Monsters in the Rudolfinum

Exhibition of Socialist Realist works is no joke.

Czechoslovak Socialist Realism 1948-1958

At the Rudolfinum through February 9th

The exhibition Czechoslovak Socialist Realism 1948-1958, which opened at the Rudolfinum
on November 7, is at once boring and exhausting. While it is interesting after
so many years to see such a concentration of Gottwalds, dams, militiamen and workers,
by the second or third hall of the gallery, the visitor is overwhelmed by the
same feeling he had on an obligatory school trip to a museum of the workers’ movement
in 1986. You wish it would end. For the most part, the canvases and sculptures
on display have no charm, not even the appeal of being embarrassing, disgusting
or unintentionally ridiculous. They are repulsive, sloppy pieces of work by totally
untalented people and interchangeable “vulgar craftsmen,” as Chalupeck'' once described
the heavily represented Jan Čumpelík. Going to the gallery is a little like watching
a TV series made in the era of Normalization. The first episodes seem astonishing
and bring back memories, but after a while, one can’t stand to look at them anymore.

There are exceptions. The “post-Christian” painting Resurrection, for example,
with the central motif of God-Gottwald (signed “Koltay”), is so crazy that one
can’t help feeling it was a carefully constructed parody. The children from a
day-care center in another canvas have such depressing expressions on their faces
that one suspects the painter wanted to depict not “beauty” but rather the sheer
horror of the Red-organized world, and by chance she actually managed to pull
it off. The presence of works by Emil Filla strikes one as sad and rather inappropriate,
and his painting depicting prisoners liberated from a concentration camp is bizarre
and unusually cynical. The horrors they lived through leave no trace on these
cheerful guys, who hold a merry meeting with a guitar and typewriter in the woods
under Czechoslovak and Soviet flags. The bloody commemoration of the “righteously
murdering” peasantry likewise fills one with disgust. But these are only curious
details that confirm the overall wretchedness that oozes from the dozens of paintings
and sculptures. One of the most intolerable phenomena of standardized life in
a totalitarian society was the constant, repeated, deadening rhythm from which
the worker was not supposed to diverge. The exhibition at the Rudolfinum distinctly
captures this atmosphere of the times: Klement, landscape, dam, Sta-lin, Klement,
landscape, dam, Stalin.

Did people honestly believe in these paintings? How can one today justify the
support that intellectuals and artists once showed for the Communist Party, considering
that the clear signs of hell were manifest in every sphere of life, from painting
and literature to the social sciences? The absolute majority of Socialist Realist
works were not the result of fanaticism or ideological blindness, but the fulfillment
of demands made by the authorities. Painters like Jan Čumpelík and Vojtěch Tittelbach
were simply able to adapt in time. They knew what would bring them money and influence.
They understood that many artists would not dare to take a stand against Socialist
Realism and that a number of theoreticians would defend it. Hence Vincenc Kramář’s
1952 declaration: “Since the old Christian era, no art has been so governed and
guided by high moral ideals as the Czech Socialist Realism that is now developing.”
The ranks of the pragmatic, amoral bunglers were joined by those who adopted the
mandatory style out of fear and took refuge in harmless landscapes.

The exhibition says nothing about the fact that dozens of ruined lives and careers
are hidden behind Czecho-slovak Socialist Realism. Certainly, this will be a subject
of discussion in the series of accompanying events. The theoretical point of view
of the Communists – according to which, ‘Teige, tyrsk'' and Toyen represent, in
the history of Czech art, a raging, petty bourgeois radicalism, characterized
by cynicism,’ – culminated in the total harassment of many figures. The persecuted
Karel Teige died in 1951. Emil Filla died in 1953, two years after he was “sentenced”
by the members of the 3rd Regional Center of the Union of Czechoslovak Artists.
On that occasion, they forbade him to exhibit anything except landscape paintings
of the Czech low mountain ranges. Socialist Realism is not an “artistic” issue,
but a moral one. It is impossible to regard the Czech Socialist Realism project
at the Rudolfinum as “retro-entertainment.” There is too much monstrosity behind

Translation by Kathleen Hayes

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