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On America, art and being Czech

Fast Confession - Time Traveler Maxim Havlíček: I have my childhood life here, and my adult life in America

Karolína Lišková
07.Aug 2019
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9 minutes

He followed his dream. As soon as the regime allowed it, he packed his suitcase and moved to America. But before Maxim Havlíček became a famous artist and painter overseas, he had to go through a great number of ordeals. He doesn't regret it, though. Today, art lovers are fighting over his paintings and he could proudly return home to Prague, where he held his first exhibition last year. And because it was a huge success, he decided to hold another one this year, despite the problems with customs. had the opportunity to look take a peek into his studio before the exhibition and interview the artist.

You've an exhibition here last year, and another this year, but it took you twenty years. Why did you decide to return to Prague?

I was born here. I've only brought my pieces now, because the time was ripe. When I came to America twenty years ago, I had to make a living. No one was curious about me. I came there to see my friends, stayed with them for a while, and then I left. I didn't even speak English, I didn't have money, I was there with a tourist visa. The first, I think, ten years it was really about trying to settle down in some way, make a new life there, that takes a while. Especially when it's a different country, a different culture, you have no background and you are fending for yourself.

Twenty years is a long time. When did you start full-time creating?

Nine, nearly ten years ago.

That's been ten years. And you've only come to Prague last year...

I was focusing mainly on America, I wanted to do it there first. I had this dream that I would like to have exhibitions in Los Angeles and New York. I've already managed that, so I thought the next step for me should be Prague. It seemed to me as an obvious choice, I was born here, my family lives here. After having lived overseas for twenty years, I wanted to bring it back.

Vila na prodej - Klánovice - 465m
Vila na prodej - Klánovice - 465m, Praha 9

How often have you been coming back here?

The first few years, four or five, I haven't been back at all. Then I began to visit my family every year, but rather as a tourist.

Americans and Europeans have different natures. How did they perceive your first exhibitions?

I must say, very well. The biggest honor for me was that people were approaching me and saying they hadn't seen anything like that before. They were accustomed to works of a certain style, and mine felt like something completely different.

What makes your work special?

I don't just paint, I shape things first. I use materials that are not normally associated with painting, such as marble, crushed gravel, sand, polymers, alkyds. I mix all of this together, try out different things, look for a form that will work for each painting.

Each painting expresses something?

Yes. Each painting is a mirror of the moment when it was being created. Meaning what I'm going through at the moment, what influences and interests me. For instance, I'm interested in quantum physics, and when I read about it, I keep thinking about it all the time. I made a few paintings based on the fact that I am fascinated by the knowledge of quantum physics, black holes and the like. It seems to me that quantum physics holds answers to all the questions we may have about how we got here, what our purpose is, why and how everything originated. When one stops and realizes how everything fits together, how unique the world we are in truly is... we can't even begin to understand.

I saw some videos of how you make a painting. How I understand it, you don't know in advance what the final result will look like. But it should capture your feelings during the creative process, anyway...

Of course, because I often find myself unable to describe my feelings in words. It is a message shared by non-verbal means. When I'm creating, I have an idea what something, for instance in the Universe, might look like, and I put it in that painting.

It is true that it takes me about a month to finish a painting because it keeps evolving. It's interesting, when I come back to the studio the next day, I'm in a different mood, which also affects the process. It's a record of what I'm going through when the paiting is being created.

So it's all about you, and then you want to sell it. Do you sometimes ask yourself prior to that, if anyone's interested in your feelings?

It's not about that, it's like when a poet writes a poem. It's also based on his own feelings, the way he sees the world, and people read it. It is an intimate thing for the person who created it as well, the same goes for books. People make up stories, but these are based on their dreams, ideas, or even experiences. Novels are also intimate confessions of their authors, even though it might seem like they have nothing to do with them.

The same can be said about a painting, many people don't look so deep into it, yet they enjoy it anyway. I don't want my paintings to become decorative pieces that people will buy, because the colors match their living room. If anyone told me this, I don't know if I would sell them the painting.

