In 1903, there was quite a scandal associated with a large painting exhibited at the annual show of a Czech artistic organization, Mánes—the leading organization promoting modernism in the early 1900s. This painting was submitted along with four other paintings of landscapes by a Czech painter Miloš Jiránek and he entitled the work Showers in the Sokol, Prague. Inspired by the Edgar Degas’ then forty-year-old painting Young Spartans Exercising, which depicts a group of Spartan gymnasts, nude. Jiránek, unaware of any possible homoerotic meanings, offered an almost one-to-one scaled view into a mens shower of a contemporary gymnast organization. In the center of the painting there is the exposed buttocks of a bent-over man. In the first version of the painting from 1901, Jiránek even planned to paint two of the buttocks right in front of the viewer’s eyes. The Sokol organization served as an environment for young homoerotically inclined men to seek a “homoerotic ideal of beauty” and “gentle male friendships” at that time. When the painting was shown in the Mánes exhibit, it caused a major controversy and the painting was banished from public sight. The committee acceded to the wishes of Prague bourgeoise taste and only the other four Jiránek landscapes were left on display. The Showers either got negative reviews or it was completely neglected by the contemporary press. The only two positive responses were by a liberal woman, female-painter Klára Heyrovská, and a gay critic William Ritter, who used to be Jiránek’s roommate.
More than one hundred years later, in 2008 the public Gallery of the City of Prague opened a retrospective of then thirty-year-old artist Mark Ther. Among his older videos, he also presented his latest works: I will get you out and chop you in the midair (2007), Hanes (2007) and Was für Material (What a material) (2008). The first video shows a young man covered with blood slowly moving through the grass and an older man reading a letter which turns out to be a love letter between two men struggling with their sexuality. The second video presents sequences from a police investigation into a brutal murder of two men in a hotel room, allegedly with a sexual subtext. Their phone conversation, which probably happened sometimes before the violent act, accompanies the scene. And the third video shows two young men in Hitler Youth uniforms, dress code of the Nazi youth organization. In short scenes they spend an intimate afternoon playing around in the countryside making fun of Nazi gestures and salutes. The video alludes to Nazism’s homoerotic culture and fetishization of a muscular male body, including the fact that homosexual men collaborated with the Nazis in the 1930s. As Jack Halberstam points out, there is nothing “sexy” about Nazi imagery, and this is exactly what the video tries to address. As the artist later testified, the curator Olga Malá from the Gallery didn’t seem to know much about his work and after a week, the Gallery closed the exhibition with the curator explaining that this unprecedented move was “due to homosexual and Nazi propaganda” allegedly present in the videos. Unfortunately, the curator did not offer wall labels or other means to interpret the complicated narratives, nor did she write about them in any way.
What do these two stories tell us about queer curating? In the earlier case, a painting was understood as “queer” without the author’s nor the curator’s intent. In the second case, an intentional, queer content, was completely ignored and the work misunderstood. Together, these two examples underscore that queer curating can’t simply rely on placing work in a comprehensive queer context and hoping viewers with open minds will try to understand what’s queer about them. In the following paper, I want to show through examples from the Czech Republic and Poland how queer curating, or to be more exact, curating queerly, is inevitably a function of sexual politics more than anything else, its ideological potential evident whether or not it includes a single male or female nude. As the American architect Mark Wigley noted in his essay in Space and Sexuality, even the act of ignoring or refusing reference to gender and sexuality is itself an ideological act.
Queer Beauty vs. Queer Archive
In 2009, a leading art historian in the Central-East European area, Piotr Piotrowski became the director of the National Museum in Warsaw. Piotrowski pursued an agenda in line with “critical museum studies” wherein all the actions of public museums are inherently politicized due to their institutional status and power to affect social change. In his posthumous book, Piotrowski states: “Critical museum studies show an interplay of various political, ideological and economic forces hidden under an apparently apolitical surface of aesthetics, contemplation and experience of the work of art.” The first exhibit he put together with the intention of raising awareness of the institution’s social responsibility was Ars Homo Erotica, which took place in the monumental 1930s main building of the National Museum, between June 11-September 5, 2010 (fig. 1). In Piotrowski’s obituary, the show was mentioned as his pioneering project in pursuit of a critical museum: “He devised the concept of the “critical museum”—a museum that would engage its collections and space in the debates on current global and local issues. The large Ars Homo Erotica exhibition, staged on his initiative in 2010, led to a shake-up far beyond the corridors of Polish museums.” The Ars Homo Erotica show became Piotrowski’s only attempt to turn the National Museum into a critical museum not just in Poland but throughout the entire Central-East European area. Nonetheless, the exhibition, which was curated by Paweł Leszkowicz, remains a major project that shook up traditional institutional structures. Leszkowicz was an LGBT+ activist and art historian and his two preoccupations were joined in his 2006 show Love and Democracy for the first time.
