Hidden Images After the Velvet Revolution

Jiri David - Havel
Over the course of six weeks from 17 November 1989, the Velvet Revolution brought to an end four decades of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. The protests were led by dissident playwright, Václav Havel, bringing the arts to the forefront of the revolution. Since the Czechoslovak coup d’état of 1948, artists in the country had been forced to submit to the restrictions of Soviet Socialist Realism. Dissent grew in the 1980s with the formation of underground artists groups such as Tvrdohlavi (The Stubborn Ones). Czech artists including Jirí David, František Skála, Petr Nikl and Jaroslav Róna were unified not by an artistic style but rather by a desire to free art from the demands to conform. Tvrdohlavi disbanded in 1991 as its members embraced their new-found freedom to develop distinct artistic voices.

Jiri David - Monroe
Jirí David’s first post-revolutionary work was a series of more than one hundred photographs, produced between 1991 and 1995 across the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Austria, France and the USA. Entitled Skryté podoby (Hidden Image), these portraits employed an early 20th-century photographic method by mirroring each side of the face to produce two portraits: one right-sided and one left-sided. This double-portrait discombobulates by appearing to show two different personalities living in a single person.

The series reflected Czechoslovakia’s struggle to reclaim its national identity after the trauma of dictatorship, as well as the personal experiences of the artist who stated: ‘I don’t know what I am; I don’t know what I mean … I am my own foreigner … I lost all coherent identity.’

Image: Jiří David, Václav Havel and Marilyn Monroe from the series Skryté podoby (Hidden Image), 1991–1995 © Jiří David. Courtesy of the artist.

The Return of the Pink Panzer

On the evening of 20 August 1968 the armies of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet-led military alliance, invaded Czechoslovakia. During the night, hundreds of thousands of soldiers flooded into the country, bringing an end to the liberalising reforms of the Prague Spring.

pink tank

The epic scenes of Soviet tanks entering the Czechoslovak capital brought new significance for one Soviet tank that had long stood in Prague. Monument to Soviet Tank Crews was dedicated in 1945 to commemorate the liberation of the city by the Red Army at the end of World War II. But after 1968 the memorial came to symbolise the invasion and the heavy Soviet military presence that remained in the country for two decades.

On the morning of 28 April 1991, residents of Prague awoke to find the tank painted bright pink. On its roof stood a huge erect middle finger. In a provocative flourish worthy of the master of readymades himself, Marcel Duchamp, the monument’s base was daubed with the signature ‘David Černý and the Neostunners’. The offending art student, future enfant terrible of the Czech art world, was swiftly jailed for causing a public disturbance and the tank was repainted green.

tank4But it didn’t end there… A few days later on 12 May members of the newly-elected parliament together repainted the tank pink, signifying their commitment to the end of Soviet authority. Černý was released and the Pink Tank was removed from Prague, pre-empting the collapse of the USSR later that year. For once, it seemed, art had trumped politics.

Images: Tank 91, April 1991, Courtesy of the Prague Aviation Museum, Kbely; Deputies of the Federal Assembly, May 1991, taken from NTV documentary. Courtesy David Černý