Matthew Rampley

Art Criticism in Czechoslovakia

A Review of Anežka Bartlová, Tomáš Glanc, Johana Lomová, Tomáš Pospíszyl and Jan Wollner, Jindřich Chalupecký: Texty a Kontexty Kritika Umění (Prague: Academy of Fine Art, 2023)

Matthew Rampley

Art Criticism in Czechoslovakia

A Review of Anežka Bartlová, Tomáš Glanc, Johana Lomová, Tomáš Pospíszyl and Jan Wollner, Jindřich Chalupecký: Texty a Kontexty Kritika Umění (Prague: Academy of Fine Art, 2023)

When Piotr Piotrowski published his now famous essay in 2008 on the concept of horizontal art history, he was primarily concerned with inequalities surrounding the reception of modernism.[1] Modernist and avant-garde art from central and eastern Europe occupies a marginal place in international art historical scholarship, he argued and, 15 years later, one might note that it still does. He could have made a similar claim in relation to art critics and theorists. For the intellectual traditions of central and eastern Europe have often been overshadowed by those of France, Germany, Britain and the United States.

The publication of Jindřich Chalupecký: Texty a kontexty kritika umění [Jindřich Chalupecký: the texts and contexts of the art critic] is consequently to be welcomed. It is the first substantial study in any language of the whole oeuvre of this intriguing writer and thinker.[2]

This book is published in Czech, but the remainder of this review considers it from the perspective of the international reader. In other words, it asks: what might it bring to readers from outside of the Czech Republic? Moreover, does it support the notion that Chalupecký has a justifiable claim to the attentions of a wider readership? Despite the barrier presented by the language of publication, these are not illogical questions to ask, since members of the authorial team have already published studies of him in English, which suggests that they wish to gain an audience beyond the Czech (and Slovak) Republics.[3] In addition, this book points out that Chalupecký spared no end of effort to gain international exposure. He published numerous articles in art magazines based in western Europe and harboured ambitions to publish entire monographs abroad.

What, therefore, do we learn about Chalupecký and his writing from this study? It should be said, first, that the book is an impressive intellectual biography, linking Chalupecký’s career as a writer to episodes in his life and the political and social context in which he lived. It does this on the basis not only of his published writings but also extensive quotation from his private correspondence and other personal archival materials.

The first two chapters lay out the basic framework as well as the outline of his life. Chalupecký was born in 1910 to a comfortable middle-class family in Prague. His father, Jindřich sr., was a professor of optical medicine at the university, who also wrote literary essays. Chalupecký was only seven years old when his father died, and his mother quickly remarried; his step-father was also a medic with artistic and literary interests. Finishing school in 1928, Chalupecký attended university in Prague, where he studied literature, art history and aesthetics with some of the leading intellectual figures of the day, such as Jan Mukařovský and Antonín Matějček. He completed his studies and found work with the painter and designer Zdeněk Rykr in 1930.

All through that decade he was active as an art and literary critic, beginning with a review, in 1930, of the surrealist writer Vítězslav Nezval. He had published nearly 300 articles by 1939 and become a significant voice in Czechoslovakia. The German occupation imposed various restrictions, but he remained active in the artworld, publishing essays and short books, including Smysl moderního umění [The Sense of Modern Art] in which he laid out basic ideas about the social function of modernism, as well as co-founding, in 1942, the short-lived but important artistic and literary group Skupina 42 for which he provided the intellectual foundation.[4]

