ALICE MOTARD Marie, when did you discover Běla Kolářová’s work?
MARIE KLIMEŠOVÁ At the turn of the seventies I was among those in the Czechoslovak art scene who continued to work outside the official institutional circuit despite the difficult conditions of so-called ‘Normalisation’. This is when I met Jiří Kolář, Běla Kolářová’s husband. I had a rather superficial idea of his work, which seemed to revolve mainly around aesthetic and formal issues. I was vaguely aware that he was an outstanding intellectual figure, but this was about all I knew about him – in those days, people hardly confided in each other beyond their circle of friends.
I had completed my degree in art history in 1976, but for ideological reasons the courses offered at university never extended beyond Brancusi or Kandinsky. By the time I first encountered Jiří Kolář, in 1979, I had developed a keen interest in contemporary art, although I was working in the Department of Old Prints at the National Gallery in Prague. I was immediately impressed by his frankness and open-mindedness. He gave me several catalogues including, among others, his recent monograph published by the Institut für moderne Kunst in Nuremberg, which I still believe to be one of the best books about his work.
As for Běla, I think I first met her in her husband’s studio in Paris shortly after the Velvet Revolution. The two often came to Prague, where we would meet at openings or during events such as the Jindřich Chalupecký Award for young Czech artists, which Jiří Kolář had co-founded with Václav Havel and the artist and costume designer Theodor Pištěk in 1990. Unfortunately, I missed Běla’s exhibitions in Litoměřice in 1997 and Prague in 1998, which is why I only really discovered her work in 2002, when she asked me to assist her in dealing with the estate of her husband, who had just passed away. I soon realised that it was even more important to help her secure her own work, which is why I developed a strategy for the presentation and dissemination of her works that would protect her from commercial pressures. But allow me return the question, Alice. When did you come across Běla Kolářová’s work? And what was it that caught your attention?
AM Like many exhibition goers, I first saw her work at documenta 12 in 2007, where she was showing a range of works, including photographs of hair and photograms from the series of ‘Radiograms of Circles’. For me the most intriguing exhibits, both formally and conceptually, were the works from the ‘Dishes’ series, a geometric arrangement of small, trivial objects –rhinestones, pearls, toothpaste caps, fishing lures, etc. – glued to sheets of glass or mirror glass propped in plastic dish racks (fig.5, see also plate 30). Their combinatory logic reminded me of Sol LeWitt to the extent that the sheets of glass, which were equally reminiscent of microscope slides and plates that had been left to dry, were interchangeable and variable in number. I found it both refreshing – probably because of its cheerful kaleidoscopic effects – and profound, as though the contents of a sewing kit – the female condition, if you will – had been subjected to scientific scrutiny. And although it nodded to European Neo Constructivism and Op Art, it was unlike anything else I had seen. It dates from 1966, the year of her first solo exhibition in Prague. What can you tell us about this exhibition? And could you elaborate on the cultural and artistic context of those years?
MK Běla’s exhibition took place at Galerie na Karlově náměstí, a venue on Charles Square run by the Czech Artists’ Union. (There were no private galleries in the ČSSR between 1948 and 1989.) This was the most prestigious contemporary art space in Czechoslovakia besides Špálova galerie, which was headed by Jindřich Chalupecký. It consisted of two small, windowless rooms with tiled floors and dark wooden panelling in a big functionalist building from 1929. From 1965 to 1969 it was run by Ludmila Vachtová, a renowned art historian, who presented several exhibitions of Constructivist and Kinetic artists, whose work she considered to reflect current trends. She rehabilitated historic artists such as František Kupka and Zdeněk Pešánek, who had been largely forgotten in the sixties, while organising exhibitions of young, experimental or foreign artists and movements: Kinetic Art from Moscow, Frank Malina, Karel Malich, Alena Kučerová, Hugo Demartini, Stano Filko, Miloš Urbásek, Terry Haas, Kamil Linhart, Jan Svoboda and Stanislav Zippe, among others. These artists differed from the mainstream of Czech art in those years, which revolved around Informal Art, New Figuration, Pop Art, Neo-Dada and Post-Surrealism.
