Aviation in Czech Visual Culture, 1783–1957

16/07/2021 to 16/01/2022
exhibition hall Masné krámy
Eva Bendová
Eva Skořepová

The desire to fly is as old as mankind. And despite the fact that people were breaking their limbs in attempts to make this dream come true, they still cling to the idea of flying.” These are the words of the Swiss painter Paul Klee, whose art and life were tightly connected with flying.

Flying, flight, aeronautics has a rich history, with innumerable depictions and meanings. Modern art has presented flying in many forms and has both celebrated and rejected technical progress. The symbolism of flight, its myths and poetry, the aesthetics of machinery, our changed perception of reality thanks to bird’s eye views and the shrinking of distances are all phenomena that flying has ushered into society and our lives.

The exhibition showcases visual depictions of aviation in Czech culture between 1783 (the first balloon flight) and 1957 (the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik). For the first time, it connects balloon flying dependent on the strength of the wind with motifs of motor machine flying. Rather than mapping the history of flight, the exhibition focuses on key symbols and themes in modern imagery and culture – from paintings and monumental sculptures to book illustrations, posters and films.

Nine thematic chapters show us landscapes viewed from above, examine flight in dreams and the myth of the unfortunate Icarus, present the objects flying over our heads, the heroes who conquered the skies, convey the terror of wartime bombing raids and recall the excitement of adventure fiction, the creation of a utopian and dreamlike concept that had survived as late as the 1950s and was used in movies by Karel Zeman and in Kamil Lhoták’s paintings.

The development in the first half of the 20th century brought to life rich and romantic poetics of aviation; on the other hand, aircraft was also perceived as a destructive machinery capable of causing fatal destruction. In avant-garde art, aviation has brought new ways of looking at the world from bird’s eye view or, on the other hand, an opportunity to take a look into infinite space.

The exhibition’s story of flying, falling, and conquering the skies ends in 1957 with the launch of the Sputnik satellite and the dawn of space exploration.

Iconic works of Czech fine art – such as paintings by Jindřich Štyrský, Josef Čapek, Kamil Lhoták, Bohumír Matal or modern sculptural allegories by Josef Štursa, Jaroslav Horejc and Zdeněk Pešánek – can resonate in themes for the first time in contrast to a purely popular period pictures. Film documents from aviation events over Plzeň or Prague, library covers of period magazines, humorous and adventurous illustrations by Zdeněk Burian or Hermína Týrlová, films by Karel Zeman, posters for ČSA, the Baťa company or the West Bohemian Aeroclub, as well as photographs by Ladislav Sitenský communicate a different form of similar content. The intervention of contemporary artists Milan Salák, Pavla Sceranková and Jan Gemrot proves that aviation dreaming, and thinking is still artistically relevant.

The exhibition is accompanied by Eva Bendová and Ondřej Váša’s book From the Balloon to Cosmic Consciousness, published by the National Gallery Prague with the support of the Czech Academy of Sciences Foundation.