The Provincial Cradle of Modernity – Intermedia art in Czechoslovakia from the interwar period to the Velvet Revolution

From Unearthing The Music

Milan Grygar »Tactile Drawing«

The Provincial Cradle of Modernity – Intermedia art in Czechoslovakia - An essay by Miloš Vojtěchovský for Sound Exchange.


For this essay on the history of intermedia art in the broader »retro-perspective« of experimental and sound art in Communist Czechoslovakia, it is necessary to outline the historical context and the situation in which art and artists found themselves in the late 1950s and early '60s. Interwar Czechoslovakian (and Central European) avant-garde art had for many years been largely omitted from official accounts of history, but nevertheless maintained a constant presence as an awareness took shape here of the broader base of avant-garde agendas, which is to say: as a specific component of the »Pan-European« concept of revising the concept of »bourgeois art«.

As in the West, here, too, there was a vivid tendency to »violate« the purity of styles and disciplines with hybrid works that lay somewhere between music, fine art, literature, film and theatre. An interest in a »cross-disciplinary« approach can be found in the work of many prominent figures in the interwar generation in Czechoslovakia. Its characteristics included their awareness of mobility, cosmopolitanism, as well as a good knowledge of the European scene, which was for the most part only natural, given that Czech, German and Jewish culture had existed side by side in cities such as Prague and Brno until the beginning of World War II.

The most famous and prominent figure here was Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959), who had lived in Paris since studying there in 1923, and later moved to the United States. After the war ended and the Communists seized power he never returned to Czechoslovakia. But aside from him, there were many other artists who were, until recently, all but forgotten in the history of the European avant-garde.

In the 1980s the work of the composer, teacher and music theorist Alois Hába (1893–1973) was rehabilitated. Hába had been influenced by the work of Schoenberg, Webern and Ferruccio Busoni, whom he had met in person while living and studying in Vienna and later in Berlin. After discovering the world of Arab music, he developed his concept of »athematic« and microtonal music. In collaboration with Petrof and August Foerster, musical instrument manufacturing companies, he built the first version of a quarter tone grand piano in 1923. Aside from this, he constructed several dozen unique quarter tone instruments – guitars, trumpets, clarinets and harmoniums – for performing and promoting his system of microtonal music. Hába saw this system as a way of freeing himself from the traditions of European musical thought, and his unique experimental instruments were necessary to perform his compositions.

Another artist whose work has only recently been incorporated into the history of the European avant-garde was Zdeněk Pešánek (1896–1965), a versatile artist who made light and kinetic sculptures for architecture and designed a distinctive version of the colour piano. His work was syncretic, and it combined the ideas of constructivism, surrealism and poetism with a social conscience. In 1932 Pešánek met the composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894–1942), of Czech, German and Jewish origin, in Prague. At the time Schulhoff was working on his monumental cantata »Manifesto«, based on the writings of Karl Marx.  According to contemporary sources the production was designed to be a spectacular avant-garde happening: the composition was to be performed free of charge in town and city squares, with a large wind orchestra including soloists, a mixed choir and a children’s choir. The entire performance was to be accompanied by a light show. The score included a script for orchestrating the lighting design. Schulhoff had already explored the idea of combining light, music and movement in the 1920s. He and Pešánek had built a prototype of the colour piano, which they presented to an audience in Prague in 1928, where Schulhoff played his compositions accompanied by a synchronised composition for changing fields of colour. »Manifesto« was not, however, staged as originally envisaged by Pešánek and Schulhoff, and the atmosphere of tension and fear at the prospect of war did not favour such grand productions. Pešánek died in 1965, almost entirely forgotten.

Avant-garde Theatre

Concepts and ideas of how to combine different technologies and media were most powerful in avant-garde theatre, which in interwar Czechoslovakia played an important role as an innovative and popular social scene, and the Czechoslovakian New Theatre of the 1960s drew strongly on this tradition. At the D 34 theatre in Prague, founded in 1934 and managed by Emil František Burian (1904–1959), two important dramatic principles were established. The first was known as the »theatergraph«, which deployed a combination of cinematic and theatrical techniques: live acting, projected images, film and light design. The second was a musical drama style of recitation, known as »voiceband«.

The concepts of »voiceband« and the theatre of light were inspired by the ideas of a synthetic theatre described and articulated in the writings of the Prague Linguistic Circle. To mark the tenth anniversary of the opening of the »Osvobozené divadlo« (Liberated Theatre), the Circle’s most prominent member, Roman Jakobson, published »The Noetics of Fun«, in which he analysed the verbal humour of the duo of directors and actors Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich against the background of Karl Bühler’s theory of language. Another Russian émigré, Petr Bogatyrev, who studied ethnography and folk literature, worked with Burian, who was not only the founder of D 34, but also a director, actor and musician. Avant-garde Czech theatre was intended as a synthesis of multiple art forms, and a theatrical performance was like a structure whose individual components were firmly connected. The use of »voiceband« at D 34 was a way to extend the range of expressive devices in use at the time, deploying jazz phrasing, humming, hissing, whistling, and other expressive uses of the vocal organs in music. The title refers to the inspiration Burian took from black and Czech jazz orchestras and vocal ensembles, but also to folk singing and the dialect of the spoken word with its musicality, onomatopoeia, poetry, harmony and rhythm.