Běla Kolářová’s exhibition in November 1966 represented such a singular artistic vision that the Czech public were out of their depth; they simply didn’t have the tools to understand it. The curator did nothing to dispel their bewilderment and, in her essay in the small exhibition leaflet, presented the artist’s work as absolutely unique and cutting edge. In his opening speech the intellectual, poet and translator Josef Hiršal, a close friend of the Kolářs, described Běla’s work as an example of Concrete Art with references to Op Art and writing, highlighting its openness and the implied dichotomy between chance and order.
Earlier that year, Běla’s work had also been included in Image and Writing, a seminal group exhibition organised by Jiří Padrta at Špálova galerie, and in Surrealism and Photography, curated by Václav Zykmund for the Photographic Cabinet of the Brno House of Arts. Interestingly, the angles chosen by critics to define Běla’s work differed greatly, but they failed to highlight the original aspects in her work, which explains why she was not included in the blockbuster exhibitions of Czechoslovak art aimed at foreign publics such as Czechoslovak Art Today at Städtische Kunstgalerie Bochum in 1965, Contemporary Czechoslovak Art at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste in 1966, and Current Trends in Czech Art, an exhibition of 74 artists in four exhibition spaces during the World Congress of the International Association of Art Critics AICA in Prague in 1966.
AM Why did many in the Czech art scene struggle to understand Běla Kolářová’s work?
MK First of all you have to remember that historically, Czech art is looking to Central Europe, with its long romantic, expressive and poetic tradition. You also have to take into account her husband’s undisputed authority in the circle of Constructivist artists. He was the co-founder and leader, together with Jiří Padrta, of the artists’ collective Křižovatka [Crossroads], and a dominant figure in Czech cultural life. Although Běla had a strong personality herself, she was more discreet and withdrawn, maybe too modest to attract attention to herself. She also saw her art as a private and intellectual activity.
Lacking an academic degree, she had difficulties getting admitted into the official art circuit. After suffering a second bout of tuberculosis in 1956, she received a disability pension for a while, which exempted her from the obligation of employment. As a matter of fact, only professional artists recognised by the Artists’ Union or the Artists’ Fund on the basis of their academic studies could earn a living as self-employed workers.
From 1967 to 1970 Běla was a candidate to the Union (a lesser status than member), and from 1982 to 1984 she was a member of the Fund. This would have allowed her to sell her work through official channels. The art historian Josef Hlaváček maintains that Jiří Kolář supported his wife’s career from the early sixties onwards, but Běla would nonetheless have struggled to find her place in the collective led by her husband. On the other hand, it was her only option – not only because she moved in the same circles, but also because the other established artists’ groups such as UB 12 and Trasa [Road] were proponents of New Figuration.
AM What exactly is the pioneering aspect in Běla Kolářová’s art? And to what extent does her work differ from Informal Art as practised by the Konfrontace [Confrontation] movement or the abstract geometry of Křižovatka?
MK The intrinsic originality of Běla Kolářová’s art was probably due to the fact that, like her husband, she had never been to art school. Their boldness and intellectual openness were not typical of Czech society at that time. To give you an example, Jiří Kolář’s first exhibition of collages at the Mánes Art Club in Prague in 1962 was not only trashed by the critics, but also by his own friends, who clearly preferred his literary work. When seen in an international context, however, it appears that essential characteristics of both Jiří’s and Běla’s work – its conceptuality and the absence of the artist’s “handwriting” – were by all standards progressive. This became manifest in the second half of the sixties, when the international avant-garde movements Gutai and Zero were introduced to Czechoslovakia through an exhibition and various articles in the specialised press. The image of a circular relief by Minoru Onoda, for instance, reproduced in the influential art magazine Výtvarná práce on the occasion of the Gutai exhibition in Prague, bears striking similarities to Běla Kolářová’s earlier ‘Radiograms of Circles’ and her later series based on snap fasteners.