What are the name and theme of this year's exhibition?

This year's exhibition is called Time Traveler. It is connected with my trips back to Prague, to Czech Republic. I grew up here, then I left the country. That means that my childhood life is here, and my adult life in America. The older I get, the clearer the line between these two lives is. Sometimes I really wish I could interconnect them. I don't know if everyone feels this way, but it almost seems to me like it's someone else's life.

But what gets me the most when I'm here is when I go for a walk. I hear sounds and smell scents that are specific to this place, and it brings back memories of my childhood. Like when I hear swallows flying.

Haven't you thought about coming back to live here?

I have, but I don't really care anymore if I live here or there.

Well, your brother, parents and the rest of your family are still here…

My brother always visits me for the whole winter and I am here for the whole summer. We only spend autumn and spring apart.

Prodej luxusního domu, Praha - západ - 414 m2
Prodej luxusního domu, Praha - západ - 414 m2, Okolí Prahy

Since you are twins, do you have some extra connection?

Definitely. When it's just the two of us, we sit down together and we don't have to talk at all. It's important that we are close to each other, it's about the physical proximity of my brother, the connection. That in turn is related to the paintings, I can spend a few hours in the studio, and when I walk out I often have no idea what I was doing there. There's a connection of sorts.

I think you artists have a much richer inner life. How do the people around you and your wife perceive it? For me, being the pragmatist I am, it is very difficult to understand these things.

My wife takes me as I am. And she probably wouldn't want me to change. You have to find the right person, who not only doesn't mind it, but perhaps even likes it. I don't think it that painting is the only thing that defines me. As a human being, I have many other qualities, even though paintings are a very significant part. I believe I can function quite well in the practical world.

Like when you make an appointment with a gallery owner, start working…

That's not what I mean. America trained me well, everything's business there. In order to make a living, I have to treat it as business, too. I can't behave like some kind of bohemian there. That's another difference when I compare it with this scene. People here have this artistic ego, it's irresponsible. I can't imagine I'd be begging somewhere or living off someone.

How does it work in America if you want to hold an exhibition of your art? Do you have to have a capital?

No, it works in different ways. The way I do it, I am represented by a gallery that will organize the exhibition for me. They pay the whole thing and I give them a commission for every painting sold.

What is the price range of your paintings? Some of them are pretty huge.

Of course, in America, the prices are completely different than here.

And do the paintings sell in the Czech Republic?

They sell both here and in America.

Is it balanced?

It is, so well-balanced that I found it surprising. I came here last year knowing nothing about the local gallery and collector scene. Czech people are always complainig that they have no money, so I thought not many would buy a painting nowadays. But I was pleasantly surprised how many people here are into culture, pursue their interests and spend money on it without finding it abnormal. They support artists, which I find great.

Some of the paintings you're selling here this year have been imported, others are being finished here. How do you transport large size canvases from California to Prague?

It's tough. Even this practical part is crazy. I have dual citizenship, but nobody cares here. The paintings I finished in America count as goods produced outside the European Union and are subject to VAT. When I bring them here, they all have to go through customs. The problem is that the customs strip me of fifteen percent on VAT just to bring the paintings into the country without actually selling them.

Who puts a price on them? Them or you?

I do. The value of the images comes from America. And that's another thing, the value in US dollars is completely different than in crowns. There is a special kind of "visa" for paintings, something like a passport, through which you can get permission to have the paintings here for one year, then they have to go back to America. If I want to keep them here longer, which is the case right now, either I have to have the passport extended, which costs about $ 1,600, or the paintings need to be cleared. For that, you don't pay customs duty, but VAT, which is fifteen percent. So I'd have to pay fifteen percent of the forty paintings I have here to the state without selling anything. That's bullshit.

So you've had extended the passport for paintings extended?

Of course.

If you sell something here, will you pay to the USA or the Czech Republic?

I'll pay here. It makes sense, if I sell something here, of course I will pay VAT, that's how it works everywhere. But I don't get why the state wants me to pay the tax in advance, before any sale has been made, so that they can be released for free circulation. That really made me mad, I spent hours at customs trying to sort it out. I don't get how they dare ask money from me that I don't have before making a sale.