In his review in Artforum magazine, Marek Bartelik addressed a central problem with the exhibition: “Ars Homo Erotica turned out to be two shows in one. The aim of the first was a curatorial outing of works in the museum's collection with homoerotic subjects—works, many of them deposited in storage rooms, whose sexual content, when exhibited, has been left to our imagination. […] The second show consisted of contemporary works with homoerotic subjects, which were scattered around the galleries.” While the historical art of the show was organized in accordance with traditional homoerotic themes such as Hyacinth and Apollo, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Goliath, Zeus and Ganymede or Saint Sebastian, the exhibition failed to question the historical role and relevance of these ancient myths and iconographies in a specifically Polish context and with regard to queer communities in this part of Europe. The other part of the exhibition was tightly structured around the visualization of LGBT+ activism in Poland. To connect these two parts, Leskowicz employed the vague implications of general male nudes in Polish contemporary painting and photography or he acquired particular works just for the show that fit into these historical themes. The strongest work that connected the aesthetic and activist parts of the exhibition together was Karol Radziszewski’s 2010 video Sebastian commissioned by the museum especially for the show (fig. 2). According to Leszkowicz’s text in the catalogue, the video “highlights the soldiers’ violence in dealing with St. Sebastian and the homo-military aura of martyrdom. The artist brings the story of the Roman saint closer to us by dressing the characters in contemporary uniforms of Polish soldiers, and the drama takes place in local scenery.”
Radziszewski’s work, however, is much more than merely updating traditional queer imagery in addressing more vital issues of the queer past. In 2005, Radziszewski published the first issue of a magazine titled DIK Fagazine. At the same time, he started to work with Ryszard Kisiel, activist, artist and founder of the 1980s magazine Filo which along with a Czech magazine called Lambda was one of the first LGBT+ magazines after 1945 in Central-East Europe. In 1980s Kisiel also organized performances and mapped all the major gay scenes in European Soviet-dominated countries back then. Radsiszewski started to work with Kisiel’s archive and recreated some of the performances, while highlighting Filo magazine and other homophile pamphlets and anti-AIDS brochures with new videos, documentaries and installations. Since 2009 he has continued documenting Kisiel’s personal archive and made a video documentary entitled Kisieland. In 2014, Radziszewski picked up on another episode from Polish queer history: in 1969, a Polish experimental theatre production visited New York and presented the play The Constant Prince (it premiered in 1966) directed by Jerzy Grotowski. The actor Ryszard Cieślak, who played the leading character, the Prince, visited Warhol’s Factory. In his fictional installation, Radziszewski poses the question: what if Cieślak had become a pop sex icon and a fixture of the New York scene?
After all these projects, Radziszewski started a new endeavor: his Queer Archives Institute is more of an artistic project, updating, documenting, re-inventing and representing Polish queer history through the memory and personal archives of living figures (fig. 3). In focusing on particular events, actions and works that were by definition ephemeral, Radziszewski tries to answer the question as to how the visual arts (and magazines and performances in particular) played a significant role in queer socializing under oppressive socialist regimes in 1970s and 1980s in this part of Europe. By mixing his own experience of growing up as a gay man in the 1990s and 2000s—a period distinguished by the lack of continuity in the memory of LGBT+ communities—with archival practices aimed at reconstructing these past experiences, he offers an original, comprehensive interpretation of what queer history means to contemporary lives and queer identities in Central-East Europe. Unlike the Ars Homo Erotica show, where Leszkowicz tried to assemble the Polish visual arts around traditional Western iconographic categories, the Queer Archives Institute maintains an obverse approach: to collect, highlight and celebrate the distinguished and specific historical features and practices shared by local communities.
