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We do not choose the time we live in.

Tomáš Pospiszyl´s reflection on fine arts in Czechoslovakia in 1968

14. November 2018
Magazine > Feature > We do not choose the time we live in.

On the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia we recall the period of relative creative freedom, which led to many experimental and utopian projects.

The year 1968 in fine arts

When I entered the year 1968, in truth, I was completely passive, lying on my back, like a two-month-old infant. Therefore I cannot have any communicable memories. Yet it is emotional. When I was growing up, everyone knew what it was like back then, but talking about it was only allowed with your best friends. The year 1968 is, for me and my generation, a symbol of a social breakthrough and traumatic scarring. We should probably already let it get healed, yet we are being pushed to touch it and to irritate it again and again. It seems that everything was concentrated in a few months, in several cuts: the liberalisation of circumstances, its violent interruption, the subsequent social lethargy, and the disintegration. Socialism with a human face and occupation. Hope and hopelessness. Freedom and non-freedom. It was the year that predestined the next twenty years, and at the same time the year that the future – in the sense of a free space of possibilities – ceased to exist for some time.

The year 1968 is, for me and my generation, a symbol of a social breakthrough and traumatic scarring.

Similarly, the black and white arc between euphoric emancipation and freezing repression is, of course, a myth. The intervention of the Warsaw Pact troops, in August 1968, fits perfectly into the nationally popular narrative “what other people have done to us”, and they miss out what we have done to ourselves. This event became the prototype of the Great Fate Moment, which allowed us to relativize our own responsibility. The Czech perception of 1968 mostly ignores what was achieved, whether briefly or permanently. Characteristically, for us the federalisation of Czechoslovakia, for example, is a similarly invisible result. Yet those few months of relative freedom – relative to what was before, and above all after, but also in absolute terms – are seen as a miracle. Or as a work of art. After all, at the Bratislava Danuvius exhibition in 1968, Stano Filko created one of his environments, the central point of which was the screening of some amateur pictures from the local press. In the eyes of an artist who called his work the Cathedral of Humanism, the internal political development was as rampant a theme as the conquest of the cosmos.

Eva Kmentová, Human Egg, 1968. Photo: © Karel Kuklík. Courtesy of Kmentová Zoubek Foundation.

In the field of culture, perhaps the most enduring and the most positive results of 1968 are the high-quality books and magazines that were successfully published. If we compare their content and, above all, the tremendous amount of copies to today, the present must appear as a real “Biafra//famine of the spirit”. The 1960s, and especially their end, are one of the golden ages of the Czech book culture and include the activation of the intellectual environment. Certainly, in later years it was not easy to get to these papers, but it was possible. What I learned about artistic avant-garde or post-war art in the 1980s and 1990s did not come from current sources, but was largely mediated by what happened around us in 1968.

A general overview of the year 1968 in the art of Czechoslovakia itself may seem somewhat flawed. There were no dramatic upheavals; on the institutional level, many things went on like in the past. The Socialist state continued to provide generous funding and, as a result, managed the fine arts. In the 1960s, however, the state’s ideological demands on art gradually declined. The art underground, of which some parts at least did not participate in any way in the state culture system, was minimal. In 1968, many great works of art were created in Czechoslovakia, but not a dramatically higher number than in previous years. It is a moment of dispersed concentration, a massive breath, after which no adequate exhalation followed. An atmosphere of birth or transformation is evoked by Eva Kmentová’s Human Egg, created in 1968. The author created a negative of her own body crumpled into a prenatal position surrounded by an egg-shaped form. Where and how far she stepped out of this shell: that’s for every viewer to think for her- or himself.

Art and life began to get closer than before. In 1968, Zorka Ságlová created several sculptures on the topic of coincidence. She placed rubber balls on a wooden surface and fixed them wherever they landed. She realised that coincidence, life (or whatever else we would like to call the central principle of these realisations) is aestheticised and frozen by its materialisation. In August 1968, instead of static sculpture, she had the idea of simply throwing balls into a pond. However, it did not take place until April 1969 when Ságlová and her friends threw 37 coloured balls into the pond Bořín in Průhonice. They left them there to their fate and after the event only photographs remained.

