Rostia Kunovsky: Fenêtres Lettres

On an incognito yet convivial art which animates even when there is no promise of survival 

John Berger
27 September 2013

I have a friend called Rostia Kunovsky. He’s Czech in origin, he lives in Paris and he is a painter. I have known him and have followed his work for over twenty-five years. Both his vision and practice as a painter are original and sustained. There are one or two people who sometimes buy a painting from him, but his work has never been taken up and promoted. It survives incognito.

Journalists in the world-press occasionally refer to me as one of the most influential voices writing about the visual arts. Yet I’ve never been able to influence any gallery or exhibition curator to do anything about Kunovsky’s work. For the investment and promotion circuits I have no voice. So be it.

I’m going to write now about an imaginary exhibition of his latest existing work. You can choose the city. It opened last Wednesday. I invited Tom Waits to the opening and he came and he sang Talking At the Same Time. Ben Jaffe played the trombone and there were several guitars. They played in front of one of the large paintings measuring about 2 metres by 2 metres. Unframed.

get a job, save your money, listen to Jane

everybody knows umbrellas cost more
in the rain
and all the news is bad

is there any other kind?

Rostia calls his latest series of canvasses, Fenêtres Lettres. 


Fig.1. Sans Titre, série: Fenêtres Lettres, 2011 techniques mixtes sur toile 200/200. Click to view larger image. Download and share from our flickr page.

The Letters in question are not mail but letters of the alphabet. They don’t spell out words; rather they are stencilled acronyms for terms whose original meaning has now escaped or been forgotten.

everybody’s talking at the same time

well it’s hard times for some

for others it’s sweet

someone makes money when there’s blood in the street

The Windows in question in these recent paintings are square holes pierced in the walls of many, many rectangular buildings crammed together on a waste terrain. We imagine a settlement with thousands of people living or squatting there but we don’t see them. The vibrant colours, however, allow us to feel something of the pulse of their lives.

       everybody’s talking at the same time.

The density of the settlement makes it look like a dump, but its colours are like those of flowers in a bouquet arranged with care.

Perhaps many of the buildings with their empty windows are only shells, yet are they ruins or are they construction sites? Or are they both alternately?

The Letters of the acronyms are about the same size as the buildings. Many are upside down. Some are in mirror writing. Others run vertically, helter- skelter.


Fig.2. Sans Titre, série: Fenêtres Lettres, 2011 techniques mixtes sur toile 65/81. Click to view larger image. Download and share from our flickr page..

These images, despite their unexpectedness, rhyme with something we’ve already seen. They are playing with the stereotype of countless media pictures accompanying a reportage about some incident - invariably violent - which has occurred the day before in the outskirts of some distant city which we have never been to.

We see the favela, the suburb, the camp, where lives were risked and lost, and where now the faceless facades, the curb stones, the empty parking lot are for this moment the only visible memorial to what happened. 

  • The paintings evoke such settings but whereas the media images are dominated by a forlorn, hopeless sense of distance, Kunovsky’s images are, by contrast, intimate, vivid close-ups. And what makes them close-up and intimate is their rhythm, they have a rhythm as insistent as rap. Four paintings were sold on the first day of the imaginary exhibition.

    These are paintings which speak specifically to the period we are living through. About twenty years ago something began to change concerning language and therefore about the way we see the world.

    Before that, the words used for describing or naming ideas or things contained a promise of continuity and therefore of a certain kind of survival; there was some kind of companionship between words and the social and physical world. Of course there were lies, exaggerations, illusions. But between words and what they stood for there was an affinity; between signifier and signified there was an old complicated but continuous family history. 


  • Fig.3. Sans Titre, série: Fenêtres Lettres, 2011 techniques mixtes sur toile 180/180. Click to view larger image. Download and share via our flickr page.

    Then came globalisation and the dictatorship of financial speculative capitalism. And the words used by the trading navigators of so-called market forces, by their communication experts and the medias they have annexed, by hypnotised national politicians with their globalised prophesies which have no fixed address, these words have no relation to any lived experience. Imagine a history or a story pieced together only from what surveillance cameras record - a drone account of the human condition - this is what the ruling language, which now surrounds us, is like. And Kunovsky’s alphabet Letters are a comment on this meaningless language.

    By contrast, his Windows are convivial, and as animated as any street talk you can come across. They observe and they tell each other what they are seeing.

    At the end of the opening I asked Tom to sing Tell Me. Dawn Harms played the violin.

    tell me so I’ll know
    why does a bird build its nest so high 

    why hold the baby when the baby cries 

    so the river will not drown it
    and the highway won’t take it
    and the dust will not cover it
    and the sun will not blind it
    and the wind won’t blow it away

    • Prose today can’t relate to what we are living; songs can.


    Fig.4. Sans Titre, série: Fenêtres Lettres, 2011 techniques mixtes sur toile 89/130. Click to view larger image. Download and share from our flickr page.

    Look at Fenêtres Lettres once more before the gallery closes. There is that drawn-out gasp of surprise which looking at paintings can sometimes induce. How come that a martyrdom or a death or a battle can offer an occasion for creating beauty? How come that these paintings, nominally about dereliction, have the promise of flowers?

    Pictures from Kunovsky’s website 


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