one breast, some will lose both.
Perhaps these thoughts may prompt an initial uncomfortable, awkward reaction. Perhaps it also partially depends on whether you are a patient or a visitor.
A closer look, however, dissipates the discomfort, because there is a definite sense of female solidarity about the paintings. Sometimes the treatment of the nude figures is quite abstract and stylised, sometimes it is figurative, gentle and sensual, but it is never photo-shop faked nor sleazy.
In one painting called Naked, a sitting woman holds the reclining body of another woman across her lap. This is a most unconventional, non-traditional Pieta. Both women are nude, and the identical multi-coloured treatment of the skin, plus the similarity of the arm and legs of the two bodies, emphasizes that they are the same kind of creature. One is nurturing, the other needs nurturing.
The suggestion of female solidarity in these paintings is supported by the accompanying poems by women poets beneath many of the works.
Štrynclová explains that “In 2010, the writer and poet Sylva Lauerová approached me to paint the cover of a compilation of poetry by 44 contemporary female Czech poets. The cover inspiration was the poem ‘The Queen of Tears and Blackberries’ which was also the book’s title. The book was published in April 2010 and I began to read the other poems with interest, and for inspiration. Of course, interpretation is difficult. The choice of poems and painted motifs are influenced by my life and perception, while the poets may have different ideas and feelings.”
Štrynclová’s most joyous nude portrait is called Stella, and shows a heavily pregnant young woman holding up a cat to rest against her head and shoulders. There is delightful humour in the grumpy look on the cat’s face, contrasted with the happy expression on the woman’s face.
The cat clearly feels that he/she is in charge, and disdainfully rests its paws against the woman’s face. And what about feelings of the third character in this painting – the unborn child? It’s such a celebratory, sensuous painting. There is a sense of the unborn child participating in the mother’s enjoyment. The large tummy is painted warm shades of gold and ochre and leans upwards. The accompanying poem Stella by Karolina Minarová gives us some clues:
“You got up early again,
You hum a tune,
The cat purrs on your shoulder,
Pride slumbers in it.
The morning sickness and irritability are gone,
The fruit of all our loves,
At the end of a whimsical summer,
Like a vine.
Outline of nudity,
Memory of yesterday,
Before your birth,
Štrynclová explains that “I asked the poet Karolina Minárová to write Stella after the publication of the poetry collection. My friend, her future baby girl and the cat Stáňa feature in it.”
In this case the painting has preceded the poem, although mostly it is the other way around.
These are paintings of women by a woman. There is an empathetic familiarity in them, a matter-of-factness.
Another painting is called EKG. It is a stunning portrait of an ageing woman, with a rich floral headdress, deep purple jersey and luminous blue eyes. She is not a classic beauty. She has wrinkles, a scrawny neck, and what look like false teeth. Her smile is amazing. It’s so vibrant, that it would be better to describe it as a laugh. She is someone you know would tell amazing jokes. Someone to brighten a room.
Below the portrait is this poem by Karla Krátká.
“I have the eyes of a child. And the look of the old woman.
Who is the winner?
Who’s the loser?
I have a desire for a child. And the hands of an old woman.
Who is the loser?
I have the heart of a child. EKG of an old woman.
And there is no winner
Just a loser.”
Loser? It does not seem the case from this painting. And this of course, is the fun expansion of this dialogue between poet and painter, to a three-sided chat which now includes the viewers.
Štrynclová reveals that “The poem EKG is very powerful. The old woman with roses in her hair is my friend’s grandmother. She was great. Interesting and inspiring. She died of natural causes at the age of 92, and I am very happy to have immortalised her in this way.”
Patients and visitors pause and linger, stopping in front of different paintings. Doctors and nurses glance and sometimes smile fleetingly as they rush by.
Radiation, chemotherapy, surgery. Composition, colour, content.
Another painting titled Wait features an eerie faceless mannequin/woman at a window. Despite her lack of features, her presence dominates the work. Her reddish hair illuminates the room, and is the focal point. She looks out of an apartment onto a dark street. A poem by Simona Techetová accompanies the painting. All the poems in the original Czech and English translations can be found on Štrynclová’s website.
There is a beautiful, lyrical painting of a very self-possessed young girl in a tiara, whose hands are calmly clasped together. She is sitting on the floor, with her ornate, lace-edged dress spread out around her. But this solid-seeming, innocuous-looking blue dress is also partly disintegrating, morphing and migrating into decorative flowers which float up on the wall behind her. The work is titled Questions, and invites questions about the nature of figurative painting, and the flat surfaces that create the illusions of reality. A pretty picture with just a hint of unravelling poise and order. Questions is intriguingly the highest priced work on exhibition. A poem by Radka Zadinová partners it.
There’s a painting of a pair of black high-heeled shoes, with a few specks of blood on some white background material. The elegant shoes are twisted, and suggest that the person who stepped out of them must have suffered some accident, trauma or emotional event. The title is Earthly Side of Things. It was inspired by a Sylva Lauerová poem.
Trap is a painting of a woman standing under some kind of glitter shower with a row of perfume or alchemy-like bottles behind her. It is Štrynclová’s interpretation of a Jarmila Maršálova poem.
In addition to these works, Štrynclová has also painted a set of brightly decorative zodiac signs and several whimsical portraits of cats.
She has interestingly created a signature that combines the first two letters of her first name with the first two letters of her surname, so Romana Štrynclová becomes RoŠt, the artist. This is the name which appears on her paintings.
This kind of abbreviation is apparently often used by Czech artists, but it does make it more difficult for foreign potential investors to identify the artist. The simultaneous use on the internet of both the traditional Czech surname ending of “ová” to indicate a woman, with the shorter version of the root of the family name without this ending, can also cause problems for foreigners in identifying the artist.
On her website, RoŠt writes: “It is a great honour for me that during February 2023 my paintings will pass the time for waiting patients and visitors in the gallery of the hospital on Žlutý Kopec.”
Oncology is all about life, biology and psychology, caring, healing and survival. Just add love – and so is Art. This exhibition highlights the life-affirming intersection of the two disciplines.