I first saw Ladislav Guderna’s surrealist paintings a few months ago online and was surprised that I’d never heard of him before. Guderna’s grand-daughter, Christina, in an effort to get more recognition for his work, posts pictures of his colourful, supernatural paintings along with photographs of him in Vancouver in the 60s, smoking cigarettes and wearing sunglasses. I asked where I could read more about him as there is so little online. The family posted a package in the mail full of old catalogues, post-cards, articles, t-shirts and memorabilia. Guderna was one of the few surrealist painters in Canada. His multilayered enigmatic works have a light humour and irony to them with his bizarre collaging of voluptuous bodies, flying creatures and abstract forms. Guderna’s universe “is as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” Born in Nitra in 1921, Guderna emigrated to Canada in 1968 to protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia. He lived first in Toronto, and then in Vancouver where he worked for twenty years and where his family now resides. Guderna’s contribution to surrealism is prolific, including many drawings and paintings, postcards, prints, and stamps; as well as around twenty issues of a surrealist magazine entitled Scarabeus, which he published with his son, Martin. Guderna was also a founding member of both Slovak and West Coast Surrealist art groups. Despite this, and despite his international exhibitions, he remains little known outside of Slovakia. Although he applied numerous times to the Vancouver Art Gallery, his work was rejected mostly for being too sexual, from what I understand. We’re lucky to be able to feature the work of Guderna and to have the rare opportunity for an intimate talk with his family.
The female figure and face, depicted with lunar qualities, headless or masked, is significantly recurring in Guderna’s work. Who is Edita, the name Ladislav gave to the imaginary woman he painted for over fifty years?
Edita is a fictional character, the head is just an excuse for great composition. His paintings are based on composition and symbolism. He explored many variations of Edita, changing colour and temperature to create moods.
What were his relationships like with women?
Looking at his work, clearly, he enjoyed the company of women. He had great respect and adoration for the women around him.
How was his marriage to Eva, your grandmother?
Eva and Ladislav, my grandmother and grandfather, had a unique relationship for over 50 years.
What was your relationship to him like? What memories of him stand out?
I had a great relationship with my grandfather. I called him Dedo. He loved family and was always around for special occasions. Cake in one hand, cigarette in the other. I remember my brother and I always going to art exhibits as kids, and he really enjoyed our company and wanted us there. We would stay up really late with all the adults. When we would visit him he would constantly be painting and working. I remember him more as a storyteller. He would paint these characters that I would think were real as a child, some I thought were dark and frightening and I would run past them to get to another room. He was very funny, gentle and always well dressed. A huge lover of animals, especially cats.
What’s your favourite painting of his? Do you own any?
Even though this painting gave me nightmares as a child, the painting Night Visitor is one of my favorites as well as Hot Noon and the Imaginary Landscape series. I myself own four paintings.
Guderna seemed to have a child-like humour and a propensity for the bizarre and otherworldly, like his paintings of flying fish, paradise and balloons. Do you think surrealism was partly escapism? Can you talk about his political and personal hardships?
Ladislav created his own imaginary world to where he escaped to create. Politically, he was a liberal in his views, he identified with the working and thinking class. He experienced a lot of hardship but one that broke our family’s heart was his very last exhibition in 1999, where he could not even sell one painting starting at $75.
From Guderna’s surrealist publication, Scarabeus Magazine, Vol. 1
I read that Guderna had an inconsolable fear of ghosts. Moonlight, symbols of death, birds and skeletons and other secrets of the night are recurring themes in his paintings. Was he haunted? Perhaps you could talk about his fears or anxieties and views of death. How did he die?
To clarify, Ladislav had no notion or fear of ghosts, his imagination was a catalyst behind the images of death. He used some of these themes in a symbolic way. He was 78 when he died. One afternoon between breakfast and lunch, Ladislav took a nap and died surrounded by his paintings. A cat curled up by his side as his beloved wife Eva shuffled around preparing dinner.
I loved discovering that these master paintings are largely done with Tempera paint on cardboard and paper. Do you know why he chose these art mediums? What was his studio and process like?
Ladislav was always financially strapped, his work was experimental but he was extremely conservative about brand. All his paintings were done on the highest quality paper—BFK, Arches, Fabriano—mounted on acid-free menite. He would set aside a budget for Windsor, Newton or Holbein egg tempera or gouache. His studio almost resembled a lab, he was organized in his experiments with materials and tools. It always seemed he was trying to come up with new textural structure. He was inventive and some experiments would lead him into a discovery that he would deploy in his new painting.
His contributions to surrealism through his large body of work, his art publications, and his founding memberships with unions and surrealist arts groups in Slovakia and Canada are so great, and yet his work is largely unknown today. Why do you think that is?
It was not that he was not trying. He was mounting exhibitions, performances, international surrealist symposiums, publishing two magazines—Scarabeus and Melmoth—promoting and advertising each and every show. Even though he tried every year, he was unable to secure a studio visit or attendance at any of his exhibitions from our city gallery, VAG. He has exhibited his work at several international shows and more recently had two solo exhibits in Bratislava, Slovakia. My grandfather’s work is so important to me, I believe I inherited his passion to constantly create. I will continue to share his incredible work, I believe this is what he would have wanted.
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