PRINT January 1991


THE ANCIENT QUESTION “Who are we?,” implicitly asked by any community trying to understand its own character, has explicit significance for Czechs today. It was posed, in fact, by the country’s first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, in his book The Social Question: Philosophical and Sociological Foundations of Marxism, 1898, published in the 20-year period leading up to the foundation of modern Czechoslovakia. The issue of identity is important in a land whose borders abut five other European nations (six in the time of the two Germanies), and whose culture is continually consumed by them. Masaryk knew only too well how his nation was geographically defined; a non-European looking at an atlas, however, can easily see that Czechoslovakia is a center between East and West, but will never experience the ramifications of what that position can mean to the social, political, economic, and cultural life of a Czechoslovakian.

The givens imposed by geography are further complicated by recent history. During the early decades of this century, Prague sheltered a community of Jewish, German, and Austrian intellectuals who, by writing about the Bohemian city and its people from a slight remove, gave it a perspective on itself that Czechs themselves have come to associate with the “spirit of the place.” With the communist accession after World War II, however, Czechoslovakia was overtaken by provincialism. The difficulty of cross-cultural exchange impoverished the country’s self-awareness, and the weak economy could not attract its former mix of immigrants. At the same time, anyone able to leave the country was likely to want to do so, creating an intellectual drain. And those who managed to leave risked falling victim to the “immigrant complex.” Tomáš Ruller, a Czech artist able to travel since the 1989 revolution, is surprised by the negative response of Czech immigrants in the United States to the recent exhibitions there of contemporary Czech art; that response arises, he feels, out of a tension between the Czech “deserters” and the Czech resistance. “Before the revolution, those who left felt they did the right thing, they considered themselves heroes for having escaped the Communist system. . . . Now they see that the heroic position was to have stayed and to fight the system from within.”1 Those who remained may for their part feel some resentment toward those who left, making for a difficult relationship between the national culture and the émigrés who might otherwise be a valuable intellectual resource.

The immigrant complex, though, only partially explains the poor American reception of Czech art. With much of the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia has just emerged from a kind of time warp, in which the public’s lack of exposure to information of even the most basic kind—Czech art students would have to be assigned a Western art magazine by their professors to be able to read it in the library—retarded the advance of art. When artists did get hold of a usually dog-eared Western journal, its entire contents would be avidly consumed, taken for gospel, and meticulously copied in their work. There was no possibility of comparative shopping, no opportunity to choose between variant opinions. It is not surprising, then, that Ruller’s New York performance last spring, and the work that associates of his showed in the “Prague/L.A.” exchange exhibition in both of those cities last summer, were largely met with skepticism. These artists are fascinated by Western art, but have looked too closely at too few sources. Ruller, for instance, pursues a symbiotic and alchemic relationship with materials, of the kind that emerged in Western Europe in the ’60s and early ’70s. He likes to set up little ritualistic spaces, garlanded with esoterica, to celebrate the four elements, and the goals of his “actions” are things like the “true path to the individual meaning of existence.” Ruller’s friend Ivan Kafka, a conceptual artist working with organic materials, geometry, and photography, makes a kind of site-specific earth art that begins with fatigued issues of expanded field, process, repetition, and frame. These artists have shown around Central Europe, but though one approaches their work with sympathy, it seems doubtful that they will keep the attention of the Western audience, which is unlikely to be interested in reiterated, soft-core versions of ’60s performance and Walter de Maria.

Yet though Czech artists today rarely look to us like pioneers (however innovative they may be in the terms of their own society), the tentativeness of their situation is powerful to us—this transitional moment in their national history, and the uncertainty and provisionality of the current art, providing a kind of forum not only on Czech art but on the way young artists work in the West. And if their reiterations of Western styles seem to lack the inventiveness of the social and political spheres of Czechoslovakia today, we should realize that, until recently, to be a political artist there meant collaborating with the government, and to criticize the government was to stay in the same trap—as if the state, if only by making itself one’s target, were still implicitly in control. Many of the artists we’re seeing today, then, came to avoid overt political address. Simply to be an artist and to show one’s work, however occasionally, was political enough. As these positions break down, the definition of what it means to be political will change, and social engagement in art will shed its stigma.

