Exhibition: Retro 70s and 80s at the Dancing House Gallery

The not-so-distant past is a world away from the current consumer society

For a glimpse of what everyday life was like for both the commoners and the communist elite during the last two decades of the communist era in Prague, visit the new exhibition Retro 70s and 80s at the Dancing House Gallery (Galerie Tančící dům).

It covers everything from typical Czechoslovak candies to the unquenchable love for pop star Karel Gott.

The new exhibit walks its visitors through three floors of communist culture, leisure, work, housing, technology, design and architecture. It showcases the different ways in which communist life revolved around politics, propaganda and social equality via uniform flats, furniture and accessories.

Rather than looking back at the communism era through propaganda and Cold War politics, the exhibition strives to showcase the daily life experienced by many.

Upstairs you can find some of the more interesting items. There are film costumes, fashion displays, a typical apartment, wooden toys and communist-era music to listen Czech singers. Karel Gott and Helena Vondráčková are highlighted, with many of Gott's albums covers on display and some actual outfits worn on TV by the him and Vondráčková.

But for normal people, the clothes were not so elegant. Fashions had uninspired patterns and designs that were reminiscent of the Western styles of a few years earlier but a bit more drab, and not as outlandish as the more extreme fashions of the 1970s in Western Europe and the US.

The apartment layout depicts the uniform flats that were widespread during the period of Normalization, focusing on maximizing the functional usage of the living space. Because there were limited furniture options on the market, all of the flats were very uniform but people would create “home art” in an attempt to individualize their living space as much as possible.

On the gallery's ground level there is photography, an orange vintage Škoda car and Jawa motorcycle, and a mock classroom. A black-and white picture of communist leader Gustáv Husák is on the classroom wall. Two small mannequins are in Young Pioneer outfits. In one concession to the Cold War, another small mannequin is wearing a gas mask and protective suit.

In the basement level a woman stands behind a counter at a grocery store dressed in a smock. She looks like a doctor as she waits for people to ask for what they want, rather than wander the store aisles like we do today. Behind her you will see different retro-looking drinks and grocery products — none of which are name brands. The selection was rather limited. Additionally, there are many examples of communist labels for liquors, wines, cheeses, mineral water and more. The designs are simple, with little sense of Western advertising concepts.

Chocolates and candies are pretty drab, even in their holiday packaging.

Daily work is shown by factory time cards and a set of lockers. The exhibit gets a bit into the human side of life, with magazine pages of scantily dressed women taped to the locker doors, a side of communist-era life that is seldom depicted.

For leisure time, there is a tent, highlighting that camping was a very popular pastime during these decades, as traveling to places like London or Paris was not possible.

For expats who came to Prague in the early 1990s or for people who lived here at the time, the exhibition may bring back some memories of the era before shopping malls, fast food, hypermarkets and chain coffee shops. For others, though, it will show just how much things have changed.

The walls of the exhibition have texts in both Czech and English to help explain the main concepts.

For more in the exhibition, visit www.retro70-80.cz.

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