Following liberation, in 1945, he was appointed to various temporary posts associated with the new Czechoslovak government, and then became involved in the administration of key national artistic associations. The coup of 1948, whereby the Socialist administration assumed power, did little to hamper this employment. Even though he never joined the Communist Party, he rose to a status of some seniority in official artistic organisations. He continued to be a highly prolific art critic and magazine editor and he also served, from the mid-1960s onwards, as curator of the Václav Špala Gallery in Prague, turning it into one of the most important centres of contemporary art in the country. He energetically promoted Czechoslovak art abroad, curating exhibitions in the Hague, Berlin and Rome. This all came to a halt following the repression of the Prague Spring in the autumn of 1968. In 1969 he published an article, ‘All Power to the Workers’ Councils,’ that argued for the importance of artistic and cultural freedom, implicitly criticising the stifling regime of ‘normalization.’[5] He was subsequently banned from publishing, and he also resigned from his position at the Václav Špála Gallery. For the remaining two decades of his life, Chalupecký led the shadowy life of an isolated, banned, dissident intellectual, prevented from travelling to western Europe and limited to samizdat and underground editions of his work, as well as smuggling out writings in vain efforts to maintain an international presence. By the time of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, he was too infirm to take advantage of the new freedoms that had been acquired, and he died in 1990.

The book’s chapters are organized around key publications, which serve as a platform for thematic discussion, but they are also placed in chronological order, enabling the reader to track his career and development. This starts with a chapter on his 1940 essay ‘The World We Live In’ (pp. 38-71), which leads to a wider discussion of his early conceptions of the crisis of modernity and the place of art in it. The following chapter, ‘A Great Opportunity’ (pp. 72-97), is named after a pamphlet he published in 1946 in which, in the heady years after liberation from German occupation, he made a series of suggestions as to how Czechoslovak art and the art world could be reformed.[6] His hopes and plans came to nothing as the Communists seized power and imposed their own cultural regime. However, Chalupecký managed to adapt to this new political reality, and the subsequent chapter (pp. 98-120) explores his work in the 1950s for various state textile enterprises. Bearing the title of an essay he published in 1958, ‘The Production of Art’, it considers nearly a decade of his career engaging with issues in design, technology, art and mass production (including an exhibition he curated in 1953 on The Machine and the Tool as a Work of Art).[7]

In the 1960s he turned his attention once more to modern and contemporary art, and the chapter ‘Art Today’ (pp. 121-43), named after a collection of essays he published in 1966, traces his engagement with themes in modernism and the avant-garde.[8] At the same time that he was still writing about the art of the traditional European centres of modern art – he retained a long-established Czech orientation towards Paris – he became increasingly fascinated with fluxus, happenings and performance art in the United States. The chapter ‘Experimental Art’ (pp. 144-69) examines his extensive interest in figures such as Allan Kaprow, John Cage, and the gallerists Sidney Janis and Leo Castelli.[9] In this period Chalupecký took advantage of the thawing political climate of the mid-1960s to travel extensively abroad. These newly won freedoms were curtailed in late 1968. Alongside the ironically titled ‘All power to the workers’ councils’ he published a string of articles with titles such as ‘Literature and Freedom’, ‘The Necessity of Freedom’ (the title of the chapter on this period, pp. 170-84)) and ‘The Struggle for Freedom’.[10] He also wrote a critical reflection on the self-immolation of Jan Palach in 1969 and helped draw up a provocative proposal for a monument to Palach.[11] These activities embodied the task of engagement, which he thought should be the mission of the art critic, but, as noted, they came at great personal cost.

Although he was prevented from publishing in Czechoslovakia, he remained actively involved in the artworld. As the chapter, ‘Moscow Diary’ (pp. 185-216) demonstrates, he developed a considerable concern with the art of the Soviet Union. There was a well-established fascination amongst Czech critics, artists and architects that could be traced back to the interwar period. Figures such as Karel Teige, Jiří Weil, Jaromír Krejcar and Vítězslav Nezval had all travelled there and written about their experiences, and Chalupecký had become exposed to Russian culture even as a young man. In the 1920s he had become acquainted with Petr Bogatyrev (1893-1971), a Russian ethnologist and folklorist who had become involved in the Prague Linguistic Circle. Banned from travelling to the West, he developed relations with Soviet artists in the 1960s and 1970s, in which Moscow provided a compensatory destination. Yet as the chapter ‘Letter from Prague’ (pp. 217-42) argues, he never gave up trying to gain an audience for Czechoslovak art in western Europe and the United States, via articles smuggled out. The chapter movingly notes that this was in many respects a failure. Chalupecký had supporters in the United States, including the art historian and critic Dore Ashton and William E. Harkins, a professor of Slavic Studies at Columbia University, but he was singularly unable to adapt to the culture of American academia and art criticism. He could not change his style of writing to meet the expectations of this new readership, and he was reluctant to accede to requests to revise his work following peer review. He was taken aback, too, by the fact that academics in the United States (and in western Europe) were not usually paid for their contributions to journals.