In the catalogue of the exhibition New Sensitivity. Křižovatka and Guests, shown in 1968 in Brno, Karlovy Vary and Prague, Běla discusses her influences: ‘In contemporary art I sense there is an affinity between my work and that of Group Zero. But I also feel a certain affinity with other artists who mostly work in different directions. One of them is Martial Raysse, who says: “I felt a desire to escape death, to found a new morality which does not speculate with sentiment, the decomposition of cells, the inevitable degradation of man and objects bound to break down. I wanted a new world, a sterilised, clean and technological world in step with the latest technological advances of the modern world ...” This is why I need civilisation in order to make my work. I’m convinced that no contemporary artist can do without it – just like no artist in the past could do without nature.’
Her ‘artificial negatives’ from the early sixties, in which she uses banal objects from everyday life, are ideologically close to the New Realists. And although at first glance their preoccupation with structure is reminiscent of Konfrontace’s take on Informal Art, they are devoid of expression or gesture. Contrary to the Neo-Dadaist works of certain New Realists, with whom she shares an interest in the residues of daily life, Běla’s work is delicate, meticulous, intellectual and fragile. The formal organisation of the surface in regular segments recalls Minimal Art and Rosalind Krauss’s observations on the grid as ‘emblematic of the modernist ambition’. But what distinguishes it from these international currents – which Běla knew fleetingly at best – is the reference to the personal or intimate (a characteristic it shares with the work of Eva Hesse) and to chance as the underlying principle of the geometric construction. The idea of chance also played an important role in the Constructivist work of Křižovatka members such as Zdeněk Sýkora, Jiří Kolář or Karel Malich, but they invariably put the emphasis on the abstract (Sýkora), spiritual (Malich) or humanistic (Kolář) dimension. One could therefore argue that the notion of intimacy in Běla Kolářová’s work is an original element – even in the international context.
AM New Sensitivity was the second exhibition of the Křižovatka group in which she took part. Josef Hlaváček later wrote that it constituted ‘not only a prefiguring of future development[s], but at the same time almost an epitaph of the 1960s’. Could you explain what he meant by that?
MK New Sensitivity gathered not only the original members of the group, but also other artists whose works were rooted in Constructivism. I believe Josef Hlaváček saw it as the symbolic end of a decade rich in intellectual and artistic developments. Maybe he wanted to suggest that with the invasion of Soviet troops, the relative insouciance of the sixties had well and truly vanished.
In this exhibition Běla presented assemblages such as Five Times Four, in which she reverted to techniques she had introduced in 1964, for instance in the series shown at Galerie na Karlově náměstí in 1966 or in the ‘Dishes’ shown the same year in the UK. They consist of small objects from her private life – her husband’s broken razors (which he used to make his collages), human hair, safety pins, snap fasteners, etc. –, sometimes combined with photograms from the series of ‘Radiograms of Circles’. She continued to work with assemblages until 1971, producing several large-format series with snap fasteners, razors and levers. That year proved a particularly grim period, as the implications of the invasion were becoming clear to everybody, most notably as freedom of expression was concerned.
When talking about Běla’s work, I wouldn’t use the word ‘epitaph’, since her approach is essentially progressive. Rather than signalling the end of an era, her assemblages from 1968 to 1971 bear witness to a simultaneously personal and historic development. In 1970 Jiří Kolář suffered a stroke and had to learn to walk, speak and write again. I’m not aware of any work by Běla between 1972 and 1975, but in the second half of the seventies, she resumed her practice. She introduced new techniques, for instance creating her first series of make-up drawings with lipstick, nail varnish, artificial nails, jewellery, etc., which confirm her affinity with the work of Martial Raysse.
