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October 12, 2007

Christie Davies visits Prague and admires the artistic rebels of the 1950s and 1960s: Skupina Maj 57 - The Art Group Maj 57 at the Imperial Stables, Prague Castle

Posted by Christie Davies

Skupina Maj 57 - The Art Group Maj 57
Imperial Stables, Prague Castle
17th August 2007 - 6th January 2008
Daily 10am - 6pm

After the Communist coup in 1948, engineered by Klement Gottwald, Czech art was, officially at least, reduced to stultifying socialist realism. Socialist means oppressive and untruthful and realism means unimaginative. Socialist realism is a combination of these.

Prague even had a monster statue of Stalin towering over the town, with lined up behind him, a worker, a peasant, an intellectual and a soldier. It was nicknamed the meat queue, an appropriate name in a country where agriculture had been wrecked by collectivization, where the price mechanism did not operate and where no hard currency was available for importing meat from other countries.

What is five miles long and eats potatoes?

A meat queue in Prague.
The statue was built between 1950 and 1955, being completed only after Stalin's death. Then, to the Czech leaders' embarrassment, Khruschev denounced Stalin in 1956. In 1962 the statue was quietly, yet very noisily, blown up with explosives.

Today there are still examples of socialist realist art in Czech museums, such as Edouard Stavinoha's Na Projeva K. Gottwald. 21.2.1948/Listening to the speech of K.Gottwald Feb. 21st 1948, 1948. I do not need to describe it to you. It is to be found in Prague's largest museum of nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century art in Veletržní Palac, the Trade Fair Palace along with Alena Cermakova's We Produce More, We live Better, early 1950s. A Czech family enjoy a cornucopia of splendid food; behind them on a bookcase can be seen the collected speeches of Klement Gottwald.

Much of this type of work though has been relegated to the Museum of Communism in the Sylva-Taroucca Palace, where it has become a mere set of political artifacts. It was after all not art but propaganda, though in fairness the skill and imagination with which some items were produced does call for recognition, much as with the art produced under the Nazis. Nonetheless the satirical treatment of socialist realist posters in the Museum of Communism brings home how crass and mendacious most of this work was.

It is against this background that we must feel a keen political admiration for those Czech artists, the Maj 57 artists, who in the mini-thaw after 1956 consciously set themselves apart from socialist realism and exhibited their very own and very deviant work. They went back to the avant-garde Czech traditions that had been established prior to 1948. They also now exhibited works that had been created in the late 1940s and early 1950s but which had previously been kept hidden.

Their art is not in its content directly political. Indeed their work escapes altogether one of the worst aspects of socialist realism - its didacticism. The Maj 57 artists refused to be measured by an external yardstick of any kind. It was their style that was defiant for they embraced the two great artistic crimes as defined by socialist realism - individualism and formalism. These artists were willing to see themselves as independent of society - individualism - and saw their function as artists as being the free resolving of particular artistic problems - what the Reds denounced as formalism. Much of their work also deserves our aesthetic admiration.

In the exhibition at the Imperial Stables, where once the Habsburg horses of old Procházka shat, is a fine selection of the paintings, sculpture and collages of the men and women of Maj 57. As you enter, look out for Zdenék Paler's Dvojice-Milenci/Couple-Lovers, 1957. Two monochrome red asbestos-cement heads with darker insets for eyes and mouth are fastened together and their arms embrace and entwine. As with Sergei Obraztsov's Russian puppets, which also seem to have escaped socialist realism, it is all done by proximity and gesture.

Couple-lovers expresses our private world of the emotions, as does Jiři Martin's Bol/Grief, 1949. A hunched, huddled, withdrawn figure is turned in on itself. The brown arms propping up the face are surrounded by the white of hair and shawl, in turn held within the greater circle of a yellow dress whose circumference nearly meets the frame.

These works transcend realism and they provide a very individual interpretation of eternal themes. They are the antithesis of official socialist realist art. The individual grief is true and has nothing in common with the fake, smiling collective optimism of a parade to cheer the dictator Gottwald. The couple are there for themselves, a social unit that long preceded socialism and remains with us long after socialism's death.

Josef Lebončka's Továrna 1/Factory 1, 1962, is not a shining, polluting contribution to progress of the kind that used to be on the old Czechoslovak bank notes; they used proudly to display pictures of smoking chimneys as if to say where there's money there's muck. Leboncka gives us magical machines out of Paul Klee. There are pressure boilers, cranes and pulleys arranged as a pure arrangement of shapes.

Likewise Karel Vysušil's Krajina (Továrna v Prokoském údolí) /Landscape (Factory in Prokop Valley) is not heroic. It is a factory whose shapes are a necessary part of a boldly painted blue landscape. The factory's hint of a red roof in the centre relieves the blue of the landscape in the same way as the white horizontal meniscus of a cloud above and the vertical green of a tree to the side.

Maj 57 was an eclectic group of many styles. All the artists had in common was a rejection of the official socialist cannon. But that is enough. There are many roads to Heaven and they all lead away from Hell.

It is worth going to Prague just for the glories of the counter-Reformation baroque which show that art can succeed when it has been given a definite purpose and is at the service of an oppressor, in this case the victor of the Battle of the White Mountain. It is worth going just for the art nouveau architectural achievements of the time of Secesní.

Even in 1985 on my first visit to Prague, when the visible fist still ruled, I could revel in these. Today our enjoyment is crowned by the most recent of Czech artistic achievements that can be seen not only in the galleries mentioned above but in the Museum Kampa, the House at the Golden Ring, and the Black Madonna House.

Dr Christie Davies, the author of The Mirth of Nations, first went to Prague to study Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk. As the co-author of The Corporation under Siege, he has since returned by invitation in 2000 and in 2007 to lecture about political economy.

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