How many exhibition works:
ARTISTS CAUGHT BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN
Opening on April 12th, 2018
7PM in the Gallery
Encounter the original works Lee Freeman collected from cutting edge artists from communist-era Czechoslovakia, art pieces that might have never breathed and prospered without his vigorous determination to bring them across the Iron Curtain.
Brought by the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library with Lee Freeman in person on April 28.
Voices of Czech Modernism: The NCSML’s Freeman Collection
By Beata Patricia Pac for SLOVO Magazine
Along with its grand reopening, the national Czech & Slovak Museum & Library is also celebrating the acquisition of a collection of artwork by nine important Prague-based artists who helped define the trajectory of Czech modern art even as they lived and worked in isolation from the West during decades of Communist repression. Generously donated by long-time collector Lee A. Freeman, Jr., the works features in an exhibit called Artists Caught Behind The Iron Curtain: The Freeman Collection.
Sharing a belief in individual self-expression, artists Václav Boštík, Vladimír Janoušek, Jiří John, Olga Karlíková, Pravoslav Kotík, Daisy Mráková, Jiří Mrázek, Adriena Šimotová and Otakar Slavík eschewed state-sponsored socialist realism and instead produced remarkable paintings, dry-point etchings and sculpture that paralleled developments in the West, despite being cut off from access to information and restricted from exhibiting their works beyond groups of close friends. The exhibition incorporates artworks executed from the 1930s to the 1990s; mainly, however, it focuses on the art of the 1960s – a decade marking a turning point in both political struggles in Czech art.
Over many centuries, Prague has continually reinvented itself, undergoing social and political transformations highlighted by periods of greatness and artistic invention. Since Middle Ages, the city has become known as one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals and a hub for vibrant artistic and cultural expression. Flourishing economically during the 14th century reign of Charles IV, Prague became the third-largest city in Europe and erected Gothic architectural gems like the St. Vitus Cathedral. Later, the city’s architectural landscape was further enriched with the growth of the renowned Czech Baroque style under the rule of the House of Habsburg. The beginning of the 20th century once again marked an important shift as Czech artists embraced new European trends and placed emphasis on the artist’s individuality and intuition. In this climate, Prague, along with Paris, became home to many artists and writers, as well as famed avant-garde movements including Cubism and Surrealism.
Unfortunately, this booming artistic growth and international dialogue came to a sudden halt during World War II and the Communist takeover in 1948. In the 1950s, while Czechoslovakia struggled under the control of a totalitarian regime and faced mounting economic problems, Czech artists worked in forced isolation from the West. They also face difficult career choices in the new era of Stalinist socialist realism where, according to the ruling party’s doctrine, “artistic production (was) an important agent of the ideological and cultural rebirth…destined to play a great role in the socialist education of the masses” (as described in notes from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’s Ninth Party Congress meeting, 1949). Artists who followed these state-mandated principles, in service to the ideas of social progress, were rewarded by government support and opportunities to exhibit their artwork. On the other hand, those who chose to embrace modernism and give preference to free artistic expression faced an uncertain future and lacked access to vital resources. Despite these risks and obstacles, many young Czech artists, including those featured in the Freeman collection, decided to embark on the path of modernism; they refused to compromise with the ruling establishment and instead created artworks that would influence Czech art for generations to come.
Experimentation and individuality
While Czech modernism emerged in tandem with that in the West, its progress and evolution were understandably quite different. Without the presence of commercial galleries, supportive museum or other opportunities to exhibit or sell their work to a wider public audience, Czech artists found themselves in relative isolation. Paradoxically, this lack of professional exposure resulted in an unprecedented emergence of creative freedom and released artists from the marketplace. Furthermore, this isolation negated competition: experimentation was uniquely triggered by each artist’s internal and highly individual experience rather than by the desire to stand out within the modernist discourse.
Czech artists revealed a strong interest in Tachisme, Cubism, Fauvism and Constructivism, the dominant trends of the 1960s. It may seem paradoxical that an interest in older art movement like Cubism or Fauvism emerged again after several decades, but this ongoing preoccupation with the past demonstrates a unique aspect of Czech modernism. Aware of their artistic tradition and limited by their political situation, Czech artists’ creative “adoption” of the past became a source of new stylistic spheres within the country’s confined borders. Abstraction became a common means of expression; the representatives of various movements and generations approached it from different sides, and thus a more personal way of regarding the world prevailed even within this collective orientation.
The work included in Artists Caught Behind the Iron Curtain captures the crucial turning point of the 1960s, as the younger generation of Czech artists began to assert itself against the larger discourse, attempting to reappraise Czech modern art as a whole. The exhibition includes several mid- and late-career works by the renowned Pravoslav Kotík, whose influential career spanned nearly six decades. It is through his earlier 1930s and 1940s works that we can begin to observe a gradual shift toward a more abstracted and expressive style of Tachisme; an artistic movement that drew on the tradition of Surrealism, but was elaborated in an abstract expressionist style as part of larger postwar movement know as Art Informel. Pravoslav Kotík’s son Jan, along with Václav Boštík, became the key figures within Tachisme during the late 1950s and 1960s. In time, Boštík moved away from figurative to abstract forms and symbols and his style revealed an interest in archaic culture and elementary geometric composition as exemplified by the 1967 painting, Structure du carré.
Other artists who looked to the abstract and Art Informel during this time were Jiří John and Olga Karlíková, whose work reveals a widespread 1960s Czech phenomenon of narrowing landscape to abstract “area fields.” In particular, John’s series of prints from 1968 illustrate the artist’s interest in the dematerialization of landscape. This is also evident in the 1971 painting by Karlíková, who composed many of her landscapes from freely overlapping areas of various shades of muted colors.
The 1960s paintings by Jiří Mrázek occupy a comparable position within a larger stream of modernist landscape painting, although Mrázek decisively moves even further toward abstraction. In contrast, Adriena Šimotová’s works are dedicated to the power of human relations. Šimotová explores the motif of relationship through drawing, painting and collage, while the figures and objects she depicts resist being contained within a flat surface and step out their frames into everyday reality.
The artists in this collection found different ways of depicting a common theme: human destiny itself. This shared subject unites the collection while fostering stylist dissimilarity. Every artwork should be recognized as a result of a unique and highly distinct experience. Artists Caught Behind the Iron Curtain: The Freeman Collection allows us to draw back to the Iron Curtain and recognize a few individual voices behind the artistic destinies of Czech modernism.
Czech Center New York at the Bohemian National Hall (between 1st and 2nd Avenue)
321 E 73rd Street
New York, NY 10021