An exhibition by German illustrator Olaf Hajek titled the ‘Green Room’ was recently on show at the WHATIFTHEWORLD Gallery in Cape Town. His career was originally established as a commercial illustrator, doing projects for major publications like The Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Forbes Magazine. However, Hajek has to some extent bridged the gap between his positions as an ‘artist’ versus that of an ‘illustrator.’ Subsequent to his work on publication campaigns and various print projects, he commenced working on non-commercial paintings that can be seen in exhibition around the world.
So what is the difference between art and illustration? And is it possible to bridge the gap between the two? My answer to this is no. With regards to illustration, there is not much, if anything, for the viewer to do. One might say that all the information needed to engage with the work is readily available to the viewer in the form of visual cues. It may very well be powerful. It might also be incredibly mundane. Several themes can be incorporated at once, yet in illustration, precisely all the visual information expected to view the work is incorporated. It is a visual approach to a verbal story. The fact is, art is something rather different, and it represents visual communication as a more interactive experience. The viewer is required to start at a point of understanding the work. To do this one must think about what the art work is of/about. We must then consider whether the thing being depicted is represented authentically, this however should not be taken to mean imitate, copy, or even resemble. Representation in the general sense does not even need to be representations of anything recognisable in the world- think abstract art. We value art as art for its engaging quality and its ability to evoke a deeper understanding of the world around us. Hayek’s work as “art” is neither mystifying nor perplexing. There is not much to be found beneath the surface. Therefore, Hajek’s claim that his work should be viewed as art is questionable.
Similarly to Vladimir Tretchikoff, Hajek incorporates the female body in much of his work, taking form in different cultural frameworks. His work is a medium through which he represents various cultures; such can also be seen through his use of African masks and an assortment of other ethnic artefacts. These cultures are also expressed by illustrating symbols of religion, history, mythology and folklore. Hajek became inspired by people from Latin America and Africa after travelling to these regions. The Latin American influence is recognisable by his use of magic realism and the use of vibrant colours like those used by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo whose work has been characterised by some art critics as “folk art” (perhaps also a form of illustration). In ‘Green Room’ Hajek incorporates magic elements into a seemingly ordinary depiction of life portraying the female body, domestic spaces, green houses and cultural artefacts in such as way that it conjures up a sense of utopianism- a wonderful world filled with magic, glorious jungles and vibrant colours.
Hajek’s work can be seen through the lens of magic realism in the fact that he applies it by showcasing ordinary objects, combined with elements of fantasy. His work is typified by remarkable detail and sharp focus. Yet more importantly, the magic realism in Hajek’s work taps into the viewers emotions, albeit a mere sense of wonder and euphoria. It does not hide unexpected content within regular scenes, like some magic realism art does- those types seem to be more thought provoking. However, it does require quiet observation to soak up every detail of his intricate oil paintings. Is there something reminiscent to be found in his work? One could say it solicits a pursuit to find something within oneself, a return to ones primal instincts, hallucinations, and dreams, or perhaps rather to get lost in its kaleidoscope of fauna and flora.
Despite its surreal and dreamlike qualities, like many magic realism artists, Hajek’s work raises more questions than it provides answers. The question about whether his work is art or illustration is very much up for debate among exhibition goers. However, there is one thing that is certain; it has the potential of mesmerising, transfixing and immersing its viewers in the dimensions of the colour spectrum which is utilized so thoughtfully in his work. This creates the possibility of enriching the experience of whoever is viewing Olaf Hajek’s work.