“Go and look for the dejected once proud
Idol remembered in stone aloud
Then on coins his face was mirrored
Take a look it soon hath slithered
To a fractured marble slab, renunciation clad
His nourishment extract from his subjects
That mass production profile”
Bauhaus – God in an Alcove (1980)
Eodem Tempore – at the same time
God in an Alcove was my favourite track from Bauhaus’ 1980 debut album In The Flat Field. It describes an Old God whose faith is becoming redundant by the advent of a new religion, alluding the transition from Paganism to Christianity. The offerings and tithes once accumulating at the Old God’s totems cease coming, as its followers gradually stop believing in it, eventually consigning it to oblivion, and replacing it with a new deity. The song was apparently meant as an allegory for the vanity of rock stardom, as Peter Murphy once related, a critique on how fans swing from one star to another in accordance to popular musical trends.
Bauhaus wrote this, almost prophetically, in 1980, around the same time the Moravian town of Kyjov in former Czechoslocakia prepared to unveil a new statue of V.I.Lenin. It was inaugurated on November the 7th 1980, to mark the 63rd anniversary of the October Revolution : an event that within that very decade would pass from present into history, as much as the old calendar convention used to describe it. Created by artists Božen and Ludvík Kodymov, the cast iron statue showed Lenin from the waist up, focused and serious, his right hand raised – showing the Socialist way forward. It was set on a marble pedestal outside the town’s Dům Kultury : the House of Culture, focal point of every Socialist town in the Eastern Bloc. Contemporary accounts relate how the unveiling was witnessed by a rally of local workers and students, as well important delegations from elsewhere in the country, and beyond. The event included a presentation of medals to everyone who contributed to the creation of the statue : from the councillors who decreed its construction, to the sculptors who created it, perhaps even to delegates of ČKD Blansko, the metallurgical company that cast it.
Witnessing the communal participation and state sponsored splendour of the occasion, it would be hard to believe there were people in Czechoslovakia, particularly in Kyjov, that might not have subscribed to socialist values. But this was a fact – and even more so after the events of the Prague Spring, a peaceful reform attempt that was violently put down by Soviet troops in 1968. Take, for example, Petr Kozánek , an economist and politician from Kyjov who was among those protesters incarcerated and beaten up by the People’s Militia in the aftermath of the insurrection. In the following years, Kozánek will engage in further dissident activities, supporting religious freedoms and protesting unjust persecution, or even regularly smuggling samizdat (state–banned literature) in Austria, an act for which he was arrested and imprisoned in 1984. State Security authorities had designated him a Category I enemy of the state, monitoring and harassing him constantly for his activities. His house was wiretapped, and he was drafted into a full, 2 year military service – although he was a father of two. Later, he was hounded out of his job as an economist, having to resort to manual work as a boiler room stoker. Kozánek became a signatory of Chapter 77, the civic resistance movement that played a major role in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 : the peaceful transition of power brought on by the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the characteristic photo below, Petr Kozánek and his family are in front of the Lenin statue of Kyjov, demonstrating civic resistance in the velvety way Czechs are so great at : it’s the opposite hand that’s raised emphatically, and the cheeky smiles of contempt, showing us that there’s indeed another way.
The other true son of Kyjov I know is Miroslav Tichý, the legendary vagrant photographer who used his home made cameras to take thousands of clandestine photos of daily life in the town. He then developed the resulting negatives in most unorthodox ways : creating blemishes, allowing imperfections, exposure errors, tearing or touching the photos up during exposure, or just leaving the negatives out in the rain for some time. Miroslav Tichý gently stalked and photographed mostly women, by far his favourite subject. They are captured unaware, or at least unsuspecting : sunbathing in parks, eating ice cream, riding their bikes, or resting at benches : a voyeuristic body of work like no other, and perhaps the most down to earth visual record of daily life in socialist Czechoslovakia that has ever existed.
