Perspectives, Real & Imaginary

by John P. Jacob

Perspectives, Real & Imaginary: Czechoslovakian Photography at FotoFest 1990 by John P. Jacob

“Where political activity is severely restricted, cultural endeavor takes its place.” Vaclav Havel, 1990.

The presentation of Czechoslovakian photography at FotoFest in the exhibition “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary,” was a significant accomplishment. Selected by FotoFest directors Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, with a color catalogue printed in Prague by the Czechoslovak import/export agency Art Centrum, the exhibition was installed in Houston by the artists and was accompanied by a statement of encouragement from Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel. Given the recent changes in Central Europe, during the course of which artists have, in certain instances, risen from banishment to leadership, the exhibition must surely be seen by all who participated in its development as an event worthy of celebration.

The scale and immediacy of the events that resulted in the toppling of the structures of cultural repression in Central Europe at the close of the 1980s distinguished this exhibition from others at FotoFest. Such a distinction is heightened by the dramatic shift in perception that is required of viewers, aware, perhaps for the first time since 1968, of the currency of Czechoslovak imagery. The grim circumstances of the last twenty years, during which these images were made, all but disappeared behind the present historical moment. This erasure of the past is exacerbated by the location of the FotoFest in the massive George R. Brown Convention Center. Still, in the presence of liberation, and in the midst of celebration, one is hesitant to call the ghosts of history back to life. To recall the past is to dig for the meaning of these images in the “cultural cemetery” from which they have emerged.[1] To imagine how differently we might have received these images had they come to us in the pre- “velvet revolution” period during which they were both made and selected, but from which their presentation here separates them, is to question the intentions of the exhibitions’ organizers from the outset of their negotiations, several years ago.

Negotiations for “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary” began in less pleasant times for Central European culture. It was a time when cultural ministries controlled culture, and administrators, not art historians, decided who and what could be exhibited where. Visas for artists to travel to exhibitions in the West could be obtained only with daily payments of hard currency, or through the commitment of a Western institution to purchase “X” number of the artist’s works for “Y” number of dollars. Only two years ago the Czechoslovak born art historian Meda Mladek wrote, “In accordance with official policy, only Czechoslovak institutions – rather than anyone from abroad – have the authority to determine which artists qualify for art shows abroad. There is no institution, however, willing to provide an interested foreigner with objective information. Since 1969, there has been no single art review dealing with contemporary art. There is not one independent art gallery; museums are expected to buy only from official approved artists. Only occasionally do they manage to include into the bargain art works by other, genuinely creative artists. These art works, if passed by the official committee, have never decorated the walls of Czechoslovak museums. They are exhibited only with the yearly acquisitions and then put into storage… From time to time an artist may succeed in installing an exhibition of his work on a modest scale in small, remote towns, or in the halls or courtyards of some scientific institution in Prague.”[2]

Exhibitions that came to the United States from the nations of the Soviet Bloc between the 1960s and the 1980s were presented as emerging from limitation and repression, and as controlled by Soviet cultural direction. Such rare Western media coverage of cultural phenomena as the fanfare surrounding the “Manezh event,” (Moscow, 1962) when Krushchev denounced an exhibition of works by a group of experimental artists, and the “Bulldozer Show,” (1974) when an open-air exhibition in Moscow was bulldozed and burned, presented artists working in the Soviet Bloc as fundamentally motivated by political concerns, and as divided by their struggle to either promote or resist the state.[3] The cultural identities of nations vanished behind the political identity of the Bloc.

By the 1970s, Soviet and Eastern European cultural activity had come to be understood in the rigidly simplified terms of “official” versus “unofficial” artists. Throughout the 1970s, exhibitions of private collections of contemporary artworks from the Soviet Union and the nations of the Bloc perpetuated this simplification, presenting artists unified in their struggle against the restrictions of the socialist state and against the repression of their cultural heritage. When all else failed, Western institutions could always be assured of getting the attention of their audiences by offering amusing or anecdotal, self-denigrating representations of social backwardness. Such highly charged representations of culture within socialism, while often based in truth, had the additional benefit of reassuring viewers of the superiority of American cultural institutions.