His inability to make a name for himself in the United States was perhaps the flip-side of a growing tendency towards intellectual withdrawal from the late 1960s onwards. He turned down all thought of leaving Czechoslovakia because he could not imagine life as an exile abroad. His work suffered as a consequence. The chapter ‘The Fate of the Artist’ (pp. 243-76) covers his long-lasting preoccupation with Duchamp, especially the latter’s enigmatic work The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923). Yet as the book points out, the religious and metaphysical interpretation that Chalupecký developed was completely out of touch with contemporary understandings of the artist’s oeuvre, and it was met with puzzlement when his work was presented to his peers internationally. The ideas and writings he developed in the final decade of his life became increasingly eccentric. The final two chapters describe how he turned again to Czech art, working on two books: On the Borders of Art, and New Art in Bohemia, the latter published posthumously.[12] These books helped confirm the reputation of many artists such as Jiří Balcar, Milan Knížák and Eva Kmentová (subject of a recent exhibition at the Dům umění in Brno) as leading representatives of postwar and contemporary Czechoslovak art, but his unusual approach, grounding their oeuvre in the Bohemian landscape and in atavistic national memories, was completely anachronistic and at odds with the interests and values of his peers. His attempt to foreground the singular characteristics of Czechoslovak art, a laudable aim, perhaps, ended up in a semi-mythical image of national identity. The final project he was working on was a history of European art that offered a similarly eccentric combination of historical discussion, aesthetic theory and metaphysical speculation. It was published only posthumously.[13]

The book offers an authoritative overview of Chalupecký’s career and will be an indispensable guide to understanding him and the environment in which he worked. It also provides a detailed and exhaustive account of the political and social conditions under which he had to operate. Its account of the late 1940s, for example, when the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia led to the persecution of selected individuals, is genuinely chilling at times, for the takeover directly affected colleagues and acquaintances of Chalupecký in serious ways. There has been a growing interest in art criticism and history under socialism, and this book provides a compelling image of how Chalupecký navigated the often treacherous waters of officialdom in the forty years of socialist rule.[14] While the authors point out that in the 1940s he co-operated briefly with the socialist authorities, it is clear that he was remarkably successful in pursuing a career for two decades without compromising his integrity. Moreover, when faced with the moral choice of how to respond to occupation of 1968, he chose to take a stand that testifies to his integrity.

Yet what kind of a thinker was he? The book recounts in considerable detail how various planned publications came about (or failed to), which is especially helpful in the case of Chalupecký, since many of his longer texts were only published after his death and were based on earlier different samizdat versions.[15] Yet we gain a curiously vague picture of Chalupecký’s arguments and ideas. It is as if the authors of the book were reluctant to engage in any detail with his thinking.

Chalupecký regarded himself as a socialist even though he maintained a distance from the Communist party. It is not clear, however, what intellectual commitments he thought that brought with it, for there were any number of ways in which its meaning could be interpreted. He was clearly a very different thinker from Karel Teige, who held to a strongly materialist aesthetic and cultural theory, but how did he compare with other leftist writers on art and culture such as Ernst Fischer, Max Raphael and Walter Benjamin, or fellow central Europeans such as Georg Lukács or Frigyes / Frederick Antal?[16] We also learn that Chalupecký was critical of the belief in artistic autonomy – art is always a social activity – and he also felt that the art critic (and historian) should be socially engaged. But, again, the meaning of this is not explored. What did ‘social’ mean in this context, given the abundance of competing social theories that circulated in the mid-twentieth century? Moreover, how did that inform his reading of individual artists and works of art? The authors of the volume stress that Chalupecký’s art criticism was often grounded in broad philosophical claims that stood at odds with the usual practice of art critics. But which specific ideas were involved here, and what was their pertinence for the individual judgements he made?

