Socialist realism’s clash with the creativity of the human spiritAfter the communist government took over in 1948, the criteria for the general recognition of an artist ceased to be the artistic quality of his work. Completely different standpoints played a principal role: political commitment, loyalty to the regime, or a tendency not to deviate from the established conventions of the artistic stereotypes of that time.
A post-modern concept of creative work began to assert itself in the Czech milieu sometime around 1984. Tvrdohlaví (The Stubborn Ones) became the first distinct grouping. Tvrdohlaví was what a group of several young artists called themselves in 1987 (František Skála, Jiří David, Michal Gabriel, Petr Nikl, Jaroslav Róna and others).
The appreciation of the Czech pavilion at the EXPO '58 world exhibition in Brussels also meant a relaxation of the scope that a young generation of artists had to implement their work. The work of Josef Svoboda caused a significant shift in the development of scenography. He constructed a stage whose main staging idea creatively symbolizes a distinctive scenic style through the use of lights, slide projection and architectural design. We can encounter his creative manipulation of the stage to this day at Prague’s Laterna Magika theater. Illustrations of children’s books have had a long-standing tradition in the Czech lands since as far back as the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (Mikoláš Aleš, Josef Lada, Josef Čapek, Zdeněk Burian and others). These artists refused to simply describe the action in a banal manner and to pontificate to young readers through pictures in a book. They endeavored to create an original imaginary work, which also left room for a child’s imagination.
The most outstanding illustrators from the Czech scene include Jiří Trnka, Zdeněk Miller, Adolf Born, Radek Pilař and others.
Jiří Trnka (1912-69) enjoys an undeniable pre-eminence in puppet film. His Staré pověsti české (Ancient Czech Myths), Špalíček (known in English as “The Czech Year”), Princ Bajaja (Prince Bajaja) and other works are unique specimens in the “Golden Fund” of Czech cinematographic art.
The production of Czech household glassware declined after the war. Only individually shaped glass maintained a high standard thanks in particular to the studio of Josef Kaplický at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. The leading figure in international glass art is Stanislav Libeňský who, together with Jaroslava Brychtová, is the author of many monumental works of architecture.
New styles in Czech fine art
Mikuláš Medek (1926 - 1974, the grandson of Antonín Slavíček) was often a silenced figure of Czech abstract art with great artistic feeling.
Jan Kotík (1916) is associated with lyrical abstraction. Zdeněk Sklenář (1910 - 1986) was inspired by Oriental calligraphy in his work. A group of graphic artists from the 1950s and 1960s whose work was linked with abstract expressionism account for a peculiar chapter in Czech art, e.g. Vladimír Boudník (1924 - 1968), who found beauty in the most commonplace things, often in an experimental manner.
The painter Jiří John (1923 - 1979) stands detached from all movements. All we can find in his non-figurative pictures is a greater degree of communicativeness.
The more radical Art Informel also came to the fore thanks to its initiator, Václav Hejna (1914 - 1985). Mikuláš Medek and Vladimír Boudnik became other dominant figures in this field.
The work of the painter and graphic artist Vladimír Komárek (1928-2002) is poetic in nature. He was ranked among the older artists who had been “vetted.” The home environment had a strong influence on his work. A revolt against societal relationships emerged in the new figuration, which sought new expressive possibilities. Olbram Zoubek (born 1926) with his “archaic” figures was considered to be part of the new figuration.
Karel Nepras (1932 - 2002) invoked a sense of humor in figurative sculpture. The work of Eva Kmentová (1928 - 1980) also moved from abstraction to arrive at simplicity of form.
The sisters Jitka (1922) and Květa (1922 - 1998) Válová are also figurative painters, as are Jiří Anderle and Jiří Načeradský .
Advertising, comic-book series and other elements of mass culture spread to art. Pop-art actually seeks contact with human life in the real world. It is primarily Jiří Balcár who deserves credit for the arrival of this trend in the Czech milieu. He visited America, the place of pop-art´s genesis, in 1966. The poet and translator Jiří Kolář (1914 - 2002) devised several methods for the production of collages. At the end of the 1950s, he came up with the decomposition of natural poetry and the creation of typograms, assemblages and collages in which he used fragments of the most varied types of script and above all used reproductions of celebrated works of art.