The apathy that followed the crushing disappointments of 1968 fostered what playwright and now president Václav Havel saw as existential oppression, social dissimulation and national entropy.2 This as much as the rigidities of the political structure arrested the country’s normal process of reflection on its identity. To Milená Slavická, an editor of the newly renovated magazine Výtvarné Umění (Visual art), this kind of self-reflection is an absolute priority for Czech culture today. Yet before the revolution, Slavická felt unable to write a negative review of any among the younger generation of Czech artists, because she knew that to do so would be interpreted as cooperation with the “official” critics allied with the state. Artists such as Vladimír Merta feel that real art criticism didn’t exist then, for people were afraid of novelty; those who did praise new art—such as Jirí Ševčík and Jana Ševčíková, who remain powerful critics in Prague today—were biased toward “Westernized” work, he believes, and their power was such that no one dared contradict them. Merta and his wife, Margita Titlová, both create free abstract gestural forms relating to the movement of the body, and linked in feeling to current Hungarian painting. There are no Czech critics, they say, to represent their style of work or to give them the intellectual response they need. Ruller and Kafka, Titlová and Merta, were victimized by the official criticism of the long cultural sleep. Now, as artists on the margins of an already marginal situation, they don’t seem much better off; though criticism has been liberated from the state, alternate voices have yet to establish themselves.

When students and artists marched in Prague on November 17, 1989, in the “velvet revolution,” they repossessed an identity lost in the spring of 1968. Bursts of creative and political energy had become increasingly visible in the half decade leading up to the revolution. Several artists’ groups emerged from the Prague art scene during these years; one of the more active was the Tvrdohlaví (Hardheaded), founded in June of 1987. Their leader, the young film producer Václav Marhoul, organized exhibitions for the group and moonlighted as its manager and publicist. The Tvrdohlaví’s philosophy was supposed to be democratic: all the members had to vote unanimously to invite an artist into the fold. Unsurprisingly, this apparently liberal policy produced an all-male club. The Pondělí (Monday) is another emergent group, a band of six young painters and sculptors of more or less post-Conceptual persuasion. A few are the students of Milan Knížák, a member of Fluxus and the controversial newly appointed rector to the Prague Academy of Fine Arts. Groups like the Pondělí and Tvrdohlaví serve a practical and promotional purpose, but their life span is usually short. With philosophical infighting, and with Marhoul the new director of the Barrandov film studio, the Tvrdohlaví is breaking up as members pursue individual careers. The recent accomplishments of Knížák and Marhoul are special examples of developing strength and direction.

A similar tough-mindedness distinguishes the influential critics the Ševčíks. A husband-and-wife team of curator and art historian respectively, Ševčík and Ševčíková have rallied around themselves a selection of young painters (also all male) whose road they try to smooth. Their sphere of influence is primarily in Prague, but they have spread their version of contemporary Czech art elsewhere in the country and recently abroad. The paintings that they promote suggest a coherent praxis, consistently generating questions about the politics of East and West. Knížák, however, though he is on good terms with the Ševčíks, takes issue with the parochial vision that he feels accompanies their creation of an artistic elite.