The reader will not find an in-depth answer to or discussion of these questions, which is unfortunate, since it is precisely these issues that might underpin Chalupecký’s claim to be a writer deserving greater critical attention, including internationally.

In fact, one can glean from the chapters of the book the outline of an intellectual project that defined some of Chalupecký’s thinking, although it would require a more detailed analysis. For, the authors point out, Chalupecký was deeply interested in phenomenology. His essays are laced through with references to Martin Heidegger, and he also admired the work of his compatriot the philosopher Jan Patočka (1907-1977), a student of Heidegger and one of the last students, too, of Edmund Husserl. Indeed, we might regard Husserl’s famous lectures, delivered in Vienna and Prague in 1935 on ‘The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology’ and published the following year, as a catalyst for the development of a distinctively Czech tradition of phenomenological thinking.[17] The idea of ‘crisis’ articulated by Husserl would be taken up by Chalupecký in the 1940s in his broader meditations on the meaning of modernity, which Patočka himself read. The pages of the short-lived journal he founded in 1946, Listy [Papers] are full of ruminations on existential themes, with translations from Heidegger and Sartre, amongst others.[18]

His interest in phenomenology continued into the 1960s and 1970s. In an essay of 1968 ‘Přítomnost člověka’ (Human presence), recently published online, we see Chalupecký making frequent reference to Husserl and  Heidegger. He was not the only Czech to align himself with this tradition of thought. It provided the ethical basis of Patočka’s resistance to the socialist régime (he was eventually banned from teaching and publishing) and also underpinned the thought of other Czech philosophers, such as Karel Kosík, whose Dialectics of the Concrete (1963) attempted to reconcile orthodox Marxism with phenomenology as the foundations of a Marxist humanism.[19] Chalupecký was also not the only Czech art historian to apply phenomenological themes to the question of art. Others included Josef Hlaváček (1934-2008) and Václav Richter (1900-1970), who explored the outlines of a phenomenological theory of art. Richter did not develop it beyond the sketches of an idea, but he engaged in an extended correspondence about it with Patočka.[20] Kosík, too, wrote a number of philosophical essays on art, literature and culture, as did Patočka.[21]

The authors of the book refer to Chalupecký’s philosophical interests (another significant figure for him was the philosopher Václav Navrátil) but, frustratingly, they remain at the level of generalities. Given his frequent references to Sartre and Heidegger, what specific ideas and preoccupations of theirs did he take up and expand on? How were his readings of specific artist and artworks inflected by such concerns? How did they impact on his avowedly leftist politics, and what problems emerged as a result? Given the enormously fruitful impact of phenomenology – and Heidegger in particular – on aesthetic thought, one might have wished for the study to have explored in more depth the specific voice that Chalupecký and other Czech authors developed in this regard.

Of course, it might be objected that Chalupecký was not a philosopher, and that he had himself not developed a fully worked out set of philosophical beliefs. Nevertheless, his voluminous oeuvre contains no shortage of broad prognostications about art, modernity and the human condition. A deeper engagement with these would have made for a more compelling study. By way of comparison, we might bring into consideration the considerable body of scholarly commentary on Clement Greenberg, whom Tomáš Pospíszyl, the main author of this book, has contrasted with Chalupecký.[22] Since T. J. Clark’s 1982 essay on ‘Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art’, there has been a sustained analysis of Greenberg’s basic conceptual apparatus, of how it shaped his judgements about specific artists and what its implications were.[23] This has underpinned further critical discussion of his significance and legacy. Or, to take a more recent example, we might consider the engagement with the thought of Piotr Piotrowski, which has gone beyond mere celebration to a more critical examination.[24] A comparable level of analysis would have immensely enhanced this study of Chalupecký.

