Power of inner freedom. Art in isolation is inspiring tomorrow

Two non-profit organizations, Kunsthalle Praha and Post Bellum-Memory of the Nations, joined forces to record the memories of artistic witnesses, presenting together their searing life experiences and inspirational attitudes. The result of the collaboration is a documentary cycle called Art in Isolation. The free movement of persons has been taken for granted since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The 2020 and 2021 pandemic has radically reduced such possibilities.

The artistic activity took a strong hit. Exhibitions began to get cancelled, various regulations affected direct interaction with colleagues, spectators, and the world stage. Questions about the meaning of art, an artist's mission, and boundaries of freedom emerged yet again. The testimonies of the artists who were creating their art during the communist regime in Czechoslovakia are an important memento of a time gone by and an inspiration for the search for meaningful answers in the present. With or without the crisis.

A game on the fringes of art history

“The figure became too limited for my freedom, one wanted to see more than just realism,”remembers Czech artist Inge Kosková (*1940), whose abstract black-and-white drawings silently mirror the rapid course of our history. Interpersonal relationships, the balance of power in life and nature became her main topics. In a natural harmonic style, she gradually abandoned the figure and moved into the realm of lyrical abstraction, a drawing that became a kind of infinite calligraphic diary. Inge Kosková has never entered the so-called hall of fame. Yet, her works are represented in many important collections, and the importance of her black and white notes continues to grow at the margins of art history.


“By not being able to be in touch with artistic directions in the world, I drew my own personal parallel,” recalls in the profile the sculptor Stanislav Kolíbal (*1925), who after the fall of the Iron Curtain became one of the new professors at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, where he raised a number of interesting personalities. Life's obstacles in times of full limitation, he says, can be overcome by strong creative and intellectual will.

Artist Václav Stratil (*1950) almost died in the 1980s after the last, sixth interrogation by the State Security. “I always felt we were needed more here than abroad.I didn't think of myself so much as the guys I was playing rock’n’roll with back then,” recalls Stratil, who, despite all the circumstances and situations, always expressed himself completely freely. In his early work, he became famous for monumental hatched drawings and self-searching photographic self-portraits.

The stories of artists in the time of totality carry on. You can look forward, among other things, to the stories of Květa Pacovská, Jiří Kovanda, Kurt Gebauer, Tomáš Císařovský and others. You can watch each episode on social media and web platforms of the two associated institutions, Kunsthalle Praha & Post Bellum–Paměť národa (Memory of Nations).


František Skála one of the most famous artists of the generation that established itself on the Czech art scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s through unofficial exhibitions. The poetic quality of his playful installations and objects is rooted in absurdity, fictive worlds, an emphatic contempt for contexts and, above all, the exclusive use of "non-artistic" materials and techniques. Since the fall of the communist regime, he has become one of the most well-liked artists in the country and his work has taken on an almost folk popularity. In 1993 he represented the Czech Republic at the Venice Biennale and an extensive retrospective exhibition of his work was organized by the National Gallery in 2017.


Stanislav Kolíbal is a doyen of Czech minimalist sculpture and an artist whose work has resonated internationally. In the early 1950s, he studied at the Academy of Arts, Architecture & Design in Prague, and also holds a degree in scenography from the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, he became a professor at the Academy of Arts in Prague. He is best known for his monochromatic minimalist object-structures, forms which geometrically define spaces in a significantly transcendental manner. Already since the 1960s, he was one of the few artists to gain international recognition and was invited by foreign curators to important shows in Europe and the USA. During the years 1998-1999, he became the first Czech artist to attend the prestigious DAAD residency in Berlin. In 2012 his biggest retrospective exhibition was held at the Imperial Stables of the Prague Castle, and in 2019 he represented the Czech Republic at the Venice Biennale.


Inge Kosková remains an extraordinary artist on the Czech periphery. Though primarily focused on teaching, her work has won theoreticians‘ attention. Her main topic became interpersonal relationships, the balance of forces in life and nature. With her natural harmonic style, she gradually left the figure and moved into the realm of lyrical abstract drawings, creating an endless calligraphic diary of hers. She has never entered the so-called Hall of Fame, yet her works are represented in many significant collections and the importance of her black and white notes on the fringes of art history is still growing.


Václav Stratil is a “multi mental” artist, expressing himself with total freedom. During the Communist era in Czechoslovakia, he operated within the unofficial scene and went through a number of manual occupations. His work defies categorisation: aesthetic, abrasive, philosophical. In his early work, Stratil became famous for his monumental hatched drawings and self-questioning photo-portraits of himself.


Jiří Kovanda achieved a successful artistic career without formal training. He started off with lone events in the streets, inviting just his friends. Despite being apolitical, his existential action art was noticed by the Western art scene. He was a solitary artist in the 80s and 90s, and displaying his works was less important than exploring the mysteries of ordinary life. After 1989, he worked as a teacher at art colleges and thanks to his exhibition activities, he climbed to the top of the Czech Art Index.


Milan Knížák gained recognition as a prominent performance artist of the 1960s; he became the only Czech artist invited into the Fluxus movement. He also extensively engaged with painting, objects, installations, design, fashion, and music. He acted as a solitary figure on the Czech art scene and was always highly critical of his surroundings. His consistent human and artistic stances garnered widespread respect—consequently, following the fall of the Iron Curtain, Knížák found himself in important specialist positions, despite never finishing his professional education. He became the first post-revolutionary rector of the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, and later the director of the National Gallery in Prague. His earlier work is part of many art collections worldwide.


