Contemporary Art

The Past

Historically the visibility of Czech art has benefited from the status and development of the City of Prague. The city has consistently been at the centre of European culture owing to both to its geographical location and to its history, as a place that boomed and flourished culturally in mediaeval times, during the reign of Emperor Charles IV, and again in the age of the baroque. Czech gothic and baroque art in particular are of great interest. An exhibition called Charles IV – Emperor by the Grace of God (Karel IV – Císař z Boží milosti), which was jointly organised in 2005–2006 by the Administration of Prague Castle and the Metropolitan Museum in New York and curated by Jiří Fajt. This was one of the most successful exhibitions ever of Czech historical art.

The Academy of Fine Art in Prague (Akademie výtvarných umění) was established in 1799. Czech visual art evolved continuously throughout the 19th century, but it made its next major creative mark during the period of Art Nouveau. Alfons Mucha was a Czech Art Nouveau artist who in the early 20th century was living and working successfully in Paris. An exhibition of the work of August Rodin and Edvard Munch was held in Prague in this period, and both artists had a powerful influence on the art scene. While traditionally Vienna was the artistic hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the early 20th century artists began to look more to Paris, and it was there that František Kupka, a pioneer of abstract art, also settled. An interest in cubism developed, largely thanks to collector Vincenc Kramář, who assembled a unique collection of French modern art (now in the National Gallery in Prague).

Cubism even had an influence on Czech architecture. Devětsil formed in the 1920s and was made up of an esteemed group of artists who embraced constructivism and dadism. Its central figure, Karel Teige, proclaimed the end of the traditional painting and advocated the idea of a ‘picture poem’ instead (collage). Other important figures at this time included Ladislav Sutnar, who was an outstanding graphic designer, and in 1939 moved to the United States and made a name for himself there. Zdeněk Pešánek was a pioneer of light kinetics, combining sculpture, light, colour, and movement in his work, and in the 1930s he equipped Prague with the first kinetic sculpture in the world. Again inspired by Paris, a group of surrealists was formed in 1934, with Jindřich Štýrský and Toyen and others, and this style of art firmly entrenched itself in the Czech art scene. All such artistic associations were however banned when the Communist Party seized power (1948), from which point membership in the Union of Czechoslovak Fine Artists (Svaz československých výtvarných umělců) became the prerequisite for working as an artist, and socialist realism was declared the official style of art.

In the post-war years Vladimír Boudník was an important figure in art. He believed that every person had the gift of imagination, and in the 1950s he staged more than a hundred ‘actions’ in the streets of Prague demonstrating the principle of ‘explosionism’, which were essentially the first ever happenings. Art subsequently developed in the direction of structural abstraction (‘Czech informel’). Key figures included Mikuláš Medek, Jan Koblasa, Jiří Balcar, and Čestmír Janošek.

A cool, mathematically precise yet poetic style of abstraction was the hallmark of artists Zdeněk Sýkora, Karel Malich, Milan Grygar, Stanislav Kolíbal, Václav Boštík, and sculptor Hugo Demartini. By means of complex combinatorics Sýkora brought about the first use of computers in art. In the 1960s, with the thaw in the regime, the Fluxus movement even penetrated the Czech art scene, which provided artists with a link to the Western world (Milan Knížák).

In the normalisation period (the years that followed 1968 and the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops) art sought to grapple with the absurdity of politics and assumed a warped, mocking form. Artistic life became enclosed within the studio, where many unique works of art were nonetheless created (e.g. the work of Adriena Šimotová, sisters Květa and Jitka Válova, Eva Kmentová, Jiří Načeradský, Karel Nepraš, Jiří Sopko, and spouses Vladimír and Věra Janoušek). Jiří Kovanda, currently one of the most successful Czech artists, began his public-space performances at this time in what came to be known as the ‘grey zone’ (i.e. the space occupied by those individuals, e.g. scholars, who worked within the ‘structures’ of the system, i.e. institutions, but were in touch with those who were excluded from these structures, e.g. dissidents).

Up until 1989 exhibitions were put on essentially wherever they could be. Action art was pursued by such artists as Milan Kozelka, Margita Titlová, and Tomáš Ruller, drawing inspiration from physical art. The first group to embrace postmodernist aesthetics called itself Tvrdohlaví. Their visual art reveals few signs of any reaction to experiences of the present day. Although this group is characterised by a vast array of styles, materials, and approaches, it was shaped by the tradition that artists in the next, democratic period emerged out of

The Present

In the 1990s the visual arts evolved against a backdrop of hectic change. Alongside the mental transformation of society, the new freedom to travel, unprecedented access to information, increased multiculturalism, and the introduction of democratic principles into the media, the biggest impact on art after the revolution was society’s adaptation to the mechanisms of capitalism. The commercial side of art was something disturbing for most of the art community. To some extent this problem is still a real issue.