I noted that this review was written from the perspective of the international reader. Regrettably, it remains the case that the only Czech theorist and critic of art, design and architecture to have enjoyed a sustained presence on the international stage is Karel Teige (1900-1951), who has benefitted from multiple critical studies and translations of his work.[25] Jindřich Chalupecký: Texty a Kontexty Kritika Umění indicates why this one-sided image needs to be challenged. For even if it is often reluctant to engage in detailed analysis of Chalupecký’s ideas, it casts a light on the flourishing intellectual life of the Czechoslovak art world of which most international scholars have, at best, only an inkling. Does this mean that the book should be translated into other languages in order to reach a wider readership? Not necessarily. Many of the concerns of this particular study may be too closely tailored to a local readership; it often recounts in exhausting detail episodes in his life and career that may be of less interest than a more expansive exploration of his ideas and their implication. Nevertheless, this book has performed an inestimable service in laying the foundations for the study not only of Chalupecký but of Czechoslovak (and, by extension, perhaps, central European) art criticism and theory.

Author’s Notes: An earlier version of this review erroneously suggested that Chalupecký entered into correspondence with John Cage and Leo Castelli. It also stated that Chalupecký studied with František X. Šalda. I am grateful to Tomáš Pospyszil for noticing these errors.

[1] ‘On the Spatial Turn, or Horizontal Art History,’ Umění 56.5 (2008) pp. 378-83.

[2] A study of Chalupecký’s writings in the 1930s and 1940s, including some key texts from the period, was published in 2017, with a very good extended introduction. However, it is limited to one period of his career. Zdeněk Brdek, Obhájce moderního umění: Jindřich Chalupecký v kontextu 30.a 40. let 20.století [The defender of modern art: Jindřich Chalupecký in the context of the 1930s and 1940s] (Prague, 2017).

[3] See, for example, Tomáš Pospíszyl, ‘A Modernist Crossroads: Jindřich Chalupecký versus Clement Greenberg,’ in, An Associative Art History (Prague, 2018) pp. 16-37; Joana Lomová, ‘The Production of Art: Jindřich Chalupecký on Textiles and Means of Artistic Production,’ Institute of the Present, November 2019. URL: https://institutulprezentului.ro/en/2019/11/15/the-production-of-art-jindrich-chalupecky-on-textiles-and-means-of-artistic-production/.

[4] Jindřich Chalupecký, Smysl moderního umění (Prague: Výtvarný odbor Umělecké besedy, 1944). On Skupina 42 see Eva Petrová, ed., Skupina 42 (Prague: Akropolis, 1998).

[5] Jindřich Chalupecký, ‘Všechnu moc dělnickým radám,’ Literarní Listy 2.7 (1969) pp. 1 and 3.

[6] Jindřich Chalupecký, Veliká příležitost: poznámky k reorganisaci českého výtvarnictví [A great opportunity: notes on the reorganization of Czech art] (Prague, 1946).

[7] The original essay was ‘Výroba umění,’ Umění a řemesla 2.2 (1958) pp. 49-53. The title of the exhibition was Stroj a nářadí jako dílo výtvarné (Prague: Museum of Decorative Arts, 1953).

[8] Jindřich Chalupecký, Umění dnes (Prague, 1966).

[9] Chalupecký published an article with the title ‘Experimentalní umění: Happening, events, de-koláže’ in Výtvarná práce 14.9 (1966) pp. 1 and 7.

[10] Chalupecký, ‘Literatura a svoboda,’ Literarní Listy 1.14 (1968) p. 9 and 1.15 (1968) p. 9; ‘Nezbytí svobody’, Literarní Listy 1.4 (1968) pp. 1 and 3; ‘Spor o svobodu,’ Listy 2.14 (1969) p. 3.

