Retro exhibition highlights communist-era lifestyle
The Dancing House Gallery in Prague has just opened an exhibition called Retro of the 70s and 80s, depicting the way of life of the common people and the communist elite in the last two decades of communism. The exhibition is extremely realistic – giving visitors a powerful throwback as they walk into the typical 70’s living room, shop or holiday scene. I went along and was given a tour by one of the organizers, Nikola Lörinczová.
“The main feature in every 70s living room was the “stěna” or living room wall – a set of connected open cupboards that stretched from one end of the living room to the other and where people displayed everything they wanted to show off –glassware, porcelain sets, souvenirs, family photos, as well as a gramophone player or TV set. Here we see one of the first Czech-made TV sets Tesla. There is a sofa and coffee table and the whole room is dominated by the wallpaper. There were just a few patterns back then but unlike the classical brick and mortar homes where people used paint, flats were decorated with wallpaper and it was considered very “ïn” and part of the modern lifestyle.”
“This was a time of uniform production not only in furnishings, but the simple electronics that were available and articles of daily use. People had little or no choice and so everyone had the same things – kitchen tables and chairs were almost identical, maybe only differing in colour, the kitchen shelves and electric stoves were similar models that people stood in line to buy and the linoleum and wall paper usually came with the flat. Even little things were identical like fruit syrup which was the most common non-alcoholic drink and the same brand of coffee – Standard – which you see over there.”
In sharp contrast to this standard communist-era flat is a section devoted to the lifestyle of the communist elite – which had money to burn and spent plenty on what they called “representation””. On show are items from luxury communist hotels of the time which served the top brass and foreign visitors. Nikola Lörinczová again:
On show are also the top export articles of the communist era – hand-made crystal glass which Czech glass makers excelled in and which was highly valued around the world, Jablonex Jewelry which had an excellent reputation and not least Pilsner beer in 70s and 80s packaging.
Other parts of the exhibition show children’s toys of the time – mostly wood carved or plastic toys and board games –and a model classroom with cheap-looking desks and chairs, the obligatory school bag and school uniforms – complete with the red scarf worn by children who joined the communist youth organization Pioneer – and a picture of then communist president Gustav Husak on the wall.
Another section is devoted to trekking and camping – a popular way of spending holidays when travel abroad was severely restricted. This section is represented by a tent, trekking gear, a huge plastic ball and badminton set as well as a river paddle to document the popularity of canoeing.
Probably the biggest challenge for the organizers was furnishing the dissident’s room – because unlike the other uniform surroundings dissidents wanted nothing to do with ‘socialist culture” and went out of their way to be different and original. The dissident’s room is relatively bare furnished with only an old bookcase, a mattress, a coat hanger with a coveted jeans jacket, books and a typewriter. The wall décor is posters and a US paper flag.
“This is a model room of how dissidents lived, often sleeping over at friends’ houses to avoid the communist secret police. Many of these rooms were hideouts and people who came to sleep over slept on matrasses. The furnishings are bare essentials with an accent on books and items smuggled or brought from the West – such as jeans wear and tapes of Western music.”
The exhibition opened on June 15th and the organizers hope to attract a broad mix of visitors. Nikola Lörinczová says everyone should find something of interest.