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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Brno: Art Was There

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

In the middle of Confrontations seminar, on the way between Prague and Bratislava, we spent the whole day in Brno, that turned out to be not just a transit point between Czech and Slovak art scenes, but also an inspiring place to explore some episodes and protagonists of these scenes more closely. ‘Art is Here’ claimed the title of the exhibition at Moravian Gallery in Brno. After the large premises of the Trade Fair Palace, National Gallery in Prague, which even through its architecture revealed the complexities of dealing with the art history of the recent past, the Moravian Gallery in Brno was pleasantly approachable and appealing with unconventional details of the display design. For instance, in the modern and inter-war-avant-garde art section, under each painting, right on the wall is a black and white reproduction of the work in question – so that if works are out of the gallery premises, on loan or restauration, visitors can still see them.

Most striking was the diversity and uncompromising character of these nonofficial art scenes in spite of political pressure after 1968, and the connections Valoch had with Czech, Slovak and international artists. Each of the exposition rooms maps the different roles Jiří Valoch had – the ones of curator, organizer, artist, theoretician, networker or collector. For me the most telling was the room that introduces Valoch as a collector: a reconstruction of the situation in his flat that is overcrowded with artworks, commenting on Valoch’s very passionate engagement, where the boundaries between life and art are more than blurred.

(Ieva Astahovska)

The group’s visit to Brno revolved around the figure of the artist, curator, and theoretician Jiří Valoch, who played a central role in the development and promotion of experimental art from the mid-1960s onwards, in Brno itself and also in a broader context. Thanks to the curator Ondřej Chrobák, we were able to see how Valoch’s collection (consisting of documents, artworks and objects) is featured in the new permanent exhibition “ART IS HERE: New Art” at the Moravian Gallery-Prazak Palace. The discussions focused on the display, artists’ strategies to enable interaction in the context of political normalisation in Czechoslovakia, as well as Valoch’s less known facet as an art collector. As he was actively involved both in local organisations such as the Brno House of Arts and in international networks, Valoch’s activities were particularly emblematic of the overlapping or coexistence of the official and unofficial spheres, a subject that was at the heart of the discussions in this second session of Confrontations.

This was followed by another fascinating visit, this time to the part of the Jiří Valoch Archive that is conserved at the Moravian Gallery’s Governor’s Palace. The curator Jana Písaříková offered us an overview of the large amount of material held at the gallery, reflecting the artist’s connections and interests over more than four decades. One of the challenges the Archive currently faces is the need to design an organizational structure for materials from an artist who was never interested in self-archiving. There is no doubt that the whole complex is fertile ground still to be explored!

(Juliane Debeusscher)

Archiving Valoch

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

For many decades Jiří Valoch has been a “living institution”. He combined different roles in his professional career: a poet, musician, visual and textual artist, art critic, theoretician and curator, artistic culture organizer, pedagogue, art collector and archive builder. He is also an exemplary figure for the “Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History” research project in so far as he managed, between 1960 and 1990, to create and animate a vast transnational network of contacts, exchange and cooperation, not only with partners from other countries of the Eastern bloc but also from Western and Southern Europe or Latin America.

The thing that bears the greatest testimony to Valoch’s networking activities is his vast archive of art documentation, letters, exhibition catalogues and books on art. Regrettably enough, the archive – along with his art collection – is now divided and deposited in a number of places, the most important parts being kept in the Moravian Gallery in Brno, the J. H. Kocman Archive and the National Gallery in Prague. At present, one can hardly imagine an actual institution which would reintegrate Valoch’s dispersed heritage, be devoted to commemorating his multifarious achievements and take them as a reference point for its own contemporary concept, mission and programme. Yet it is exactly such an institution – or an interinstitutional cooperation project – that would be the right site to present the totality of Valoch’s transnational networking activities, at least in the form of a temporary exhibition.

During our visit to the Moravian Gallery in Brno we also had a chance to see the Jiří Valoch Archive itself. It was an unforgettable experience: a long corridor-like room with rows of book cases and card boxes filled with all kind of archival items, with a characteristic smell of old paper and a feeling of hopelessness in the face of an unorderly overabundance of research material. As we were informed by the curator of the archive, Jana Písaříková, the gallery team are indeed at the very beginning of systematic ordering and tagging of the items and researching their content. The situation reminded us about other archives of East European art that are still being discovered or made available for exploration and, more generally, about how much primary sources research is still to be performed here. Contrary to some beliefs, we are not done with it and cannot simply proceed to a next stage of synthetic and comparative analyses. Both, it seems, must be done at the same time.

(Tomasz Załuski)

Popularising Pištěk

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

A visit to the Brno House of Arts gave the Confrontations participants the chance to encounter an artistic oeuvre that sits uneasily within the dichotomies of official and unofficial art, as well as the divide between experimental and mainstream taste. A large-scale solo show of the work of Theodor Pištěk elicited mostly bemusement on the part of the group, encountering unexpectedly the sculpture and paintings of an artist who was educated in the Prague Academy of Applied Arts at the height of Socialist Realism, had a parallel career as a racing car driver, and is best known by the Czech public for his achievements as a costume designer in the film industry. Presented here were both his glossy and futuristic abstract canvases from the 1960s and his equally glossy, hyperrealist paintings from the 1970s and 1980s. These tableaus are filled with racing car drivers, unsettling depictions of exotic natives and pin up girls, as well as streamlined machines and other icons of the technological sublime; a fantasy world that posed no threat to the Normalisation regime, but still tugged at the sub-conscious of socialist citizens. Indicative of changing artworld criteria is the fact that a popular figure like Pištěk could get the full retrospective treatment in a hallowed venue of progressive and conceptual art, where Valoch worked as a curator from the early 1970s.

(Maja & Reuben Fowkes)