Walter Navratil: Beyond the Power of Words

Crucifixion in Yellow by Walter Navratil, courtesy of Wolfgang Schmutzenhofer

Austrian artist Walter Navratil (1950-2003) was the son of psychiatrist Leo Navratil who was an advocate of Art Brut. Navratil grew up having close contact with artists promoted by his father, artists such as John Hauser, Oswald Tschirtner and August Walla. As a result, Navratil’s own work also shows the influence of Art Brut and, at times, he has been explicitly linked to this movement, such as the Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992.

It would be unfair, however, to limit Navratil’s work to this movement as he was, in the words of Hans Dichand, “not a programmatic artist, but one whose effectiveness as a painter derives from the formal power inherent in his ideas.”[1] These ideas included, as Dr Agnes von der Borch has noted, “the soul and philosophical speculation” which are the actual subjects, even of his paintings “that seem on the surface to be realistic.”[2] As Kay Heymer noted in the catalogue to his 1998 exhibition at the BAWAG Foundation, “Navratil’s depicted objects are not what they seem to be. Owing to their composition and their more or less ordinary details, the sense of security of the observer is undermined.”[3] The soulful and philosophical subjects tackled by Navratil include boundaries, communication, death, dreams, imprisonment, masks, suffering, and visions. In the paintings with specifically Christian content, von der Borch notes “we find saints, the crucified Christ, and written profession of faith.”[4]

Von der Borch wrote that the most perfect examples in Navratil’s oeuvre are Crucifixion in Yellow and Crucifixion:

In the presence of these two pictures, I regret having to speak or write at all. It seems more fitting to give myself up to the contemplation of them. For one thing, their almost two thousand year-old theme is familiar to everybody, and for another, Navratil interprets it in such a way that the viewer can no longer remain a detatched onlooker, a mere receiver of optical signals, but finds himself drawn into a close and intense involvement.

If I were a believer, I would pray …

I am simply not up to expressing in words the beauty and the sublimity of these “Crucifixions”.[5]

Dichand wrote that to “a certain extent this is true of the whole of Walter Navratil’s work … There is much that is beyond the power of words to express, and yet we can sense the true validity of this art, its vision, its genius, if we are able, as we look at it, to listen to the voice of our hearts.”[6] In part, this power comes from Navratil’s ability, as Kay Heymer wrote, “to alienate the familiar and to bring it back into awareness.”[7] It can also be seen in the way in which, as von der Borch suggests, “traditional styles are represented in his paintings in new combinations and variations.”[8]

Navratil could perhaps be viewed, to use a phrase coined for Marlene Dumas, as an intellectual expressionist. In his work, raw, naive but expressive painterly gestures are combined with the delineation of specific concepts. Much of his work explores the incidence and impact of mental distress, no doubt as a result of what he saw through the work of his parents. Navratil’s exploration, however, is always shot through with Christian concepts, themes and images focused on suffering, its endurance and redemption.

Jonathan Evens is an Anglican priest in East London. He is also secretary to commission4mission, an art organisation which aims to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary art in churches as a means of fundraising for charities and as a mission opportunity for the churches involved.


[1] Dr A . von der Borch, Walter Navratil: Bilder von 1980 bis 1984, Glarie Würthle, 1984.
[2] Ibid.
[3] K. Heymer, Walter Navratil: Gemälde 1970-1998, BAWAG Foundation, Wien 1998.
[4] Dr A . von der Borch, Walter Navratil: Bilder von 1980 bis 1984, Glarie Würthle, 1984.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] K. Heymer, Walter Navratil: Gemälde 1970-1998, BAWAG Foundation, Wien 1998.
[8] Dr A . von der Borch, Walter Navratil: Bilder von 1980 bis 1984, Glarie Würthle, 1984.

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