Ondřej Kohout: exiled artist who made Vienna his home

Ondřej Kohout

In this edition of Czechs Today, we talk to Ondřej Kohout, a painter and stage designer who left Czechoslovakia with his family in the early 1980s after signing the Charter 77 manifesto. He went to live in Vienna where he reunited with his father, the poet and playwright Pavel Kohout, who had been forced out of his country by communist authorities. In the Austrian capital Ondřej Kohout established himself as an independent artist, and since 1983 he has had more than 60 exhibitions in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany and other European countries. Most recently, Czechs have had a chance to see his work featured at exhibitions in Mikulov and at the Nová Síň gallery in Prague last year.

In 1978, Ondřej Kohout signed Charter 77, a manifesto calling on the Czechoslovak government to respect human rights, and chose to leave his country three years later. Last year, one of his latest art projects, entitled “Artists of Charter 77”, paid homage to the people who stood up against communist repression of art in Czechoslovakia.

“In 2007, it was the 30th anniversary of Charter 77 so I thought it could be interesting to do something about that, and to show the works of the artists – painters, writers and theatre people – who signed the Charter. Many of them also live in Vienna. So I went through the people I knew, and I also checked the list of signatories, and in the end I had about 12 of them. Some of them had died by then, like Olga Karlíková and Jiří Kolář, so I had to talk to their families.”

Three different exhibitions featuring the works of artists who signed Charter 77 were put together. The idea was that it would be done together with readings, theatre shows, and concerts. It all started in late March with the first of the exhibitions which included Karel Trinkewitz, Jiří Kolář, Olaf Hanel, and Mr Kohout himself. His father had a reading there, and two week later it was followed by a theatre production of Václav Havel’s Unveiling.

“Unfortunately, nobody took care of advertising the events and as a result, it was poorly attended. Local people did not participate in the project, either, and the owner of the place decided to spend no more money on it and he cancelled all further events. So only those three or four events took place there. The first exhibition was also on display in the synagogue in Mikulov but that was all that took place in relation to the Charter 77 anniversary.”

Ondřej Kohout was born in Prague in 1952 to a prominent family of the time. His father Pavel was a poet whose works strongly supported the communist regime established in Czechoslovakia in 1948. However, by the time Ondřej went to secondary school, his father was increasingly opposing the regime which eventually led him to co-author the Charter 77 manifesto. Ondřej always wanted to be a painter, and when he was rejected from Prague’s Fine Arts Academy, he started to study stage design in 1972, at a time known as normalization, when the regime was coming back in full force.

“There was a problem concerning my studies even before Charter 77. I was not a member of the Socialist Youth Union, and there were very few of us at the Academy of Performing Arts who weren’t. Moreover, my father was not very popular with the regime at the time. This caused some trouble for me even before the Charter. I was expelled because they would not let me re-sit an exam I failed. They normally let people do that at art schools, but I was not allowed. But I appealed, and they took me back. I still don’t understand what happened. They could just let me do the exam and fail me each time – in art it’s more a matter of opinion than some objective result of an exam.”

“When I signed Charter 77 – I did so in 1978 – I don’t think the school even knew about it. Because of my father, I was a part of those circles, but when I signed it, they decided not to publish my signature immediately, as I learned later. There was a girl at the same school who signed it and they immediately kicked her out. So I graduated from the academy – always getting the worst grades, but I did. Then, though, I could not find a job in my field, or any other job for that matter.”

After Ondřej Kohout graduated in stage design from the Academy of Peforming Arts in Prague in 1980, he could not find a job, and unemployment was illegal at the time. As a Charter 77 signatory, the regime wanted him out of the country. He applied for emigration with the authorities, and left for Vienna in 1981.

“The Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky had promised to take in all Charter 77 signatories and grant them asylum in his country. The Czechs did not make any problems for me, they agreed. I had to pay for the schools, and I had to give up my citizenship. At the end of 1981, my wife Eva, my son and I left the country. The whole process was very swift, it took less than six months. Even the army let go of me, which was unusual, and there we went.”

The beginnings in Vienna were not easy but the Austrian government helped Czechoslovak refugees settle down. Immigrants could attend language courses; they were given social benefits and housing. And Vienna also had a community of Czech and Slovak political refugees, including Ondřej’s father Pavel, who had been stripped of his nationality in the late 1970s.

“After the first six months, you could start looking around, you could also talk to people, and we started painting. I started working as a stage designer in 1983. In that year I designed the set and costumes for the TV film Ucho, or The Ear, which was based on a novel by Jan Procházka and directed and adapted by my father. I was able to stand on my two feet after that and since then, I have made a living as a stage designer and a painter.”

Today, Ondřej Kohout still lives in Vienna with his wife, Eva Vones, who is also a painter. I was wondering they ever consider moving back to Prague or if they are happy in their Austrian home they found more than 20 years ago.

“Emigration broadened our horizons. We realized that having one homeland that you had to leave because of the totalitarian regime was not so important in the free world. We realized that it was not necessary to focus on just one place to live in. We could move freely without any problems which made our emotional ties with the Czech Republic looser. It’s not like the only place to be is the Czech Republic. Another important factor was that we managed to get a large apartment with a studio that suited our work. We knew that it would not be so easy in Prague, and we couldn’t afford another base here, either. So we are quite settled in Vienna.”