Following their arrival in Adelaide in 1948, Czech-born brothers Dušan (1926-1993) and Voitre Marek (1919-1999) set into motion a surge of new ideas and controversies that challenged the conventions of Australian art. Their pioneering early surrealist exhibitions in Adelaide and Sydney were met with praise, puzzlement and even censorship. Over seventy years later, Dušan and Voitre’s intensely personal art continues to move audiences and is celebrated in a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
Set to the sounds of ticking clocks and a music box, Dušan and Voitre Marek: Surrealists at sea is the largest exhibition of the artists’ work ever to be staged and their first joint exhibition since 1949. Featuring over 200 works, sourced from public and private collections across the country, the exhibition traces six decades of their art making, across diverse media: paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, jewellery, textiles, sculpture and film. Highlights include the artists’ rare student work produced in Prague, their voyage paintings created at sea, Voitre’s modern ecclesiastical sculpture and Dušan’s pioneering surrealist films and animations.
As the title suggests, Dušan and Voitre were drawn to surrealism and its essential aims to express internal states and unmask hidden truths. The revolutionary spirit of surrealism was particularly appealing to the younger brother Dušan, who, in 1940, at the age of fourteen, rejected realism and declared his lifelong devotion to the movement. As students at the UMPRUM (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design) in Prague, the young artists were connected to the Czech avant-garde and exposed to their pioneering ideas: they were familiar with Jung’s ideas of the collective unconscious, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and the writings of André Breton, who had visited Prague in 1935, a year after the official formation of the Czech Surrealist group.
The artists, then aged in their twenties, decided to flee their homeland in March 1948, following the communist coup d’état of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Many of their early surrealist paintings were created within the tumultuous circumstances of their migration to Australia. On land and at sea, the artists made use of improvised materials, painting on discarded shippings crates and even a ship’s gaming table, stripped of its felt covering. Informed by their studies, they both employed a surreal visual language of multi-evocative forms, which seem to float and rotate, unanchored in space. During their four-month stay in a displaced persons’ camp in landlocked Dillenburg, Germany, Dušan created two of his earliest surviving paintings on wooden slats removed from the base of his bed. This included The Voyage, 1948, an imaginative vision of ocean waves and aquatic plants, drifting towards an emerging human figure.
In Adelaide, the artists became known as the Czech Surrealist brothers. Their affiliation with the movement – which was already the most divisive of the modernist movements in Australia – caused many to misunderstand the intention of their art and ideas. Dušan’s large double-sided voyage paintings Equator and Perpetuum mobile (see cover photo), 1948, were among their early works deemed ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘obscene’. The paintings, created on board the SS Charlton Sovereign, were even rejected from public display and the artist was forced to edit their more explicit content.
Following this early controversy, Dušan frequently addressed his critics. In newspaper interviews, he urged his audiences to venture beyond the literal: ‘People look vainly for symbols and meanings. They are not there. Nothing is there, and everything is present’. Voitre preferred to express his thoughts in his private Adelaide notebook, where he devoted pages to answering the question ‘what is surrealism?’. He responded by describing it as ‘something almost physical’ capable of ‘turning the artist inside out’. In another section, Voitre elaborated: ‘[surrealism is] … seeing not only with eye in eyeholes but opening new eyes in knees, in throat, in palms’.
Despite the early challenges they independently faced, Dušan and Voitre remained united in their commitment to their art. Over the course of six decades, they shared a desire to understand and express the invisible realm that lies beyond the outward appearance of things. This guided Voitre to become one of Australia’s leading modern ecclesiastical sculptors, while Dusan became an avant-garde surrealist filmmaker and painter.
Dušan and Voitre Marek: Surrealists at sea embraces the very mystery and poetry that defines the brothers’ art. This long-awaited exhibition is accompanied by a major publication, which offers new scholarship and insight into Dušan and Voitre’s contributions to Australian art. Through multiple essays, written by national contributors, the brothers are positioned within the avant-garde context of Australian and Czech Surrealism, as well as within the largely untold story of modern émigré artists working in Australia following the Second World War.
 Dušan later corresponded with leading Czech Surrealist Toyen (born Marie Čermínová), during the mid-1950s when he was living in New Guniea.
Article prepared by Elle Freak, Associate Curator of Australian Paintings and Sculpture
Art Gallery of South Australia
Dušan and Voitre Marek: Surrealists at sea is open until 12 September 2021 at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Entry is free.