Most viewers of “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary” have been subject to the sort of media manipulation that has, for the last twenty years, publicly promoted dissident art from the Soviet Bloc as part of an institutional effort to undermine the morale of “official” artists. In “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary,” as in such media manipulations of Soviet and Central European experience, viewers were provided with scant information on the basis of which to form meanings. Wall labels, indicating which photographs belonged to which artists, were conspicuously absent during the important first week of FotoFest. The exhibition’s wall text and the brief essay in the catalogue that accompanies it refer to artistic movements of the past and to Czechoslovak film and literature of the last “several decades,” yet the concrete social and political context in which this work is grounded is not mentioned. The selection of specific works by this particular group of artists, over numerous others, is not explained. Without such information, the photographs presented are interpreted as aesthetic signs marking the triumph of culture (democracy) over anti-culture (communism), an “a priori division of art,” as Havel noted in 1984, that is “rather dangerous.”[4] Although it is true that many artists suffered under the control of the communist Party in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe, and that resistance to their cultural hegemony was forbidden in the visual arts, it is neither the liberation of creative expression in these photographs nor the physical circumstances of their making that is of issue here. This distinction is critical to comprehension of the revisionist interpretation of Czechoslovak cultural history presented in “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary.” It is not the content of the photographs in the exhibition, but the process of purification through hardship, of which they are but mementos, that is significant. It is not, as the promotional material for the exhibition proclaims, the resonant “Czech-ness” of these photographs that is represented in “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary,” Rather, “Perspectives” is a reaffirmation of the Modernist spirit through re-appropriation of Central European culture. Presented as the salvaged legacy of realist, symbolist, and surrealist traditions, contemporary Czechoslovak photography is returned to the privileged place in Western European history from which is had been hijacked.

Within the schema of cultural salvage the influence of the Communist Party upon Czechoslovak culture is effectively buried in this exhibition; it is as if communism were some sort of deep freeze from which the photographic ideals of pre-war Europe have emerged unscathed after a long slumber. The immediate past in which they were made, the powerful political orientation that informs many of these photographs, is subverted by their presentation. Historical context is denied, with the result that artists and audience come together at the moment of salvage and transition, at the “still point of the turning world” where, as T.S. Eliot has written, “time past and time future allow but a little consciousness.”[5] The past is unknown, the future unknowable.

An especially poignant example of the obfuscation of context is the presentation of the work of Pavel Stecha. Mr. Stecha’s “Cottage Owners, 1970-1985,” is an amusing series of before and after diptychs made over long periods of time. The first photograph in each pair depicts a plan or idea for future development; a tree being planted or a cottage designed on paper. The second photograph, often made many years later, reveals the accomplishment of the goals of the first; the tree full grown or the completed cottage. Of this series Mr. Stecha has said, “I once did a show of pictures of weekend houses. Now that doesn’t sound political, but it was, because they were built at a time when you couldn’t even stay at a hotel in this country.”[6]

“Cottage Owners” shows the value of nurturing a beloved ideal over a period of time when such values are threatened, using the growth of trees and the construction of houses as metaphors for Czechoslovakian culture. Yet in “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary,” photographs from the series are presented as single instead of paired images. The diptychs have been broken down, and from them single images have been selected for their “decisive moment” qualities. Thus, not only has the relationship of the project to real time (specific events) in Czechoslovak history been subverted, but also any possible connection of the audience to that relationship and consequently to those events. What we receive from the presentation of “Cottage Owners” is not an understanding of the artist or his circumstances, but the pleasant feeling of recognition through emphasis of style over meaning.