There is no doubt that Jiří David’s friendship with the Ševčíks, coupled with the support of the expatriate Czech artist Jiří Dokoupil, has helped to launch him internationally—an unusual achievement for a young Czech painter. David showed in the “Aperto 90” exhibition at last year’s Venice Biennale. (Knížák gave him a bad review.) His schedule for success is almost a carbon copy of any comparable Western artist’s, and he has written a clever yet somewhat convoluted theoretical essay, “Totální distance v období sociální vybledlosti” (Total distance of social paling, 1988), which borrows disingenuously from various Western theories of language and history but supplements its author’s professional connections with the appropriate intellectual accent. In a labyrinthine way, David constructs a model of reality as a state of fragmentary objectivity, of “total distance.” Ludvík Hlaváček, another editor of Výtvarné Umění, sees David’s generation of Czechs as rejecting the phenomenological attitude widely adopted by an older generation (inspired by Masaryk) to emphasize instead the qualities of personal vision and the individual’s search for the “deep secret of life.”3 This offshoot of existentialism, Hlaváček argues, has substituted consumerism for the kind of political involvement once strong in Czechoslovakia but discouraged by the Communist Party. The healthy public life that was intended to follow from communist activism was an impossible dream under that regime. The result, says Hlavácek, has been a withdrawal into a private search for personal authenticity, descending the path of least resistance into ever tightening spirals of material self-enrichment. But certain young artists of the ’80s have seen the dangers of this focused individualism, and David’s paintings, with their conventional symbols and familiar signs, are part of these artists’ response, which reflects a tolerance and openness toward intellectual and lay vocabularies alike.

So has begun a democratization of esthetic language in Czechoslovakia. These artists look “to retrieve their humanity and resume their responsibility for the world,”4 marking a departure from the symbolic hermeneutics of the 40-year period of communism. Hlaváček and others see this new direction as essential to the political life of the Czech people. But an artist like David thinks little about politics. (He didn’t even vote in the last election.) He makes it clear that he is “setting his mind just to himself,” and is only interested in “opening himself up to the maximum, without prejudices, and finding his context with European art, regardless of continuity.”5 The problem with this is that David feigns a fashionable distance from material that in fact he has feverishly absorbed. He studies closely the art magazines and exhibitions he sees on his trips to the West. Like David Salle, he puts superimpositions, fragmented narratives, and stylistic jumps all on a single plane; actually David’s “total distance of social paling” effect is a variation on Salle’s “empty” painting, though unlike Ruller and Kafka, who unreservedly embrace their sources, David affects a cool ironic remove. In his most recent work, abstract design elements and truncated human figures float on pale grounds. It is difficult to penetrate these miserly surfaces, unless one enjoys communing with the idea of vacuity. What does remain interesting, though, is David as phenomenon. His vocabulary is all too familiar, which perhaps explains his success: for Westerners, his work reaffirms the esthetic of a familiar recent avant-garde, and its extension in the now capitalist colonies of Eastern and Central Europe.

Jiří Kovanda, another member of the Ševčíks’ round table, sees David’s essay on “social paling” as an abstract poetical text written from an emotional rather than a theoretical point of view (a reaction David surely finds horrifying). Although Kovanda hasn’t discussed David’s theory with him, and doesn’t feel that it represents his own concerns, there are resemblances between these artists’ methodologies and their deployment of common language signs. David has spotted his surfaces with images of familiar but fragmented public monuments and light abstractions, while Kovanda creates configurations of children’s cartoons and picture-book illustrations, speculations in a juvenile domestic grammar. Kovanda’s new paintings, images of vegetables vibrating in expressionist voids, are on the edge between seriousness and the ridiculous. His sense of the absurd is echoed in his feeling that “we don’t know anything, all we have is the pure physical being of us . . . this is the state we live in now.”6 Despite this uncertainty, Kovanda’s work is humorous and optimistic, a surface effect probably deriving in part from his impression of American culture: “I want my pictures to be visually attractive . . . because these days only nice good-looking things can catch your attention.”

The subject matter and technique of Kovanda’s and David’s work raise the problem of “export art,” a phenomenon partially propelled by Western desires for art with a particular ethnic flavor, or, better yet, with a revolutionary aura. (A story I heard in Prague: a Swiss curator came to the city after the revolution to photograph artists making political posters in the student union. When she was told that production had long since stopped, she quickly put together a crew and staged an event to document.) Many “struggling young revolutionaries” have been fashioned, or have fashioned themselves, to fit the dimensions of Western fantasies. Often the work itself plays to Western appetites, as in Kovanda’s desire to make good-looking things. A number of David’s paintings actually convey the idea of the souvenir: with their local sights and Czech flags, they are little consumable nuggets of Prague. These motifs, which the artist abandoned after the revolution, have been misinterpreted in the West as signs of renewed nationalism. In fact they are conceived as devalued by politics. Propaganda in Czechoslovakia has backfired: “We don’t feel the nation so much any more,” remarks Kovanda. “We have it in our heart, but not in our brain.”

