Smells like '89 spirit

In October 1989, underground artists from Poland and Czechoslovakia gathered in Wrocław for an independent cultural festival. Twenty years later, a commemorative event held in the Polish city and in Prague aims to rekindle the spirit of solidarity and cultural resistance to the communist regime.

Published on 2 November 2009 at 17:19
Detail from "The shoes History walks in", by Pavel Brázda (Galerie 5. patro)

For a generation of Czechs and Poles, the concert to be held on Tuesday, 3rd November, in Prague's Archa Theatre will be the event of season. The show, entitled "Sounds and Echoes of Solidarity," commemorating the 20th anniversary of a musical evening that took place in Wrocław shortly before the Velvet Revolution, will feature a number of legendary figures from the Czech and Polish underground scene of the 80s. The cross-border theme will also be an important part of the musical programme: with songs by Czech Karel Kryl performed in Polish, and works by Polish singer and poet Jacek Kaczmarski performed in Czech.

In early November 1989, an independent Czech and Slovak cultural festival took place in Wrocław, organized around a concert and an exhibition of artists who did not belong to official party-approved unions. Last week, the Poles began an elaborate commemoration of this event in the same town — and Poles are also behind the concert to be held in Prague tomorrow.

Since the last week of October, the skies have turned leaden over Wrocław. Freezing fog hangs in the parks, where bundled-up locals tramp through heaps of fallen leaves, and the streets around the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist are swept by an icy wind. But the atmosphere is much warmer inside the City Arsenal, where 200 people are waiting for a group of Czech artists, whose works are hanging on the red brick walls.

Going back twenty years

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At first glance, it appears to be a typical run-of-the-mill touring exhibition of works by artists from the same country. But there is something unusual about the excitement and emotion on the faces of the gathered crowd. These strong feelings have their roots in a period when relations between Czech and Polish free thinkers reached a summit that had never been equalled in modern history.

In November 1989, thousands of people travelled to Poland to attend a legendary encounter of artists exiled from their homeland. It was the fruit of sustained collaboration between Czech and Polish dissidents, undertaken within the framework of the Solidarity movement. The festival was also supposed to include an exhibition of works by young Czechoslovak artists. But communist authorities succeeded in blocking the shipment of paintings at the border. The title the exhibition, Zarekwirowano/Zabaveno (Confiscated), which is currently showing at Wrocław's municipal museum, is a direct reference to the opening night that never was.

Empty frames and "CONFISCATED" notices

"At the time, the red brick walls of the Zero club were hung with empty frames. Each of these was identified with a card bearing the name of the artist and the word "CONFISCATED" marked in block capitals. The works of the Czech artists were still held in police trucks parked on the side of the road at the border in Harrachov," says Igor Wójcik, one of the organizers of the current exhibition. He explains that "Solidarity had just won a landslide victory in the Polish elections. That's when the plan was put forward for an exhibition in Wrocław, which the leaders of the Czech regime naturally interpreted as a provocation."

Most of the people who came to the original festival planned to attend a seminar on human rights and a series of concerts in the Polski Theatre, which featured exiled folk-scene legends like Karel Kryl, Jaroslav Hutka, Vlastimil Třešňák, and a number of Czechoslovak rock groups. There were also films by Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, and Věra Chytilová as well as the American adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Books by exiled authors had also been put on sale in the secondhand bookshops at the university.

At the time, some of the visitors to Wroclaw, like exhibition organizer David Němec, opted to stay on for several days. "I went home via Dresden. That is where I said goodbye to Vlasta Třešňák. He was on his way to the West, and I was going south to Czechoslovakia. We thought we would have to wait years for another opportunity to see each other. But that was the day the Berlin wall came down."

The paintings by the Czech artists only arrived in Wrocław after the Czech regime fell in 1990. According to organizer Jiřího Fiedor, this year's event is not a pious or a faithful commemoration of the first exhibition. If anything, the range of points of view is even wider than it was first time round — a dimension that would have much in the spirit of the confiscated exhibition.

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