Through Psychedelic Rock to Czech Liberty

“Charta Story. The Story of Charter 77” at the National Gallery in Prague

It was 1976 and the members of the Czech psychedelic art-rock band The Plastic People of the Universe were arrested together with their manager and poet Ivan Martin Jirous, also known by his nickname ‘Madman’, for “disturbing the peace.” In fact their guilt was partly a result of their English band title, their Westernized repertoire and their long hair. This violation of human rights brought together Czech intellectuals as well as many others, who were dissatisfied with the practises of the totalitarian regime to create Charter 77.

The commemorative exhibition “Charta Story. The Story of Charter 77” at the National Gallery in Prague celebrates the forty-year anniversary of the Declaration of Charter 77. For this exhibit, the ground floor of the Salm Palace has been transformed into a police investigation suite – since all signers of Charter 77 were then closely monitored by the Czechoslovak State Security. Charter 77 was a dissident group, which only wanted to reassure fundamental human rights in Socialist Czechoslovakia, as they were respected in democratic Western societies, and their efforts ultimately led to the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Although Czechs were at that time politically confined in “Eastern Europe,” they belonged, and always have, to the culture of the West. Already since the age of the Holy Roman Empire, Europe has been geographically divided into the Roman Catholic West and the Byzantine Orthodox East, each forming its own identity throughout the centuries. It was only after the Second World War, as the Czech writer Milan Kundera observes in his essay “Tragedy of Central Europe” (1984): “several nations that had always considered themselves to be Western woke up to discover that they were now in the East.”

This is why most Czechs still flinch angrily when anyone calls them “Eastern European,” or “Czechoslovak,” since these terms return them to this state of forced “Eastern-ness” which they have tried to escape for the last 25 years, and even 40 more before the Velvet Revolution.

It is no wonder then, that many Czechs fought the regime by deliberately listening to Western music, playing English and American Rock or organizing and attending illegal concerts that played such music. They were so persistent to be a part of and spread this form of subtle resistance, Czechs even made their own “vinyl” from x-ray papers to record music from banned Western radio stations through home-made machines. This was all happening within the unofficial culture – an “underground” of sorts – where prohibited books (so called “samizdat”), music and art were shared, especially within the Charter 77 circles.

The psychedelic art-rock band The Plastic People of the Universe was officially outlawed in 1973, being able to play only at private or secret concerts, such as the Bojanovice festival organized to celebrate the wedding of their manager/poet Ivan “Madman” Jirous in 1976. This is also where the exhibition “Charta Story” begins showing photographs taken by friends, which are supplemented by music, information panels and thorough annotations.

In the spring of 1976, the members of the band and their manager were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, leading to the imprisonment of Ivan Jirous and saxophonist Vrastislav Brabenec. As Jirous himself once commented on the affair: “If it were pointless, why would they do it then? Why would they arrest us?” And truly, these unrighteous arrests woke many people up and marked the beginning of the dissident group Charter 77.

They were at the same time motivated by the Helsinki Accords, and especially Article VII., which assured “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief,” which the Czechoslovak government signed in 1975.

Charter 77 was led by the playwright Václav Havel, the philosopher Jan Patočka, the poet Jaroslav Seifert, and Catholic activist Václav Benda, as well as many other important figures later recognized in the post-communist Czech Republic. Charter 77 was signed by 1,883 predominantly Czech citizens; while only 25 publicly retracted their signature.

The exhibition curated by Irena Nývltová shows photographs taken by members such as Jiří Bednář, Bohdan Holomíček, Jaroslava Kukala, Ivan Kyncl, Ondřej Němec, Oldřich Škácha or Helena Wilsonová, as well as spy shots recovered from secret state archives after the fall of the regime. The visuals are counterbalanced (occasionally even overwhelmingly outweighed) by detailed explanatory notes illuminating the whole topic for those who simply don’t know much about this movement.

We can thus observe the atmosphere persisting among the dissidents, who were determined to beneficially change the future of their nation. The vast photographic portrait of Charter 77 is enriched by somewhat Dadaist artworks by Olga Karlíková, Jiří Kolář, Otakar Slavík and Jan Šafránek. These, however, do not make it an art exhibition, but rather enhance its general socio-historical nature.

“Charta Story. The Story of Charter 77” ultimately reminds us of the bravery of all Charter 77 members to which the Czech and Slovak citizens owe their thanks for liberating them from the claws of the Communist regime. But we must not forget that Charter 77 might not have even been assembled without the affair around The Plastic People of the Universe, which illustrated how important rock music was to Czechs (and especially during those times) as it gave them the courage and motivation to fight against an oppressive state government.

Charta Story. The Story of Charter 77
Salm Palace, National gallery
14th March 2017 - 13th January 2019
Tue-Sun: 10 am to 6 pm

Foto: Ondřej Němec, Third Festival of the Second Culture, Hrádeček, 1. 10. 1977, from left Vratislav „Vráťa“ Brabenec, Jiří „Kába“ Kabeš, Ivan M. Jirous and Václav Havel © Národní galerie v Praze

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