It was the mostly left-wing and politically engaged theatre scene, represented alongside D 34 by the authors of the Liberated Theatre’s repertoire, that lay behind the manifesto to free the theatre from clichés and conventions in favour of playfulness, improvisation, and the world of popular culture and the avant-garde. The scene’s political views forced many of its members to flee from the Nazis; those that didn’t were often incarcerated in concentration camps.

After the war, this tradition was once again taken up in the context of a society reshaped by wartime occupation. After the Communist Party seized power in 1948, independent culture, including theatre, literature, visual art and music, came under pressure from ideological censorship, but during the next ten years there was a gradual revival. The work of young artists, organised under the label »Scény malých forem« (Theatres of small stages), alongside the Czechoslovakian New Wave in film and the rebellious writers of the 1960s, served as a catalyst for a political shift toward a freer society, and served as an attempt to enter into a dialogue with the power structures. Improvised, often aesthetically and politically non-conformist performances were taking place in small music clubs, cafés and studios. These often consisted of a mixture of improvised spoken word, »bourgeois« genres such as chanson, jazz, blues and rock and roll, spoken and sung poetry, and new forms of stage design.

Young artists also drew on the older concepts of pre-war avant-garde theatre, fine art and music, adapting it to the new context, for example, on the occasion of participating in the »export« of art under the official preparations for two World Expos in 1956 and 1967. A performance by the »Laterna Magika« (directed by Alfréd Radok, with the collaboration of optical systems designer, writer and director Radůz Činčera and with a stage design by Josef Svoboda) was a sensation at Expo 58 in Brussels, and the interactive cinema project »Kinoautomat« in Montreal in 1967 was lauded as a pioneering concept for expanded cinema – a combination of film, theatre and music.

Between Sound and Image

However, in the 1960s and '70s the work of most composers and artists in experimental audiovisual art was mostly a rather marginal affair, attracting the attention of just a small group of experts and enthusiasts. Its significance only emerges in retrospect. For a brief period around the year 1968, happenings, concerts and performances found their way into more prestigious venues, though they were rarely featured on radio or television, or in official galleries, concert halls or museums. Excursions to international festivals and art symposiums in Poland, Yugoslavia and – in exceptional cases – Western Europe were opportunities for Czechs to meet their counterparts from other countries, and to take a look at the broader international art scene.

For the generation of the 1960s, there was an urgent need in the Czechoslovakian art scene to connect the worlds of music and fine art. Visual artist Milan Grygar (b. 1925) painted his first non-figural paintings in 1961, but he soon moved away from abstract art in favour of exploring the connections between sound, movement, space and colour. In 1964 he was part of a visit organised by the Association of Czechoslovakian Fine Artists to the Venice Biennial, where American pop art was first presented in Europe. The US pavilion displayed paintings by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In Venice, Grygar also saw the work of Joseph Beuys, as well as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, who staged a performance in Prague in the autumn, and John Cage and David Tudor met Prague-based artists, above all the flautist and composer Petr Kotík, who soon thereafter began performing with the company.

In his work Grygar concentrated on the audio qualities of the process of drawing, and on the graphical depiction of sound: ways of visualising a line on a surface and a vibration in space. In 1966 he used magnetic tape to record the sounds of a line on paper, and went on to make a series of acoustic drawings. He later produced paintings that he regarded as audio and colour scores. Thanks to the tape recorder, he began developing his idea of the omnipresence of sound, which accompanies every movement of the human body and the mechanical motions of machines. Grygar used a cane and sticks to make large black and white drawings, and in smaller drawings in black ink he used mechanical toys, combs, glasses and his fingers as tools.

In 1969 Grygar performed a number of staged events for his tactile drawings, which were documented on film. He would hang up a large sheet of white paper, cut holes for his limbs, and paint with his fingers or with objects that he could reach with his arms and legs. The result was a visual record of the event, accompanied by the sound of the paper vibrating. At the beginning of the 1970s Grygar released a record, a limited edition of recordings of his acoustic drawings, which can be placed in the context of similar experiments in the new sound art in Western Europe. From 1967 onwards there were several sound scores intended to be interpreted by musicians, and to this day they have featured in repertoires in Europe and the United States. At the end of the 1980s Grygar returned to painting, and in his »Antiphonies« series of canvases he continued to work on the Pythagorean idea of the sonic and mathematical relations that apply to the world, using planes of colour and their complementarity and harmony.

Another interesting artist working with sound and image was the poet and visual artist Ladislav Novák (1925–1999), who spent his entire life in Třebíč, a small town in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. His work is typified by his free use of a variety of media and techniques, primarily drawing, collage, text, and the written and spoken word. He was one of few Czech artists to become part of the international phonetic poetry scene. In 1962 he acquired a small Sonet Duo tape recorder and began experimenting by recording his own voice. Thanks to an editor at Czechoslovak Radio in Liberec, he had the opportunity in 1969 to record several of his poems in a professional studio, and those recordings found their way abroad. Although Novák lived in relative isolation and worked all his life as a secondary-school teacher, he was very well informed on contemporary developments in art. He corresponded with Raoul Hausmann, a protagonist of Dada and a promoter of sound poetry who had lived in Prague for a time before the war, and he had exhibitions with contemporaries such as Henri Chopin, Bob Cobbing, Bernard Heidsieck, Pierre Garnier, Ernst Jandl and Maurice Lemaître.

