Almost three years after the group exhibition Unto This Last, which included several photographs, assemblages and makeup drawings by Běla Kolářová, Raven Row is now in the fortunate position to give the work of the late Czech artist
the attention we feel it deserves.
At the turn of the sixties, and in less than half a decade, Kolářová pioneered an art based on small, intimate objects often associated with domesticity and the feminine. In this period her work progressed from using mundane objects as photographic negatives to photographing them in various configurations and shapes, and ultimately gluing them directly onto surfaces in works that dispensed with photography altogether. In a statement from 1968, which is reprinted here, she retraces this development, in which the object is both the end and means of the work of art.
The selection of works on display in this posthumous retrospective spans the artist’s career to include documentary photographs from the late fifties, camera-less experiments (‘artificial negatives’, ‘light drawings’ and ‘derealised portraits’), ‘arranged photographs’ of objects and hair, and assemblages from the sixties, as well as assemblages, collages and make-up drawings from the seventies and eighties.
While rooted in the context of the Cold War and exile, Kolářová's practice is closely linked to the life of her husband, the influential artist and poet Jiří Kolář, whose work until recently overshadowed her own. Despite the difficulties of exhibiting in her own country, Kolářová was able to develop a unique body of work which can today be reassessed in relation to western conceptual and feminist practices. As this exhibition hopes to demonstrate, its legacy to the history of art, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, starkly contrasts with the modesty of its materials – and of its author.
We are greatly indebted to Karel Císař and Matthew S. Witkovsky, whose involvement in this project culminated in a visit to Kolářová’s studio in July 2012. Their contributions to this publication shed new light on the artist’s work: the former, via deconstructivism and an anthropology of images, stresses the continuity between Kolářová’s early documentary photographs and her abstract work, while the latter examines the artist’s interest in patterns from the angle of communications theory and cybernetics, and reveals how the abstract and the prosaic coexist in her work.
The exhibition would simply not have been possible without the art historian Marie Klimešová, a long-time friend of the Kolářs who assisted Kolářová in the last years of her life. It was she who organised the most complete exhibition of the artist’s work to date at the Olomouc Museum of Art in 2006. We are very grateful to her for agreeing to co-curate this exhibition and would like to acknowledge her enthusiasm and boundless commitment. Working with her in Prague and London has been a wonderful experience, as she never failed to share her extensive knowledge of the Czech art scene. Our conversation in this catalogue aims to contextualise Kolářová’s practice by sketching the changing cultural and political landscape in which it developed.
Similarly, this show would not exist without the support of Martin and Michaela Helcl, Kolářová’s nephew and wife, who manage her estate. We thank them wholeheartedly for their trust from the outset of this project and for keeping the doors of the artist’s studio wide open.