Michal Jahn Neugarten was born in November 1978 in Prague as the only child of Emílie and Jaroslav. The first snow was falling on that day. Michal was raised in the town of Liberec in North Bohemia. He was the kind of child who happens to lose himself in daydreaming in the midst of a busy crossroads. And there was a reason for that indeed. The extraordinary combination of nature and the architecture in this town and its surroundings would be a significant source of inspiration for him. The setting of the town of Liberec thus became an important scenery that formed his perspective on fine arts in his childhood but also his adulthood.
”Abandoned gardens with richly decorated houses embraced with blackened plaster and wild grapevine. The gardens were overgrowing with bushes and coniferous trees. They were genuine fairy tales. All the plaster was made of crushed granite with mica glittering on it. When a part of it split off, you could discover a surface of shining ocher mortar. Our house was wrapped in mystery in the same way. My first studio was in the attic. The light was coming to it through a large window in the shape of a squinting eye. As a child, I could perceive the unuttered issues and a peculiar tension I defined in my own way, which was how the first outlines of my pictures arose."
Although Michal was growing up in an environment of a technically shaped and educated family, from the point of view of the curriculum of a primary language school, he was rather a low achiever. Instead of that, he stood out in his mostly unconventional interests, manifesting in particular his artistic, musical and literary talent. According to his own words, he perceived the difference between mathematics and art lessons in whether he could draw under the desk or on the desk. He dedicated to art most of his free time, affirming his talent already at an early age, for instance by holding an independent exhibition in the Liberec library. Nevertheless, he didn´t receive enough support from his family to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Therefore in the time of the fame of Czech glass, he accepted a compromise between practical education and arts, and commenced his studies at the High School for Applied Arts for Glassmaking in the town of Železný Brod. There he studied in Břetislav Novák´s atelier. Although he was also surrounded by other distinctive figures of the glass-making of that time who he valued, the glass itself didn´t enchant him.
”First it didn´t seem that bad to me but with the studies my attitude to glass got worse. I got the impression that to hold a 10 kilogram block of cast glass trying to express with it some subtle reflection was rather a kind of suffering. The egocentric beauty of the glass didn´t need my thoughts and it didn´t represent them either. I preferred to paint or to make photographs, for which I got a significant support and space there."
As a graduate, Michal left for Prague, deciding whether to fulfill his dream and study at the Academy of Fine Arts, or to follow up on his previous studies and continue at the Academy of Arts, Architecture & Design in Prague. It was eventually the mutual affection and his meeting with Vladimír Kopecký which turned out to be decisive. Kopecký offered him an extraordinary freedom within his atelier. The atelier was guided in a way that the students would completely focus on the artworks, and so Michal with Kopecký could find common ground in their free approach to the artistic media. Instead of glass, Michal dedicated himself especially to the painting, different conceptual approaches, or video art. He published two poetry collections at the expense of the school, and due to his own interest, he also worked as an editor of an internet poetry server offering a public space for the presentation and discussion of other poets. Apart from his studies, he also made his first documentaries and amateur movies. He also carried on dedicating himself to music which led him to jazz later, which is how he has developed his ability and interest in improvisation also in his artistic approach. He eventually specialized as a painter and also a conceptual artist at his school.
”I could say I didn´t really perceive any borders all the way through my studies in this atelier. I used to take very aggressive stances to express myself and the only limitation was my own consciousness and the tolerance of the others. We apparently see the things around us more like a movie deciding whether we like to appear in it, or not. I was exactly this reckless and I simply enjoyed to be in my own movie."
After his studies, Michal brought out his own exhibition of Josef Sudek artworks in Hradčany, and together with his friend, Daniel Pitín, he carried out his first amateur feature film. He also continued dedicating himself to jazz and poetry but it was in the movies and video art where he could bridge the split between his different interests. Later on, Michal entrusted his work to Tomáš Kepka who was in charge of the multimedia atelier at the Film and TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague at that time. Kepka passed down a lot of experience to him and they continued collaborating on many different projects even after the atelier ceased to exist. For Michal, the film and the multimedia therefore became his professional interest and a means to make a living. He only dedicated himself to painting privately. After a few of small contracts, he gained the position of a director and later also of an art director in TV where he was in charge of the graphic department first, and later had success as a director of a number of jingles. This also led to more commercial contracts. He rejected many of them one after another though, preferring to dedicate himself to his own projects, like author´s movies or a feature documentary on abstract art. He also started up more of these projects with the producers who came to be interested in working with him. However, no important project was carried out in the end and he was offered scenarios that didn´t suit him.
”For my surroundings, it was hard to understand that I was feeling unfulfilled in the light of success. I didn´t want to shoot comedies. In the end my consciousness started to trickle through the golden patches, and uncomfortable inner conflicts began to appear."
Michal returned to his artistic creation later, describing his visit of the summarizing exhibition of Max Ernst in Albertina Gallery in Vienna as a significant mental breakthrough. He commented in particular on his series “Der große Wald” to which a special hall was dedicated.
”I had to sit down and my assuredness of where I was and what I wanted started to fall apart before that axis of the huge eyes around me like a piece of porcelain that hadn´t been glued together well. I had nothing left but my trembling hands.”
After returning from Vienna, he cut down his work dedicating his free time to the painting again. Then he took advantage of his wife´s support and he opened a studio in her house in Čimelice in South Bohemia.
”To spare the painting material my rage, I preferred to paint one picture over another until the canvas become hopelessly stretched and destroyed. I was like a crab searching for its shell. The paints were flowing down from the canvas in gray shapes like if everything I was suddenly willing to express couldn´t be kept on them. I only felt joy when the layers were chapped and color cracks appeared on the gray surfaces.”
After a lengthy period of inner conflicts, he also carried out a few of small picture series in Čimelice which, according to his own words, didn´t follow up on his previous work although one could find common elements in them. One of these elements is notably his work with the hues of gray, yet made on an abstract level to which he became attached trying to get rid of the weight of different subjects and the fullness of their meanings. This has already become his contemporary philosophy and the first sign of a certain minimalism in his working procedures.
”I was searching for a concept in which the picture wouldn´t be burdened with its meaning, and at the same time, would be specific and intelligible enough to express the deeper movements of my mind. Eventually I confined the picture to a certain lightning and atmosphere, i. e. carefully prepared conditions. These conditions shape in turn the space for my intuition and improvisation in which I reflect the pre-prepared conditions, and I go through each of my next steps."
Under this concept of ideas, first results were appearing one after another, in which Neugarten already felt secure to build more artworks on them. Those have filled up his studio and so he has found a bridging in one of his specialties in which he basically grew up, and despite the great difficulty of his journey, he has found fulfillment and his own approach in his artistic creation.
”It´s a kind of trembling, crookedness and weakness where the perfect line cannot really be flawless in our ideas, and it cannot be depicted completely either, whereas its crookedness can produce the mood and arouse experiences, or refer to perfection and possibly imply its disintegration. The picture is then an incentive for me to move within these abstract impressions, and offer to the viewers the artworks without the fatigue of meanings and without referring to their interpretation.”
Despite this statement, the artworks by Michal J. Neugarten can be still interpreted with their reference to his life story but also specific mental processes. This can be represented by the natural harmony and his response to external and internal conditions which are noticeable in his approach. At first sight, his stable and compact pictures shatter in details and layers at which your eyes stare in amazement at closer look. This makes it more complicated for the viewers to grasp the power over his artworks arousing experiences and expressing certain moods to the detriment of rational explanations.