As it turns out, we can relate these two very different approaches to Piotr Piotrowski’s own concepts of vertical and horizontal art histories, despite the fact that Radziszewski’s work is more of an artistic survey than a theoretical text. Vertical art history is based on terms like “influence” and perceiving Western centers as the origin of the artistic ideas and peripheries as their followers, but horizontal art history proposes multivalent and parallel artistic canons, stories, and iconographic systems. On the relationship between the West’s favored narrative norms and the East-Central European periphery, Piotrowski is sharp: “The art of the center determines a specific paradigm, while the art of the periphery is supposed to adopt the models established in the centers. The center provides canons, hierarchy of values, and stylistic norms—it is the role of the periphery to adopt them in a process of reception. […] The consequence of such a move will be a reversal of the traditional view of the relationship between the art history of the margins and that of ‘our’ art history (read: of the West).” Exactly the same can be said about adopting and appropriating the Western iconographic schemes in Ars Homo Erotica such as Ganymede, Saint Sebastian, or vague female friendships on one hand and on the other a long-term pursuit to rediscover and reimagine local roots of the recent queer past, as in focused probes of the art of the 1960s to 1980s.
In 2011, impressed by the success of the Ars Homo Erotica show and yet dissatisfied with its lack of social historical context, I put together an exhibition proposal for a Queer Codes (Příčné kódy) exhibit to address the relevance of the visual arts and media for shaping and maintaining queer sociability in The Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Moravian Gallery in Brno agreed to execute the project. Together with art historians Milena Bartlová and Kateřina Štroblová, we worked on the show for two years. However, in 2013 a new gallery director was appointed. Despite his statement that he wanted to pursue all the shows in progress, he decided to cancel the Queer Codes project immediately—as to whether that was due to the fact that he was formerly the project manager of the Catholic Episcopate and Diocese in Brno I leave to the reader to decide. The only output of this effort was What a Material: Queer Art from Central Europe which was presented during 2012 Amsterdam Gay Pride and organized by the Czech government’s cultural institution Czech Center. Notably, four major exhibition projects, presented by public institutions on three queer artists and collectors since 2000 have not been able to address their non-heterosexual identity. The 2000 show of inter-war artist Toyen in the Gallery of the City of Prague explained her cross-dressing performativity as an artistic way to resist tradition instead of framing her as probably the first relatively open and proud lesbian. Two shows of the art collection of a queer poet, publisher and social life organizer Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic done by the Memorial of National Literature in 2001 and 2012 intentionally disguised his homoerotic collection of arts and books and put them into different contexts. The 2007 exhibition of a painter Jan Zrzavý ignored his homosexuality and the campy playfulness of his work as well.
As it turns out, public institutions have totally failed to address issues of LGBT+ emancipation, experience, history, and visibility, nor apparently can they acknowledge the presence of queer figures in narratives of either contemporary art or the history of art. In 2011 when the first Prague Pride event occurred, two curators, Lukáš Houdek and Michelle Siml, organized the first volume of a show Transgender Me in the independent gallery space Roxy/NoD in Prague. Despite the fact that it was exceedingly open to addressing transgender issues and probably the first art show to step out of the exclusive normative categories of “gay” and “lesbian,” the show did not primarily engage the transgender life experience and visibility. The word “Transgender” in the title of the show was misused in a wider sense of transgression of gender roles rather than addressing the contemporary sense. The show was repeated in 2012 in the private DOX Center of Contemporary Art in Prague and in 2013 in the Gallery of the National Technical Library thanks to the personal commitment of the curator of the gallery, artist Milan Mikuláštík. Although all three iterations were based on an open call, the curators did a great job in their selection. Artists who engage issues of gender, race, body, and sexuality such as Lenka Klodová (fig. 4), Darina Alster, Mark Ther, Jozef Rabara, Tamara Moyzes, and both the curators were included. While Siml presented photographs and installations addressing the personal experience of transgender transitions both male to female and female to male and stereotypes of gender performativity with sometimes more, sometimes less irony and levity (figs. 5-6), Houdek showed his photographic surveys among Indian hegiras or portraits of transgender people from countries with oppressive regimes photographed via webcams, because the virtual space is usually the only safe space where they can be who they are.
