Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Young Czechs re-evaluating communist-era public art

By Anthony Hennen | Prague Daily Monitor |
15 August 2017

The Czech Republic and Slovakia are rich with public artwork created during the communist era, but its connection with the communists has ruined its appeal. Younger Czechs, however, have challenged the public's disregard for the art. They argue that it is more than communist propaganda, and want to save what's left.

Thousands of statues, murals, monuments, and mosaics remain in various stages of disrepair across the Czech lands. When the communists ordered new construction projects, funds were set aside for artwork. The artists were commissioned from the Union of Czechoslovak Artists or artists registered at the Czech Fund of Visual Arts. The result was a cooperation between artists and architects.

Younger Czechs have catalogued them and developed a nuanced understanding of their artistic value and historical meaning. Among the Warsaw Pact countries, Czechoslovakia’s public art was unique, and letting the art decay, in their eyes, amounts to losing an important chapter of Czech art history.

Artist Pavel Karous started the “Aliens and Herons” project to document, preserve, and popularize the artworks. The result was a community that shares pictures of the artwork, a book that serves as an index and history of the art, and a map that marks art across the former Czechoslovakia.

Jana Kořínková, a Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Brno and a lecturer there, became interested in the works through her studies of artwork in public spaces. She and a partner did field research, “literally just going and mapping, taking pictures … just for fun,” before it spiraled into a larger project that was similar to Karous’ research.

Previously, a gap existed in the knowledge of Czech art and architecture under communism. The modernist artists and designers entered into the state-controlled artistic organizations and changed their style to comply with state dictates. “Functionalism – it was forbidden for being cosmopolitan,” Kořínková said. “Beginning in 1949, socialist realism was enforced to all parts of cultural life.”

Cosmopolitan styles were bourgeois, a remnant of the capitalist era. Modernists who continued to work in public, then, had to conform to state aesthetic demands.

“It’s just a palimpsest in the architecture history,” she said. After the fall of communism, the communist-era art was forgotten in favor of interwar cultural activities or post-communist art. Rather than evaluating the art on its merits, it was blackballed.

The art can be divided among roughly three eras: the imposition of socialist realism throughout the 1940s and 1950s, liberalization after the denunciation of Stalin in 1956 and greater freedoms through the 1960s, then normalization after 1968 through the 1970s and 1980s. As each artwork had to be submitted for approval, artists adapted to the demands of the censors.

In practice, designs tended to be extremely ideological or as apolitical as possible. Statues of communist leaders and theorists, of Soviet soldiers liberating the Czech people, and similar themes became the norm. Abstractions that represented flight, space, music, or innocuous statues of birds, gymnasts, and mothers were popular for artists who preferred to create “non-ideological” art.

Any public awareness of the art has come from grassroots efforts. Cataloging, maintaining, and restoring the art is a low priority for the Czech government.

“I blame the National Heritage Institute on the non-existent strategy [for preservation],” Kořínková said. In the last five years, however, with more grassroots activity, the institute has been opening up to preservation efforts. “It seems to me that something has changed within the institute. From time to time, they show some effort, but the Ministry [of Culture] is very reluctant,” she said.

The lack of government interest in preserving the art might not be the overriding problem, though.

“The biggest obstacle in the attempt to protect it is unclear ownership. Often it is uncertain who the works actually belong to,” Tomáš Pospiszyl wrote in “Sculptures Which Do Not Belong to Anyone,” an essay in Aliens and Herons. “I think that this sentence not only expresses their legal status, but also their place in our culture.”

Transitioning into a market system and restoring property rights isn’t frictionless, and responsibility for the artworks wasn’t finalized. The situation in Brno is better than in Prague, as the cultural office has a renovation budget for the artworks, but only if they are public property. In Prague, however, “they don’t know what they have,” Kořínková said. Without cataloging the artwork, and knowing who owns what, creating a budget for preserving and restoring the art won’t have a big effect.

In the absence of clear ownership, responsibility has fallen to artists, academics, and amateur hobbyists. They’re picking mushrooms, Kořínková said, finding the artwork covered by overgrown bushes, forgotten on a neglected wall, and moved to dark corners of parks. A number of times, artists’ families paid to restore the works themselves.

After the fall of communism, the ideological art mostly disappeared from public view. It’s a difficult — if not impossible — task to find statues of Lenin or other communists on display in Bohemia and Moravia. Even so, the non-ideological art is viewed with suspicion. The public wants to forget it, and elected officials don’t prioritize preservation.

“How can abstract art be propaganda?” Kořínková asked.

Regardless, the perception remains. In many instances, artists worked in constrained circumstances to create art that couldn’t be used as state propaganda. The communist-era art is tainted by the government that approved them.

The art has been called “parachute art,” referring to the communists deciding where it would go with no local input, nor were locals told of the meaning behind the public art. Now, however, the art can lose its original context. Construction and changing neighborhoods threaten to destroy the art’s significance.

In the Bohunice neighborhood of Brno, for example, a monumental work has lost its context. “Cosmos,” a work of five segments of a circle painted bright orange, was designed with the idea of the gods throwing the disks from heaven to the earth.

Once standing alone in a field surrounded by apartment buildings, the space is now crowded with a playground, floorball rink, and running track. Rather than dominating the space, it blends in. Once, it was monumental. Now, it’s ornamental.

That loss might seem trivial, but it’s destructive to cultural memory and history.

“Analyses of this cultural heritage are important … as contributions to one of the key questions facing us today, i.e. to the understanding of the continuities and discontinuities between the past and the present,” Pospiszyl wrote.

Twenty-eight years after the fall of communism, the artwork is finally getting a more comprehensive evaluation of its place in Czech society. For those who value it, the goal is preservation, if not respect.

“My next mission, it will be a very futile attempt … I’d like to have a depository established for unwanted works of art in the public space to be able to be stored there and wait for enlightened architects to incorporate them once again in architecture,” Kořínková said.

She’s pessimistic about gaining support for her idea. “It’s a utopia,” she said, laughing.

Recently, Prague City Hall has discussed the creation of a sculpture park, removing communist-era statues to a location outside the city center. Artists, however, are concerned. One reason is that politicians would be part of the committee to evaluate which artworks should be saved.

If a “park of fallen monuments” gets created, it could introduce Czechs and tourists to a forgotten era of Czech art. In the process, though, it could remove the art from the daily lives of people — and its local context.

Anthony Hennen is an American master's student in Prague. You can follow his Twitter account (@anthonyhennen) or visit his website (www.anthonyhennen.com) to read more of his articles.

Visit Prague Monitor's Photo Gallery for examples of communist art in Czechoslovakia.