International Exhibitions as an Instrument of Domestic Cultural Policy: How Baroque Art Came to Be Honoured in Socialist Czechoslovakia

By Marek, Michaela | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2016 | Go to article overview

International Exhibitions as an Instrument of Domestic Cultural Policy: How Baroque Art Came to Be Honoured in Socialist Czechoslovakia


Marek, Michaela, Journal of Art Historiography


In 1969, in the small city of Chlumec nad Cidlinou, east of Prague, a museum for the 'Baroque art of Bohemia' was opened in the Karlova Koruna State Château, as a de facto branch of the National Gallery:1 not in the capital but at the time a half day's journey away, in a not exactly densely settled or heavily travelled region, though 'regular excursions to it from Prague are organized for visitors during the summer season', as Peter Cannon-Brookes noted in a brief report in 1972.2 Nevertheless, the initiators of this event were able to celebrate it as a breakthrough, for several reasons: First, the art of an era, limited to the country of Bohemia as the 'core region' of the State's territory, was being presented on a large scale and systematically in a permanent exhibition for the first time - contrasting with its presentation in the form of a few selected examples that illustrated native art embedded in a historically complete survey of the 'European evolution of art' at the National Gallery in Prague. The remarkable thing is that this outstanding position was granted to this particular cultural and artistic era. The historical period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had left behind a rich, famously omnipresent and influential cultural legacy on the territory of the State, which in part thanks to generally minor war damage had survived nearly intact. In the Czech understanding of history, however, since 'time immemorial' - that is, since the nineteenth century - it had been regarded as the era of foreign rule and violent suppression of national culture by 'German', Catholic lords faithful to the Kaiser, which the 'Czech people' could only shake off through patient and heroic opposition. In post-war Czechoslovakia, the introduction of socialism in 1948 was interpreted as the final step in that struggle for liberation: Once the 'German lords' had been dispossessed and expelled, and religion - especially Catholicism - had been discredited, the people with their own values and their own culture could finally be installed with the rights to which they were entitled.3 The new historical picture, which by the early 1950s at the latest was being refocused by scholarship as well, which was intended not least to help legitimize the unconditional rule of the Communist Party, was therefore all but obliged to demarcate the Baroque era from its telling of national history and to defame its architectural, artistic and cultural heritage in the country as evidence of the since victoriously vanquished rule of violence. As late as 1961, an important work still stated:

The Baroque now became an expression of the victorious imperial power and of the effort to re-Catholicize the country, the form of expression of a foreign element that was inclined to be hostile to the Czech people. The Czech milieu therefore closed itself off from the artistic intentions of the Baroque; it felt an aversion towards them that was reinforced even more by the knowledge that they expressed the exclusive rule of a class of foreign feudal lords, both of the laity and the clergy.4

The quite successful efforts of the period between the wars to reinterpret the Baroque era as a benefit for the national culture were almost angrily fought down by the historians of the post-war years, particularly the writings of the historian Josef Pekar, who appreciated the artistic richness this era had brought to the country, nor did he shy from emphasising the European dimension of Baroque culture and even explicitly speaking of 'Western influences' that he said had benefitted Bohemian culture.5 A monumental exhibition of Bohemian Baroque art, which essentially crowned Pekar's lifework in 1938,6 was simply met with silence. With the new permanent exhibition in the Karlova Koruna château, not only had the artistic tradition of the Baroque period in Bohemia been assessed in a completely new way, but the culture of the era had de facto gained acceptance and hence, last but not least, the established schema for interpreting history had been revised. …

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