The basic ethos of 1968 was in the spirit of finding alternatives, discovering new levels of freedom, openness and experimentation. In 1969, Jana Želibská realised the Kandarya – Mahadeva exhibition in the Václav Špála Gallery in Prague, culminating in her themes from the previous two years. Actually, it was only one topic; sex seen from the female perspective. The work was lined with mysticism, humour, links to pop culture, art history, and kitsch. I do not know of anything similar that happened in the official Czechoslovak gallery in the next twenty years.

The centrifugal tendencies of Czechoslovak art in 1968 can perhaps be explained by the effort to catch up with the world after years of isolation and the need to orientate oneself in it. When we look at magazines and newspapers up to August 1968, we cannot overlook the frequent theme of “We and the world outside”. The experience of the suddenly opened border was heady, the paths “out” provoked to re-evaluate the experience so far, bringing inspiration and new ideas. “We and the world outside” is one of the socially most important topics of the Czech Republic and Slovakia even today, but paradoxically in the opposite direction. Today, the territory behind a virtual frontier works for many of us as a source of dangerous ideological divergence or even a physical threat.

Anyone who could travel at least a bit fifty years ago, travelled abroad. For example, Alex Mlynárčik spent the turbulent May of 1968 in Paris. He was moving in the centre of the rebellion and photographed student challenges on the walls of the schools and state institutions. The question is to what extent his presence in the midst of the attempts to overthrow the current regime influenced his next creation. The causes of French civil unrest may not have been easy to understand or to identify oneself with. In May 1968, three Czechoslovak films were in the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival. When leftist directors led by Jean-Luc Godard caused the early ending of the festival in the name of solidarity with the revolutionaries, the ambitious Czechs felt bitter about it. After all, they didn’t mind a competition for the bourgeois festival awards so much.

In May 1968, Petr Štembera, a student of the Faculty of Social Affairs and Journalism, also visited Paris. In his case, there was undoubtedly a transformative experience in relation to visual arts. At the exhibitions he saw in Paris he realised he was not interested in painting, but in process art. As a tourist from the East, he walked around the city for ten days almost without food, which in his words led to the “discovery of his own body as such.” In the next decade, he devoted himself to private activities in the field of performance, which from the point of view of most of the population, as well as the Czech art communities, were distant from and incomprehensible to their concept of art.

The year 1968 was a breakthrough, but at the same time poor for graspable artistic activities, even for Milan Knížák. Since mid-1967 he had been on probation; he moved from Prague to Krásno in western Bohemia, where he gradually formed a free A-community, focused on an alternative way of life. In Krásno, Knížák also experienced the entry of troops of the Warsaw Pact. In the aftermath of the invasion, in August 1968, he managed to obtain a visa to the United States, where he travelled in September. On the way, he was imprisoned in Vienna for a month after a fight with policemen. All he could do in there was the Action for my mind. Upon his arrival in New York, he made two more events, and then his activities became private.

The artistic life of Czechoslovakia was radically reorganised after 1970.

The outside world was also interested in our artists. Even before the August invasion, Jiří Kolář and Zdenek Sýkora were invited to documenta 4. The interest in Czechoslovakia, its destiny and its arts, then increased significantly after August 1968 and carried on in a spirit of sympathy for the occupied state. For example, the December issue of Opus International was devoted entirely to the art of Czechoslovakia. Orientating oneself in the situation after August 1968 wasn’t always easy for foreigners. In March 1969, the radical left-wing film group of Dziga Vertov came to Prague, including director Jean-Luc Godard. The result of their stay was a documentary called Pravda (Truth), remarkable especially for its blindness to the feelings of the Czechoslovak population at that time. Godard complained about the state of leftist thinking, and it seems that he didn’t even notice that he was in an occupied country torn by the counter-revolution. A more enlightened reaction to the occupation of August 1968 was the Czechoslovak Radio by the Hungarian conceptual artist Tamás St. Turby. The work has the form of a common brick with simply painted circles. The artist responded to the urban myth about the Czechoslovaks who provoked the occupiers by listening to fake brick radios, which were confiscated by the confused soldiers in the tanks.

