The German Olaf Hajek is a painterly illustrator with a penchant for hardcore fantasy and melancholic beauty. He revels in the complex simplicity of folklorish imagery, while at the same time addressing the heady issues of race and youth. Gestalten just published Black Antoinette: the Work of Olaf Hajek, which collects much of his commercial work of the last decade. It is a stunning volume of pleasing and disturbing images, colorful yet dark, happy yet morose. I recently talked to him about this book and the origins of Antoinette.
How long have you been painting?
I studied graphic design but started to become an illustrator nearly 18 years ago. I was always painting and never worked digitally, so the work with galleries somehow came natural over the years.
How long did it take for your approach evolve? What and who were your influences?
As a kid I was very much interested in the Impressionists painters and their idea about light. Later I was obsessed with the work of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele and their combination of beauty with a twist. As a student, “American Illustration” became my Bible…the approach in illustration that time was so much more artistic as what I was used to see in Germany.
I was always inspired and touched by the imperfection of beauty and the power of simplicity. That’s why I love so much African and South American folk art and Indian miniatures. Whenever I was in New York my first thing to do was to go to the American Folk Art Museum.
Black Antoinette is a gorgeous collection of your work. Tell me where the title came from?
My idea was to create an image of luxury, opulence, and beauty which has nothing to do with wealth and prosperity. I adapted the idea of Marie Antoinette and created a “Black Antoinette” who is wearing the idea of the whole nature on her head—the beauty as well as the birth and death and the evanescence. Out of the first image I painted a whole series was born.
You attempt to recreate paradise using all kinds of exotic flora. Why are you so in tune with flowers?
Flowers are such symbolic elements for me. I sometimes try to paint a “real” flower, but most of them are just self created. The flower can be such a strong symbol for birth and death, for beauty and poison and the diversity of the nature. I try to combine them with animals and insects and thorns and water: a whole circle of life!
Much of your work is portraiture—known and unknown faces. There appears to be a reference here to the Islands, and the signs used for barber shops and beauty parlors. Is this true?
I was always in love with the barber shop signs and the painted advertising walls. These simple paintings had such a sophisticated power. One series in the book (which is actually a very old one, but which I exhibited in South Africa 2 years ago) is “Fashion Heads” an inspiration from the barber shop signs… the heads and the idea to illustrate them with high fashion brands! Most of the portraiture in the book is assigned work from magazines like Rolling Stone, Paste, or others.
There is a curious melancholia in your work, in the colors and the faces. Can you describe the feeling of doing the painting White Black?
I think there is always a bit of the dark side in my paintings… the paintings can look beautiful, but I am glad if the beholder is taking a second look. I was offered a show in Cape Town at a gallery and I was using my impressions of Africa as a departure point for this series of new paintings. I tried to combine a sense of wonder inspired by the continents natural beauty with a darker look at its social and political reality. The portrait “White Black” is a portrait of the albino model Shaun Ross, which was a great symbol for my idea about South Africa.
There is also a carnivalesque aesthetic that is both surreal and fantastic. Where does this come from?
Well, I think this is more a personal thing. Maybe my way of how to see the world. As a young kid and later as well, I was always wishing to be far away from my German native. The special aesthetic of my work comes out of my fantasy and my empathy and my access to mystical archetypes
Finally, one of the most amazing images in the book is Black Antoinette 3, her hair aglow with flora of all kinds. Who is this person?
She is not a real person, just a wonderful fictional character which shows strength, beauty, and pride.