The public did not start to discover Libuše Jarcovjáková until she was quite a bit older, because her “non-artistic”, very personal view of the world around her was completely outside the realm of artistic production or documentary photography. She fused life and art, moving at the edge of society and photographing the environment of workers, the Roma, and gay clubs. In addition, she continuously created something of a personal diary, a record of her own journey and dramatic story. She was never a dynamic documentary photographer, but always an inconspicuous and participating observer – someone who lived in her own fantasy world. Because of their spontaneous and intuitive nature, her photographs offer a strong emotional image of life behind the Iron Curtain.


Kurt Gebauer is a fundamental author of Czech sculpture of the last half-century. Capturing the poetry of the everyday without theatrical gestures, his mainly figurative works illustrating human stories became popular. His work is inextricably linked to public space - sculpturally and architecturally, he regards his role as "municipal sculptor". After the regime's fall, he eventually became the head of the legendary "All Sculpture Studio" and educated the next generation of sculptors.


Květa Pacovská is a world-renowned illustrator of creative children's books, having begun her career in the 1950s. She graduated from the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design (UMPRUM) in Prague in the monumental painting studio of the famous Cubist painter Emil Filla. Her extraordinary abstract work did not receive wider recognition until after the fall of communism in the 1990s. She received a number of awards for her work as an illustrator, including the Hans Christian Andersen Prize in 1992, and even created her own books. Some of her publications have only been published abroad. Květa Pacovská's free-form work was somewhat overshadowed by the acclaimed work of her husband, Milan Grygar. The strength and quality of her work was eventually put on display in a retrospective exhibition held in the City Gallery of Prague in 2019, when the author also entered the Czech Grand Design Awards Hall of Fame.


Vladimír Škoda established himself as a sculptor in France, where he has lived since emigrating there in 1968. While he never got into the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, he studied directly at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He was inspired by the research activities of the mathematician and astrologer Jan Kepler. The correlation of cosmic bodies, interactions, and energies are the subject of Škoda’s installations, in which a sphere is the dominating shape. This sphere in its many forms, materials, and structures is the hallmark of this Czech artist. Vladimír Škoda later taught at art schools in Le Havre and Marseille in France. He was only able to exhibit his works in the Czech Republic after 1991; in 1995, a retrospective exhibition was organized by the Rudolfinum Gallery.


Jitka Svobodová has long devoted herself to the drawing medium. Although she studied painting and the beginning of her artistic journey belonged to painting, drawing became the main domain of her work from the mid-1970s. In her drawing, Jitka Svobodová repeatedly revisits the basic events in nature and in her personal life. Timelessness, minimalism, austerity, and subtlety all simultaneously prevail in her drawings. The artist doesn’t offer complex metaphors, but rather a truth about shapes, their proportions, and the simplicity of a direct, non-associative perspective. There's a kind of meditative philosophical dimension in her drawings; the viewer is drawn to them as if they're entering an alternate reality that's somehow so familiar. Svobodová never followed the trends of the time, always staying in her own lane and defending her place on the Czech art scene. After 1989, she became the head of the drawing studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague where she worked for more than twenty years.

MILOŠ ŠEJN (*1947)

Miloš Šejn made a great leap from traditional landscape painting towards expressive language involving not only visual forms but also a whole wide range of relationships between artist and nature. The intermediate artist works with painting, drawing, photography, video, and art installations. He physically involves himself in his work and also makes use of various natural processes – for him, the wilderness is an endless source of inspiration and the foundation of creation. His works are a record or result of specific events, experiments in the great outdoors, or a collection of natural pigments. He's interested in the relationship between nature and art as a state of mind; his work is difficult to categorize and ranks as one of the most original creative outputs in contemporary Czech art.


Jaroslav Abbé Libánský is a self-taught artist who still does documentary photography, collages, and occasionally land art. He earned the nickname Abbé at the Faculty of Theology, moreover, at a time when the French classic film The Count of Monte Cristo (1954) became a huge hit at the Czechoslovak box office. Libánský was part of the Czech underground and a signatory of Charter 77. He was forced to flee to Austria during “Operation Asanace” (the code name for the secret police's "emigration campaign" in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Thanks to his black-and-white images, many forgotten moments in the life of the alternative scene still survive; and Libánský documents similar communities still to this day. These days he resides in Vienna and Slavonice, where he runs an antiquarian bookshop and gallery.


Iren Stehli is a Swiss photographer who studied at FAMU (the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts) in Prague. She found the environment of a totalitarian state so inspiring that she continuously extended her stay in Czechoslovakia and eventually settled in Prague after 1989. During the 1990s, she was the director of the Swiss cultural foundation Pro Helvetia Prague. Stehli‘s photographic practice takes the form of thematic series compiled over long periods of time. Themes that she has engaged with include the environment of ballroom dancing lessons, the abandoned houses and apartments of Prague’s Žižkov neighborhood, and the display windows of socialist shops. Usually shooting in black-and-white, Stehli’s photographs convey a surprised gaze, as if belonging to someone viewing the world for the first time. She has also created series focused on specific people and their stories, the most notable of which, titled Libuna, portrays a Romani woman and her family, whose story Stehli followed—in Prague and from abroad—up until Libuna’s death.