Bohemia: History of an Idea, 1950–2000

Kunsthalle Praha, Prague 23 March – 16 October


Spread across two floors, this exhibition blends art with documentar­y, fashion and archival photograph­y to tell a story about ‘Bohemianis­m’. And though it includes one small subsection on Prague, the show’s ¸®-based curator, Russell Ferguson, isn’t referring to the citizens of the real Bohemia (ie the Czech people), but rather to an imaginary cosmopolit­an, glitzily destitute community of postwar artists, writers, musicians and hangers-on living in various cities. Some of the scenes we see here (Paris, New York, London) are known to us; others (Tehran, Prague, Zagreb) much less so. This creates a split between Western, capitalist milieus publicly remembered for their indefinabl­e air of ‘cool’ and those with less symbolic power or, e¨ectively, cultural capital. This deficit of historical awareness cannot help but be reflected in how the exhibition is organised: aching chic (the basement) separated from what happens decades later in peripheral places (the first floor).

The basement gives us plenty of images of things we intuitivel­y feel we know something about already: there’s chain-smoking ennui in 1950s Paris, with photograph­s of doe-eyed young lovers from Ed van der Elsken’s series Een Liefdesges­chiedenis in Saint-germain-des-prés (Love on the Left Bank, 1950–54). There’s jive talking in early 1960s New York with images of Willem de Kooning by Rudy Burckhardt, and Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac by Fred W. Mcdarrah. There’s groovy free love in ‘Swinging London’ with David Bailey’s images of an angelicall­y unwrinkled Mick Jagger (1964), the moody threat of gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray (1965) and the level gaze of Penelope Tree (1967) during a party.

We see all this end in two images titled Altamont (1969) by Bill Owens, the rock festival that notoriousl­y concluded in multiple deaths, and be reborn in the almost apocalypti­c conditions of New York City a decade later: the battered, crumbling Crosby Street, Soho, New York 1978 (1978) by Thomas Struth, the glowering tenement buildings against a darkening flamelicke­d sky in Martin Wong’s painting Sweet Oblivion (1983) and the bedsit debris, sad lovers, gaunt starers and dreamy smoking trash-punk princess in Trixie on the Cot, New York City (1979) from Nan Goldin’s slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979–). It is, however, the fragments from 1980s Tehran, Prague and Zagreb elsewhere on the first floor that compel; even if there’s not enough of this, it opens the possibilit­y that more will be said about these places in the future.

Three drawings by Bijan Sa¨ari – the moustached artist gazing aloof in aviator shades in Untitled (Self-portrait) (1980), a shirtless man in Untitled (Davood) (1982), a serene sitter in Untitled (Majid Moza´ari) (1976) – o¨er a window on the secret history of gay life in Tehran just before and after the Iranian Revolution (1979). Meanwhile, six black-and-white photograph­s from Libuše Jarcovjáko­vá’s 1980s T-club series document the raucous fun of Prague’s undergroun­d lesbian dive bars, and naked bodies in squalid apartments, during a particular­ly grim and sexless period of communism after the 1968 Soviet invasion and the ensuing repressive period of ‘normalisat­ion’.

There’s more nudity, meanwhile, in four photograph­ic stills from provocateu­r Tomislav Gotovac’s performanc­e Zagreb, volim te! (Zagreb, I love you!, 1981), in which the artist himself

– a huge, bald physical presence – storms down the streets with arms aloft, kisses the tarmac, and tries to catch a tram before being arrested by a stern-faced cop. Creeping dawn sheds light on the aftermath of a wild party (bottles, cups, mess, dangling fairy lights) in Wolfgang Tillmans’s photo wake (2001), suggesting Bohemia’s dancing days are done. Perhaps the good times can still roll on, but the wretched influence of gentrifica­tion and online commodific­ation means we can’t help but be sceptical that we can find these conditions (big spaces, cheap rent) again.

Bohemia: History of an Idea neverthele­ss faces two problems: one is that the stylish photograph­s of bohemians in their natural habitat, which greatly outnumber works of art here, give us a better sense of contempora­ry art’s prehistory and preconditi­ons than many of the ‘actual’ works. The other concerns the texture of bohemian life: while Ferguson’s expanded bohemia begins to widen our sense of which scenes are worth looking at or understand­ing, and how geopolitic­s plays a role in this, those values are only really legible to people who already have an idea of what bohemian life is like, forever on the fringes of romanticis­ed squalor. Max L. Feldman

 ?? ?? Libuše Jarcovjáko­vá, Untitled (T-club series), c. 1980s, b/w photo. © the artist
Libuše Jarcovjáko­vá, Untitled (T-club series), c. 1980s, b/w photo. © the artist
 ?? ?? Bijan Sa¨ari, Untitled (Self-portrait), 1980.
© the estate of Bijan Sa¨ari, Paris, and Dastan Gallery, Tehran
Bijan Sa¨ari, Untitled (Self-portrait), 1980. © the estate of Bijan Sa¨ari, Paris, and Dastan Gallery, Tehran

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