Kovanda too works with the effects of propaganda. Znepokojivý obraz (Disturbing painting, 1987) consists almost entirely of his version of a famous picture by Josef Čapek, Ohen (Fire, 1938), in which a peasant woman advances with a clenched-fist salute of revolt. But Kovanda also drops in a cartoon penguin (appropriated from an earlier painting by David), small and in one corner. The Čapek work was initially intended to awaken national solidarity against German fascism, and at first glance one is indeed struck by the imagery’s celebration of strength and pride. For Czechs, in fact, Ohen sparks a Pavlovian response of national sentiment—which moved communist propagandists to make the painting into an icon of their own. In 1975, the work found its way onto the cover of the Encyclopedia of Czechoslovakian Painting, which illustrated the ideology of Socialist Realism—one of many altered surveys issued by the party in its persistent efforts to rewrite history.

For the past forty years, the narration of Eastern and Central European history has been a distortion of a falsehood. During the lifetime of some Czech citizens the books have been rewritten five times. Havel has inscribed a moving testimony on the reduction of meaningful events to a calendar date: “the disorder of real history has been replaced by the orderliness of pseudo-history in which the author is an official planner, not society.”7 Kovanda’s appropriation of Ohen is a play on this fabric of deliberate misreadings, and on the shady ambiguity that darkens a once clear sign. It is a way of repossessing Čapek’s statement, though not without irony: the funny little penguin is not an explanatory text but simply an arrest, an intellectual baffle mimicking the complexity of Czech life today.

Like David’s, Kovanda’s current work is sometimes more tentative than his paintings from before the revolution. Grids of found wood and collages of bits of advertisements look like student essays in a rough formalism—small, timid, and sketchy. But beside these experiments are the vegetable paintings, and paintings of clown masks or faces, which are quite bold and strange. Both Kovanda and David, I feel, need to push their work farther into the subtleties of post-Conceptual painting and to resolve an unevenness betraying borrowed tactics.

The borrowed tactics in question belong to the phenomenon we have come to call post-Modernism, which has a peculiar position in Czechoslovakia. In Ohen, Kovanda gives his penguin a speech bubble that reads, “They Say the New Wave Is Dead!” In Prague, “New Wave” is an interchangeable term with “post-Modernism.” This blithe assertion refers to an argument in Prague art circles between adherents of post-Modern style and those who think it is a fad. In the West, the representation of an eclectic historicism or of a display of consumer products may function as critique or sly pastiche. But in a country starved of information and of goods, and limited in its range of images by the censor and by the relative weakness of the mass media, wouldn’t appropriation, superimposition, fragmentation, devalued signs, and the use of “low” or pop cultural emblems seem arbitrary? Can a Czech artist, with little-to-no understanding of the workings of capitalist society, participate in a post-Modernist dialogue? Yet there may be a form of post-Modernist critique in the work of David, Kovanda, and others, arising from the collapse of the historical narrative not under late capitalism but under late communism. Social schizophrenia is not the exclusive condition of a capitalist society; it may be heightened in times of political transition. Some of the best contemporary Czech art, in fact, deals precisely with the impossibility of distinguishing reality from illusion, truth from falsehood. This experience is basic and immediate in the life of most Czechs today, and is ironically shared with Western artists facing the complexities of capitalism.

