The museum tells it how it was

This text was originally published by The Critic.

A few years ago, a Chinese property development firm decided to turn North Greenwich, the site of the Millennium Dome and a former industrial wasteland, into a thriving residential and entertainment district. Before they broke ground on even a fraction of the promised homes, restaurants, and artist studios, a billboard betrayed the planners’ idea of the place. “Neighbourhoods need traditions”, it proclaimed. “So let’s invent some!” It didn’t matter that North Greenwich, or the ‘Peninsula’, as it is now branded, had neither character nor history. The developers would employ an artist, the gentrifier’s best friend, to fabricate them and punters wouldn’t know the difference. And it worked: North Greenwich today is home to a familiar, if generic blend of galleries and pop-up design markets that support a thriving chain restaurant and buy-to-let property scene.

I spent July in Prague as a writer-in-residence at an arts centre on the industrial outskirts of the city that look like the Peninsula did before its gentrification. This locale is unusual against the otherwise fairy-tale architecture of the capital city steeped in history and tradition. But in many ways, the Czech Republic itself is Europe’s North Greenwich. The country is barely thirty years old in its current iteration, its earlier 20th century defined by acts of non-heroism and a glorious imperial past that isn’t entirely its own. And if Milan Kundera’s novels teach us anything about history, it’s that small nations don’t get to make claims on it. At a time when historical reckoning is the trendy pastime of Western societies, this might be a harsh but fair description. How does one produce a marketing slogan for a story like that?

The Czechs are renowned for shaping their national ethos through literature and theatre and Václav Havel was only one of the nation’s many influential writer-statesmen. But the visual arts have contributed their part too. The National Gallery in Prague, the Czech equivalent of Tate, rehung its display of post-war art this Spring. The End of the Black-and-White Era, a sprawling exhibition consisting of hundreds of works and hundreds of pages of interpretative text is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime project that a museum curator dreams of, the gallery’s director of modern and contemporary art collections Michal Novotný told me. It’s also a project of some consequence: school children in the next decade will be taught the story of their nation through the prism of the aesthetic and ideological decisions Novotný and his team made. And because Czech history is so full of question marks that revisionism is its natural mode, this exhibition is also a revelation in art’s work of ‘inventing traditions’.

The display begins in 1939, in the aftermath of Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia with The Red Egg, a darkly satirical painting by the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka, then exiled to Prague. The work shows the Munich Agreement as a banquet at which the sketchily drawn Mussolini, Hitler, a British lion, and a French cat cut into a fried egg as rats dance on the table and Prague burns in the background. Already there, the artist’s licence is obvious: to represent Czechoslovakia, a country created in 1918 in the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, as a singular and integral result of the tug-of-war of European powers is but a fancy. As if to substantiate this delusion, the exhibition fills the wartime timeline with examples from Czech Surrealism, including a 1943 canvas by Toyen that shows a white wolf devouring a pigeon and alludes to Maquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom

Toyen, At LaCoste Castle, 1943, oil on canvas. National Gallery Prague.

That these works, many acquired by the National Gallery shortly after the war, are today shown as highlights of the artistic response to the war indicates that the project of reconciliation with the country’s feeble resistance to the Nazi occupation is ongoing. Every country which falls victim to aggression needs an elegy. Poland, for example, teaches its school children to recite poems about the heroic struggle of its soldiers at Westerplatte in September 1939 which marked the beginning of the war’s armed conflict. In an uncanny echo, Ukrainian forces on Snake Island were reported in 2022 to defiantly tell a Russian warship to “go fuck itself” before laying down their lives in defence of their motherland.

That half of that last story turned out to be false strangely invests the Czech Surrealist narrative with sympathetic credibility. Elsewhere in this part of the exhibition, there are paintings by the likes of František Gross depicting the industrial mindscapes of factories and railway stations that reflect on the forced labour endured by his countrymen under the occupation of the Third Reich. The Czechs got off lightly: there’s the everyday commute but few bombs, fires, or horrors. This is the good luck of opportunist-survivalists that today manifests in the country refusing to shop online at Amazon but happy to host the retailer’s German distribution operation on its land.

Post-war, Czechoslovakia fell under communist rule and socialist realism became the official art style of Bohemia. Here, Novotný’s exhibition reveals its curatorial hand by contorting the architecture of the gallery and staging bronze sculptures of working-class heroes within wall cut-outs and hiding the iconic depictions of patriotic agricultural peasants within specially constructed nooks. If, as the exhibition manifesto suggests, the display is concerned with the aesthetic qualities that drove the story of Czech 20th-century art, these gestures narrate the decade of the country’s complicity with the Soviets into the margin. Never mind that Prague kept its statue of Stalin, the largest in the world, towering over the city long after the leader’s death.

Jiri Naceradsky, July – Escape to the Mountains, 1967, oil on canvas

Yet, if the art of the early 1960s on display is to be believed, Czechoslovakia briefly enjoyed the same intellectual freedoms as Paris or New York and used them to deconstruct the relationship between the individual and society. Czech sculptors like Eva Kmentová reassembled human bodies out of concrete forms on par with their European peers. The kinetic sculptures of Milan Dobeš and performances by Zorka Ságlová could have been made almost anywhere. But a 1967 canvas July by Jiří Načeradský which depicts nude holidaymakers running off into the mountains wryly observed the nation’s struggle to embody its post-regime freedom and to occupy the land that for maybe the fifth time in a century ‘became’ their own again. A Dada-infused riddle-painting Rébus by Eva Svankmajerová, the filmmaker’s wife and collaborator, confirms the trademark Czech ambivalence and suspicion of comfortable epiphanies.