Do you feel more like a Czech or an American? Since you have dual citizenship...

That's not important to me at all.

Don't you feel that Czech pride?

No. It's not my doing that I was born here. I have no issues with the Czech Republic, it is a very nice country. I do have a small issue with the society, though.

You mean politics?

Politics and the cultural-social aspects.

Could you be more specific?

I can be specific. Thirty years after the revolution, and it is sometimes like in Krakozia here. (A term for a country where nothing works, taken from the movie Terminal, where the main character comes from a fictional Eastern European country of Krakozia.) People keep following certain rules and quotas here, and when they see something doesn't fit in there, they completely switch off and nothing can be done about it.

For example, I came to Ostrava as an accredited artist. They had my name and ID number. They couldn't find me in the system, which can happen. I was trying to find a solution with the gentleman there, but he didn't know anything and didn't want to concern himself with it. He refused to help me, instead he just said "no" to everything.

And how did you solve it?

Eventually, the curator came and solved it. But if he hadn't been there, I can't imagine how it would have turned out. It's probably a stupid example, but nobody here has ever figured out that kindness will get you farther than an angry face. It bothers me that people are loath here. When someone smiles at you, people feel you owe them something for that smile.

What do you like to do when you're not working?

I like to travel.

What do you do with your brother when you come to the Czech Republic?

We spend half a year together, half a year apart. So we do a lot of different things during our time together, we ride motorbikes, go on trips, visit our parents' cottage, travel around Europe. Same thing when he comes to America. We travel a lot.

With your wives, or alone?

Both together and alone. Sometimes we take the bikes and the girls take a car. Or we all ride motorbikes, or it is just me and my wife. We travel all the time.

Could you imagine, before leaving for America, how far you could get and what how many of your dreams would be fulfilled?

I wanted it so much that I was able to imagine it.

How did happen, that it really happened?

I was simply working hard to get there, that's all. Nobody's ever given me anything, I was born into a normal family in the communism era. We rang the bells in 1989, I finished school and left. Everyone had the chance, it may not be for everyone, but I never felt like I was suffering. This is how it should have been.

Even when you were washing dishes in restaurants? Didn't you say it had been annoying?

No, never. I thought it was great that I had a job. That I was one step closer. Then I worked in a bar, talked to people, made more money. I met great people, got a better job, made more money. I was closer again. Every step that I took could seem like boredom and madness at once to another person. For me, it simply meant I was getting closer to my goal.

There is no recipe for that. If you want something, you have to pursue it. But there are also a lot of people who pursue something for the wrong reason. If you want it for the right reason, because you feel that this is you, then everyone can create the life they desire.

Thank you very much for the interview, Maxim. I am looking forward to the exhibition.

Fast confession:

How much did you sell your first painting for?

Two thousand dollars.

How did you spend the first money earned through art?

I bought a Vespa.

To whom would you never sell your painting?

Probably to a person who thinks they can buy everything.

If you could choose - would you like a painting from Degas or Picasso at home?

From Tápies, Twombli, Pollock, Richter, Basquiat...

The best thing that has happened to you in America.


The worst thing that has happened to you in America.

Californian raisins.

Name three negative qualities of your twin.

He is disgustingly handsome, successful and rich.

Three material things without which you cannot imagine surviving the day.

Coffee, vespa, warm socks.

An artist's nightmare?

That it will end someday.

Name one major difference between an American and a Czech person.

The color of their passports.

The most outrageous gossip you've heard about yourself.

That my paintings aren't brown enough.

Three places in the Czech Republic that represent your life.

Vnitroblock, department store Kotva and Karlin.

What's your go to strategy when picking up girls?

My perfect Czech that I haven't forgotten in the twenty years I've spent in the USA.

Recipe for happiness in life.

Don't set an alarm clock.
Question from the interviewee for the editor:

Aren't you feeling hot in here?

I am, I'm sweating like crazy.
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