This April and May, the Zamek (Castle) Cultural Centre will host the exhibition "Out of Town. Sovinec - the Unofficial Czech Culture Centre 1979-1989". This extraordinary display is an unusual case of a peripheral location rising to become a true centre of independent art. It is also a story of a remarkable person who passionately built an anti-state underground scene.
For the first time in Poland, the public will get to view large parts of the private collection of Professor Jindřich Štreit, an educator and outstanding documentary photographer. He initially engaged in organising independent exhibitions on an impulse when, in 1974, he resolved that, rather than showing blackboards filled with political content to his students, he would walk them through works of art. Initially, he displayed works by his friends. "It was not until 1976 that I arranged my first regular exhibition. This was after the Sovinec school was shut down due to an insufficient number of students. I was allowed to use a part of the building, mainly classrooms, as exhibition space", recalls the professor.
For Jindřich Štreit, cultural activity was a form of protest. He presented the works of such local, or generally Slovak artists as had made their names internationally but were unable to have their works displayed in their own country. In fact, his exhibitions were the only place one could visit to view contemporary art. Štreit developed a growing network of contacts in the artistic world through exchange deals: he would agree to let others exhibit his photographs, but then he would ask them to return the favour and bring works by the artists he wanted to exhibit to Sovinec.
"The collection overviews Czech and Slovak art of the 1970s and "80s. It features some of the most prominent names. Being a private collection, it can hardly be called comprehensive. Nor is it an encyclopaedia of Czech art. Nonetheless, this magnificent display portrays every artistic trend of the time from surrealism to conceptualism", explains Štěpánka Bieleszová, the exhibition's curator, employed in the Olomouc Museum of Art. The exhibition features works by top artists such as Jan Švankmajer, Jiří Kolář and Karel Nepraš.
Needless to say, Štreit could not continue such endeavours in communist Czechoslovakia for long without the security apparatus taking an interest and stepping in. The authorities kept close tabs on the exploits of the rebellious professor. When he opened the surrealist exhibition "No tyrant can forbid dreaming" in 1983, the secret service showed up at the opening to note down the identities of attendees. The professor quickly arranged an ad-hoc lookout to warn prospective visitors of an "ambush".
Conversely, when Štreit was invited to contribute to the exhibition "Meeting", at a Prague tennis court facility in 1982, he believed the event had an official permit. Assured it was safe, he selected photos from the "Village is the World" series which he was preparing at the time for display in Olomouc. Regrettably, before anyone got as much as a glimpse of the exhibits, the display was closed down by the security service, who seized the professor's photographs, at the same time making him a target of repression. Štreit spent months in the Ruzyně detention centre and was banned from teaching after his release. After receiving a suspended sentence for insulting the Republic and the head of state, the professor lost his temporary position at the Bruntál library. He was helped out of the quandary by his brother, who found him a job as dispatcher on a state farm in Ryžovišti, where Štreit worked until the end of 1991.
The fall of communism and the breakup of Czechoslovakia did not stop Professor Štreit from expanding his collection. Today, it features works from the "90s as well as some of the very latest art. This spirited artist continues to add works to his collections with no state support. "Professor Štreit has had his work exhibited all over the world, from Tokyo to New York. He often trades his photographs for the works of other artists. He lives very modestly, ascetically, in fact. He uses his own money - no one gives him anything. He is fully committed to art", notes Bieleszová.
In the Zamek Centre, Štreit will display photographs from his new series "Where is my home?", devoted to homelessness. He has already presented his earlier work in the capital of Wielkopolska. "Professor Štreit plans to come to Poznań and talk about his life, activism, underground work and collection", announces Bieleszová.
Selected works from the Štreit collection are part of an on-going contemporary cultural exchange between the Czech Republic and Poland. Štěpánka Bieleszová was the curator of the "Abstrakcja PL" ("Abstract Art PL") exhibition held in Olomouc last year, featuring Polish abstract paintings from 1945-2017. Her research revealed close links between artists from both countries during communism. For instance, both Polish and Czech artists made frequent use of political symbolism, which made their work allegorical. At the time, they often shared experiences and developed relationships, which resulted in works by Polish artists being exhibited in Czechoslovakia, and those by their Czech counterparts being presented in Poland.
What will become of the amazing private collection of Jindřich Štreit? "I plan to hold exhibitions and produce publications to raise awareness of Professor Štreit's endeavours. We will try to get the Ministry of Culture and the state interested, and make them aware of the unique quality of his collection. We are also seeking to establish a museum of independent Czech art. This entire effort is expected to take several years to complete", says Štěpánka Bieleszová.
Marek S. Bochniarz
translation: Krzysztof Kotkowski
Exhibition Poza miastem. Sowiniec jako nieoficjalne centrum czechosłowackiej kultury 1979-1989 (Out of Town. Sovinec - the Unofficial Czech Culture Centre 1979-1989), Zamek Cultural Centre, vernissage, 3 April, 6pm, open from 4 April to 19 May
© Wydawnictwo Miejskie Posnania 2019