Eva Svankmajerová, Rébus č 42, 1966

Blink, then, and you will have missed the Prague Spring. Crashing into the 1968 arrival of Soviet tanks in Prague which the Czechoslovaks barely opposed, Novotný gestures at the inertia of his own institution. The National Gallery was slow to align its programming with the demands of the new political reality and projects involving Yves Klein, Pablo Picasso, and Antoni Tàpies rolled on before giving way to exhibitions of Soviet art. Is this a sign of strategic obstructionism that a more optimistic art historian would see as an act of resistance? 

The watershed in Czech artistic life behind the Iron Curtain was the international publication in 1977 of an open letter accusing the Communist authorities of stifling free expression and political discrimination. Many of the charter’s 1200 signatories, including Havel, were arrested. The artist Jiří Kolář’s work Dr. Cola’s Anatomy Lesson, a sculpture nodding at the hollowness of consumerism, entered the National Gallery’s collection when the artist’s possessions were seized after he fled the country to avoid arrest. 

Petra Oriesková, Terraces, 1983, oil on canvas

This subdued act of defiance marks another era in the exhibition: the period which the art’s keepers and adult audiences experienced in their own lives. The 1980s and early ‘90s are presented as a blaze of figuration kitsch in the semi-erotic canvases by Petra Oriesková at one end and ritualistic mythology in Margrita Titlová Ylovsky’s fantasy abstractions at another. Having spent parts of my childhood in one of Czechoslovakia’s neighbouring countries, I can attest to feeling the dizzying mixture of freedom and the onset of Postmodernity, concepts foreign to the Soviet Block until much after 1989, in precisely those colours.

In this still black-and-white story, the 1993 dissolution of Czechoslovakia was coincident with the emergence of identity politics as a key concern of the global contemporary art world in which Novotný received his training. The masked photographic self-portraits by Milena Dopitová may bear the inheritance of 1970s Czech conceptualism, but in the now international context, their particularities are difficult to extract. Tellingly of the forthcoming aesthetic and political homogenisation of the art world, the National Gallery staged an exhibition by the Austrian artist and curator Peter Weibel. His 1992 installation Fortress Europe which consists of European state flags torn down to make place for the symbols of the European Union prophesied the Czech Republic’s future.

The End of the Black-and-White Era, installation view showing Milena Dopitová, Four Masks, 1992. National Gallery Prague. Photo: J. Precechtel.

In the years following the 2004 expansion of the EU, the Czech contemporary art world went into overdrive. Western European galleries opened their doors to Eastern European artists in the name of unity and mobility and branded the region as ‘poor but sexy’, only half ironically. I fuelled this trend in the programme of my independent gallery in London, as did Novotný in his ambitious Prague project space. But the cultural packages from the former Soviet Block lacked definition: stories of Communist struggle were entangled with quaint rural traditions of the would-be migrants of whom the artists were emissaries.

Either intentionally or through lack of trying, few Czech artists stood out in this export charm offensive. Katerina Šedá, the country’s documenter of rural rituals and nostalgic critic of crochet culture is one of the few exceptions and she almost single-handedly ushers the 2010s into the exhibition. Could this laconic attitude to place-making have turned out to be a saving grace for the Czech nation, allowing it to avoid too close scrutiny from underinformed and not necessarily benevolent cultural analysts? To this day, Prague presents itself as a capsule of a bygone era whose historical buildings pretend to be older than they actually are. There’s a castle and a fortress but no empire. There are cathedrals but the people are atheist. Global capital is the law but nobody really believes its promises.

Perhaps this attitude, iconised in Jaroslav Hašek’s 1920s novel The Good Soldier Švejk in which the happy-go-lucky Czech soldier poses as a faithful servant of the Austro-Hungarian army but cares only for his survival and pleasure, is a particular Bohemian trope. The exhibition’s final work is Club of Opportunities, a video by Jakub Jasna that allegorically tracks the absurd struggles of the unglamorous root vegetable celeriac to become accepted in the elevated society of avocados. But as Novotný proposes, navigating at the margins, as the Czechs have done for at least a century, may not be a choice for much longer. Culture is how one draws new routes.

All this brings me back to North Greenwich, where we so readily accept a culture-by-numbers as an adequate statement of who we are. Upriver at Tate Britain, where the display of the nation’s art was also relaunched in May, the story is depressingly similar: critics panned the rehang for its overtly didactic revisionism and a hammy preoccupation with the latest tenets of postcolonialism. 17th-century portraits are paired with work from the 21st to explain once and for all the causes of Britain’s social and political ills today. And there are many technical similarities between the exhibitions in Prague and at Millbank because both are the products of international aesthetic and intellectual trends of the global art world. But at Tate, the display is so busy ‘inventing traditions’ that it forgets to leave space for the work. Novotný’s project in Prague, on the other hand, leaves one envious of a national history which is yet to be retold.

Main image: Oskar Kokoschka, The Red Egg, oil on canvas, 1940/41. National Gallery Prague.