In 2018, the Prague National Gallery held a retrospective to commemorate the 50thAnniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. Jiří Kolář: Grimace of the Century concentrated on a selection of Kolář’s artworks connected with his poetry. According to Milena Kalinovská, Director of the modern and contemporary art collection, ‘this illuminated the unorthodox way in which he formulated his commentary on the world’. Kolář’s influence continues to be felt by conceptual artists, but surrealists and pop artists lay claim to him too. His Diary 1968was a major part of the display – a series of 66 collages covering the dramatic events of that year. Works were selected to illustrate his importance as an intellectual and poet, driven by strong political and moral messages.
Kolář was born into a working class family in Protivín in 1914. An introduction to poetry at sixteen led him to travel to Prague, where he published his poetry. Living through the turbulence of the early twentieth century, in 1948 after the Czechoslovak communist coup d’état, he joined the party. But he quit his membership after less than a year with a growing realisation of the government’s imposition of the Great Oppression. His anthology published underground in 1950, Prometheus Liver, spoke of a life renewed at the cost of constant suffering – reflecting the executions of poets and government political opponents in the same year. When Kolář’s manuscript was found by the authorities in 1952, it led to his arrest. For nine months he was interrogated and imprisoned until 1953. He was fortunate, for in that year both Stalin and the first General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Klement Gottwald, died. In an amnesty declared by Gottwald’s successor Antonín Novotný, Kolář was released.
Kalinovská revealed ’Prometheus is poetry that’s immersed in everyday language dipping into a vulgar underworld. It makes for painful reading’. It was officially published after the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Kolář was greatly inspired by the satire, prophesy and abrupt changes in speech of both T. S. Elliot and Beckett. During communism, his work implies, language was destroyed. Kolář’s 1966 diary consisted of 66 images. At first, he created one page per week – the rest of the pages emerged in the most in intense part of the year. After 21 August, he created up to four per week. An influence on Václav Havel, Kolář was a signatory of Charter 77. His global reputation – in 1975 he was invited to the Guggenheim – kept him safe from arrest as he was too well known.
Kolář used a variety of techniques. Putting clippings of newspapers together, he created a story – ‘images to depict what is happening now’. He also used reproduced images from other artists – especially those who challenged or didn’t kowtow to authoritarianism. In his collage Dialogue 1968 he was drawn to Paolo Veronese’s Christ in the House of Levi. Veronese was called to the Inquisition as a heretic as his painting featured dwarfs, dogs and drunken Germans. He was given three months to remove these elements – but he instead changed the title to Feast in the House of Levi. Kolářliked a rebel and, in 1968, he also made a film about Veronese.
In his collage 30 What will tomorrow hold? he used Breughel’s Blind leading the Blind. Breughel created this work to highlight criticism of the so-called ‘Council of Troubles’ established by the government of the Spanish Netherlands, which ordered mass arrests and executions to repress Protestantism and enforce Spanish rule. The analogy to the trials and tribulations of 1968 were not lost on a Czech audience. So, too, in 52 A face for 1969, based on Géricault’s The Raft of Medusa, Czech’s empathised with the feelings of ‘being beaten down without hope’.
Kolář invented all kinds of collage methods. He never used scissors, only a razor to create his images. He trained as a carpenter so he had a good knowledge of different techniques, although he’d mostly use paper. As a consequence, his collages nowadays are sturdy artefacts and make negligible demands on museum conservators.
After living in the USA, Berlin and then Paris, Kolář returned to the Czech Republic in 1997, where he died in 2002 surrounded by friends and his wife. Kalinovská had the good fortune to meet Kolář ten days before his death. Whilst he was clearly physically frail, his mind continued to be fuelled with his passion for art and humanity. With her recollections, Kalinovská’s talk truly offered an inspired exploration of one of the great Czech artists of the post-war avant-garde.
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