In 2014 the independent gallery Karlin Studios organized a show Prague Pride: East Side Story as a supporting program to the Prague Pride event (figs. 7-8). The curators were Michal Novotný, Serena Fanara, and Giulia Gueci. As a low budget project, they decided to present only videos from artists all around the Western world (U.K., U.S., South Africa, Italy, Poland, Croatia, Finland, Russia, Czechia). Despite the show’s title, which could imply questioning Western dominance of queer art in terms of Piotrowski’s criticism, any critique was more implicit then explicit, and the curators’ awareness of queer critical theory seemed fairly rudimentary. In the curatorial introduction, they noted that “maintaining stereotypes is important,” because they help us to “understand the world.” The statement that “LGBT, queer, gay, lesbian or homosexual art undoubtedly doesn’t exist. […] Until we create a definition for it,” seems almost like ignorance towards the past thirty-year discourse.
Projects that can seem marginal on first glance, and that are not extensive or striking, can have a powerful voice. This is the case with the Artwall Gallery, a series of posters or photographs displayed on a wall next to a major road in Prague that can be viewed mostly during car rides. In 2013 the Gallery presented a series of photographs of same-sex parents made by Jana Štepánová as a part of the Prague Pride festival. In 2016 they presented Slava Mogutin’s series Lost Boys as a supporting program of the same event. The Artwall Gallery is a leading dissident platform that addresses issues of social injustice, race, sexuality, sexual violence, gender, or politics of history through the visual arts.
In 2016 two major exhibitions on sexuality and space were presented in Europe. While the 1000 m2 of Desire, which took place in Centre de Cultura Contemporània in Barcelona, addressed just the spatial characteristics of darkrooms, cruising spaces, pornography, and cybersex, the exhibition Spaces of Desire at the semi-public Jaroslav Fragner Gallery in Prague was focused on the spaces of queer sociability, the creativity of queer architects and designers, and their access to a profession stereotypically dominated by heterosexual men. Each of these topics was presented in a cabin resembling a changing room where the viewer had to peek in. As a placeholder for each space, we selected original chairs that represented each space or a design (figs. 9-10). Based on historical research, we presented Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair, which was used in the radical interior of the Glass House, designed by gay architect Philip Johnson, or we traced an original chair from Hotel Europa, the center of both gay and lesbian socialization in 20th Century Prague for decades.
The Importance of Exhibiting Queer Junk
Although the professional activities mentioned above show various kinds of approaches towards addressing queer issues in a gallery space, we need to consider a much more important set of visual material. When Karol Radziszewski works with old magazines, brochures, posters, or home performances whose main goal was entertainment (and maybe a bit of homoerotic excitement), we understand the documentary value but we fail to see them as aesthetic objects. When it comes to the same images and prints that are produced and circulated among queer communities today, we tend to see them as a sort of “queer junk.” These non-professional paintings and erotic photographs hanging in gay clubs and cafés are usually stereotypical in their depiction of bodies, especially those that target the male gaze. As LGBTQ+ popular culture, they do not seek to join the art world, nor do they offer any social subversion or transgression. But in terms of making visible queer visual arts, we shouldn’t forget this type of production. Although it does not really fit in the white cubes of public, private, or independent galleries, queer popular imagery nonetheless constitutes a significant force that holds the community together. Photographer Robert Vano’s show Love You From Prague in the Radost Club in Prague in 1991 exhibited for the first time the tacky black-and-white male nudes that circulated in Prague bars and clubs as a gay sign long before the rainbow flags were ubiquitous. In 1998, the first free gay art show called Swishing (Víření) was put together to support the first ever gay pride in both the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. Taking place in Karlovy Vary, the show was hosted by a private gallery called Golden Key (Zlatý klíč). These exhibits raise the question as to whether art, addressing queer issues and curated queerly in galleries, has the genuine subversive potential to really bring social change in Central Europe; or if instead, a queer art only surfaces after LGBT+ activism (and the visual “queer junk” that goes with it) does all the work and makes it safe? Either way, in curating queerly, instead of trying to define or reconstruct some aesthetic queer canons, forms, or iconographic schemes, we should ask ourselves, what is the social potential and meaning? What queer curating means the most, at least in Central-East Europe, is the social responsibility of critical reflection and subversion of both a heteronormative past and present.