Phonetic poems were just one aspect of his versatility. He produced visual and concrete poetry, alongside collage, frottage and »alchymage«. Unlike phonetic poems, encoding in visual symbols implies that the instantiation of a poem cannot be set down in writing, and the opportunities offered by sound recording technology place his original recordings in a direct relationship with aural, chthonic and physical poetry.

Novák thereby restored to poetry its archetypal immediacy, allowing it to operate outside the written word. In the 1950s and '60s Novák’s phonetic and experimental poetry was also surely influenced by the political situation, and his work was a response to the voiding of the meaning of language, to the »entropy, degradation and manipulation of official newspeak policy«, in the words of the art critic and visual poet Jiří Valoch.

Olga Karlíková and the Structures of the Language of Natural Speech

The search for connections between natural processes, graphic symbols and common algorithms of reality led the painter Olga Karlíková (1923–2004) to study birdsong, recording its cadences in the lines of her drawings. Her apparently abstract drawings and paintings are reminiscent of cycles of manuscript texts, written using a language of symbols, or graphic notations for music performances. Karlíková’s hundreds of drawings and dozens of paintings are a seismographic record of processes in nature, tracing the motion of the hand and eye and guided by hearing. From 1966 on, Karlíková sought her own conception of structural landscape painting directly in the countryside. She sketched the constantly changing choreography and orchestration of the countryside, its seemingly identical and yet always different contours in spring and summer, resonant with larks, finches, warblers, blackbirds, tits, swallows, crows and swifts. She systematically compiled »registers« of script referring to sonic formulas for the language of animal communication, and she studied and recorded the motion of different bird species in flight. Her drawings have a kinship with graphic scores, and they oscillate between purely visual perception and musical form and moment, capturing the sequentiality and uniqueness of the morphology of a particular place.

These aspects of her work are – evidently intuitively – in line with contemporary concepts in world art concerning the inseparability of man and nature, and with the ideas of Gregory Bateson, John Cage and Olivier Messiaen.

The visual artist and performer Jan Steklík (b. 1938), head of the art group »The Křížovnická School of Humour without Wit«, devised his own version of a poetic, artistic parallel world. There is also the work of Milan Knížák in the 1960s and '70s, with his concept of Broken Music, and the impulsive works of »musique concrète« he made in the »Aktual« group. Thanks to his membership of Fluxus International, he was one of the few Czech artists to achieve international prominence.

File under »Underground«

The intergenerational continuity in the art community in the two decades following the occupation by Warsaw Pact forces in 1968 did not entirely vanish, but its survival was due more to activities taking place on the level of personal contacts, or within the semi-official or dissident art scenes. For many years, information was distributed in the form of »samizdat«, where the copying of recorded music was as important as the replication of texts. The Czech music and literary underground played a key role during this time, where there were a number of artists who proclaimed the younger generation’s radical anti-establishment views. Concerts and recordings by the rock band »The Plastic People of the Universe« (managed by the underground spokesman Ivan Martin Jirous), as well as affiliated bands such as »DG 307« and »Umělá hmota«, attained an almost mythical status in the 1970s, and were symbols of defiance against the totalitarian state. Equally important, however, were the activities of a number of organisations that straddled the official and alternative art scenes.

A pivotal role was played by the publishing and organisational activities of the »Jazz Section-Artforum«, which was set up in 1971 as part of the Musician’s Union. Civil disobedience expressed by means of promoting jazz, and later rock, found its strongest support in the Jazz Section, as any alternative to the official political structures was by then illegal. Thanks to the Jazz Section, the annual »Prague Jazz Days festival« became an opportunity to hear contemporary forms of jazz, jazz fusion and alternative rock. There were also concerts of experimental classical music that would not have been included in official festivals. Here there was improvised music, jazz fusion, rock and world music, and performances of graphic scores by Milan Grygar, the percussionist Alan Vitouš and the multi-instrumentalist Jiří Stivín. The Jazz Section’s publishing activities produced dozens of publications on music, fine art, performance and conceptual art, which found their way to attentive readers of all ages throughout the country. Tens of thousands of fans went to the festivals, and in 1984 the state, sensing the danger of change that the Jazz Section might induce, used the courts to dissolve the organisation. In the lead-up to the momentous year of 1989, several members of the Jazz Section joined forces with the dissidents, and it played an important role as one of a handful of organisations that were capable of coping with the logistics in the chaos of the Velvet Revolution. In the initial years after the revolution a certain revolutionary ethos remained, with strategies for anti-establishment, critical and authentic culture continuing, but gradually culture and art came to play the standard role familiar in more stable societies that have not been afflicted by as many changes as has Czechoslovakia over the last sixty years.


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