Two separate exhibitions recall the Czech 1960s

Vladimir Boudnik

In this week's Arts we look at two new separate exhibitions opening in and around Prague. The first, at the Hollar gallery on the banks of the Vltava in the Czech capital, opened Wednesday: it brings together work by many of the country's best known graphic designers - who first made their mark some forty years ago. The second exhibition, held just outside of Prague at the Museum of Central Bohemia in Roztoky, also looks at the 60s. It takes something of a playful approach, combining not only a look at Czech glassware and jewellery, but lifestyle and fashion in general, as well as the impact of mass-produced goods.

We'll look at both instillations in the programme today.

The 1960s were of course an extremely productive period in the arts in Prague: from literature and film, theatre and sculpture, to painting and graphic design. It was a period of excitement following the heavily-oppressive Stalinist 1950s - one of renewed creativity and hope. Vladimir Suchanek was a young graphic designer at the time studying at one of Prague's two famous art academies. He is part of a generation that paved the way towards a dramatic new abstraction. This week he told me about the idea for the latest exhibit at the Hollar Gallery titled "Czech 60s Design":

"We first put this exhibition together two years ago for the Czech Centre in Paris. It was very well-received. The overall aim was to show how vital graphic design was in 1960s Czechoslovakia. Compared to the 50s, graphic design a decade later was no longer tied to socialist realism but was moving rapidly towards complete abstraction. While we were to a degree influenced by trends from abroad, we were, at the same time also isolated by the regime. Artists' work under the regime at the time acutely reflected how they felt."

Not surprisingly, the mood reflected in much of the work often leaned towards heavier elements, darker shades of colour - including black - and shapes reflecting shades of oppression.

"The mood in many of the works was dark and atmospheric, subconsciously reflecting inner states, feelings, and 'symbolic' scars."

Artists featured in the show are a veritable "who's who" in Czech graphics - names included are, fro example, Jan Koblasa, Jiri John, Ales Vesely, and Dana Puchnarova. But, no show on 60s graphic design would be complete without work by the great Vladimir Boudnik. A close friend of seminal writer Bohumil Hrabal, Boudnik had perhaps greater focused impact than any other artist at that time. Despite his early death in 1968 - his influence and contribution to Czech modern art was - and remains - enormous. Vladimir Suchanek again:

"Boudnik laid the grounds for the so-called Czech 'informel'. Typical for this school or movement was structural design which used various innovative materials in printmaking techniques. He drew from his experience working in a factory and used found items such as metal bits to create shapes in his prints and he was a major influence on others. Of course, later other designers moved into other directions - for example greater figurativeness, but Boudnik was a pioneer."

The exhibition at the Hollar Gallery lasts until the end of May.

But, now we move to our other exhibition - that also looks back on the 60s. On view at the Museum of Central Bohemia in Roztoky, just outside of Prague, it's called "Those Were the Sixties". This show takes a lighter but ultimately no less relevant approach to the period - a show that looks at fashion, jewellery, and glassware and interior design.

Indeed, the centre-piece is a mock-interior complete with all the items one would have found in any hip household. Chromed chandeliers, patterned rugs, plastic seating, oblong tables and in music, the latest hit singles by Czech pop stars like Eva Pilarova and Valdemar Matuska. It was a period of innovation, a period of new fashionable mass-produced items, and the show playfully maps consumer items that changed how many Czechs lived - and how they saw themselves.

Museum representative Tana Pekarkova:

"Czechs wanted a new way of life. In the set-piece you see some elements that were typical: triangular tables, the use of plastics in furniture, bright colours that were considered popular, for instance, tangerine. You couldn't be hip and not have elements like that at home. In terms of items there are many that visitors will recognise, thinking 'our granny had that' or I grew up with one of those. Angular phones. Plastic toys. A plastic handbag no self-respecting Czech girl could be seen without. If you didn't have one, you couldn't be 'in'! Some of things might seem silly or nostalgic or sentimental today, but that's what it was like."

Fashion too is represented, and says Tana Pekarkova, it is clear many 60s outfits are coming back into style:

"I think that many of our female visitors will be thrilled by some of the items we've got on display - you can see that many of cuts are coming back into style, at least a little bit! The 60s are long-gone but there's still a lot to look back on. Luckily there are many collectors. Items featured in the show are partially from our own collection but also the Museum in Pardubice, the UMPRUM arts academy in Prague, and other sites. My personal favourites in this show? The Flexaret camera, because I had one just like it, and the portable record player. It was amazing - if you had one of those back in the day, you were king!"

"Those Were the Sixties" is a modest exhibition but it is one that relishes in the ordinary and the accessible. Like in other parts of the world, design at the time was crisp, snappy, sometimes outlandish and often plastic, and it still leaves a long impression today. For the American equivalent, imagine watching re-runs of a show like "Bewitched" or "I Dream of Jeannie" just for the sets. The 60s as captured by the Roztoky show come across as positive and fresh - even a little idealistic - and above all, innocent. This show will be on for the next six months.