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How the history of contemporary art in Middle Europe developed …


The Forties / Fifties

• The international exhibition of surrealism, Le surréalisme en 1947, was held in the Maeght Gallery in Paris. It was visited by the upcoming generation of Czech artists (Mikuláš Medek, Zbyněk Sekal, Zdeněk Palcr and others) during their trip with the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. The exhibition was repeated in a reduced form in the Topič’s Salon in Prague at the end of this year.

• Surrealist Group RA was founded and held their first and only collective exhibition. These events marked revival and continuation of the extremely strong and influential tradition of Czech Surrealism in the new socio-political conditions after World War II.

Vladimír Boudník published the “Manifesto of Explosionalism.” He presented numerous actions (pre-happenings) in the fifties on the streets of Prague, until his suicide in 1968. With his street events in the years 1949–1956, Boudník became a kind of Czech pioneer of happenings. Boudník demonstrated the “mighty power” of art on peeling walls. They were shows for passers-by.
Śmidrove club (or the Šmidras group) was founded by Jan Koblasa, Bedřich Dlouhý, Karel Nepraš, and started to organize post dada-surrealists, un-official events, and organized Malmuzherciády exhibition non-art project.

The Sixties

First two un-official exhibitions titled Confrontation I and II had been organized. I: Zdenek Beran, Vladimír Boudník, Cestmír Janošek, Jan Koblasa, Antonín Málek, Jiří Valenta, Aleš Veselý, Antonín Tomalík; II: V. Křížek, Zbyšek Sion, Karel Kuklík and Jirí Putta) were held in Jiří Valenta’s studio in March, and in Aleš Veselý’s studio in October of the same year. Such unofficial exhibitions were organized throughout the period of post-World War II Czechoslovakia.
Křižovnická škola čistého humoru bez vtipu = Crusaders’ School of Pure Humor Without Jokes (The Crusaders School in short) had been formed and named, which means institutionalized, because the group used to meet since 1958 in the restaurant U Křižovníků = At Crusader, Old Town of Prague, until 1974. The group had loose composition, and not only the artists participated, rather it was a social group of friends (called The Order). The leaders were Karel Nepraš and Jan Steklík. The group was highly inspired by Jaroslav Hašek, both his literature, and biography in order to continue the dada and surrealist approach of blurring art and life.
First street actions (happenings) in Czechoslovakia by Milan Knížák. He often called his (or group) actions a ‘demonstrations’ in reference to political activities
• The Aktuální umění = Actual Art, a social group of friends was founded and animated by Milan Knížák in Prague, together with Jan Mach, Vít Mach, Sonia Švecová, Jan Trtílek and Robert Wittmann. From 1966 acting as The Aktual. The group brought together not only artists but also musicians and poets. The group organized and performed street actions, concerts, mail art exchange, and issued samizdat Actual Art. Both Knížák’s individual and group actions formed The Actual Movement, until 1968. Then Knížák went to the USA and came back in 1970.

• Vỳstava D = D Exhibition in The New Hall in Prague showed a great variety of post-war abstraction (Jiří Balcar, Vladimír Boudník, Josef Istler, Cestmír Janošek, Jan Koblasa, Mikuláš Medek, Karel Nepraš, Robert Piesen, Zbyněk Sekal, Jiří Valenta, Aleš Veselý). Veselý exhibited his object The Chair Usurper which was awarded the Critics’ Prize at the 4th Biennial of Young Artists in Paris.

• Jindřich Chalupecký appointed director of the Václav Špála Gallery in Prague, until 1970. It was the period of the greatest importance of this gallery for the development of contemporary art in Czechoslovakia. Chalupecký was an influential art critic, he linked Czechoslovak artists with Fluxus, and introduced Marcel Duchamp to the art public by organizing his exhibition in 1969, and publishing samizdats on Marcel Duchamp art. The art gallery has existed under this address since 1916, until today. Since 1959, it has been named after Czech modernist artist Václav Špála.

• Milan Knížák was appointed by George Maciunas the Director Fluxus East.

• Allan Ginsberg visited Prague, and was appointed King of Mayales (a yearly students celebration) which proved that the beatnik generation culture was highly influential in Czechoslovakia of that time.

• October, Milan Knížák organised in Prague first Fluxus concert in Czechoslovakia, with participation of Ben Vautier, Jeff Berner, Alison Knowles, Serge Oldenbourg, and Dick Higgins.

• First happenings by Eugen Brikcius in public spaces in Prague: Achilles a želva = Achilles and the Tortoise (1966) – a reconstruction of Zeno’s aphorism of Achilles and the Tortoise at Prague Castle in front of the Queen Anne summerhouse; Pivni zátiší= Beer still life (1967) – action with beer, Kampa, Prague; Díkůvzdání= Thanksgiving (1967) – action with bread at the Great Fürstenberk Garden, Prague; Neprava svatba= Fake wedding (1968) – a false wedding at Town Hall, Square of Havlíček, Prague; Linky po Praze= Lines around Prague (1970) – a large piece of clothes stretched over various places in Prague.


