Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 27
30 March 1999

Kazi Stastna O N   D I S P L A Y :
Around the [Czech] World in a 100 Years

Kazi Stastna

As millenium fever spreads across the globe, this year, there are bound to be endless glances back at the outgoing century, covering various aspects of society and culture. In the Czech Republic, 1999 is also the year of a conveniently round anniversary, namely the 10 year anniversary of the dramatic events of November 1989. Hence, it is not out of place that a 672-page "look back" at the past 100 years should appear in Czech bookstores just as the year is sluggishly emerging from its Winter sleep and gaining that pre-millenium spring in its step. The book (and the accompanying exhibit at Prague's Museum of Decorative Arts) is Letem ceskym svetem1898/1998 (Round About the Czech World 1898/1998), a portrait of change of the Czech lands from a 100-year perspective. Its 600-odd pages are devoted to a "look" back at the past 100 years - in the form of 373 pairs of photographs documenting cities, towns, national parks, monuments and a variety of other landscapes across the Czech Republic. The mammoth publication is the result of a similarly mammoth project undertaken by four contemporary Czech photographers - Jaroslav Barta, Zdenek Helfert, Daniela Hornickova and Ivan Lutterer. In 1994, these four photographers unearthed a photographic series going under the name of Letem ceskym svetemwhich the Czech publisher J R Vilimek had been publishing in small individual editions, with each edition featuring 12 photographs, at two and three week intervals throughout the years 1896-1898. As Barta, who initiated the project and published the book through his own Studio JB Press, mentions in the book's introduction, the intention of the original project was to use the authenticity that photography offered to "capture places which were important for the history and present of the nation," thereby strengthening its self-confidence and national identity.

In the span of a hundred years, the intention has shifted significantly and the project which Barta and his four colleagues embarked upon in 1994 carries a different message. Nevertheless, from the beginning, the photographers' aim was to archive the maximum possible accordance with the original photographs, which meant countless hours spent investigating the original conditions and technical specifics - including time of year, time of day, shadow, lighting, position of the objective - as well as accounting for the major changes that the photographic process has undergone over the past 100 years. The four photographers spent most of 1994 studying the original photographs and compiling such data before they set about the actual task of photographing in spring 1995. Once out in the actual terrain, they encountered practical obstacles which somewhat hindered their attempts at authenticity - some locations had drastically changed, some shots had been taken from windows of building which no longer stood. In all cases, Barta and his colleagues attempted to adhere to the originals as faithfully as possible: rigging elevated planks when buildings were missing, intentionally replicating optical deformations, calculating shadows and returning to retake shots many times throughout the four years spent photographing.

At the book's launch in a Prague bookstore this March, Barta explained that as contributors they looked at the wealth of photographic material which they had compiled over the five-year period on three levels: as a photographic document, as a testimony of the past 100 years and in the form of the final product - that is, the book - as a homage to J R Vilimek who himself could not have afforded the luxury of compiling all of his editions in book form. An aspect which contributes to the multi-leveled presentation of the work are the book's accompanying texts. Compiled and written jointly by former Czech Environment Minister Ivan Dejmal, Libor Juhn and former Director of the National Gallery Jiri T Kotalik, the short texts underneath each photograph are a mix of descriptive characteristics of the particular locales, demographic statistics on the inhabitants of those locales, historical facts and environmental assessments. Perhaps in line with the overlying intention of Vilimek's 19th-century project, many of the original texts contain nationalistic coloring which reflected the existing conflicts of the time, and the contributors admit that this was the one area in which they turned away from the original in order to preserve the intention of presenting an objective testimony rather than a subjective judgement.

Although all seven of the project's contemporary contributors insist that they want to remain in the background and allow readers to draw their own conclusions about the impact of the last 100 years in the Czech lands, during the open discussion at the book's launch, they allowed themselves a few of their own observations and conclusions. Often these provided insights which would otherwise escape the casual observer: what at first glance may appear as natural growth which had appeared over 100 years was interpreted by the book's creators as a sign of general neglect The consensus among both photographers and textual contributors was that throughout the 100-year time span, Czech society has tended to keep up its national monuments while neglecting its immediate environment. Ecologist Ivan Dejmal and his fellow contributor Jiri Kotalik both spoke of a kind of "junglization" evident in the uncared-for landscape: an absence of the human hand in rural landscapes which had been used to cultivation for many years and insensitive intrusions, such as the infamous panelaks, into the urban and small town environments.

Despite these misgivings of the book's contributors, after viewing the 672 pages of paired photographs, the reader is not necessarily left with a definitive positive or negative assessment of the last 100 years. The photographs document a range of historical, environmental and societal change, from utter devastation, such as that of the formerly German town of Bruex (Most) which went from being a thriving center on the crossroads of important transportation routes to a town with a (predominantly German) population of 15,000 to a completely depopulated quarry, to scenes of relatively natural development, such as the modernization of the Pilsen brewery, or visibly positive improvement, such as the renovation Cervena Lhota chateau.

The unique value of Letem ceskym svetem lies in the fact that it allows the reader (and the viewer) to navigate between these two poles and assess one hundred years of time passed both within the larger landscape of the country and its people as a whole as well as in the finer details of its individual locales.

Kazi Stastna, 30 March 1999


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