For the most part Westerners have not penetrated to the complexity of Czech art. The intricacies of the country’s life and culture seem to interest us less than our competition with the Soviet bloc, and we and our media have relentlessly manipulated the revolution as a symbol against the Darth Vader of communism. (During a visit to an anticommunist exhibition organized by Hungarians in Budapest, I saw an American family standing in front of a huge Soviet propaganda poster, posing for the camera with their thumbs down.) But the communist exploitation of the Czechoslovakian revolution has been as comprehensive as ours. Some, in fact, including the Prague artists Titlová, Merta, and Václav Stratil, see the past shadowing the present: as Merta says, “Our problem now is how to see the revolution, because it looks as if it didn’t happen through our student demonstration, but rather was planned by the Russian secret police as a plot to help lift their dying economy.” Stratil (a conceptual artist of mystical persuasion who draws words relating to boredom on photographs of his face) feels that the revolution was sanctioned by the communists “as a sacrifice to God, an artistic gift, to purify themselves through bloody work.”8

The paintings of Antonín Střížek, who is also in the Ševčík circle, are both more and less accessible than the paintings of David and Kovanda: these are straightforward, ordinary, even obvious landscapes and still lifes of flowers, fish, birds, shown without the inflation of an accompanying theoretical text or of a studied technique. The absolute banality of these images has a kind of arrogance. Havel has written of an esthetic of banality embedded “in hoary self-satisfaction, that produces a slick, trivial, and predigested image exuding false optimism.”8 Střížek doesn’t live out this kind of vacuity, but sees it immediately enough to want to outline its dimensions. And banality is an important idea to the younger Prague group in general, because — and this may be a Duchampian lesson learned—it offers the possibility of a kind of freedom. Střížek’s employment of banality links nicely with Hlaváček’s ideas on the necessity of finding a common language. Most of these canvases could have been made by a Sunday painter—a cultivated look, certainly, but not a contrived one. Geese, chairs, shoes, often painted in pairs, suggest domestic complacency. They are even comforting to look at, because on first take they don’t challenge. The paintings speak of routine, of everything in its place and all right with the world. This perfect harmony, frozen, not fluid, is a mirror of the petit bourgeois morality in which the Czech social structure remains steeped.

The Ševčíks make great claims for Střížek’s work, connecting his Boty II (Shoe II, 1988), for instance, with Heidegger’s analysis of the Van Gogh painting of his shoes. If we shelve the perhaps predictable theoretical explanation for their banality, the paintings still score on the level of perversity. This odd form of grotesque is perhaps a variant Czech humor. The artist keeps the image simple and spontaneous-looking, in marked contrast to the intellectual calculations of his colleagues Kovanda and David. The Boty painting transforms banality into a kind of lonely order, and walks a fine line between a chosen, thought-out kind of plainness and ordinary artlessness. Žena s Knikoú (Woman with book, 1990), on the other hand, a quotation from Matisse, is irredeemably awkward. Střížek can sustain a dynamic when he works with paired forms, but in more complex structures his work becomes imitative. The artist’s model is Dokoupil, a friend whose sophisticated sense of innocence he seems to emulate. The best of his half-sincere, half-ironic paintings show the Westerner the value of freedom, and what longing means. The worst mistake simplemindedness for simplicity.

Střížek and David share with Kovanda the feeling that, as Kovanda says, “politics is just a layer on top of something. The perception of truth is much deeper. . . . In this sense, truth is more important than some politics.” These artists’ thoughts reflect recent revolutionary slogans like “Truth prevails,” but the complexity of the Czech situation makes them more wary of political moral judgments than are some of their Western counterparts. Titlová points out that “many young artists who emerged in the ’80s and wanted to change the system were the sons and daughters of communists.”10 In a population where 1 out of 15 citizens has worked or is working for the secret police, it is difficult to fortify clear moral lines. As Kovanda remarked of Anselm Kiefer, “He painted the portrait of an important philosopher who was used by Nazi ideology. He didn’t say this is bad or this is good, he just said this is Germany, this is us. There is no morality. It would be immoral if he started to preach.”

