Major Kunsthalle exhibition explores bohemian art of modern period

Russell Ferguson

Bohemia: History of an Idea, 1950–2000 is the name of a major new exhibition at Prague’s Kunsthalle gallery. It focuses on Paris in the Left Bank days, swinging London and 1970s New York – but also lesser-known scenes, including the Prague of photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková. I discussed the new show with US-based curator Russell Ferguson.

It’s a fantastic exhibition, with works from so many countries and periods. What qualities to these works share?

“They share a relationship to the fundamental idea of what it is to live a bohemian lifestyle.

“But at the same time I was actually looking for ways in which the different cities and the different time periods showed differences in how bohemia is manifested in different periods.

“So a key idea in the exhibition is to show both that bohemia can be represented in different forms in different places, but at the same time to show that there are continuities that run all the way through, and that people are aware of other bohemian scenes and take some context from that.”

The exhibition covers the period from 1950 to 2000. Broadly speaking, how did bohemia as an idea develop over those five decades?

“It had its ups and downs.

“In some ways the resurgence of a strong bohemian New York in the 1970s is related to the economic collapse that New York went through in that period.

“So there’s always a back and forth between broader societal and economic conditions, and where those create a space for people who want to live outside those norms to create a society for themselves.

“By the end of the 20th century, though, I think the key element that was happening was that more and more of those spaces were being closed down.

“There aren’t very many world cities now with unoccupied buildings and a space for people to live hand to mouth with maybe only working one or two days a week.

“Those spaces are basically gone in most cities now.

“Also the new speed of information exchange makes things that are outside of the norm very recuperable very quickly and commodified often.

“And that cuts down on the ability to have a truly autonomous space outside of the mainstream.”

Have you got a favourite scene that’s covered here in the exhibition?

“I can’t pick out one of them. It’s like people talking about their children.

“They’re all fascinating to me in many ways.

“I mean, I am attracted to the very beginning, with Paris and the Rive Gauche, because it’s before I was around.

“It always looks glamorous to me for that reason.”

There’s one artist from actual Bohemia, the photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková. What is it about her work that made her qualify, so to speak, for the exhibition?

“Well, her work is outstanding and I have to say that I was not familiar with it when I began the exhibition.

“It was Christelle [Havranek], the chief curator here, who drew my attention to her work.

“I came here and I met with her and looked at a lot of her work and I was really just blown away.

“There was no question after I saw it that she should be in the exhibition.

“I think she should be much better known. I think she is becoming better known, in Czechia and outside, at this point.

“It’s just wonderful work.

“I was very glad to have such a good example from here to include in the exhibition, but I would have included her work wherever the exhibition was happening.”

In 2023 does bohemia still exist in any significant sense?

“I want to believe that it still exists and I’m hoping one of the things this exhibition can do is provoke some kind of discussion about that.

“But there’s also a side of me that’s rather pessimistic.

“I think it’s been squeezed into a very small space right now and I’m waiting to see if somebody can revitalize it.”

Bohemia: History of an Idea, 1950–2000
Kunsthalle Praha
Klárov 132/5, Praha 1
Until October 16, 2023