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Art Trip for FotoFest Board and Friends
September 2005
Report by Fred Baldwin

The Charles Bridge

On September 3, 2005 FotoFest organized a follow-up trip to a memorable November 2004 visit to Paris, where we put together a tour for FotoFest Board members to Le Mois de la Photo and the Paris Photo fair. It was a great success. Prague, unlike Paris, was un-chartered territory for most of the group -- 18 Board members and FotoFest supporters. Many years of work in Prague and our own knowledge of Czechoslovak photography, good friends and collaborators (especially the Prague House of Photography), and hard work and planning by Wendy and Marta Sanchez of FotoFest did the trick. Collectively, they created a trip that surpassed anything tour professionals could have devised. I can say this because my own role was mainly to show up and, of course take lots of pictures -with my Leica digital camera.

John Huss Memorial at the Old Town Hall Square

Prague is a city that we have long wanted to share with our Board, FotoFest supporters and friends. Prague’s beauty provides visitors from our compressed urban world with a magical alternative to the practical and ordinary. We also wanted to share our long relationship to Prague. It’s a city we love and there are ties that that go back 20 years for us -- even further for Wendy, who covered the city as a journalist during the turbulent and the brief, hope-charged months of the Prague Spring in 1968 and its tragic aftermath. Some of our experiences are irresistible to describe because they are hopeful, while others go to the core of what FotoFest is all about, and others are like spy thrillers. For example, Wendy was able to show us where she smuggled papers out of the Theological Hall of the Strahov Library for Czech dissidents in 1970 when working for Newsweek.

Wendy Luers, wife of Ambassador Bill Luers, soon to be President Vaclav Havel and Fred

She recounted her journey alone in the middle of the night from Prague to the Austrian border with a dreaded black Tatra car (used by the Secret Police) following behind her. Those papers broke the story of the secret political trials of Czechoslovak dissidents in 1970, after the Warsaw Pact-Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Then we were able to show our friends where the police lined up against protesting crowds in the Wenceslas Square in the summer of 1989. We described the tear gas fusillade and occasionally dysfunctional water cannon that hosed down the crowd and us, while we photographed the scene. We were there again on December 31 being squirted with champagne in celebration of the completion of the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia.

Leica photographs by Wendy Watriss

We described the surprise dinner on December 26 where we were invited to join a celebration with guests who became the new government a few days later. We told about having smuggled film and photo paper in the mid-late 1980s to Czechoslovak photographers for an exhibit and catalogue to show at FotoFest 1990. We learned later that some of these photo materials were used to pass on information about the revolution in Prague to workers outside the capital when TV and radio stations were shut down at the beginning of the Velvet Revolution. We showed them the old Civic Forum headquarters where we were able to call back to Houston to persuade COMPAQ to donate new computers to the new government.

There were many stories to tell and places that connected to our lives, to the intentions of FotoFest and to Czechoslovak history. Finally, we wanted to share the insights that Prague’s artists and intellectuals have to offer about their complex, rich, and frequently tragic history. Their art and the stories on how and why they do their art are wonderful avenues into the breadth of Czech and Slovak culture. We arranged as many opportunities as possible for our Board and friends to meet Czech artists and scholars.

Wendy and I met with Dr. Kirschner to plan the groups orientation in May.

The FotoFest group began with a welcome cocktail/dinner on the roof terrace of our charming Aria Hotel on September 6, 2005. Dr. Zdenek Kirschner, a scholar and photography historian, who helped us with FotoFest’s ground-breaking Czechoslovak exhibit in 1990 and the Karel Teige exhibit at FotoFest 1992. He gave the group a brief overview of Czech history, culture and events. A spectacular view of the Prague Castle, reflecting golden in the evening light served as the backdrop for a perfect autumn day.

Roof of the Aria Hotel

The next morning we went to the Museum of Decorative Arts (UPM) to begin a guided tour and overview of the classical and historic parts of the exhibit, Czech Photography of the 20th Century with the chief curator Dr. Vladimir Birgus and UPM curator Jan Mlcoch. UPM has one of the great collections of Czechoslovak photography in the world. The exhibit was an opportunity to see some of the most important and rare vintage Czechoslovak photography in existence. As the exhibit will only travel to a few places in Europe, the FotoFest trip was organized to coincide with its presentation.