Similar examples of playful subversion lasted only for a few days. Attempts to reverse the development were given a tragic dimension through the self-immolation of Jan Palach and others who followed him. The future began to fade. Július Koller had already moved towards the direction of conceptual art before 1968 in Bratislava. At the same time, however, he continued to paint and develop his multifaceted activities. With the series of paintings of the Czechoslovak Republic he reflected the posterity events of 1968. However, the year 1969 was a breakthrough for him. At that time his question mark appeared for the first time as a universal symbol of doubt, uncertainty, and unclear tomorrows.

With the arrival of the seventh decade, many Czechoslovak citizens were expecting the worst, the return of the Stalinist 1950s and massive imprisonments of political opponents. A similar development was also assumed by the secretly consecrated Catholic bishop Felix Maria Davídek. Within the underground ecclesiastical community of Koinótés, he therefore also consecrated three women to the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1970. The reason for such a revolutionary step was not so much the belief that a similar office can be performed by men and women. Unorthodox Davídek, who, among other things, was interested in the happening and the Fluxus movement, wanted to build parallel church structures. He spent fourteen years in communist prisons himself and he wanted to ensure that, in the coming dark years, Catholic women priests would also be able to act in women’s prisons. The darkest forecasts were luckily not fulfilled; Czechoslovakia consolidated without greater imprisonment. The names and fates of two consecrated women have stayed forever unknown.

Stano Filko, Cosmos, 1968. Multimedia environment with inner audio-visual program. Installation view of STANO FILKO: POÉZIA O PRIESTORE – KOZME show in Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava, 2016. Photo: © Martin Deko

An undoubted loss for Czechoslovak society and culture was the emigration wave, which culminated in 1968-1970 and to a lesser extent continued until 1989. Travel abroad was limited. The artistic life of Czechoslovakia was radically reorganised after 1970. The original Czechoslovak Fine Artists Union, which brought together several thousand artists, was revoked as ideologically unreliable. Instead, a strict selective organisation was established, which had only a few dozen members in the first years, later hundreds. Obtaining state commissions in the field of art was difficult for untested artists in the Czech Republic in the 1970s, though perhaps somewhat easier in Slovakia. To publicly exhibit was problematic; one of the ways to bypass the selection boards was to organize exhibitions in small clubs or non-artistic organisations. Magazines were not worth anything. After 1980, however, ideological control was lowered again and a number of condemned artists agreed to the rules of the game. Gallery purchases, exhibitions, and commissions also went to those who had been unreliable in the past decades. The new Czechoslovak Fine Artists Union had 4,000 members again in 1987. The number of people around the arts who totally refused to participate in official artistic life was a few dozen.

The message of history is clear: we do not choose the time we live in. But it is up to us what we do with our time.

The contemporary young generation in the Czech Republic and Slovakia already has no emotional relationship with 1968. It does not follow up on its possible social or artistic links. But there might be a useful lesson here. The first half of 1968 and its hopes in the Czechoslovak context strongly contrasted with what came in the middle of the second. The next two decades were terrible in most respects. But it was not endless. Even though I do not want to compare these days with fifty-year-old history, it could be at the core of a lesson for today’s gloomy mood. We should not consider the situation in 2018 as an unchangeable state: at least think and talk about what is wrong, what else to do, have your program as well as a method how to fulfil it. The message of history is clear: we do not choose the time we live in. But it is up to us what we do with our time. And we know almost with certainty that in fifty years somebody will be interested in why and for what we have decided today.

Original in Czech. First published on 13 August 2018 on Artalk.cz and republished on 27 August 2018 in English on East Art Mags.

This text is protected by copyright: © Tomáš Pospiszyl / Artalk.cz. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Zorka Ságlová, Tossing balls into lake Bořín, Happening in Průhonice, project 1968, realisation in April 1969. Photo: © Jan Ságl.