Tichý was shocked by the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. He quit his studies in the Academy of Arts in reaction to new rules applied by Stalinist doctrine, and returned to his family home in Kyjov. There, he began isolating himself from the local society, neglecting his appearance, and refusing to work or participate in the various socialist rites. Assuming a dishevelled appearance, with long hear, unkempt beard, and raggedy clothes, he soon became what his friend Roman Buxbaum called “..the embodiment of an insult to the small-town Communist elite… the opposite of the ideal Socialist man, that is, the clean-shaven, muscular foreman who tried hard to exceed the Five-Year Plan”. The local authorities soon marked him as reactionary, put him under surveillance, and had him detained numerous times. They’d come around his house every May Day, and try to “normalise him” : they would forcibly wash him, dress him in clean clothes, and make him participate in the Socialist celebrations of the day, before returning him home. Over a period of several years, Tichý was brutalised, sent to a psychiatric clinic, evicted from his ancestral home – which was nationalised for the benefit of a local cooperative in 1972. All of his paintings and brushes were thrown into the street, and so was Tichý, who having lost everything, decided to turn to photography as a new method of expression.
On a snowy winter day, during one of his daily forays into town, Tichý captured what I consider his most reactionary photo : the statue of V.I. Lenin covered in thick snow piling on his head and shoulders, pointing the way into a big white nothing. There’s something comical about the way its stern, didactic characteristics are altered here : the monument is all but vandalised, first by the elements, then by Tichý’s intentionally sloppy development technique. This visual neglect, the wanton imperfections remained at the heart of his photographic work – this is how he developed his unsuspecting subjects in ethereal, otherworldly auras, and yet rendering them as human as the errors we all make. But that doesn’t complement the Lenin of Kyjov, whose dogmatic gravitas is here ridiculed by the intentional sloppiness and general irreverence of the photographer. This visual mockery against Lenin’s cult of personality would never survive state scrutiny in a picture perfect Socialist world, and is indeed Tichý’s passive aggressive response to the ebullience and systemic oppression suffered by non-conformists like him.
After the fall
After 1989, like many of his Chapter 77 co-signatories, Petr Kozánek was involved in the government of the now independent Czech Republic, becoming an elected member of the National Council where he served as chairman of the Budget Committee. He is credited with the quote “Communism is the direct influence of the devil on earth”.
Miroslav Tichý’s work began attracting popular attention throughout the 90’s, predominantly through the efforts of his lifelong friend Harry Buxbaum. His first solo exhibition opened at the Seville Biennale in 2004, followed by a string of annual worldwide exhibitions of his immense body of work. He never attended any of his shows.
The impressive Socialist Modernist Dům Kultury ultimately got a modern makeover, and although it remains the cultural epicentre of Kyjov , it looks nothing like in the old days.
It would been reprehensible to approach state monuments in a defiant way, and even punishable to present them in unflattering light during socialist times. In post-Soviet Europe, however, the sport of ridiculing and re-appropriating socialist realist art has intensified. Here’s a small pictorial collection of some of my favourite, and most memorable falls from grace in the microcosm of forgotten socialist monuments. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi :
And how about Kyjov’s own Lenin? The statue was removed from the Culture house in 1990, shortly after the new local government was voted in. It is still the property of the town of Kyjov – so every now and then, it is carted off to retrospective exhibitions on what Socialism did for the Czech Republic, before it returns to be hidden away in municipal storage, among steel pipes and concrete manhole covers – or as the prophetic Bauhaus song went :
“Take in view his empty stool
What’s left is satin cool
Clawing adornment for his crimes
They saw they had to draw the line
So they sent him far away
So they sent him far away
To a little alcove
To a little alcove
- All material on Petr Kozánek sourced from the Memory of Nations collection, including photos from his personal collection
- All material on Miroslav Tichý sourced from the 2006 TORST retrospective, edited by Roman Buxbaum and Pavel Vancat
- Information about Kyjov’s Lenin inaugural presentation as well as its current fate from hodoninsky.denik.cz