The curatorial emphasis on individual artists and their “decisive moments” in “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary” is especially ironic. In Czechoslovakia, as in other Central European nations, groups of artists continue to form “schools” based on aesthetic, philosophical, and political ideals. “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary” is dominated by advocates of “social documentary” photography. Yet discussion of the important historical connection of this contemporary “group work” to the movements with which the curators seek to tie these artists (surrealism, constructivism, cubism) is missing.[7] It is therefore no surprise that “Perspectives, Real or Imaginary” also fails to recognize the anti-Bresson trend in Czechoslovak social documentary photography, as expressed in Vladimir Birgus’ manifesto “The Undecisive Moment” (1978) and the work of such groups as Dokument (Document; also the name of an inexpensive, light weight photographic paper often used in book making) and Oci (Eyes). The anti-Bresson stance of the social documentarians revealed an implicit rejection of the “excessive aestheticism” of Western photographic practices, as exemplified in the concept of “decisive moments.”[8] Composed largely of professional photographers and photographic instructors at FAMU, the Prague Film Academy, the social documentarians were powerfully influential. The style of photography that they advocated was, as Dr. Antonin Dufek has written, the strongest “creative stream” in Czechoslovakian photography from the early 1970s until the mid-80s.[9]

Emerging from within the official mainstream (the film academy) in a time of severe restriction, Czechoslovak social documentary photography represents simultaneously a rejection of Western photographic trends and a brilliant reworking of the tenets of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism proposed that artists should strive for a practice capable of putting art back in touch with life, of reflecting the “truth” of socialist reality. In reflecting that truth, however, Czechoslovak social documentarians quickly transcended the bureaucratic limits of state defined culture. Thus, social documentarians like Pavel Stecha formed a movement of resistance working from within FAMU, the seat of photographic culture.

As a result of the consolidation of its practitioners, the strength of contemporary Czechoslovak photography is distinguished less by any stylistic unity than by the ideological cohesion of an emergent avant-garde. Like their peers in the Jazz Section of the Union of Czechoslovak Musicians, the group of artists that developed within and around FAMU supported cultural activities where the Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture was incapable of providing support. As a direct result of this nurturing, artists like Miro Svolik and Peter Zupnik, as well as others not represented here like Ivan Kafka and Dzieter Toth, have been able to branch out in new directions, using photography as a single element within larger, conceptual projects.

The photographic work of the group of artist represented in Houston is distinctly Czechoslovakian; it may be understood only in terms of the circumstances in which it was created. That these photographs are familiar formally, that they are rectangular black and white documentary style images, guarantees that viewers will appreciate distinct elements in their construction. Deprived of information concerning the social and political circumstances of their making, however, as we are in “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary,” it is impossible for viewers to distinguish the relationship of familiar signs to others distinctly foreign. It is impossible, consequently, to distinguish the points at which Czechoslovak photography departs from Western and from socialist aesthetic traditions to ally itself with specifically Czechoslovakian concerns.

The blending together of distinct cultures, a sort of equalizing through photography, is reflected throughout FotoFest, and is a direct result of the overall design of the event. Attempting to come up with a creative solution to the oppressive, mall-sized convention center in which the FotoFest was housed, the designers devised a system of tunnels constructed of Styrofoam. One enters FotoFest through such a tunnel. Its walls were painted black. Light penetrated the darkness of the tunnel through cut out sperm shapes swimming towards the center. At the end of this long, active, male space, one entered the “nucleus” of the FotoFest, a circular resting place with circular tables and walls reminiscent of Stonehenge. From this mystical egg sac numerous long halls shoot out in every direction, apparently symbolizing the creative burst that occurs when the masculine and feminine energies of photography converge.

It was clearly the goal of the designers of FotoFest to bring the numerous exhibitions housed together in a single space as a cultural event rather than an art fair. Yet FotoFest is indeed an art fair, sponsored by Kodak and bracketed at either end by the meeting of AIPAD (Association of International Photography Art Dealers) and the FotoFest Book Fair and International Publishing Conference. Its design, focusing crassly upon the mystical/sexual activities of picture making and viewing, implied that those activities are more pure than promoting and selling. The purity of vision, whether the photographer’s or the audience’s, was paramount. Context was abandoned. In long, parallel lines against white walls, thousands of uniformly matted prints blended together unanimously to form the event of FotoFest. The prestige of participation in the group was obtained through complete subversion of individual intention, or meaning.

The histories and the intentions of the artists whose photographs are presented in “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary” are left untold. The question “Why?” for example why “although ranking among the best contemporary photojournalists, [Viktor Korar] has not been given the opportunity to publish in magazines” is never posed.[10] Why is there a photograph of a Communist Party congress placed at the center of Zdnek Lhotka’s series of photographs of mud covered soccer players? It is not clear whether this is an accident of installation, or an overt political statement. What is the meaning of Jiri Polacek’s series of night photographs of streets and sidewalks devoid of people? Has the artist chosen to work at night, or was his decision forced upon him? Why is the infamous nightlife or Prague absent from his pictures?

Jaroslav Barta’s photographs reveal architectural decay: layers of bricks still standing while decorative plaster deteriorates. Are these photographs simply abstracts, or do they represent Prague as an elaborate urban stage constructed for Western tourism, as one Czechoslovak artist described it to me, behind which the drama of Czech history is hidden? Dusan Palka’s street photographs repeatedly show blind walkers shown making embarrassing trouble for sighted pedestrians. Are Palka’s photographs just for bad jokes, or are they metaphors for the blind determination of artists and opposition? How, after all, did the “conceptual” work of Miro Svolik and Peter Zupnik emerge from the school of social documentary photography with which it is presented here? Without contextual information viewers are incapable of asking such questions, and without such questions we are incapable of forming anything but aesthetic responses to these photographs.

Finally, it is important to question the degree to which the formula of this exhibition has served the Gernscheim Collection at the University of Texas in their bid to purchase these works. Negotiations with Czechoslovak cultural authorities took place at a time of severe stress in the Czechoslovakian economy, when the value of the dollar towered over that of the Czech Korun. Thus, even contemporary “classics” of Czechoslovakian photography, like the photographs in “Perspectives, Real and Imaginary” has significantly increased the value of the Gernscheim Collection’s investment. The gloss of the Modernist legacy that accompanies the exhibition, minus the political context from which these photographs have come to us, nullifies the stigma attached to acquiring work by communists that has prevented the Gernscheim Collection and collections like it from recognizing the work of such Western groups as the Photo League.

In the context of its presentation at FotoFest, Czechoslovak photography is not represented as an independent movement of aesthetic resistance emerging from within socialism, but as the prodigal son of Western tendencies. Had this exhibition come to us prior to the “Velvet Revolution” this representation might have satisfied; any discussion of the circumstances of the last twenty years would have appeared a political gesture, insulting to the Czechoslovakian cultural authorities and dangerous for the artists involved. The failure of “Perceptions, Real and Imaginary” is that these photographs have come to us from a free Czechoslovakia. Today, for the first time, we may know the truth about these artists and their pictures. We may speak of “the special role that culture plays in [Czechoslovakia],” of artists who “articulated the will of the people” there.

The Directors of FotoFest have brought nineteen of Czechoslovakia’s finest contemporary photographers to Houston. After we finish celebrating, however, we will find that the life behind their pictures remains unknown.

1. Heinrich Boll, Dagens Nyhter, Stockholm, 12/9/72.
2. Meda Mladek, “Speakeasy,” New Art Examiner, Chicago, p.14.
3. John Berger discusses the Manege event in Art and Revolution, New York, p.81. A thorough discussion of the Manege event and the Bulldozer Show may be found in Igor Golomshtock’s text “Artistic Life in the Soviet Union,” in Soviet Émigré Artists: Life and Work in the USSR and the United States (New York, 1985).
4. Vaclav Havel, “Six Asides About Culture,” in Besieged Culture: Czechoslovakia Ten Years After Helsinki (Stockholm 7 Vienna: the Charta 77 Foundation for Human Rights Inc., 1985) p.139.
5. T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971) p.16.
6. Barbara Karkabi, “The ‘Velvet Revolution,” The Houston Chronicle, 2/10/90, p.11.
7. See Valerie Smith’s Metaphysical Visions, Middle Europe (New York: Artists Space, 1989) for discussion of contemporary artists’ groups working in Central Europe.
8. Dr. Antonin Dufek, “Creative Photography in Czechoslovakia,” 27 Contemporary Czechoslovakian Photographers (London: Photographer’s Gallery, 1985) p.6.
9. Dufek, p.6.
10. Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss, Choice: Nineteen Contemporary Czechoslovak Photographers (Prague: Art Centrum 1990) n.p.

John Jacob is an artist, writer, and curator who has worked extensively in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.