‘Czech Routes: Selected Czechoslovak Artists in Britain’
“Outside the Ben Uri Gallery, on a leafy North London street aptly named Boundary Road, a sign announces “Art, Identity, Migration,” the triple focus of the gallery,” writes Jenny Uglow. “Inside, the works that fill the cool white space speak of turmoil, terror and resilience, a world away from the coffee shops and offices next door. But while the gallery’s history and collection pay tribute to generations of immigrants, its recent decision to sell some of those works, and to adopt a new, broader curatorial policy, have sparked fierce arguments, hard to resolve.
The current exhibition, “Czech Routes”—the fourth in a series, following shows of émigré artists from Germany, Poland, and Austria—contains works by twenty-one painters, printmakers, and sculptors who left Czechoslovakia at different times in the past century. The earliest of these, the lithographer and portraitist Emil Orlík (1870–1932), came to London in 1898. Orlík’s family belonged to the Prague circle that included Kafka and Rilke, and that intense, questioning culture is part of the identity that later artists cherish. One fine bronze by Irena Sedlecká (b. 1928), who stayed in Britain after the USSR crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, is a sculpture of Kafka she made in 1967. “Reading The Trial,” Sedlecká said, “I understood for the first time what it means to be Czech. He made sense of those terrible times when the authorities would simply pull you in for questioning, without your ever knowing the reason. That experience has shaped our national psyche.”
The opening of the show coincided with the eightieth anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, six months after Sudetenland was ceded to Germany under the Munich Agreement. Britain became the center of the Czech Resistance, the home of the country’s government-in-exile, and of the Czechoslovak Institute, which exhibited several of the artists shown here. Several found help through the Oskar-Kokoschka-Bund, a group formed by expatriate artists who openly shunned Nazi ideas. Kokoschka (1886–1980) had left Vienna for Prague, where he spoke and wrote on behalf of the Union for Rights and Freedom, joining the Czechoslovak delegation at the Brussels Peace Congress in 1936. Two years later—the year after he gained Czech citizenship—Kokoschka fled to England. His lively Still-Life Studio Exercise (circa 1950) is dedicated to the generous patrons of émigré artists Charles and Regina Aukin, themselves immigrants, from Belarus and from Germany.”
For more information, visit benuri.org.uk.
London, United Kingdom