Franz: a man for three seasons (An article in The Prague Post)
This versatile painter is a composer, professor and animal lover
Vladimír Franz has made a life out of pursuing the unexpected.
At first glance, with his closely cropped hair, burly physique and full-body tattoos covering pretty much every visible spot of flesh, he looks more likely to frequent Prague's gritty herna bars, where lowlifes plunk change into gambling machines, than its finest theaters, concert halls and gallery spaces.
But Franz is not what he seems. His rough, brawny hands are able to coax delicate operettas and overtures onto the page; from his inky, tattooed lips drop references to such venerable names as Flaubert, Stravinsky, Mozart, Moliére and Mahler.
Born in 1959 in Prague, he spent his late teens and early 20s studying law at Charles University. But, even before he graduated in 1982, he'd already found his calling in the arts, privately studying painting, music and composing. In 1981, he co-founded the Kytka Theatre in Prague and held his first premiere there that same year.
Since then, he's composed music for some 116 operas, plays, musicals, films and TV and radio programs, premiering 15 pieces across the country in 2006 alone. He also teaches at Prague's Academy of Performing Arts, and rounds out his busy schedule working as an artist, widely known in the Czech Republic for his painting and sculpture.
"My paintings have the same themes as my music. It's the same energy," he says.
As for his impossible-to-miss tattoos, he prefers to shrug off prying questions, leaving the issue at "I like things that look different." He will say that he got his first tattoo at 16 and was quickly hooked, and that it took him about eight years to complete his full-body coverage.
They're just one of his many creative outlets, "a small garden" he's been tending for decades. Today, Franz is renowned for both his art and his music, but he's torn between being loyal to one or the other. "Painting is easier than music. Without the orchestra, music does not exist," he says.
"But music is a higher art than painting. Music makes more than painting. But the process of painting is more interesting than the making of music."
This winter, the emphasis will be on Franz's painting, with a show of 22 of his recent works on display at the downtown Gallery Art Factory under the title "Nový život," or New Life.
Balancing multiple mediums might be difficult for some, but creativity is never at a premium for Franz.
In September, he had 15 metric tons (16.5 short tons) of sand trucked onto Wenceslas Square for his piece "The Republic Celebrates its Birthday," a sculpture-cum-performance piece that served as the finale for the annual Sculpture Grande art festival, also organized by Gallery Art Factory. For the piece, Franz spent five days building a massive sand castle, then commissioned a modern dance troupe to flit into the structure and destroy it to the accompaniment of an original Franz score.
Yet, despite his modern take on the arts, Franz feels closer to nature and tradition than to the modern world.
"For me, the city or town is nothing," he says. "I need nature. I like tradition."
In recent years, the landscape surrounding his Šumava-area studio, where he moved his headquarters five years ago, has been a major influence on both his art and music. The area is home to a number of Czech Army training grounds, and the stark contrast between unspoiled nature and military munitions has been a strong inspiration: "It is necessary for me to reflect on this countryside."
His closeness to the earth is such that his work cycles are dictated by the seasons of the year.
"In April, May, June, everything is growing; it's a very good time for painting," he says "[But] September is the best time for painting. Everything is in balance then. I don't like winter. It's too dark." During those dreary winter months, he heads to the warmer climes of the Canary Islands, where he does much of his composing.
Franz describes the mood of "Nový život" as one of "self-irony," and cites influences as diverse as graffiti art, comic books, Disney films ("Mickey Mouse is a symbol of the destruction of nature"), Baroque music, Catholicism and religious art, history and his beloved 7-year-old dog Ondřej, a mixed-breed Jack Russell look-alike who appears frequently in his paintings.
Like his owner, Ondřej is a connoisseur of music, and is a big Wagner fan, Franz says, recalling with a proud, fatherly chuckle the time the young pup first heard "Ride of the Valkyries." The film Apocalypse Now was on television, and, when the well-known Wagner piece on its soundtrack began to play, Ondřej woke from his deep slumber and began to howl at the TV set.
Franz clearly has a soft spot for animals, which appear in various forms throughout his works at the Gallery Art Factory, be they in the form of giant ants crawling toward the Virgin Mary, or of roadkill in his four-part Nocturna series. He's clearly still a little traumatized by the event that inspired this series, the night when he hit two dogs with his car while driving on a dark wintry road.
"Having contact with humans is very unpleasant for animals, I think," he says.
There's no small dose of cynicism in his voice, and in his paintings too, but it's tinged with a wry humor rather than bitterness. He remains determined to find the beauty in the world.