Ladislav Zikmund-Lender is an art historian from the Czech Republic. He has received his doctoral degree (PhDr.) in architectural history with a thesis Structure of the City in the Green (on modern architecture in Hradec Králové) at Masaryk University in Brno. Currently, he teaches at the University of South Bohemia (20th century architecture and interior design history). In 2016–2017 he received a Fulbright scholarship to be a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Department of History of Art researching queer visual artists, collectors and architects. In 2011 he co-authored a book Homosexuality in the History of the Czech Culture (chapters on the visual arts) and in 2013 co-authored a book Queer Prague. He contributed to books Queer Sexualities: Staking Out New Territories in Queer Studies (2012) and Re-Imagining Masculinities (2014). In 2012 he curated the exhibition What a Material: Queer Art from Central Europe which took place in Amsterdam, followed by Spaces of Desire: Is Architecture Sexy (2016).
1 See Ladislav Zikmund-Lender, “Mladík sedící na břehu českého vkusu” in Martin C. Putna ed., Homosexualita v dějinách české kultury, Academia, Prague, 2011, pp. 379–392, see pp. 385 and 389–390.
2 Lacking any historical documentation on that subject, we can only surmise that Jiránek was straight, and relatively clueless. Even before the painting Showers in the Sokol, Prague, in 1899 he allegedly had a fight with a homosexual critic William Ritter about sexuality, so he might even have been homophobic, whatever his actual sexuality. Regarding their relationship, see Milena Lenderová, “Má se svými ženskými peklo: Tak trochu jiná láska v secesní Praze,” Dějiny a současnost. Accessed 02.02.2018. http://dejinyasoucasnost.cz/archiv/2007/12/-ma-se-svymi-zenskymi-peklo-/.
5 Ladislav Zikmund-Lender. 2013. “Mark Ther.” Center for Contemporary Art, Prague. Accessed 31.01.2018. http://www.artlist.cz/mark-ther-1486/.
9 Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius. 2015. “Piotr Piotrowski obituary.” The Guardian, June 9. Accessed 01.02.2018. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/09/piotr-piotrowski-obituary.
10 Only the Moravian Gallery in Brno which is the second most major public art museum in the Czech Republic can be perceived as a critical museum thanks to a few shows that took place between 2004 and 2012, as well as the Slovak National Gallery in Bartislava thanks to a few shows that have been done since 2016.
14 Karol Radziszewski. 2005–2018. “DIK Fagazine.” Accessed 01.02.2018. http://www.dikfagazine.com/.
15 Jerzy Grotowski, “The Constant Prince,”1967. Accessed 01.02.2018. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvYNCgWWgWk.
16 Piotr Piotrowski, “Toward a Horizontal History of the European Avant-Garde” in Sascha Bru and Peter Nicholls eds., European Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies, Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co, Berlin, 2009, pp. 51-54.
17 Thanks to the support of the Czech Ministry of Culture a catalogue was published. It remains the only openly queer art show supported and organized exclusively by the governmental institutions in the Czech Republic since 1990. Ladislav Zikmund-Lender ed., What a Material: Queer Art from Central Europe, Pravý úhel, Prague, 2012.
18 Karla Huebner, “Fire Smoulders in the Veins: Toyen’s Queer Desire and its Roots in Prague Surrealism,” Papers of Surrealism No. 8, Spring 2010. Accessed 31.01.2018. http://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/files/63517392/surrealism_issue_8.pdf.
19 Michal Novotný. 2014. “Prague Pride: East Side Story.” Accessed 01.02.2018. http://www.futuraproject.cz/karlin-studios/event/106-prague-pride-east-side-story.
21 The original series, which was published as a book in 2007, is displayed on Mogutin’s websire. Slava Mogutin. 2004. “Lost Boys.”Accessed 01.02.2018. http://slavamogutin.com/lost-boys/.