The exhibition "Borders in Art. Three generations of Czech art" (21 May–15 August 2021) delved into how visible the visual arts make "borders". Its focus was on the Czech art scene from the 1920s up to the present. Three remarkable artistic standpoints – supplied by Toyen, Magdalena Jetelová, and Krištof Kintera – each represented a generation of Czech art. The short film created along with the exhibition shows various facets of "borders" and of "crossing and breaching boundaries" in historical and current contexts.
The exhibition
The three artists chosen as representative for the exhibition "Borders in Art" – the painter and graphic artist Toyen (1902–1980) and the two conceptual artists Magdalena Jetelová (*1946) and Krištof Kintera (*1973) – are biographically anchored in different periods of the Czechoslovak and Czech history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that they respond to in their work.
Czech history over the past hundred years has been marked by historical ruptures that were flanked by changes in the demarcation of political borders. The borders of Czechoslovakia were defined during the founding of the state after the First World War. The incorporation of the Sudetenland into the German Reich in 1938 and the subsequent Nazi invasion and occupation of the rump Czechoslovak state not only represented a violent breach of the real, political border but was also followed by a slew of further breaches of human and moral boundaries and values. After the Communist Party came to power in 1948, the border separating the re-established Czechoslovak state from the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Austria in the West became a seemingly impenetrable Iron Curtain. A long period marked by isolation and curtailed freedoms began that was only to end with the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when the borders re-opened.
The exhibition was conceived in the context of an interdisciplinary research network "Borders in national and transnational cultures of remembrance between the Czech Republic and Bavaria", which has been concerned with the border in cultures of memory and with the bounds of (content in) memory cultures. The network has critically interrogated the role of borders in shaping and connecting cultures. The doctoral projects undertaken within its purview were dedicated to various topics with a bearing on the changing historical relationship between Germans and Czechs. The interdisciplinary research association was supported by the Universities of Regensburg and Passau, Charles University in Prague, Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem and the Cultural Manager for the Czech Lands at the Adalbert Stifter Association (2017–2020).
The film
The film extends the exhibition project with accounts of personal experiences that allow deeper probing into the topic of borders and border crossings or transgressions. The short film provides a virtual tour of the exhibition. Exhibition curator Dr. Agnes Tieze shares insights into the exhibition theme "Borders in Art" and into the process of choosing the three artists for the project. In addition to providing an art history perspective, she sheds light on the historical and biographical background of each artist. Magdalena Jetelová and Krištof Kintera narrate their experiences as eyewitnesses to history and round out the picture with an updated view of events. Krištof Kintera is a contemporary Czech artist without German roots. Magdalena Jetelová comes from a Bohemian German family and emigrated from communist Czechoslovakia to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1985. The phenomenon of borders and the contradictions of space are a key theme running through Jetelová’s entire oeuvre. Individual works by Kintera also reflect on encounters with borders in various ways. Toyen’s artistic development was strikingly influenced by moving between Paris and Prague and flight to France before the demise of the Third Czechoslovak Republic.
The artists
The painter and graphic artist Marie Čermínová became known under the artist’s name Toyen (derived from "citoyen", the French word for citizen). Toyen was involved in and decisively shaped all the movements in the interwar Czechoslovak art scene: Cubism, Poetism, Artificialism, and Surrealism. Close contact with the French art scene was a crucial part of this; Toyen lived in Paris early on, between 1925 and 1929, and moved there for good in 1947, shortly before the Communist Party took power in Czechoslovakia.
The 1920s in Czechoslovakia were characterized by a euphoric wave of optimism and dynamism unleashed by the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic, the first joint state of Czechs and Slovaks, in 1918. Enthusiasm for modern life, a language of simple forms, and the desire to understand life as poetry found expression in the movement of Poetism. This movement was specific to Czechoslovakia, and it was shaped by the avant-garde grouping known as "Devětsil". The visual arts were represented chiefly by Toyen and their soulmate and companion Jindřich Štyrský (1899–1942).
Toyen went to Paris with Štyrský in 1925. Working closely together, they developed a distinctive new style, Artificialism. They used non-representational, organic forms to express feelings and memories, but also fantastic flights of the imagination. "Devětsil" theorist Karel Teige spoke of a “dialogue of the conscious with the unconscious” in this context. This ability to translate innermost emotions – messages that could be quite perturbing – into images was exactly what pointed both Toyen and Štyrský towards Surrealism.
Less abstract structures and objects found their way into Toyen’s paintings and drawings in the early 1930s. Many of these works deal with erotically charged themes; the female body and female sexuality play an important role in Toyen’s work. In 1934, both Toyen and Štyrský were involved in the founding of the Prague Surrealist group that crystallized out of close interactions with their French colleagues André Breton and Paul Éluard.
Some of the important works Toyen produced in the 1930s were on display in the exhibition, among them the paintings "Obraz (Picture)" (1932) and "Oblázky večera (Pebbles of the Evening)" (1937), which were shown together with two works by Štyrský. Toyen’s nine-part graphic cycle "Cache-toi guerre! (Hide, war!)" from 1944 is particularly striking. Nightmarishly arranged animal skeletons amid desolate landscapes represent the destruction of war. The title – originally, in Czech, "Schovej se válko!" – may allude to Toyen having hidden the Jewish artist Jindřich Heisler in her flat during the war years.
Heisler became Toyen’s closest companion after Štyrský’s death in 1942. They left Czechoslovakia together in 1947 – ostensibly to take part in a Surrealism exhibition in Paris. But one can surmise from the political situation that a return trip never featured in their plans. Until the 1960s, the emigrant artist went almost entirely unmentioned in the Czech context. Only forty-one years after their death did Toyen’s work begin to be appreciated and shown to the public in various European museums.
