Věra Chytilová, Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Jitka Cerhová (Marie I) and Ivana Karbanová (Marie II). Screenplay by Věra Chytilová and Ester Krumbachová.

Věra Chytilová, Sedmikrásky (Daisies), 1966, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes. Jitka Cerhová (Marie I) and Ivana Karbanová (Marie II). Screenplay by Věra Chytilová and Ester Krumbachová.

Ester Krumbachová

House of Arts

Ester Krumbachová (1923–1996) directed only one film, The Murder of Mr. Devil (1970). Yet the Czech director, screenwriter, costume designer, and artist left a significant imprint on a number of Czechoslovak New Wave classics. The best-known among these is Sedmikrásky (Daisies) (1966), on whose screenplay she collaborated with director Věra Chytilová. The creative duo later managed to reunite for The Very Late Afternoon of a Faun (1983), but from the period starting in 1972—amid the delayed aftermath of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, which put an end to the relative creative freedom of the 1960s—Krumbachová was blacklisted from feature films and television. She found refuge mostly in costume design for film and theater in the 1970s and ’80s. Accordingly, curators Edith Jeřábková and Kateřina Svatoňová dedicated a large part of this retrospective exhibition to the display of elaborate costume designs, alongside film clips, complemented by works by contemporary artists invited to respond to Krumbachová’s archive, including Anna-Marie Berdychová, the duo Jan Boháč and Anna Ročňová, and David Fesl, among others. The core of the exhibition, however, had a more personal, at times intimate, character, with archival material, including diaries, letters, playful drawings, paintings, and Polaroid photographs, from Krumbachová’s private estate.

Instead of a retrospective, the exhibition resembled an artist’s or writer’s house museum, providing insight into the rich social and inner life of a personality of a rare caliber, rather than into her work and artistic legacy. Polaroid snapshots—her own or those taken in the 1980s by underground photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková—showed Krumbachová’s bohemian apartment as a haven of freedom filled with friends, cats, parakeets, and more cats, as well as monsteras and other plants. This peek into Krumbachová’s private world, however, allowed the viewer to better estimate her contribution to the collaborative film projects. As an artist and designer, she might be best described as a maximalist, who, in sharp contrast with the austerity often associated with life in socialist Europe, had a penchant for opulence, excess, even camp, and who rejected the seriousness of Minimalism in favor of the magic and playfulness of Surrealism and Pop art. Her recipe collection, testifying to her keen interest in the politics and erotics of cooking and hosting (which would inform elements of the films on which she collaborated, such as the lavish feasts in Sedmikrásky), was an affective archive containing occasional handwritten notes such as “the thing with apples on top that Jana made—they got divorced already.”

Krumbachová herself was twice divorced. The second time was in 1968 from director Jan Němec, with whom she collaborated on films such as A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966). A sharp observer of gendered power dynamics, with the self-irony of a Chris Kraus, she expressed in one of the typewritten texts on view, this one from the 1990s, that she felt embarrassed after reading the manuscript of her autobiography, realizing that she hadn’t written about anything but men, while in fact she’d been thinking of so many other things. In screenplays as well as in her short humorous takes on fairy tales and diary entries, she seems to have turned this embarrassment into a merciless critique of not only warmongering patriarchy but also what she perceived as women’s foolishness, including her own. The exhibition spared Krumbachová the indignity of being reduced to a rediscovered spouse of a famous male artist, although at times she seems instead to be reframed as another stock character, the eccentric cat lady. In homage to her love of felines, adoptable cats also roamed freely through the space. Leaving the exhibition, which presented Krumbachová more through her private archive than through her public work, I had to think of today’s cat memes, which she would have certainly enjoyed, serving as reminders that one’s value is not determined by productivity.