Exhibition

A rare joint exhibition of Czech–Australian surrealists Dušan and Voitre Marek traces the connections within the brothers’ divergent lives. By Walter Marsh.

Dušan and Voitre Marek

Dušan Marek’s Equator (1948) left, and Voitre Marek’s My Gibraltar, (1948), right.
Credit: Courtesy of AGSA

For a pair of brothers raised in the landlocked woodlands of Bohemia, Dušan and Voitre Marek spent much of their lives drawn to water. In their hands it’s a transportive and transformative medium, a place of contemplation, inspiration and the divine.

It’s present in Dušan’s 1948 painting Equator, as the backdrop to the soft pink outline of a woman’s torso that melts into the hull of a ship, with cogs and motors swapped in for her breasts and womb. There it is again in Voitre’s My Gibraltar, this time as a site of longing for his future wife, Vera, who earlier in 1948 fled the onset of communism alongside the brothers only to end up on a different Australia-bound ship. The separated lovers’ faces merge into one as another vessel traces a dotted path across their foreheads towards the horizon. In their own way, both paintings betray a restlessness for whatever’s waiting beyond that big, infinite blue.

Equator and My Gibraltar were among the Mareks’ luggage when they finally stepped off the SS Charlton Sovereign into Sydney after a long journey from a West German refugee camp. Painted on one side of the ship’s games board, Equator was also one of Dušan’s first pieces to be submitted for exhibition in their new home of Adelaide and the first to be rejected as “obscene” by the local art establishment. It later became his first to be acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia, which now hopes Surrealists at Sea – the brothers’ only joint exhibition since a far less auspicious showing at the university next door in 1949 – will give them a more generous reception than their first exhibition. Originally slated for mid-2020, the era of closed borders paradoxically allows this delayed but expanded exhibition to survey the Mareks’ hemisphere-crossing story in mesmerising detail.

In a series of work created in and around their voyage to Australia, we see the pair digest the formative influences of pre- and postwar Prague surrealism and the trauma of their escape. Dušan paints long, twisting dreamscapes and distorted bodies on wooden slats in a displaced persons’ camp, while Voitre drafts ballpoint pen caricatures of its residents. Both sketch private studies that viscerally process this unmoored reality – heaven knows how 1940s Adelaide might have reacted had they been published at the time. We also see their fluency across a range of media, as the pair create jewellery, sculpture, poetry, photography, puppetry and film.

After an initially lukewarm reception in Adelaide, the brothers’ lives forked geographically and artistically, but curator Elle Freak maps out the ways they continued to rhyme and intersect. In the 1950s they both find themselves drawn back to the water, with Voitre and Vera taking up a post as lighthouse keepers on Kangaroo Island, while Dušan and his wife, Helena, headed north to New Guinea.

Island life deepens Voitre’s interest in Christianity, and he once again rides the wave of postwar migration that brought him to Australia. An influx of largely Catholic European émigrés created fresh demand for ecclesiastical art to fill new, Modernist-inspired churches and Voitre’s expressive sculptures became a ubiquitous sight in parishes and schools across his adopted homeland. Surrealists at Sea collects a few key examples, most strikingly in large, two-dimensional works made from blackened iron rods – a medium he discovered while pumping out shopping trolleys and garden gates in an Adelaide metalworks.

Given how much of Voitre’s output remains permanently affixed to churches and schools, it’s little wonder the brothers’ work has often been exhibited separately. While Voitre found inspiration in the familiar symbols of Christianity, Dušan explored a secular but no less transcendent path, spread here across several rooms that catalogue a vast and omnivorous body of work.

In a darkened space we see many of his animated films play simultaneously on each wall, from the nuclear and biblical imagery of Adam and Eve – created around the same time as a copper sculpture by Voitre of the same name – to the whimsical experiments One Dotty Adventure and A Ship A-Sailing. For a decade, Dušan created slippery abstract works that evoke his many hours of floating in the waters of the Coorong. In oil paintings and charcoal drawings created into the 1970s and 1980s, he picks up the other-worldly tableaus and distorted figures seen in his 1953 Sydney exhibition Love and Liberty – dutifully re-created earlier in Surrealists at Sea right down to the gallery’s yellow doors – and digs deeper, exploring Jungian psychology and knotty reflections on space and time.

Dušan’s final work, The Self Observing the Self, was left on the easel when he died in 1993 after years of illness. It’s a precariously balanced blend of colour, shape and human body parts that harks back to Perpetuum Mobile, a work painted on the flip side of Equator decades earlier.

A sense of circularity continues as we find ourselves back at Equator and My Gibraltar, echoing a line of Dušan’s poetry displayed near the exit: “There is no finish to the end. A beginning follows the end.”

The 1948 voyage to Australia represents a time when the Mareks were perhaps at their closest: two young men seeking to capture something deep and intangible in their art and driven to leave their home for the freedom to do it. On occasion they pass each other like ships in the night; but with such high stakes and endless possibility, it would be self-defeating if they always arrived at the same destination.

Back at the start – or is it the end? – we read a message inscribed across Equator’s tabletop: “Break the mirror to see what I am.” Like any two brothers, the Mareks share similarities but ultimately each is an imperfect reflection of the other, a broken mirror. Surrealists at Sea is an intriguing attempt to make sense of the pieces.

Dušan and Voitre Marek: Surrealists at Sea is showing at the Art Gallery of South Australia until September 12.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 10, 2021 as "Sibling reverie".

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Walter Marsh is a writer based on Kaurna Country (Adelaide).