But I’m not completely sure why she stopped working temporarily. During Normalisation the situation for artists was particularly complicated because the authorities were sensitive to any form of public expression that could be construed to be critical of the political regime. At the same time, opportunities to exhibit, sell or compare their work to that of their colleagues abroad were drying up. The artists of that generation – if they had not already emigrated, that is – continued working nonetheless. Běla was a bit of a loner, and I suspect that the reasons for her artistic silence were private. She was probably looking for new motivation, and after the rocky period from the couple’s divorce in 1968 to their remarriage in 1971, she might have tried to redefine her relationship with Jiří. In any case it wasn’t until the mid-seventies that she found her strength as a woman.
In 1975 she showed a series of photographs at the Veterinary Research Institute in Brno. This was one of the unusual venues used during Normalisation as alternatives to the established exhibition spaces, which were run by the Union and were therefore reserved for official artists. Other institutions such as scientific laboratories or local Houses of Culture started hosting exhibitions thanks to a handful of dedicated employees who braved the bureaucratic machinery. In Prague the most famous of these places was the ÚMCH, the Institute for Macromolecular Chemistry. Although they were officially restricted to its employees, the exhibitions at the ÚMCH were de facto open to the public. They were often organised by renowned art historians, who like the artists were lacking opportunities to hone their skills.
AM Jiří Kolář signed the Charter 77, which criticised the Normalisation process. Was the couple’s departure to Berlin in 1979 directly linked to the subsequent repression of dissidents?
MK All the signatories of Charter 77 were put under pressure and persecuted by the secret police. But Jiří and Běla were free spirits, and as artists, they were not concerned about losing their jobs. Jiří was known in the West and probably made a living from selling his works abroad. Until 1978 he even sponsored a prize named after him that rewarded a non-official writer or artist (the predecessor, so to speak, of the Chalupecký Award). In 1979 he received an invitation by the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst [DAAD] to spend a year in West Berlin as an artist-in-residence. This was his opportunity to abscond.
Jiří Kolář had in fact been among the signatories of the very first document of the Charter on 1 January 1977. As with all public dissidents, his every move was scrutinised by the regime. On 13 March 1977 the philosopher Jan Patočka died of a stroke after an interrogation; this convinced Jiří that he had to leave the country. He was later sentenced in absentia for breaching the terms of his permission to travel abroad. After Berlin, the couple moved to Paris. In 1981 Běla returned to Prague to arrange their personal affairs – the house, their works, their collection of art, books, documents, etc. –, but it wasn’t until 1985 that she was granted permission to exit the country again.
AM What did she do in those years alone in Prague? How did she live, and on what did she work?
MK She was busy coming to terms with the bureaucracy. The law stipulated that emigrants must be dispossessed of all their belongings. Běla therefore had to find a way to disseminate her husband’s work among friends or send it in small parcels to Paris. Jiří’s collection of artworks was entrusted to the National Gallery in Prague thanks to its director Jiří Kotalík and was therefore preserved. Běla also battled to salvage the house where she lived until her departure, probably with other members of the family. No one really knows how she managed in those years, but presumably her husband sent her money.
During all this time, unsure whether she would ever be able to leave the country again, she immersed herself in her artistic work, which helped her get through the ordeal. The feminine and autobiographical aspects are more visible in her work from that time. The culminating point of her work, the series entitled ‘Biography of a Snap Fastener’, represents a kind of retrospective of her life since childhood. As she has pointed out herself, she had been looking for a boring, repetitive activity to kill time. She also created metaphorical or even political works in which, mainly from 1980 onwards, one can sense the influence of Picabia (she owned the catalogue of his retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1976).
AM If one were to use a somewhat exhausted feminist slogan, one could say that in Běla Kolářová’s work ‘the personal is political’. While feminine aspects are already present in her work from the sixties, they become more prominent in the seventies and eighties – I’m thinking of the make-up drawings, for instance. Could her work then be interpreted or reconsidered in light of feminist theories? Was she conscious that her work shared certain concerns of feminist artists in the West, notably in the USA?