The Seventies

• Jindřich Chalupecký published samizdat Marcel Duchamp and the Fate of Modern Art.

• Petr Štembera and Tom Marioni performed together a piece Joining in Prague.

• Around the mid-seventies the Czech body-artists (Petr Štembera, Karel Miler, Jan Mlčoch) began to organize performance soirées for a small circle of invited viewers, in a various secret places in Prague, until the end of the seventies.

February 21, the second festival of the un-official culture was held in Bojanovice as a delayed wedding party for Juliana Stritzková and Ivan Jirous “Magor,” who was an artistic director of The Plastic People of the Universe band, founded in 1968. All musicians, and other participants ended up in custody. The trial of the band members sparked a great sympathy among non-conformist Czechs, and a petition was written protesting against this act of human rights violation. This gave impetus to the formulation of the Declaration of Charter ‘77 issued a year later. Jirous was arrested several times, and was released from prison only on November 25, 1989, as the last political prisoner in Eastern Bloc countries. The Plastic People of the Universe played rock inspired by Frank Zappa, but their concert took the form of dada-like music performances, and their lyrics were based on anarchic poetry of protest. They were very socially influential as an un-official cultural institution, it was Jirous himself who coined the term ‘second culture.’ His samizdat Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival, 1975, became a programmatic statement of the Czech un-official culture.
First conceptual and performative use of TV monitor in Czech art by Vladimír Ambroz, TV-look and TV-piece, presented in Brno (documented on photographs). His 1980 Mediaman, TV media performance in Brno is recorded on video was lost.
• Jindřich Štreit, a photographer, founded a private gallery in Sovinec, a village north-east of Brno, until 1989. It was a place for plein-air, outdoor activity, land art and place related works, performances and music concerts.

• Milan Kozelka and Václav Stratil start to organize meetings at Temple street, Old Town of Prague.


The Eighties

Fine art Symposium in Malechov commune in a private house, existed 1979–1981, give rise to the exhibitions in public spaces: Mala Strana Courtyards (1981), Old Town Courtyards (1982), Tennis Courts (1982), Hop Garden in Mutějovice (1983). All of them meet with censorship and Police interventions.
Jindřich Chalupecký published samizdat A Fate of an Artist in the Modern Age: Duchampian Meditations.
• First video works by Tomáš Ruller; Smashing My Sculpture & Burning My Drawings; interactive video-installation Live Loop; first multimedia-performance Be-Tween, in collaboration with My a co. group & Via Lucis optophonic ensemble (1984 censored, in 1985 criminalized).

• Galerie H = H Gallery was established by Hůla brothers, Jiří and Zdenek, in their family house in Kostelec nad Černými Lesy near Prague, until 1988. Since 1989 operates as an archive, now as the Fine Art Archive association, and database abArt, located in Prague, specialized on Czech publications and collecting books, exhibition catalogs, invitations cards, journals, photographs, illustrations and any type of printed matters.

Confrontations of Contemporary Artists of youngest generation was held in Jiří David’s studio in Prague as the first of sixth editions organized until 1987, always in different places: in Kladno, 1985; Prague-Smíchov and in Svárov, 1986; Prague-Vysočany, 1987.
• Jindřich Chalupecký published samizdat New Art in Bohemia.

• Tomáš Ruller performed his piece titled 8.8.88 as a gesture of freedom against the censorship of his exhibition, and to commemorate The Three Torches, a person who committed self-immolation acts in protest against suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. The artist set his clothes as a final stage of his performance. The action was recorded by Original Video Journal, a samizdat on videotapes.

Open Situation – Europen Project international performance festival curated by Tomáš Ruller in Prague, under the umbrella of Mir Caravane European theatre tour. Black Market (Nieslony, Klassen, Van Poppel, Vaara, Fritz, Piotrowski, and Ruller) hosted Stuart Brisley, Alastair MacLennan, Monty Cantsin & Christa Goddess.

The Nineties

• January 8, Milan Knížák became the rector (chancellor) of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, until 1997.

• May 27, the Jindřich Chalupecký Award for young Czech fine artists aged less than 35 was established by Václav Havel, Jiří Kolář and Theodor Pištěk.

On the night of the April 27/28, David Černý and his friends painted pink the Monument to Soviet Tank Crews on the Štefánikovo Square, Prague-Smíchov.
January 1, the Gallery of Fine Arts in Olomouc was renamed as the Olomouc Museum of Art and started operations on Denisova Street. It was established as a museum of Central European Art, the purpose of which is to collect and present contemporary art of the region.
• January 1, Rudolfinum Gallery opened.

• Malamut Action Art Festival was founded in Ostrava by Jiří Surůvka and Petr Lysáček. Until 1999 it was held every year. After a few years break, since 2007 it has resumed as a biennial, and is organized until today. Un-official art of the eighties goes public.


(compiled by Štěpánka Bieleszová and Ladislav Daněk; consultation Tomáš Ruller)

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