The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery in Prague – Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art
at the gallery of the 5th floor of Veletržní Palace
Dukelských hrdinů 47, 170 00 Praha 7
Author: Jiří Valoch
Curator: Olga Uhrová
Main partner of NG: HVB bank
Main media partner: Hospodářské noviny
Media partners: Art&antique, Classic FM, ČRo 3 - Vltava, Radio 1
We would like to thank the following institutions for loaning works for exhibition:
Moravian Gallery in Brno; Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague; Vysočina Regional Gallery in Jihlava; Gallery Klatovy / Klenová; North Bohemian Gallery of Visual Art in Litoměřice; Benedikt Rejt Gallery, Louny; Museum of Art Olomouc; East Bohemian Gallery in Pardubice; Eminet - Patrik Šimon; U Prstenu Gallery, Prague; Montanelli Gallery, Prague; Zlatá husa Gallery, Prague and the private collectors
The work of Běla Kolářová (born 1923, living in Prague) has long been unjustly overshadowed by that of her husband, the poet and collage artist Jiří Kolář. Yet in the context of the local visual culture, it is no less original and significant.
In the 1950s, Kolářová began to view photography as the medium most suitable for her own work. She was captivated by the scenery of the peripheral neighborhoods of Prague, and the children’s games she found taking place there. She further developed a theme rendered a decade before by artists of the Group 42. Her fascination with all things marginal and unimportant, however, soon led her to intensely radical discoveries, making her one of the key figures of the Czech art scene. At the beginning of the 1960s, she realized that representative, figural photography had long exhausted its potential. While the rest of the world was enraptured by the “Family of Man” exhibition, Běla Kolářová felt saturated by the proliferation of this type of photography. She was determined to continue the tradition of a new, avant-garde photography, which at the time was – with the possible exception of Man Ray’s photograms – forgotten and awaiting rediscovery. The first large group of works (dating mostly to 1961) presents what the artist called her “artificial negatives.” These consist of a layer of paraffin placed on a piece of cellophane – and then imprinted by the most mundane objects she found within her reach: a scalpel, or a goose feather. At times she even fixated miniature objects in the paraffin – a few poppy seeds, or bristles, or a scrap of schnitzel. It was as though in this way she responded to the dramatic structures of the Czech art informel, as if she was trying to draw attention to the aesthetic value per se of the structures of the ordinary. With equal consistency in the following year, she discovered the forms of the circle, achieved without any kind of negative as recordings of the movement of a source of light. These works were pioneering for the entire movement of “New Sensitivity” in Czechoslovakia, as were the subsequent photographs of assemblages created by the arrangement of the most uninteresting objects – a special place among those is occupied by hair, a material that Kolářová continues to work with to this day.
In the mid-1960s the artist once more became dissatisfied with photography, this time in terms of the portrayal of arranged assemblages. Instead, she chose to present as finished work the assemblages themselves – geometrical arrangements of various trivial objects – matches, fragments of razor blades, snap fasteners, but also pieces of costume jewelry, and traces of make-up or lipstick. Alone among Czech artists, she thus addressed the phenomenon known internationally as New Realism. She would, however, translate its aesthetic to work with objects small in size, which themselves draw minimal attention. By composing them in various types of geometrical patterns she in fact expanded the then-topical application of the language of geometry, infusing it with a new semantic, which distinguished her considerably from the whole Czechoslovak geometrical art scene of the 1960s. And since much of the assemblage material was connected with the feminine world, she brought into the local art world a feminist or gender-based aspect, which at the time lacked even a name. Her daring understanding of the New Realism, which involved the presentation of food in geometrical arrangement, was evident at her 1969 exhibition in the Václav Špála Gallery in Prague.
For political reasons, during the subsequent twenty years, none of Kolářová’s work could be presented in Prague. Her oeuvre, nonetheless, has continued expanding until today. Gradually she abandoned the rigidity of geometrical arrangements, while remaining faithful to her work with trinkets of a peripheral nature. In some cycles she explored the possibilities of drawing with cosmetics, or developed assemblages and collages from objects of her characteristically feminine nature, while at other times she focused instead on the new syntactic and semantic qualities of the trinkets she worked with.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Běla Kolářová was a unique and pioneering artist in Czech photography, and in the mid-1960s she fused the affinity for small objects characteristic of the New Realism with the concept of geometrical composition. In the following decades, she would develop these themes, so that we can perceive her work not only as a new gender discourse, but first and foremost as presenting a totally new kind of message, enriching our culture with its originality. It is this contribution that the present retrospective exhibition at the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery attempts to present.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue.