For Czech artist and photographer Jan Jedlička, the Maremma region of Tuscany has taken on a muse-like significance over the past 40+ years. Beautiful, barren and, as its name suggests, adjacent to the sea, the region offers up more than artistic inspiration. It chimes with the artist’s innate sense of marginalisation and isolation, which is evident within his paintings.
As importantly, it also provides the raw materials (rocks, stones, clay) that enable Jedlička to produce the astonishing array of pigments which he applies within his works.
Petr Záruba’s Traces of A Landscape is as much an essay on dislocation and relocation as on painterly method. Jedlička left his home city of Prague in 1969 when in his mid-twenties, following the crushed uprising of the previous year. He was profoundly affected by the self-immolation of student protester Jan Palach, whom he refers to in the film, and departed before he was conscripted into the Czech army. It was, he says, “a no-win situation.”
Formerly a student of both surrealism and symbolism (which he concedes he was happy to leave behind), Jedlička headed for Switzerland where he failed for ten years to re-discover his artistic mojo.
This only returned when he visited Tuscany, but not the “sweet Tuscany” of hills and vines, rather the rough and swampy Maremma region with its huge skies, a place described in the film by Jedlička as having “an American dimension”. It was called New California in the 1930s, we are told.
Producer Alice Tabery sums up director Záruba’s fascination for the project. “He was intrigued by Jedlička’s efforts to go beneath the surface of depicted things, not only intellectually, because he was discovering historical layers and connections, but also physically,” she says. “When he crushes these stones and produces these colours from pigments we thought ‘wow’, as we had never seen this before.”
“Of course the other topic is immigration, about how Jan lost the landscape of his childhood after he moved to Switzerland. He was then completely lost as an artist, as he couldn’t take what he had with him, and for ten years he was looking for new inspiration.”
In the film we see how Jedlička practises and applies his artistic (and distinctly analogue) methods. With a hammer and trowel he gathers myriad fragments which he then pounds into a paste with water before allowing them to dry in the Tuscan sun. The residues form the base pigments, from which he creates a vast palette of indefinable colours (descriptions such as mustard or terracotta or sky blue just don’t do them justice).
We also see his technique of mezzotinto which entails making thousands of tiny indentations by hand onto a metal printing plate before ink/paint is applied. The technique produces the most subtle of chiaroscuro effects, like “after sunset, when the sun lights up the dome of the sky.”
Tabery tells how decisions on the film’s arc/trajectory, as well as what the filmmakers should show, were taken very much in collaboration with Jedlička.
“He was the one who said ‘ok, I am using this technique or that technique, and I used to go to this place, so we should shoot there.’ He proposed the topics and the places, because he knew the Maremma landscape and we didn’t… So he just did what he used to do there, and then we started to observe.”
“He had a good relationship with the director and the DOP, there were just three of them,” adds Tabery. “Petr was making the sound and it was a good combination on the set. Jedlička was fine with the camera. You see that he is not concerned…. And we spent quite a lot of time [there] due to a Tuscan fund that offered money to be there three times, for a week or ten days.”
The film’s visuals are accompanied by a lyrical voice-over gleaned from hours of interview. It was not scripted, so as to retain a sense of first-hand authenticity. At one point Jedlička tells how, in Italy, he paints in rectangles and squares as it is a country “built on constructivism”, while the shapes he created in the former Czechoslovakia were “like meteorites that move,” he adds with a note of melancholy.
Of course, the region of Maremma is protected, which means that access to all of its wondrous elements is more and more restricted. Nevertheless, the diminishing landscape has opened up more possibilities for Jedlička has he digs deeper into what little is left to work with. In the film we see him overseeing publication of a book of photographs he took within an area of a mere 200 square metres. “The space became smaller so he became more and more focussed on details and changes,” Tabery adds.
Near the end, we are presented a magical shot which captures the essence of Jedlička’s work, and sums up the intentions of the filmmakers in a nutshell. A drone passes high over a swampland which is indistinguishable from one of the artist’s paintings in terms of its earthiness, colour, texture and topographical detail. The only point of differentiation is a tiny glisten of reflected sunlight.
“That’s what we really wanted,” concludes Tabery, “a sense that you do not know if you are within a painting, or within real nature.”