Vladimir Birgus showing us his exhibition

Prague is a walking city and most of the group found this a pleasure, some of us found it a necessity because each day featured, in addition to the feast of photography, other of feasts. A superb breakfast at the Aria was followed by a fulsome lunch and a copious dinner every night. The restaurants were chosen for quality and there was lots of wine and good Czech beer. We were generally joined by Czech artists and friends.

View from the Castle by the Tomáš Masaryk statue

The second night, we were treated to the Opening Concert of the Jubilee Season, Homage to Czech Music, at Rudolfinum, a moving performance of Antonin Dvorak, Leos Janácek and Bedrich Smetana by the Czech Philharmonic. Prague is a city filled with music and there are concerts in churches and spaces all over the city. The Aria Hotel’s music concierge Ivana Stehlíková, formerly employed by Deutsche Grammaphon, knows and loves music. She was a magician, producing special tickets for some of our group who wanted more musical evenings.

We also had a superb collaboration with Eva Hodek, the Director of the Prague House of Photography (PHP) and her assistant Magdalena Svátková. A great deal of pre-planning had been required. Wendy and I had spent a week in Prague several months earlier, literally walking and timing the distances between scheduled stops for the Board trip. The success of the plan had a lot to do with the generous and effective help provided by Eva Hodek. Her husband George treated us to countless meals to check out the quality of restaurants and advise us on wine choices, and arrange for cultural, political and business leaders to meet the group. Eva managed to do this while working to complete the final stages of construction on the new headquarters of her own institution, the Prague House of Photography (PHP).

Eva and Wendy planning the trip in May

Eva Hodek with plan for the Prague House of Photography

The artist studio visits were spread over five days, starting the second day of the trip. We saw many of the artists who had been part of the first (and ground-breaking) exhibit of contemporary Czechoslovak photographers that FotoFest curated for FotoFest 1990 and a later Slovak show co-curated with Lucia Benicka for FotoFest 1998. The artists we visited were Pavel Banka, Stepan Grygar, Ivan Pinkava, Rudo Prekop, Jan Reich, and Miro Svolik. Vaclav Jirásek joined the studio visit with Ivan Pinkava. The artists’ studio spaces required breaking into two groups. It meant that everyone was able to experience and see a wide range of work as well as different environments in which artists are working, from an historic building near the Prague Castle to unreconstructed 1950s apartment houses. All of the artists showed prints and talked about the evolution of their work.

Jan Reich in his studio showing a map of sites for his photographs in Bohemia

Ivan Pinkava showing his work to the group

On Monday, September 11th, when we visited Rudo Prekop’s studio, Rudo talked about his development as an artist. He took us on a journey from student days in Slovakia in the 1960’s and the pressures of political and artistic realities under a stringent Socialist regime, to the present. He responded, like many Czechoslovak artists of his generation, with irony.

Rudo Prekop's studio and view from his 1950's apartment building

You could see how his photography developed in relation to the political and cultural changes of his country. Rudo’s art gave us a visceral cultural tour, a history lesson, perhaps unintended, that was a powerful visual interpretation of the struggles that keep him current and artistically viable. All the artists we visited offered us, in many different and personal ways, insight into the culture of the Czech Republic today and Czechoslovak history.

To look at other aspects of Czech visual art, we visited the National Gallery and its great Czech Modernism collection of the 1920s -1950s. We had a young art historian as a special guide, provided by the Museum’s curator Helena Musilová. Some of the group visited the famous Jewish quarter and cemetery. For our tours of the city itself, we found a charming tour guide, Katka Demelová, a knowledgeable and attractive young woman whose father is a well-known Czech restoration architect.

Strahov Library where Wendy smuggled secret documents to Austria in 1970
photo by Eddie Philippe

On Thursday, September 8, we started the day with a visit to the Strahov Library and the Prague Castle, Hradcany. The castle is a citadel that had been the bastion of various Bohemian kings, Austro-Hungarian incursions, and the site of de-fenestrations, coronations, intrigues, and events both glorious and gory since the 12th Century. Today, it has the offices of the President of the Czech Republic, Wendy’s dinner companion at the famous dinner on December 26, 1989. We had a lovely walk admiring Prague from an elevated view.

Prague Castle, Hradcany

On Saturday morning, we walked through the Staré Mesto, the Old Town, across the river from the Castle with Katka. We went to the outskirts of the city to a late lunch and visit to Benice, a village on the outskirts of Prague where we met photographer Pavel Banka and his artist wife Jindrá Viková. After lunch we went to their house for a studio visit to the charming farm house that they have converted into a living and an art work space. Pavel is one of the most successful Czech photographic artists (and a founder of PHP) and Jindra is one of the best ceramic artists in Europe so we had a double art treat. They are both old friends and we stayed with them in 1987 on one of my first trips to Czechoslovakia.

