A look inside the fight to protect Prague’s communist art
Pavel Karous is biking through Folimanka Park, a charming, tranquil park in the heart of Prague on a sunny afternoon. The young artist stops at a statue of a boy skateboarding. He snaps a picture then hops back on, continuing his bike ride as well as his hunt for other statues in the park to photograph. He bikes by rushing rivers and through lush green trees. He continues past families and teenagers walking by the statues, laughing and playing, unaware of the significance of these statues that were made during a darker period in Czech history.
Cycle, cycle, snap.
Karous continues to take pictures of these “invisible” sculptures that were created during the Normalization period of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
Eight years later, in 2008, Karous came back to the same park to find the skateboarder statue gone, along with many others he had photographed. They were removed by the city, silently and subtly, and without Karous’ photographs, may very well have been forgotten forever.
This is not an isolated event. To this day, the city has been removing public art created during the late 60s to the late 80s in communist Czechoslovakia. Many artists and young people are passionately opposed to the destruction of these works and are currently attempting to document these works in a protest of preservation. One of the most notable projects is that entitled ‘Aliens and Herons,’ which was created by Karous, who has dedicated almost 20 years to this project, in order to document and preserve this quality art that is being disregarded by not only the government, but much of the general public as well.
“They destroy it and when asked why they destroy it, they say it’s this ugly communistic sculpture,” Karous says. “But it’s just a skateboarder.”
The art being created during this period were not statues of communist leaders though. The Normalization period saw the creation of beautiful sculptures of animals and people and flowers to unique architecture and colourful murals. ‘Normalization’ was the period that lasted from the Prague Spring of 1968 to the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Members of the communist party in Czechoslovakia would set aside funds for artwork and artists, were commissioned from an artist’s union so ultimately art and architecture were decided by artists and architects, a system that seems quite liberal in such an oppressive society.
Shortly after the revolution of 1989, statues of representatives of communist leadership were promptly removed including memorials of Stalin and Lenin
In North America right now, there is a huge discussion about removal of confederate monuments. But what about when the sculptures made during these time periods are not memorials of worship to problematic leaders, what about when they are good quality, aesthetically pleasing, works of art?
Aliens and Herons
The words ‘communist art’ don’t exactly bring to mind images of space invader-esque forms and big flying birds. But aliens and herons are just two of the ‘species’ Karous separates the Normalization era sculptures into in his book, ‘Aliens and Herons,’ which compiles his photographs and serves as a guidebook and mode of preservation for this art. In the section entitled ‘aliens,’ sculptures reminiscent of the alien cocoons from the 1979 science fiction film Alien, can be found. And in the section ‘Herons,’ majestic sculptures of the big, stork-like birds are seen. Some of the other categories include ‘Gigantic plants,’ ‘the nuclear family,’ and ‘Hip bones of mammoths’.
Karous’ project documents these over 1500 public art sculptures, many of which have been slowly disappearing over the nearly two decades he has been working on this project. ‘Aliens and Herons’ started as a website to document these works and has now turned into something much bigger. It’s become a community for people passionate about the preservation of these works. Karous’ most recent feat is the book which was released in 2015.
Karous explains that there are a number of reasons for why the city is removing this art. The main reason for the removal of these sculptures, according to Karous, is because of the privatizing of public space. “We are losing our public space which has been because people are not understanding the public space as their own space.” Karous attributes this to “this anti-communistic atmosphere that legitimizes this commercializing of the public space,” Karous says. Many people do not want to talk about this period in history and want to ignore it. “We have not been taught in the universities about this art,” Karous says.
Karous made this project mainly for discussion with the city. He has tried to speak to the city many times, creating slideshows and lectures for them. “They give me a pat on the back and say good job,” Karous says. “They are not interested in it.”
What does the city have to say?
Marie Foltynova is the curator of public sculptures at the Prague City Gallery. She explains that after 1990, the structure of the ownership and management of real estate, institutions, residential houses, and land was changed in the Czech Republic. Statues, plastic objects, reliefs and other decorations of the public space, that were created from 1965 to 1990, became part of a privatized building or land thanks to state support.
“Works of art from the Communist era were not considered to be of high quality and often became victims of reconstruction and revitalization of the area around privatized houses,” Foltynova says. “New owners and managers were often unaware of the value of these works of art.”
The question of who owns the space is often uncertain and this confusion contributes to why the statues are often unprotected. In ‘Aliens and Herons,’ art theorist Tomas Pospiszyl, writes in his section ‘Sculptures which do not belong to anyone’, “Those who are interested in Czechoslovak public art from the 1960s to the 1980s have stated that the biggest obstacle in the attempt to protect it is unclear ownership.”
