Art

Revisiting a Czech Artist’s Collages of Human Cruelty, 50 Years After the Prague Spring

While Grimace of the Century at Prague’s National Gallery is not dedicated to Kolář’s collage series Diary 1968 alone, its constant presence is such that all the works on display cannot but assume a political valence.

Installation view of Jiří Kolář: Grimace of the Century (photo by Jakub Přecechtěl, courtesy of the National Gallery Prague)

PRAGUE — On August 21, 1968, Soviet troops invaded the city of Prague, ending a period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring. The visual legacy of this moment — in which young people burnishing Czech flags, middle-aged ladies their handbags, and old men their satchels all put their bodies in front of soldiers and tanks — is most closely associated with the images of Josef Koudelka (on view now in a large retrospective of the photographer’s work at the newly re-opened Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague).

But another highly evocative record of that fateful year is captured in a series of 66 “evidence” collages by Jiří Kolář, collectively titled Diary 1968, and all currently on view at the Kinsky Palace, part of Prague’s National Gallery, in the city’s Old Town Square. They comprise the main thread of a solo exhibition of Kolář’s work, Grimace of the Century. These individual collages are are a constant presence throughout the show, hung in sequence on a wall constructed especially for them, that weaves through much of the exhibition space.

While the exhibition is not dedicated to Diary 1968 alone, its constant presence is such that all the works on display cannot but assume a political valence, even the highly formal and large scale “chiasmages” of layered text from various world languages (including musical notation and Braille), for which Kolář is most famous. The show also includes far lesser-known works like photomontages from the 1950s and surprising textile embroideries from the 1960s.

Jiří Kolář, “7 – Dialog,” from the cycle Diary 1968 (1968) (courtesy of the National Gallery Prague)

Kolář — who was imprisoned for nine months in 1953 when police found a manuscript of his poetry collection Prometheus’ Liver — lived through shifting regimes. He was born as the First World War commenced in 1914 and came of age in the democratic First Republic, only to witness the Nazi occupation in 1939 and then the Stalinization that followed the Second World War. His response, first via poetry and then visual arts, was to highlight the brutal absurdity of the times through a breakdown in language. Originally a poet, the word never disappears from his visual work, but rather multiplies, piles up, even explodes, to the brink of incomprehensibility.

Nearly all the works in Grimace of the Century highlight the tension between Kolář’s simultaneous self-conception as an artist and a poet, and his interest in exploring alternative forms of language. His “automatic” poems from 1961 are simply comprised of a torn sheet of used carbon paper, calling to mind the practice of samizdat, or underground publishing, that consisted in typing multiple copies of a manuscript that could not be printed legally, and then distributing them surreptitiously. “Sharp Poem” (1962) also contains no text, but it references the typewriter with a bit of dangling typewriter ribbon that hangs among knotted twine and a cluster of razorblades (used for the precise cutting required in his “rollages”), and has been rubbed onto the cardstock behind.

Installation view of Jiří Kolář: Grimace of the Century (photo by Jakub Přecechtěl, courtesy of the National Gallery Prague)

The full range of collage techniques and language play that Kolář employed is encapsulated within the Diary 1968 series. Each individual work bears a title that serves as something like an epigraph; together they capture the tragedy of a year in transition at home, in which the optimism of the Prague Spring was ultimately crushed by Soviet tanks, while addressing concurrent events elsewhere in the world. One collage dedicated to the Vietnam War includes a map of the country covered in bandages, and the title reads: “Vietnam on the World Stage: Every country perishes beneath a foreign heel”; another references the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

Kolář’s observations during a trip to Paris are recorded in a work titled, “Entrée: Disembark here! All of Paris for 2 francs, complete with demonstrators and soldiers.” Train and other admission tickets pasted over a blazing fire and group of advancing soldiers sardonically suggest the student protests occurring in the city were but one more tourist attraction. The subsequent collage, “An Homage to Ingres: Or, the banner of the student revolts,” is simply a pile of repeating female body parts that fragments a woman’s figure into disembodied, abstracted forms — a technique disturbingly frequent in Kolář’s work. (A brilliant if inadvertent rebuke is staged simultaneously elsewhere in Prague at the Trade Fair Palace, in the films of Maria Lassnig, as in the 1971 Iris, in which she turns the camera up close on her own body and takes on the agency of its abstraction.)

When protest breaks out in late August in Kolář’s own country, however, the tone of his collages is purely somber. In a period of intensified production, a series of works were made by simply layering newspaper clippings from the days following August 21; these evidence the intensity, confusion and loss of that moment.

Jiří Kolář, “Explosion,” from the cycle The History of Nothing XVI (1962) (courtesy of the National Gallery Prague)

The exhibition literally turns a corner at this juncture, when the wall leads toward a corridor and veers left. The first collage after the break portrays an open hand — another common motif in Kolář’s work — holding a chained bird in its palm, set against a sea of Persian script and bearing the subtitle: “In Iran, an earthquake, and in Bohemia, pandemonium.”

The final collage in the Diary 1968 series frames a distorted face, apparently looking to the new year. The work bears the subtitle: “Unfortunately, I am a poor prophet. And utopia? The elders led the world to paradise, but our masters let it in drown in the mud a long time ago.” And with that, Diary 1968 concludes. In the exhibition’s final room, themed the “Great Riddle” after a work by the same name, scribbles and typographic experiment from earlier in the 1960s abound, Manet’s lovers in the conservatory speak nonsense to each other, and broken numbers disperse with the smoke of fire. At this point, one can only evacuate the building, with not even a strand of optimism but an unsettling certainty: that human cruelty is a bewildering constant.

Jiří Kolář: Grimace of the Century curated by Marie Kilmešová and Milena Kalinovská continues at the National Gallery Prague (Kinsky Palace, Staroměstské náměstí 12, Prague) through September 2.

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