Pavel Banka and Jindrá Viková's house/studio and some of Jindrá's ceramic sculpture

Pavel is one of the founders of PHP and the editor of the excellent Czech photography magazine Fotograf. He has done much for Czech photography, and he has shown at FotoFest and come to the Biennial many times. His daughter Marketa Banková was chosen by the well-known New Media curator and Whitney Museum consultant Cristianne Paul as one of the featured artists in a Web art exhibit we commissioned for FotoFest 2002.

Pavel Banka at his studio in Benice - photo by Eddie Phillipe

We had delightful dinners at restaurants on the Vitava River. It was fun to watch the tourist boats that traveled the special canals that made it possible to get through special locks that permitted them to navigate the river. They came so close it seemed that you could almost touch the passengers. There were jazz boats, eating boats, and some were just boats with more sedate missions, cruising floating platforms to admire the beautiful city and the bridges from the river.

Lunch on the Vitava River with passing tourist boat

We also decided on a river trip tour at night but our boat was different from all the rest. It was small and private, a beautifully built mahogany boat, replicating of an elegant 19th century river vessel. It was run by two attractive young men in sailor suits, one of whom served drinks and provided us with pleasant descriptions about the sights we were passing. Our tour was high-end tourism and there was no attempt to introduce anything into the agenda except a pleasurable experience. The two sailors turned out to be young entrepreneurs who started and owned the company that takes ‘special’ tourists like us for a ride. They are the ‘new Prague’.

Some of the group left on Sunday, Sept 11th and those remaining were invited for tea at the house of Dr. Kirschner’s friend, Tamara Beranová in Cernosice, a residential town outside Prague. Dr. Beranova is a fine art restorer at the National Gallery and lives in a 1930s Cubist house designed by her father. The house is now a historic landmark. Much of the adjacent land holdings belonging to her family were confiscated by the Communist regime after they came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948. It has not been possible to get back all the land but Dr. Beranova has managed to co-exist with neighbors who have lived for many years on land that once belonged to her father. Dr. Beranova was delightful hostess and provided yet another unusual perspective of Czech life.

Dr. Tamara Beranova with her guests at her home and studio in Cernosice

We had asked Eva Hodek to arrange for us to see young artists and their work. Three were able to come to the hotel to show the group their portfolios –Veronika Bromova, Sylva Francová, and Alena Kotzmannová. Unlike the works of the artists we had known from the 1980s, two of the younger artists worked primarily in color and often with digital processes. It is remarkable how many of the contemporary generation of artists are women, something that was the case 20 years ago. Today, many (sometimes most) of the fine art photography students in art schools in the Czech Republic, as in the U.S., are women.

Artist Silva Francová shows her work to the group at the Aria

On our last night in Prague, Eva and Pavel arranged a dinner to meet Miroslav Lekeš, a young businessman who publishes technical magazines. He and his wife are serious art collectors, and they have an extensive photographic arts collection. Mr. Lekeš has been very successful, and he is an example of a new generation of entrepreneurs who are giving back. He supports Pavel Banka’s magazine Fotograf. At an earlier dinner we had met a younger generation of Czech public officials involved in cultural policy: Pavel Jirásek, Director from the Czech Ministry of Culture and Petr Vlasá, Member of City Assembly, City of Prague Cultural Committee, both of whom had provided important financial support for the Prague House of Photography. All of them were enthusiastic about coming to FotoFest in the future and we plan to invite them to Houston for the Biennial in March 2006 as special VIP guests.

Our friend Slavka Glaser, a young Slovak-born banker who works for JP Morgan in New York and lives in New York and Houston, joined us for the trip and contributed to its success. Slavka’s husband Miles Glaser was a long-time friend, with whom we had shared many adventures in Prague. He was born in Prague, but emigrated to the U.S. after World War II and lived in Houston for many years working with the Menil Collection and Foundation. Miles died in December 2004, and he is greatly missed by us. Many of memories of Prague are associated with him, including the famous Velvet Revolution dinner of January 26, 1989.

The experiment worked. Are we going into the travel business? No! Are we going to make another trip somewhere next year? Yes.

Fred Baldwin

Photographs taken with Leica Digilux 2