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Posts Tagged ‘Czechoslovakia’

The Wonders of Czech Book Design, and Other News

December 1, 2015 | by

An illustration by Josef Čapek in Nové zpěvy : kniha lyrických průbojů, 1918.

  • When Germans like to dramatize their politics, imbuing the theater with metaphors to suit the times, they always turn to one play: Hamlet. Over the centuries, the Dane has survived a dizzying number of interpretations and representations on German stages—they’re obsessed with the guy. “The 1970s West German Hamlet was shown as powerless to affect his corrupt society, reflecting the experiences of intellectuals and theatre directors who failed to influence the politics of the 1960s revolutions … East German interpretations of Hamlet were unsurprisingly very different. In his speech at the 1964 Shakespeare festival, Cultural Minister Alexander Abusch praised Hamlet’s socialist ideals and lambasted the corrupt society that prevented him carrying them out … The frequent revival of this old, familiar play does not signal a retreat in German theatre from innovative drama. In fact, the nation’s changing role has sparked an exciting new phase in the depiction of the dithering protagonist … In a radical 2005 production in Munich, director Lars-Ole Walburg incorporated quotations from George W Bush and Michael Moore and references to the Rwandan genocide and the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.”
  • The English major is in decline, and who can even rouse himself to defend it? There’s no utilitarian value to it. It doesn’t seem to make students more ethical or to improve their decision making. People would very probably still read books without it. So … uh … Adam Gopnik has a thought: “The best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic. Why was he a professor of literature? ‘Because I have an obsessive relationship with texts.’ You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects. A good doctor said to me, not long ago, ‘You really sort of have to like assholes and ear wax to be a good general practitioner’; you have to really like, or not mind much, intricate and dull and occasionally even dumb arguments about books to study English.”
  • Good spelling has always had an uncomfortable correlation with good breeding—before the advent of spell-check, and even to some extent after it, to spell well was to signify one’s belonging in the upper classes. In the nineteenth century, two men tried to level the playing field with an ambitious overhaul to the language: “On December 5, 1846, in the first issue of a newspaper called Di Anglo-Sacsun, an introductory letter to readers heralded the day when ‘bad spelling, the monster that scares, and grins at, and harasses the people, will fall into fits, like the Giant Despair of Doubting Castle, and will die outright of his spasms’ … S. P. Andrews and Augustus Boyle, the editors of the Di Anglo-Sacsun, believed that they could end poverty by making literacy less time-consuming and more accessible, particularly for poor immigrants and slaves. As the written language formalized over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century through innovations like the steam press and energetic lexicographers like Noah Webster, standardized spelling had become a newly erected barrier between the upwardly mobile and those who had neither the time nor the resources to crack the code of literacy. Andrews and Boyle wanted to simplify the process by making spelling entirely phonetic.”
  • In the early twentieth century, Czech book design drew its influences from a surprisingly broad array of artistic movements—and a singular, stylish form of publishing emerged as a result. “One popular trend during the turn of the century was to embellish literature with elaborate, local ornamentations that were mostly Romanesque in style, as exemplified by Josef Mánes’ illustrations in a manuscript of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Bohemian poems and songs. Floral motifs also became popular Czech symbols … However, artists later dismissed floral and other ornate symbolism as medieval decorations, especially as Czech culture was increasingly exposed to foreign influences that fueled widespread experimentation … Some found the decorativeness of beautiful book illustrations extravagant, preferring to shape the appearance of books with bold and often stark photomontages.”
  • Reminder: your M.F.A. program is the product of specific political circumstances, and to write “well” is essentially to play by the rules of the state: “Less than a lifetime ago, reputable American writers would occasionally start fistfights, sleep in ditches and even espouse Communist doctrines. Such were the prerogatives and exigencies of the artist’s existence, until M.F.A. programs arrived to impose discipline and provide livelihoods. Whether the professionalization of creative writing has been good for American literature has set off a lot of elegantly worded soul-searching and well-mannered debate recently … Sponsored by foundations dedicated to defeating Communism, creative-­writing programs during the postwar period taught aspiring authors certain rules of propriety … Certain seemingly timeless criteria of good writing are actually the product of historically bound political agendas.”

Portfolio: Miroslav Tichý

August 8, 2011 | by

Untitled, ca. 1950s–80s, black-and-white photograph with graphite, mounted.

“If you want to be famous,” photographer Miroslav Tichý once said, “you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.” Born in 1926 in Czechoslovakia, Tichý spent decades taking voyeuristic photographs of women bathing. His subjects are caught unawares, often through fences or peepholes, in an erotically isolated moment. The pictures are spotted, blurred, crooked, scratched, and underexposed—done, by any conventional standards, “badly.” These flaws of execution are surpassed only by the crudeness of Tichý’s cameras, which were made with materials such as shoeboxes, tin cans, toilet-paper rolls, sandpaper, and toothpaste.

Tichý the man was equally disheveled. A ragged town eccentric, he had been trained as a classical painter but quit the academy after the Communist takeover forced artists to focus on socialist subjects. He remained, however, a diligent practitioner of the arts. He took three rolls of film a day, printed each negative only once, and embellished the prints with homemade frames. The results amount to a clever commentary on the state; his disguised cameras and the atmosphere of surveillance in his work subtly allude to the surveillance of the society at large. But the furtive pictures are also beautiful. They recall the scratched bodies of Degas’s bathers; they presage the soft focus of Richter. Their imperfection imprints them with the personal. As Tichý himself said, “A mistake. That’s what makes the poetry.” Read More »

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