Kunsthalle Praha Explores The History of The Bohemian Ideal
“Bohemia: History of an Idea, 1950–2000” traces how artists have lived, imagined and depicted the concept of Bohemia through time and space. Credit: Kunsthalle Praha.
Prague, July 17 (BD) – Despite only opening its doors one year ago, Kunsthalle Praha has already established itself as a cultural hub of Prague. The hall’s new exhibition “Bohemia: History of an Idea, 1950–2000” explores how artists have embodied the concept of Bohemia across the world.
Sitting under the gaze of Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral, the postcard perfect symbol of Central Bohemia, it’s tough to think of a better home for Kunsthalle Praha’s latest exhibition. Named after the very region with Prague at its heart, “Bohemia: History of an Idea, 1950–2000” traces how artists have lived, imagined and depicted the concept of Bohemia through time and space.
Bohemia as a way of life began in mid nineteenth-century Paris, as a rejection of convention and embrace of total freedom. The exhibition, guest curated by Los Angeles-based writer and curator Russell Ferguson, explores how the ideal has evolved throughout the world, from Paris in the 1950s to Beijing in the 1990s.
“One inescapable characteristic of Bohemia is that it is largely a phenomenon formed in reaction to bourgeois society,” explains Ferguson. “An established middle class must exist before its values can be rejected. And while artists had often had a reputation for living outside societal norms, it was in mid-19th-century Paris that the Bohemian way of life was first codified and romanticised.”
The multi-media, interdisciplinary exhibition features a menagerie of works, including photography, painting, collage, music and film. The exhibition traces how the concept of Bohemia was brought to life in different cities confronting different upheavals throughout history.
Icons of the Bohemian scene in Paris, London and New York in the mid-20th century open the exhibition. Spider leg mascara and geometric fashion encapsulate the swinging 60s of London. Simultaneously, on the west coast of the USA, the countercultural movement is emblemized by one naked man wading through a sea of hippies who have flocked to watch the Rolling Stones in San Francisco.
Fast forward to Zagreb in the 1980s, nudity is still used as a subversive tool against the powers that be. In a series of photographs titled “Zagreb, I love you!”, Tomislav Gotovac strolls nude through the streets of Zagreb, as a full-body middle finger against the repression of the communist authorities. Eventually though, he is confronted by the police, who shut down his one-man parade.
The concept of Bohemia seems to exist within the tension between individual liberty and collective responsibility. As the exhibition progresses, it pulls back the curtain to show how artists created communities on the edge of society, supporting one another while rejecting mainstream values. Nan Goldin’s film “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” shows her deeply intimate photography of her close friends living in New York during the 1970s and 80s, many of whom died during the AIDS epidemic.
The heart-stopping photography of Wolfgang Tilmans and Wang Jin closes the exhibition. At once whimsical and melancholic, their work depicts the decline of a subculture that had been pushed further under the current by rapid social changes.
The Bohemian lifestyle is easy to romanticise. Yet “Bohemia: History of an Idea” isn’t afraid to show the often painful reality of living life on the brink. The artists, many of whom have never before had their work shown in the Czech Republic, were pushing against many of the same pressures that feel pertinent to our world today. Sexism, racism, homophobia, authoritarianism, poverty and gentrification are just some of the themes that burst from the frames in the Kunsthalle gallery. Yet each artwork is united in resistance.
Bohemia as an idea is a rejection of norms that still bind us today, a fight for an ideal that still eludes us. Each in their unique way, the artists show resilience in expressing their own ideals, shaping their own ways of life, and showing the beauty and the strength in the unorthodox.
“Bohemia: History of an Idea, 1950–2000.” is on show at Kunsthalle Praha until 16 October 2023. Admission to the entire Kunsthalle gallery ranges from 180 to 290 Kč, with tickets available online or at the gallery.