“Many removed works of art have been in poor condition because nobody cared of them for many years. In other cases, the artwork ‘did not belong to anyone’,” says Foltynova. “It was not registered in the land registers, no one knew who was supposed to take care of it.”
“The situation is changing rapidly, as well thanks to activities such as Aliens and Herons and the public’s interest,” Foltynova says. “also thanks to professional´s interest about the public space.”
The culture department of the city did not have too much to say on the topic but Katerina Buresova, a representative from the culture and tourism department of Prague says “The number of pieces of works alone is demonstrating high artistic value and society’s interest in them is starting to be manifested again.”
Money, money, money
During the Normalization period, there was plenty of art being produced. From nature-themed sculptures to grand buildings to colorful murals, the public space was well-decorated. About 2500 pieces of public art were commissioned and created between the late 60s to late 80s.
Since the fall of the communist regime in 1989, there have only been 56 pieces of public art created.
There was much more funding for public art during the Normalization period. Four per cent of the total budget for construction projects went towards decorating the space with fine art. Currently in the Czech Republic, there is no funding for public arts. Karous hopes for a one per cent of funding for arts from the government. There is also no union for artists currently in the Czech Republic.
Tomas Jelenik, a modern street artist in Prague has a different view on the funding for artists in Prague. “I would prefer if people – collectives, initiatives and NGOs would raise money themselves to support their local artists,” Jelenik says. “But it is very, very difficult to apply something like this in a country where, for decades, people were used to the fact that the state is taking care of everything for themselves without their participation and where people are used to be said what is good and what is bad for them and they had to follow like sheep.”
Jelenik’s agrees with removal of statues of communist leaders and is in favour of the preservation of the public art, but says, “On the other hand I think it’s equally important to remember what happened and what caused this to happen and these monuments might be useful in this regard.”
He says, “it is a complicated issue. It was an upsetting time for many people.” That could be a potential reason for the removal of the statues but Karous thinks that is unlikely as these sculptures are not necessarily “ugly” or reminiscent of communist ideals. Many artists of the time actually decided to create anti-ideology centred sculptures to avoid representation of the politics of the time.
Newer is not always better
Karous’ passion for documenting this art is mainly because he has an artist’s eye and he notices high quality art when he sees it. Karous argues that the Normalization era art is of much higher artistic quality than the public art being created today.
“Look at this art,” he says of the sculptures in his book, “It’s compact, good anatomy, made of good material.”
“And the [public] art you can see now, its totally kitsch,” he says. “Touristic kitsch.”
Take a piece of artwork created on a children’s playground during the Normalization era inspired by Henry Moore showing true art knowledge as opposed to the current public sculptures commissioned for tourism.
“The quality of the public art projects are totally worse because now its not chosen by the professional commission but its chosen by the boss of private companies or the leader of the local politic government so it depends on their own taste,” Karous says. “They are educated in the law or economy mostly so they don’t know shit about art.”
These works are being erased in different ways. They are being physically removed but in some cases, they are literally being covered up.
Outside of the Prague National Theatre there is an original sculpture from the Normalization era by J. Malejovsky. The bronze sculpture, created in 1983, is entitled Rebirth (Spring) and is of a woman in a flowing dress. The sculpture was covered by a sheet with a faux Marilyn Monroe on it. This was done by a modern artist named Eva Blahova to supposedly add something more fun outside of the theatre. The small plaque says the name of the original artist done by but does not provide any further information about the sculpture.
Karous, at 39, has been documenting this art for about 20 years now and has seemed to have inspired others in the process.
A young Czech illustrator, Jan Sramek, has created a book called Special Circumstances where he recreates this art that has been demolished and preserves them by illustrating them in a digital form. Sramek has a childhood connection as many pieces that he remembers from his youth have been taken down. In an interview with PictureDesk, Sramek muses on a wall painting in the shopping mall by his home growing up, and a playground on Strelecky Island that were all created during the Normalization era and are now gone.
Sramek is one of a community of smaller artists following in Karous’ footsteps attempting to preserve this disappearing art in the public space. Jana Korinovka is another example. She maps Normalization art in the public space in Brno and its surroundings.
A potential solution
A park of fallen monuments is a proposed idea from the government, an idea that Karous and many other artists detest. Many sculptures are strongly connected to the physical space they were created in. Thus, removing them would remove them out of their context and erase their meaning. “Its like you take a sculpture of Picasso and you take just the head and move the head somewhere else and the body somewhere else,” Karous says.
Art history professor at Charles University in Prague, Marie Klimesova, summarizes the situation quite well. She says “Not to preserve this art means to lose one part of our history. At first it is necessary to study it and to understand that the artistic value can change over time.”