Magdalena Jetelová
Magdalena Jetelová questions borders and boundaries in their every manifestation. Crossing and overcoming borders runs through her entire oeuvre. Living in a divided Europe was a defining experience for her, isolated and politically unfree as she was and felt in the socialist Czechoslovakia of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1985, she finally fled to the Federal Republic of Germany.
Her first works were giant wooden sculptures – cupboards, stairways, gates, and chairs. In the context of their time, these monuments to utilitarian objects can also be read as nods to the absurdity of Socialist Realism. Shifts in scale that relativize and dissolve connections between objects are a phenomenon that Jetelová continued to explore later. They bring things that are not comparable together and cause disparate spaces and dimensions to become enmeshed.
Magdalena Jetelová incorporates the architectural space into exhibitions of her work, changing and disrupting it. She also works on a larger scale with urban spaces and with landscapes. She carried out her first outdoor performance in Prague shortly before she emigrated. The rising smoke signals in red were simultaneously a cry for help and a warning – a reference to the spread of the oppressive power of the communist Soviet Union. Later, Jetelová began to use ultra-modern technological and scientific tools. She works with laser beams to draw and write on landscapes directly and make the invisible visible. She records her projects using the means of photography and film. Viewers see the images that result in specially constructed light boxes that allow them to appreciate the effects of the laser beam.
The exhibition featured several of these light boxes. Jetelová took up an issue here that she had already been grappling with for quite some time. She used a laser beam to write “The Essential is no longer visible” on architectural remnants of German bunkers from the Second World War. Her "Atlantic Wall" project from 1994–95 looked at this system of defences on the Atlantic coast. More than 20 years later, she turned the aphorism by French philosopher Paul Virilio quoted above on its head and came up with: “The Essential is visible.” This time, she projected the writing onto the melting ice of a glacier in Patagonia. She spent time in this region that is so inhospitable to life to carry out another land art project as 2017 was giving way to 2018. Here, on the western coast of South America, colliding tectonic plates are responsible for volcanic activity and other effects. Jetelová’s project refers to this geographical phenomenon in its title, "The Pacific Ring of Fire". She uses a laser beam to trace the boundaries between tectonic plates. But with the lettering “The Essential is visible,” she draws attention to another issue at the same time: glaciers that are shrinking due to climate change.
The Atacama Desert in the Andes, where the largest ground-based astronomy project ever carried out is being realized, inspired a further work: using technology to make contact with the moon. Her communication with Earth’s satellite is captured in a video that was also on display at the exhibition. What fascinates the artist the most is the sound of the Big Bang coming back along with the echo of her own words. She sees this reminder of how acutely present the past is as a warning: “Our planet dissolving into nothing is something that can happen to us tomorrow.” These ideas come full circle in the projection in the large exhibition hall: Jetelová uses light from a laser to make her drawings appear directly in the space and simultaneously uses vibrating mirrored surfaces to destroy the images as they emerge. In symbolic terms, this alludes to the cycle of the universe in which planets and galaxies emerge and are destroyed before a new loop of the cycle begins.
Krištof Kintera
Krištof Kintera is a member of a generation that no longer personally experienced borders as material obstacles in adulthood. His artistic career began in the early 1990s. The Velvet Revolution of 1989 in Czechoslovakia and the fall of the Iron Curtain opened the country towards the West and ushered in a new age of freedom and democracy.
Kintera describes himself as a sculptor. He draws his material from an extensive stockpile of everyday objects that have reached the end of their lifespans and are rekindled to new life in his laboratory-like studio. Some of his sculptures incorporate mechanisms that allow them to move or speak. They are always abstract from reality to some degree – be it on account of their reduced spatial dimensions, animal sculptures being clad in clothes, or individual objects being piled up in such vast quantities that the value of each individual one is no longer clear. Viewers find this only seemingly realistic world of objects perplexing. It feels familiar and nevertheless strange. Reality and illusion ultimately fuse through the use of irony, grotesquery, and caricature.
Kintera’s 2009 installation "Paradise Now" – installed in front of the museum – was the very first piece in the exhibition that visitors encountered. The twelve crowd barriers he has turned into stags by adding pipes demonstratively show what the artist thinks of barriers and borders: “Even considering all the complicated history that we can’t just gloss over, it would be better, even just from a practical point of view, if we could get to a point where we don’t need any borders.”
A dizzyingly high stele towered over the foyer of the museum. The artist constructed this homage to Constantin Brâncuși’s "Endless Column" from an unexpected material – cement bags. Its title contains an exhortation: "Do It Yourself (After Brâncuși)" (2007). Three works shown in the main hall also stood out because of their verticality. The "End of Words III" (2014–2015), a massive tower made of books set in concrete, is meaningful at several levels: it calls book censorship and the destruction of books in communist Czechoslovakia to mind and also acknowledges the dwindling of the analogue world. "Memorial of Passed Light" (2019), a column-like bundle of extinguished fluorescent light tubes, also resonates with nostalgia. Light is an important element in the third sculpture: "Past Thinking About Future When Watching You" (2016) stares intently at its beholders. Its baroque head has facial expressions that seem to change in the interplay of light and shadow that was so characteristic for the Baroque era.
Encountering a small standing figure that suddenly banged its head against the wall was an intense experience for many visitors to the exhibition. The figure archetypically represents a frustrated person who strives for change but can only use all their energy in a pointless and self-destructive way. The title, "Revolution", emphasizes its political dimension. Kintera’s "Drawings" also contain critical allusions to developments in society. These standardized panels, often filled with various objects and tagged with keywords, serve as a kind of sketchpad for logging immediate "notes" on topics that occupy him.