Graphic story of Czech illustration under pressure

Photo: Paseka publishing

Pioneers and Robots is the title of a new book focusing on the golden era of Czechoslovak illustration, which was recently released by the Paseka publishing house. Written by two graphic artists, the book offers an in-depth account of the development of visual arts in Czechoslovakia after the Communist takeover in 1948.

Photo: Paseka publishing
Children’s illustration had a great tradition in Czechoslovakia, dating from Mikoláš Aleš to Jiří Trnka, Adolf Born or Zdeněk Miler, the author of the legendary Krteček or Little Mole. But how did illustration and graphic arts fare under Communist rule?

Visual artist Pavel Ryška, along with illustrator and graphic designer Jan Šrámek, have drawn on their own private collection of books, magazines and prints from the 1950s to 1970s to bring a detailed account of the development of Czechoslovak visual arts in the first two decades of Communism.

The title of the book, Pionýři a roboti or Pioneers and Robots, refers to the changes that took place at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s, Jan Šrámek explains:

“The word pioneer refers to the building of socialism and the artistic style called socialist realism. The word robot refers to the genre of science fiction, which began to emerge at the time. But it is also a reference to the kitchen robot, which started to appear in Czechoslovak households at the end of the 1950s and launched the era of consumerism.”

The book covers the period between the Communist takeover in 1948 and the emergence of the so-called Normalisation period in the early 1970s. By then, many of the country’s great artists had been forced into exile. When the communist party came to power in 1948, the system that had regulated the book market until then was replaced by heavy political censorship.

As Jan Šrámek explains, one of the first things Communist censors did was to get rid of all inappropriate genres, such as pulp magazines, westerns and adventure books, which were at least partially replaced by the newly emerging genre of science fiction.

Adolf Hoffmeister - illustration from 'Vesele i vážně' by Vladimír Majakovský (SNDK – Bratislava: Mladé letá, 1961), photo: Paseka publishing
“The second thing they did was to get rid of all private publishers, replacing them with a centrally managed publishing authority. This was the case of the State Publishing of Children’s Books, which released all books for children. The new regime largely focused on children, who were regarded as the future of the new socialist state, and basically all children’ books and magazines were ideologically loaded.”

In the early 1950s, Socialist Realism was declared the only permissible and generally compulsory artistic style of the new regime and every visual image was appraised in reference to the real world.

For instance the highly respected painter Kamil Lhoták was publicly criticised for his drawings of melancholic soldiers in one of the children’s magazines of the time. According to the authorities, he didn’t truthfully depict soldier’s postures and weapons.

As it was already said, one of the genres tolerated by the new regime was science fiction, but, as Jan Šrámek explains, it had to maintain strict boundaries, delimited by the Soviet theory of so-called ‘furthest development’:

“Science fiction could only portray the future in a way which readers could imagine, which could be accessible through technologies that were available or were being developed at the time. So you couldn’t come across teleportation, for instance, such as in Star Trek, because no one took such a theory into account at that time.”

Josef Molín - Dikobraz magazine front cover no. 36, 1950, photo: Paseka publishing
Another genre which was also turned into a powerful tool of Soviet propaganda in the early 1950 was caricature, a genre with a strong tradition dating back to the interwar period. Other genres, such as applied arts, managed to maintain relative freedom, and negotiate various compromises between the established ideology and real art.

One such example was a new concept of book design, which developed in the 1950s, with contributions by some of the country’s finest artists, including Zdenek Seydl and Milan Grygar. Jan Šrámek again:

"The design of these book covers is really timeless and represents the best of the visual culture of the era. It can definitely stand comparison with what was produced in other countries at the time, such as the United States or Great Britain. I would say the quality was perhaps even better due to the centrally planned publishing and thanks to the specific conditions, which forced the authors into the fields of applied arts and illustration."

Many of the authors, who would otherwise have been unable to present their own independent work, enjoyed relative freedom of expression in these fields and for many of them they remained an important source of income. In return, visual arts and children’s literature in particular benefited from being able to work with such outstanding artists.

In the 1960s, the Czechoslovak political scene became more democratic and artists started to enjoy greater freedoms. Graphic art was considerably influenced by Czechoslovakia`s presence at the 1958 EXPO which gave rise to the so-called Brussels style.

Several Czechoslovak children’s books received many awards, which helped to bring awareness of the Czech illustration school.

'This is London' by Miroslav Šašek, photo: Baobab
"Children’s books became an important export item in the 1960s and Czechoslovak books were published all over the world. Among the best known authors were Vladimír Fuka, who later settled in New York, or Miroslav Šašek, who emigrated already in 1949 and became one the biggest names of children’s illustration of the mid-20th century.”

By the mid-1960s, many of the previously banned genres, such as adventure stories, were rehabilitated, and new translations from western languages also appeared on the market. The new decade also witnessed a liberalisation of erotic illustration, including graphic novels by the legendary Karel Winter Neprakta, which included explicit drawings of women’s bodies.

The period of relative artistic freedom did not last long, however, and many of the promising authors left the country following the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Nowadays, many of the books published in the 1960s by the State Publishing of Children’s Books, including those illustrated by Květa Pacovská, Vladimír Fuka, or Jitka Kolínská, are considered collector’s items and their prices have multiplied.

Thanks to newly established publishing houses such as Baobab, Czech readers have also had a chance to re-discover some of the great Czech authors, such as Daisy Mrázková or Miroslav Šašek, whose books are gradually being re-issued.