MK There is no written record that would support this. But we know that in autumn 1975, Jiří Kolář exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and that Běla accompanied him to the States, where they met Charlotta Kotik, a Czech émigrée who had become a world-renowned art historian, as well as Jan and Meda Mládek, the famous patrons whose private collection became the founding stone of today’s Museum Kampa in Prague. In the seventies, they were also in contact with the publisher Giancarlo Politi and his Czech wife, Helena Kontová, whose interest in feminist discourses is well documented.
The art historian Martina Pachmanová attributes the fact that Czech art in those years was hardly interested in feminism to a lack of information and ‘the dominant concept of art as a transcendent category’. She goes on to write that ‘the biggest enemy was the totalitarian regime which women and men in the counterculture fought against ...’ That said, I believe it is worthwhile to reconsider Běla’s work from this angle, even if she herself was largely unaware of these discourses. She was rather introverted and reserved, maybe not very sure of herself – or her work, for that matter. In my opinion, she was interested in movements and trends, but never thought of mining them in her own work or being part of them. I could add that there was no proper art critic to support her approach or compare her work to that of artists outside Czechoslovakia – Ludmila Vachtová had emigrated and Jindřich Chalupecký, although supporting several women artists, never wrote a single line on her.
AM What was it like working with her for eight years and encouraging her to exhibit her work? Was she pleased by this late acknowledgment? And did she continue to work until the end of her life?
MK Běla gave me a lot of freedom in dealing with her work, and I did my best to present it in a way that would do justice to its historic importance and outstanding quality. Of course, she was happy that her work was so well received, but this didn’t affect her personality in the slightest. Up to the last day of her life, she remained a radiant person, with tremendous charisma and great freedom of thought. She just was not capable – or didn’t think herself capable – of managing her career. At her age, she also had difficulties to gauge the international context in which her art could be seen. And although several critics, among whom Josef Hlaváček, Vít Havránek and Martina Pachmanová, had stressed the historic importance of her work, she had remained famously unfamous. It wasn’t until the death of her husband that collectors discovered her art, but even before documenta 12, her place in history was uncertain.
From the beginning of our relationship I sensed that Běla, although she believed in her work, did not really consider it to be exceptional. She seemed genuinely surprised at the fact that it attracted peoples’ interest, which corroborated my impression that she made art for much more profound reasons. At that time, she no longer produced new work – with the exception of an incredible assemblage of textile samples and pencil shavings –, but she often talked about resuming unfinished projects, such as the collages on chiasmages she had conceived with her husband in the late eighties. And to our great delight she also restored several
assemblages from the sixties.
Marie Klimešová is an art historian, curator and professor of history of modern art at the Charles University in Prague.
Translated from the French by Boris Kremer
1. Normalisation’ is the euphemistic term used by the regime to describe the restoration of communist rule after the defeat of the Prague Spring in 1968.
2. Institut für moderne Kunst and Galerie Johanna Ricard (eds.), Jiři Kolář: Monografie mit einem Lexikon der Techniken (Zirndorf: Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 1979).
3. Běla Kolářová: práce z let 1956–1996, Severočeská galerie výtvarného umění v Litoměřicích, Litoměřice, 6 March–13 April 1997, Dům umění města Brna, Brno, 1 July–10 August 1997, and Východočeská Galerie v Pardubicích, Pardubice, 23 September–2 November 1997. Běla Kolářová: Neznámé písmo (Fotogramy, derealisace, asambláže 1956–1996), Galerie U prstenu, Prague, 11 March–30 March 1998.
4. He died a few days before the end of an exhibition organised by Marie Klimešová
for Bohemia Magica – Czech Season in France. L’œil éphémère. Œuvres de Jiři Kolář, Musée des beaux-arts de Dijon, 28 June–30 September 2002.
5. Obraz a písmo, Galerie Václava Špály, Prague, 14 January–6 February 1966, Oblastní galerie Vysočiny v Jihlavě, Jihlava, 14 February–13 March 1966, and Regionální muzeum Kolín, Kolín, 17 April–May 1966.
