Defender Chalupecký

Tomáš Pospiszyl, art historian and theorist, curator and member of the Administrative Board of Jindřich Chalupecký Society, introduces the personality of art critic Jindřich Chalupecký who gave his name to Czech Republic’s most prestigious award for young artists up to the age of 35, whose tradition goes back to 1990.

Defender Chalupecký

 

The book entitled In Defense of Art – An Anthology of Early Essays by Jindřich Chalupecký was first officially published in 1991 by the Československý spisovatel publishing house. It includes magazine articles from 1934–1948 dealing with poetry and visual arts, and above all with the relation between art and society. However, the history of the anthology is longer than that. It was first published in samizdat in 1988 and edited by Chalupecký himself upon the insistence of his friends; he is also the author of the apt title. Researcher Zdeněk Brdek used a similar title for his book about Jindřich Chalupecký and his critical activities published in 2017: Defender of Modern Art. The title relates to Chalupecký’s position in the context of Czechoslovak culture of the 1930s and 1940s; however, he has essentially maintained this position throughout his life.

Art, and contemporary art in particular, was not seen by Chalupecký as something natural that easily finds its place and understanding in society, but rather as an element that has an irritating effect, something that must be not only explained but even defended. In his opinion, it can hardly be popular with the masses, since it shows the viewers what they do not want to see, and goes beyond general expectations. It shows the everyday, ugly, unpleasant and problematic things we would prefer not to see. He was aware that contemporary art must necessarily be misunderstood; be it on the level of individual perception of the viewers, in relation to period art institutions, or even in the repressive and legal field. He was interested in the borderline position of art where artistic activities are not qualified as art at all but rather as something incomprehensible or even dangerous. Jindřich Chalupecký was not a mere metaphorical defender of such art though, explaining its merits in professional journals. He repeatedly assumed the position of a public advocate explicating unusual art performances during legal proceedings with the artists.

In 1967, Eugen Brikcius was accused of the criminal act of disorderly conduct. It was due to his Thanksgiving happening held in the streets and gardens of Prague’s Lesser Town. Brikcius was sentenced to 3 months of prison with a suspension period of one year. However, he appealed against the sentence and asked Jindřich Chalupecký for help. Although he was not listed as an expert witness, Chalupecký delivered an expert opinion explaining that the happening was not an act of disorderly conduct but of art. Eugen Brikcius was acquitted during the second hearing.

Prior to that, Chalupecký tried to defend the provocative actions of Milan Knížák. In 1966, he wrote an explanatory report about Milan Knížák’s action “An Event for the Post, the Public Security, the Inhabitants of House No. 26, Their Neighbors, Relatives and Friends” for the needs of Public Security, the Czechoslovak police at the time. It is most probable that the report mitigated the charges pressed against the artist and was read to the inhabitants of the house where the action took place, scaring some of its involuntary participants. Jindřich Chalupecký was also involved in the police persecution faced by Knížák in the first half of the 1970s.

The scope of Jindřich Chalupecký transcended the sphere of visual arts; he defended freedom of speech as such. Even before Charter 77 came into existence, he signed the letter to Gustáv Husák in which he protested against the trial with The Plastic People of the Universe band. Jindřich Chalupecký also got involved in the legal scrambles that followed after the actions of Tomáš Ruller in the mid-1980s. This time, too, Chalupecký delivered an extensive expert opinion, however, the court refused to take it into account.

Similar public engagement definitely did not make Chalupecký’s life easier. Since 1970, he was a retiree without a chance to officially publish his texts, and was watched by the secret police as a dangerous person. He defended art which was considered dangerous by the regime back then, and with which people would not identify themselves if they happened to encounter it. Yet his opinion and critical judgment were not based on a black-and-white ideological scheme but rather driven by a need to deal with the general paradox of the art of the modern times. An artist that does not see art merely as part of the entertainment industry can hardly fit in the society while trying to renew the social mission of art. In this struggle, Chalupecký believes, art deserves not only our understanding but also our defense.

Tomáš Pospiszyl

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