[11] Chalupecký, ‘Smysl oběti’ [The sense of sacrifice], Sešity pro literaturu a diskusi 4.29 (1969) pp. 1-2.

[12] Chalupecký, Na Hranicích umění: několik příběhů (Munich, 1987); Nové umění v Čechách (Prague, 1991).

[13] Chalupecký, Evropa a umění (Prague, 2005).

[14] See, for example, Krista Kodres, Michaela Marek, Kristina Jõekalda and Robert Born, eds, A Socialist Realist Art History? Writing Art History in the Postwar Decades (Vienna, 2019); Milena Bartlová, Dějiny českých dějin umění 1945-1969 (Prague, 2020); Agata Jakubowski and Magdalena Radomska, eds, After Piotr Piotrowski: Art, Democracy and Friendship (Poznań, 2020).

[15] See, for example, Nové umění v Čechách (Prague, 1991); Expresionisté: Richard Weiner – Jakub Deml – Ladislav Klíma – Podivný Hašek (Prague, 1992); Uděl umělce: duchampovské meditace (Prague, 1998); Evropa a umění (Prague, 2005).

[16] See Andrew Hemingway, ed., Marxism and Art History: From William Morris to the New Left (London, 2006).

[17] Edmund Husserl, Die Krisis der europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phänomenologie (Belgrade, 1936). Husserl’s book was translated into Czech as Krize evropských věd a transcendentální fenomenologie (Prague, 1972). It might be noted that even before then, Tomáš G. Masaryk had encountered Husserl and maintained a brief correspondence with him. There were also convergences in their thought. See Jakub Trnka, ‘T. G. Masaryk and Edmund Husserl,’ Filosofický časopis 66.5 (2018) pp. 289-804.

[18] The full title was Listy: čtvrtletník pro umění a filosofii [Papers: Quarterly for Art and Philosophy]. It ran for just two years.

[19] Karel Kosík, Dialektika konkretního: Studie o problematice člověka a světa (Prague, 1963).

[20] Václav Richter, Umění a svět. Studie z teorie a dějin umění (Prague, 2001). Richter’s correspondence with Patočka is published as Dopisy Václavu Richterovi (Prague: Oikoymenh, 2001).

[21] A collection of essays by Kosík have been published as Dialektika, kultura a politika : eseje a články z let 1955-1969 (Prague, 2019).

[22] Pospíszyl, ‘A Modernist Crossroads: Jindřich Chalupecký versus Clement Greenberg,’ as in n. 3.

[23] T. J. Clark, ‘Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art,’ Critical Inquiry 9.1 (1982) pp. 139-56.

[24] See, for example, Magdalena Radomska, ‘Piotr Piotrowski jako praktyk teoretyczny. In Memoriam,’ Biuletyn Historii Sztuki 79.3 (2017) pp. 625-33.

[25] There have been a number of English translations of work by Teige including Modern Architecture and Other Writings, trans. Irena Žantovská Murray and David Britt (Cambridge, MA, 2000), The Minimum Dwelling, trans. Eric Dluhosch (Cambridge, MA, 2002) and The Marketplace of Art, trans. Greg Evans (Prague, 2022). The latter text was published in Italian as Il mercato dell’arte: l’arte tra capitalismo e rivoluzione, trans. Luciana Polliotti e Gianlorenzo Pacini (Turin, 1973) and two collections of essays were published as Arte e ideologia, 1922-1933, trans. Sergio Corduas, Antonella D’Amelia, Barbara Zane (Turin, 1982) and Surrealismo, Realismo socialista, Irrealismo, 1934-1951, trans. Sergio Corduas, Antonella D’Amelia, Barbara Zane (Turin, 1982). French editions include Le marché de l’art, trans. Manuela Gherghel (Paris, 2000) and Liquidation de l’art, trans. Sonia Puineuf (Paris, 2009). There is also a Spanish edition of some his essays, published as Anti-Corbusier, trans. Simona Sulcova (Barcelona, 2008).