6. Surrealismus a fotografie, Dům pánůz Kunštátu – Dům umění města Brna, Brno, 6 May–5 June 1966, and Museum Folkwang, Essen, 2 October–2 November 1966.
7. Tschechoslowakische Kunst heute, 16 May–25 July 1965.
8. Tschechoslowakische Kunst der Gegenwart, 17 July–21 August 1966.
9. Aktuální tendence českého umění, 23 September–16 October 1966.
10. After completing their studies, artists were automatically admitted to the Czech Visual Artists’ Fund (Český fond výtvarných umělců), which allowed them to be independent workers. The Union of Czechoslovak Visual Artists (Svaz Československých výtvarných umělců), which had been founded in 1956, was dissolved in 1969 because of its involvement in the Prague Spring and replaced by two separate, Czech and Slovak, unions.
11. These groups included several women artists such as Věra Janoušková, Adriena Šimotová, Alena Kučerová and Vlasta Prachatická (UB 12), or Eva Kmentová, Olga Čechová, Zdena Fibichová and the twins Jitka et Květa Válová (Trasa).
12. Jiří Kolář: Depatesie, Klub výtvarných umělců Mánes, Prague, 31 May–13 June 1962.
13. Gutai, Galerie Václava Špály, Prague, 1 September–1 October 1967.
14. Nová citlivost. Křižovatka a hosté, Dům umění města Brna, Brno, 10 March–17 April 1968, Galerie umění Karlovy Vary, Karlovy Vary, 28 April–15 June 1968, and Výstavní síň Mánes, Prague, 20 July–20 August 1968. The exhibition closed prematurely when Russian soldiers occupied the building on 21 August 1968.
15. Quoted in Nová citlivost. Křižovatka a hosté, exh. cat. (Prague: Český fond výtvarných umělců, 1968), n.p.
16. Rosalind Krauss, ‘Grids’, in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), p. 9.
17. Josef Hlaváček, ‘The Story of Běla Kolářová’, in Běla Kolářová, exh. cat. (Český Krumlov and Řevnice: Egon Schiele Art Centrum and Arbor Vitae, 2003), p. 72.
18. Arlington-une. Summer ’66, Arlington Mill, Bibury, 1966.
19. Jiří Kotalík, like Jiří Kolář and Jindřich Chalupecký, was a member of the artists’ collective Skupina 42.
20. In Czech, the word for ‘snap fastener’ – patentka – is female.
21. Charlotta Kotik is the daughter-in-law of the painter Jan Kotík, who had been
a member of Skupina 42. His exile in West Berlin after a DAAD residency in 1969 provided a blueprint for Kolář, as it were.
22. The two couples knew each other since the sixties, when Meda Mládek travelled
to Prague regularly to buy art. In 2002 Běla Kolářová donated the Kolářs’ personal collection to Museum Kampa in Prague.
23. Martina Pachmanová, ‘In? Out? In Between? Some Notes on the Invisibility of a Nascent Eastern European Feminist and Gender Discourse in Contemporary Art Theory’, in Bojana Pejić et al. (eds.), Gender Check: A Reader (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2010), p. 39.
25. Vít Havránek is the curator of the exhibition Akce, slovo, pohyb, prostor: Experimenty
v umění šedesátých let [Action, Word, Movement, Space: Experiments in the Art of the Sixties] at the Prague City Gallery, 24 November 1999–26 March 2000, which included several works by Běla Kolářová.
26. Martina Pachmanová is also the author of ‘Three Secrets of Běla Kolářová’, published in Akce, slovo, pohyb, prostor: Experimenty v umění šedesátých let, exh. cat. (Prague: Galerie hlavního města Prahy, 1999), p. 433–5.
27. ‘Chiasmages’, a term coined by Jiří Kolář, are works composed of torn and rearranged fragments of texts on a flat surface, relief or three-dimensional object. In this series from 1989, Běla Kolářová used several of her husband’s chiasmages as canvasses onto which she applied objects symbolically referring to the original texts.