Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Beyond Ideology: Representations of the Baroque in Socialist Czechoslovakia as Seen through the Media 1

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Beyond Ideology: Representations of the Baroque in Socialist Czechoslovakia as Seen through the Media 1

Article excerpt

As in many other countries, in Czechoslovakia the perception of the Baroque in the public sphere was far from a matter of agreement. After the 1939-1945 war, this once more led to a universal depreciation of the Baroque, eagerly integrated by the new regime into its use of history for its political agenda. After seizing power in February 1948, the communist government gave the Baroque a clear-cut position in its political and ideological framework, a specific function in the rhetoric of class struggle, anti-clericalism, fight for peace and the like. For the egalitarian outlook of state socialism, the social issues of the epoch of the Baroque were a prime focus; these were fundamentally opposed to the merely aesthetic aspects of the Baroque as an artistic style.

The situation was least conducive to open discussion when, during the 1950s, the government was eager to crush what was left of political opposition and dissidence. Among the victims of purges and persecutions were also renowned scholars specialising in the Baroque: Václav Cerny (1905-1987), a literary historian, was arrested; the catholic historian Zdenek Kalista (1900-1982) was sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment in a 1951 show trial.2 While these public figures were being criminalised the official condemnation of the era after 1620, when feudalism allegedly started developing into an even more suppressive system, gained momentum. Thus, scholarly research into the Baroque found itself in an awkward position and interest in the epoch was stigmatised as a hallmark of political opposition and self-censorship came to be widespread.

When looking into Czech research into the Baroque under socialism, authors so far have stressed political and ideological motives as well as the exercise of government influence.3 But there are good reasons to assume that the ways in which the Baroque was conceptualised and represented originated not just in MarxistLeninist dogma and party ideology but also in sociocultural mechanisms outside official party lines. Of course, there were the typically derogatory assessments of the style and epoch as the 'most disgusting, alien Baroque',4 which were in full accordance with state socialist rhetoric. On the other hand, as early as the 1950s and even in the central organ of the communist party, Rudé právo, there occurred surprisingly positive enunciations. Sightseeing delegations from the German Democratic Republic in Prague were described without any irony or malice, with the German comrades being enthralled by the beautiful Baroque churches of the Czech capital.5 While discourses on the Baroque were far from being politically unsuspicious, obviously not all authors, even those ideologically close to the regime, were suspecting that something might be wrong with the style and its epoch, or they just did not take these reservations seriously, writing light-heartedly about the breath-taking beauties of Baroque architecture.6

While the political atmosphere and informal pressure undoubtedly exercised a great influence on discourses about the Baroque, its representations were far from consistent and not always dismissive. Rhetoric varied with the situation and oscillated on a wide scale of assessments. My aim is to stress these lesser-known aspects of the perception of the Baroque in socialist Czechoslovakia by showing a complex field of discursive entanglements of differing representations. These were not exclusively imbued by state ideology but were also determined by specific situations, and they were adapted to different purposes and aesthetic evaluations. The variety of these influences was concomitant to a specific diversity of representations, which, even in the absence of democratic discourses after 1948, prevented representations of the Baroque becoming monolithic and ideologically coherent. Nevertheless, ideology was the most blatant influence, which can be traced back directly to the establishment of the new regime in 1948. …

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