A related phenomenon of pop-art is the so-called “happening”, or a method of artistic production, which counted on the active participation of the audience in attendance, which took place in a state of constant improvisation. This was primarily popularized in the Czech lands by Milan Knížák (1940), who is the current general director of the National Gallery in Prague.
In the Czech milieu, the work of Theodor Pištěk (1932) approached that of the hyperrealists. He has also excelled as a film designer in František Vláčil’s movies Markéta Lazarová and Údolí včel (Valley of the Bees). He won an Oscar, the most prestigious award from the American Film Academy, for designing the costumes for the Miloš Forman film Amadeus.
At the end of the 1970s, minimalist tendencies and conceptual expressions gained momentum, particularly in the field of body-art. Petr Štembera (1945) first exhibited his own body in an extreme situation (Spani na strome – “Sleeping on a Tree,” 1979). He then cut his hand and inserted tree grafts into the wound for several days (Stepováni – “Grafting,” 1979). In the 1970s, Jan Mlčoch (1953) created work at 30 events in Prague, Krakow, Budapest and Paris. He had the events photographed and supplemented with written documentation. They were meant to draw attention in a quirky manner to the issue of restrictions in life through rules, laws and boundaries.
There are many ways to professionally categorize Jan Švankmajer (1934). We wouldn’t be making a mistake regardless of whether we described him as a Czech film director, screenwriter, animator or designer. He has worked at the Semafor Theater and at Laterna Magika. At the same time he has also made surrealist films.
The turn of the millennium
One of the most famous contemporary artists is indisputably Jaroslav Róna (1957). He is one of the most outstanding figures from the Tvrdohlaví group. One of his most famous sculptures in a public space is the original statue of Franz Kafka, which is located in Prague on the historic boundary between the Old Town and the former Jewish Quarter.
One of the most original artists, who has essentially moved away from the established clichés of standard creative output, is František Skála (1956). His pictures, objects and installations demonstrate a peculiar poeticism, which is based on the “magical” manipulation of things.
In his early pictures, Petr Nikl (1960) returned to a pre-natal state. He created images of young animals, insect larvae, cocoons and hatching birds. Nikl is the author of the Czech exhibit at the EXPO exposition in the Japanese prefecture of Aichi in 2005.
The artist and photographer Veronika Bromová (1966) operates on the border between the exterior and interior. Her adapted “anatomical” photographs are well-known. In creating these, she was inspired by anatomical museum exhibits and pathology textbooks. She represented the Czech Republic at the 48th Vienna Biennale in 1999.
The best-known Czech photographer and artist of international caliber to date is without doubt Josef Sudek (1896-1976). He took his most important photographs from the 1940s onward. Besides panoramic vistas with Prague as their theme, these primarily comprise portraits and unusually lyrical still lifes, which include a cycle known as "The Window of My Studio" (Okno mého ateliéru) or a cycle on the Malá Strana cemetery (Malostranský hřbitov).
František Drtikol (1883–1961) was not only an important Czech photographer, but also a painter and philosopher. He won world renown, however, for his dramatically conceived female nudes in a decorative setting with elements of the constructivism and Art Déco of the 1920s.
The name of the photographer, theorist and publicist Jaromír Funke (1896-1945) is also associated with the inter-war avant-garde. He was one of the first on the Czech scene to introduce new values to photographic work, corresponding to the art of the period (surrealism, functionalism).
Jan Saudek (1935) is a world-renowned contemporary Czech photographer. His adapted and colored photographs that deal with the confrontation of male and female nude figures in tense erotic situations have, among other things, been exhibited at the Art Institute in Chicago (1976) and the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris (1987).
Josef Koudelka (1938) is another internationally recognized Czech photographer. Koudelka, who lives in France, has for the last twenty years devoted himself primarily to landscape photography.