In addition to postmodern painting the 1990s witnessed the conscious development of an outlook in art that scorned beauty and refinement. Vladimír Kokolia and Martin Mainer are two artists that drew particular attention to themselves at this time. Generally put, the result was the destruction of the visual and conceptual integrity of the work – its fragmentation, combining what before could not be combined.

The generation of the 1990s included such artists as Veronika Bromová, Kateřina Vincourová, Jiří Příhoda, Lukáš Jasanský – Martin Polák, Markéta Othová, Federico Díaz, and Jiří Černický. The transition from the 1980s to the 1990s in art is symbolised by the work of David Černý, who situates his work in a public context, seeks to provoke the general public with his creations, and expects the attention of the media (Quo Vadis, 1990, Pink Tank/Růžový tank 1991).

The practise of artists coming together in groups is still alive. Pondělí (Monday) Group (Milena Dopitová, Pavel Humhal, Petr Lysáček, Michal Nesázal, Petr Písařík, Petr Zubek) uses its work to address social issues through private reflection and intimate testimony. It combines handmade or industrially produced objects with photographs and new media. Sometimes the only creative act is the transposition of these creations into an artistic context. In the field of culture, alongside Černý mention should be made of Kateřina Vincourová, Jiří Příhoda, and Lukáš Rittstein. The focus is on site-specific work and the spatial context of presentation. New media and post-conceptual methods became prevalent and painting assumed various forms in these years. Despite some outstanding achievements in the field of abstraction (Petr Pasterňák, Kateřina Štenclová), objectivity and figurativeness came to dominate (Jakub Špaňhel, Jaromír Typlt), but methods such as photo-realistic painting (Roman Franta) also had a place in this period.

In the second half of the 1990s art became more intimate, in but form and expression, or many works were deliberately made not to look like art. The young generation of post-conceptual artists includes figures such as Michal Pěchouček, Ján Mančuška, Kryštof Kintera, Tomáš Vaněk, and Zbyněk Baladrán.

In the first decade of the 21st century the Czech art scene like elsewhere around the globe has seen a variety of artistic opinions and outlooks arise. The generation of the new millennium includes artists such as Evžen Šimera, Daniel Pitín, Jakub Hošek, Ladislava Gažiová, Luděk Rathouský, Jaromír Novotný, Alice Nikitinová, and the duo Vasil Artamonov and Alexej Klyuykov. There are also artists who work under pseudonyms (Masker, Point, Pasta). Cultural centres run by artists have also come to occupy an important place in the art scene (Trafačka, Meetfactory). There have been some remarkable examples of complex conceptual installations, such as the work of Eva Koťátková and Ján Mančuška. Koťátková’s creative work is a means by which she explores her own position. Internationally she is however in a strong position and is one of the most successful Czech artists. Mančuška often works with texts, transforming even a banal description of a situation into an extraordinary tale. One of the figures in the ‘documentary turn’ in Czech art is Zbyněk Baladrán. Socially engaged art has also been gaining ground (in the work of groups such as Rafani, Pode Bal, Guma Guar, Ztohoven). Marek Ther, Jiří Černický, and Alena Kotzmannová, for instance, work in the medium of video. There are almost no examples of sculpture in its pure form among artists of the millennium generation. New sculpture is best represented by the work of Krištof Kintera, Dominik Lang, and Pavla Sceranková. Kinter’s monumental work My Light Is Your Life  (2009) or his monument to suicide victims at the base of Nusle Bridge in Prague titled Of One's Own Volition – Memento Mori(2009–2011) are among the best work to have emerged in recent years. Finally, there are the artists engaged in creating new situations in which they use human relations and needs as their raw material. A typical example of this approach is provided in the projects of Kateřina Šedá.

In the Czech Republic art work is displayed in a variety of institutions, many of which have been left in critical circumstances by budget cuts, or in the underdeveloped sector of private galleries. A strong point is the large number of independent small galleries, but they tend to stand in for the weak network of large public museums of art. The art museums are starting to open up more and work with the public and the private sector, but their dependence on insufficient public funding is impeding their development. Private art galleries in the Czech Republic have also acquired a stronger position abroad.

There are several schools in the Czech Republic that provide an education in the visual arts. The most prominent institutions are the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (Akademie výtvarných umění), the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague (Umělecko-průmyslová škola), and the Faculty of Design and Art in Pilsen (Fakulta umění a designu), and their arts faculties also in Brno, Ostrava, and Ústí nad Labem. The art prize that garners the most attention in the country is the Jindřich Chalupecký Award (Cena Jindřicha Chalupeckého/CJCH), which has been handed out every year since 1990 to artists aged 35 and under. The organisation behind the award recently joined forces with a private sponsor – a bank – and ArtIndex 2014 and 2015 were drawn up, listing the current top 100 most successful Czech artists. This development is itself a sign that the art scene and the art market are moving closer together. The Czech art scene is divided into public, independent, and commercial art, but as a whole it has much to offer.  

Source: Pavlína Morganová (© Czech Contemporary Art Guide)
Editor: Lucie Ševčíková, Arts Institute
Translation: Robin Cassling