Sunday, November 22, 2009

Without Saying a Word: Jiří Kolář’s Poetics of Silence

[“Charles Baudelaire: Beauty” (1972), collage on board. “Charles Baudelaire: Hymn” (1972), collage on board. “Untitled (Movie Series” (1970s), collage. “Dialogue Between Mr. B & Mr. R in Heaven” (1973), collage. “Untitled (Madonna of the Rocks)” (1960s), collage.]

First introduced to American audiences through retrospectives at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery during the late 1970s, the work of Czech collagist and poet Jiří Kolář (1914-2002) will be presented in a solo exhibition by Pavel Zoubok Gallery through December 19, 2009. Kolář’s work—both as a poet and visual artist—emerged from the politically charged atmosphere of the Central European avant-garde during the 1950s and 1960s. Standing as a powerful symbol of resistance, Kolář’s work was forged through the ordeal of social and political repression.

Kolář railed against abuse and degradation of language by the nomenklatura of the former Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Defying the ruling elite of that “people’s democracy,” Kolář developed numerous collage techniques to establish a purely visual expression called “the poetry of silence.” Despite his auspicious beginnings as a young poet, translator, and designer, political circumstances were to intrude. By the late 1960s, Kolář became more widely known as a visual artist.

Jiří Kolář’s was profoundly influenced by the writings of Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert (1901-1986), the first and only Czech writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature; Futurist Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944); Irish novelist James Joyce (1882–1941); and the politically controversial Ezra Pound (1885–1972). Additionally, he participated in a number of edgy cultural circles in Prague. The best known of these was Group 42, which was enchanted by technology and influenced by Civilism, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and—to a lesser degree—Surrealism. Though Group 42 was established in 1942, its development began in the late 1930s and it had pretty much formed by 1940. It ceased to function upon the Communist assumption of power in 1948’s February coup, but its influence upon Czech culture was palpable for decades.

Kolář supported himself in a variety of jobs such as cabinetmaker and bartender until he became a full-time writer in 1943. Communist Party membership for him was a revolving door—in and out in 1945. Since “former Communists” drew the greatest ire of the nomenklatura, Kolář was forbidden to publish after their takeover. From the terror engulfing Czechoslovakia during the dark Stalinist years (especially in the wake of 1952’s bogus Slánský Trial) and then through the 1960s, Kolář moved progressively away from literary expression toward one more purely visual. He had great incentive to do this: When authorities uncovered a manuscript of his work “Prométheova játra,” he was arrested in 1953 and spent several months in prison.

As his homeland settled into a “milder” Stalinism, he led a group of poets including Václav Havel. The 1960s found him writing experimental poetry before visual art became his primary focus. When 1968’s Prague Spring and reforms for “socialism with a human face” initiated by Alexander Dubček (1921-1992) were brutally suppressed by the Soviet Union, Kolář found himself again afoul of the nomenklatura. Along with a cross-section of 1,200 citizens of the Czechoslovak “people’s democracy,” Kolář signed Charter 77—calling for respect for human and civil rights. That dictatorship’s authorities reacted swiftly and relentlessly: Supporters of the document faced harassment and arrest. Despite this, Charter 77 “monitoring groups” periodically issued reports on the Czechoslovak government's human rights violations. The efforts of Charter 77 were fueled by the Helsinki Accords—adopted in 1975—and aided by Human Rights Watch. Such events hastened Kolář’s emigration and exile.

Jiří Kolář gradually developed his unique and formal vocabulary (Crumplage, Rollage, Chiasmage, Ventilage, Razor Poems to name just a few of his techniques), which allowed him to combine various layers of meaning and order. These were first published in his “Dictionary of Methods” (1986). However, it must be remembered that Kolář exhibited visual art from 1937—and his collages could be found in those earliest exhibitions. After the success of 1989’s “Velvet Revolution,” Kolář spent increasing lengths of time in his homeland—eventually spending his last years in a Prague hospital.

Although Jiří Kolář’s presence on the American scene diminished following the “burst” of his New York retrospectives, his work has continued to be exhibited in museums and galleries internationally. “The Poetics of Silence” features over 40 key works from the 1960s-1980s and explores a broad range of themes (nature, art history, language, memory) that collectively articulate Jiří Kolář’s unique contribution to the theory and practice of collage.

Jiří Kolář: The Poetics of Silence

Through December 19, 2009

@ Pavel Zoubok Gallery

533 West 23rd Street, NYC 10011