Our dear friend and colleague Jiří Ševčík (1940–2022), who had been a member of the art advisory board of Kontakt Collection since its inception in 2004, has passed away.
With his passing, we have lost an important art historian and an influential thinker, a mediator between Eastern and Western European art, an excellent political analyst, and a wonderful person gifted with a great deal of humor and generosity, especially towards the younger generation. He had developed the program of Kontakt together with us and made it possible for key works of Eastern European and Austrian neo-avant-garde art as well as contemporary artworks to find their way into the collection. He had also developed profound knowledge of the Austrian art scene, with which he became familiar starting from his first-ever trip outside Czechoslovakia following 1968’s Prague Spring—to Graz in 1988. Since then, he had been in constant exchange with artists and colleagues in Austria and had also taken charge of the exhibition program of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Prague.
In his final essay, published in the Kontakt Collection catalog in 2017, Jiří stated that in the course of “exhaustive critical discussions both internally and externally, the Kontakt advisory board has made every attempt to rectify authoritative judgements of so-called ‘Eastern art’ and offer new interpretative possibilities, in the process being hugely pleased to reveal the ‘remote similarities’ of both worlds—namely, the former West and the former East.” To his mind, the Kontakt Collection had come to represent a “unique monument to cultural memory” that might “play an important role in the enormous changes to the social and political context that still await us.”
Jiří´s reflection on history and his questioning of the utopian aspects and ideals of our recent past, aspects and ideals that are inscribed into the artworks, as well as the inherent attempts at democratization and their implications for the future can thus be viewed as his legacy.
As an active protagonist of the Czech(oslovak) art scene since the 1960s, Jiří addressed and re-framed the relationship between art and politics. In keeping with the spirit of 1968, he understood art as being always in resonance with changing reality—both anticipating and influencing the direction of transformation. This is why, in 2017, he called for “a revision of our perceptions of the historical turnaround of 1989–90 and a root-and-branch rethink of its significance and scope” in order to find ways in which to transfer “utopian hopes into culture and preserve this moment in our cultural memory” during times of crisis.
This is a mandate for us—not least due to the present war in Europe, something that had been entirely beyond our imagination before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February of this year and that now forces us to defend the core values of democracy and pluralism against the pseudo-democratic rise of contemporary anti-democratic regimes globally. Jiří challenged us to take such a stance as well as to conceive of freedom outside of conventional pathways.
We will miss him deeply.
Silvia Eiblmayr, Georg Schöllhammer, Branka Stipančić, Adam Szymczyk, Boris Marte, Kathrin Rhomberg and all former and current colleagues of Kontakt Collection as well as the team of ERSTE Foundation.
Jiří Ševčík was a Czech art historian, writer, curator and scholar whose activities influenced several generations of artists and theoreticians.
Since 2004, Ševčík had been a member of the art advisory committee of the Kontakt Art Collection. From 1962 to 1965 he was editor-in-chief of the magazine Architektura ČSR. He taught Theory and History of Art and Architecture at the Faculty of Architecture of the Technical University from 1966 to 1989. From 1990 to 1993 he was chief curator of the Gallery of the City of Prague and from 1993 to 1996 director of the modern and contemporary art collection at the National Gallery in Prague. From 1996 to 2013 he served as vice-rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and as director of the AVU Academic Research Centre, which he had founded in 1997. Along with his wife Jana Ševčíková, he published a great number of important texts about Czech(oslovakian) art. Jiří Ševčík was a laureate of the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art. In 2018, he and his wife were also awarded the Czech State Award of the Ministry of Culture for their lifelong contribution to Czech culture.