Since contemporary Russian art has so successfully invaded Western markets in the last few years, dealers have been scrambling to ferret out the speculative possibilities of other Eastern outposts. Many Czechs believe that the penchant to moralize is precisely the dividing line between their art and that of the Russians. For Merta, the Russians promote an esthetic of high ideals and literalness while the Czechs accept the complexity of life, and incline toward abstraction, distance, and obliquity. The paintings of Komar and Melamid or of Eric Bulatov, for instance, however ironic and sly, take a clear subversive position. To the Czechs, such art seems a self-righteous, dogmatic show of heroics, desirable mainly to a Western art market hungry for souvenirs of failing revolutions. Most young Czech artists avoid direct displays of suffering. As Kovanda asserts, “We don’t want to feel inferior or oppressed. We want to stand as real human beings.” The Czechs have endured repressive pressure, but don’t want to see it become their work’s selling point. A while ago, Merta and Titlová participated in the exhibition “Unofficial Art in Czechoslovakia 1968–89,” in Regensburg, Germany. For the curators, one criterion of being an “unofficial” artist (a few of those chosen were not, in fact, so unofficial) was a history of harassment from the Prague police. The artists themselves had no desire to emphasize that history, but the curators insisted. Experiences like this have left Titlová feeling that “most Westerners only want to see the red star, like some joke on the Communist Party. . . . All of this is very simple.”11

Westerners also continue to discuss the single entity of “Eastern Europe,” as if the separate political, social, and cultural problems confronting each Eastern and Central European country were invisible. There seems to be a desire to see all art from this part of the world as one harmonious front against totalitarianism. It will take a concerted effort to situate each country on the cultural map. Although Czechoslovakia rightly belongs to Central Europe, for example, the Czechs have always looked toward the West, to German and Austrian influences. But the eastern half of the country—the Slovakian republic, with its capital in Bratislava—is culturally distinct, and has an art world of its own (which I did not visit). And even within Prague, Czech art is hardly monolithic. Many artists, for example, reject every part of the Russian political message, but a few, just as keen on pulling themselves out of obscurity, are attracted by Russia’s splash in the post-Modern arena. They want a piece of that cake and will shape their work to reflect the Soviet look so popular in the West. Again, Merta, Titlová, Stratil, and other artists disassociate themselves from the ideology of the Ševčíks, which, they feel, comes dangerously close to the problem of the Russian and American systems: fabricating an avant-garde that claims to reject dogmatic politics, it is itself dogmatic in its emphasis on “correct” praxis.

The contemporary Prague art scene reveals a former monopoly collapsing as independent groups find their voice. Czechoslovakia is anxious to join the post-Modern paradigm, but is checked by the authority of a few. The Ševčíks brought the West to Prague long before the doors were open, but other critics and curators need to be able to express other opinions. Misinformation and indiscriminate appropriation have led to a kind of provincialism. For the most part, Czech artists today are groping through the options of creating a genuine national identity with its own art forms or of donning the Western uniform. The news from America only adds to the confusion: at the same time that Czechoslovakians forge a “third way,” somewhere between capitalism and socialism, for their new government, they are beginning to become aware of problems in the United States—manic commercialism, and, more surprising, government censorship. The Czechs are rightly perplexed at the recent outbreak of bigotry, homophobia, and repression in a country they have considered exemplary of basic human rights. They are discovering that America’s promised land is not as advertised, and that, like everyone else, they enter the world’s duplicitous marketplace at their own risk.

Valerie Smith is a writer who lives in New York.



1. Conversation between the author and Tomáš Ruller, 14 June 1990, Prague.

2. See Václav Havel, “Letter to Dr. Gustáv Husák, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party,” 8 April 1975, in Václav Havel or Living in Truth: 22 Essays Published on the Occasion of the Award of the Erasmus Prize to Václav Havel, ed. Jan Vladislav, Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, in association with Faber and Faber, 1986.

3. Quotations of Ludvík Hlaváček are from a conversation between him and the author, 11 June 1990, Prague.

4. Havel, p. 3.

5. Jiří David, artist’s statement, 2 July 1990.

6. Quotations of Jiří Kovanda are from a conversation between him and the author, 7 June 1990, Prague.

7. Havel, p. 26.

8. Conversation between Vladimír Merta, Margita Titlová, Václav Stratil and the author, 7 June 1990, Prague.

9. Havel, p. 25.

10. Conversation between Titlová and the author, 9 June 1990, Prague.

11. Ibid.