East Contemporary

Prague City Gallery: “Carnations and Velvet. Art and Revolution in Portugal and Czechoslovakia”

Prague, Municipal Library 2F, April 30 – September 29, 2019, http://www.ghmp.cz

The exhibitions attempted to compare Czechoslovak and Portugese art on the basis of historical similarities between the “Carnation Revolution” in 1974 Portugal and “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 Czech Republic. The focus was on art spanning this period, with a little excursion into the contemporary realm at the end.

The long walls of the entrance wall were covered with a comprehensive timeline outlining the historical events in both countries. There was a lot of details and a lot of photographs and historical news facsimiles. I even got a printed out “guidebook” providing explanations to the media displayed on the timeline wall. It was quite overwhelming, and honestly, I was not able to extract much information from it except a few anecdotes thanks to attractive photographs that illustrated them (e.g. the car that Czechoslovak president Vaclav Havel used to enter the Castle in 1989 was provided as a present from the Portuguese government).

I understood that the main similarity between the two revolutions in the two countries was their “peaceful” and largely non-violent nature, followed by a “democratic” development. However, that seems to be where the similarities end. The world in 1974 was a very different one than the world in 1989. While the year 1974 signaled the beginning of an opening up period in Portugal, it was a period of tightened political control following the invasion of the Russian army to Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Stanislav Divis – Spartakiada (1990)

The time in between those two dates roughly covered the creation dates of the artworks in the show. Globally, this was a period marked by the rise of conceptual and performance approaches. Visually similar positions by artists from both countries were grouped together. The result was a series of rooms dedicated to topics like the (female) body, performance, minimalist diagrams or collage-like work.

Eva Kmentova, Jana Zelibska, Adriena Simotova (R to L)
Helena Almeida

On the Czechoslovak side, the artists and works shown were the “usual suspects” from the storage of the Prague City Gallery: Eva Kmentova an Adriena Simotova for the “female body”, Jan Mlcoch and Jiri Kovanda for Czech conceptual tendencies, Julius Kollar and Lubomir Durcek for Slovak conceptualism etc.

Jan Mlcoch
Ana Hatherly, Slavol Kolarik, Julius Kollar (L to R)

Nice to see them again, like old friends, but not that surprising. On the Portugese side, it was probably the same, but the names were not that familiar to me. Helena Almeida, Ana Vieira, Ana Hatherly, Alberto Carneiro, to name a few.

Alberto Carneiro

These elders were complemented by works by younger generation of artists born in the 1970s (Carla Felipe for Portugal, Zbynek Baladran for Czechoslovakia) and a yet younger generation born in the 1980s (Ana de Almeida, Jan Pfeiffer).

Carla Filipe

The act of trying to balance everything out (artists addressing same themes from both countries, artists from the same time periods in both countries, etc.) felt a bit too strict and rigid at points. It probably did improve the possibility of a quick and superficial understanding (in the sense of “Helena Almeida is the Portugese Eva Kmentova”-type of of understanding). But this possibly obscured deeper, more meaningful artistic motivations and sociopolitical background. I was also hard pressed to relate the historical part (timeline) to the artistic part (exhibition). Each of the parts was interesting in its own right, but a direct link between the two (except for the timeline years) was not so obvious.

Overall, it was a pleasant exhibition with its up and downs. Some interesting moments and anecdotes, but also missing links. The historical framing lead to a high expectation in terms of the provided context, but, in reality, these expectations remained floating around, not fully matched.

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