In 1958, the Czechoslovak art critic Jindřich Chalupecký (1910–1990) published an article titled “Výroba umění” [The Production of Art]. The text was accompanied by reproductions of textile prints signed by Olga Karlíková, Květa Hamzíková, Ladislav Vacek, Jiří Mrázek, Jaroslava Dušková and Jaroslav Kumpán and published in the journal Umění a řemesla [Arts and Crafts], situating itself between a study on craft education and a review on folk art which was presented during the Expo 58 in Brussels at the Czechoslovak Pavilion. Even though the journal run by Ústředí lidové umělecké výroby [The Centre for Folk Art Production] was a specialised periodical focused on crafts and regularly on traditional forms of folk art, the article by Jindřich Chalupecký should be understood in a larger artistic context as an attempt to radically rethink the place of all arts in the modern society. The fact that it was the textile design standing at the centre of Chalupecký’s attention and the textiles at large, considered as means for a new form of art production, was neither accidental nor marginal. It was a consequence of the author’s historical interest in the applied arts that started during the World War II and accelerated at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s with his texts on the work of industrial designer Zdeněk Kovář and on the exhibition Stroj a nářadí jako dílo výtvarné [Machine and Tool as a Work of Art], which took place at the Museum of Applied Arts in Prague in 1953. Moreover, it was also due to the place occupied by the textile production in the industry of the Czechoslovak socialist state.
Chalupecký’s articulated arguments show how progressive the art of printed textile was, analysing how the textile printing may be understood as a way out of what he perceived as a dead end in the art of the postwar period. I believe that “The Production of Art” became one of his most unorthodox texts on art of the time, thanks to a mix of interests in textiles, contemporary arts, music and society. Unfortunately, Chalupecký has never further developed his ideas on textiles. He gave up writing on applied arts in 1964 when he turned his attention to contemporary art once again.
Jindřich Chalupecký was an outstanding Czechoslovak art critic and curator (or a commissioner, to use the expression of those years). From texts dedicated to literature and fine arts written during the 1930s and 1940s, he moved in the late 1940s towards the applied arts. In 1965 he was invited as commissioner of the Václav Špála Gallery from Prague and since then he has stopped publishing on applied arts. After 1968 he became part of the Czechoslovak dissent, his writings being accessible only to a limited audience. No matter how diverse were the topics and the subjects addressed by his texts throughout the time, their main theoretical background stayed the same, embedded in a deep interest in humanity and in the close connection between arts and society, where arts cannot be understood without the society and vice versa. His beliefs were rooted in his personal understanding of phenomenology, existentialism and metaphysics. Chalupecký was in contact with Czech philosopher Václav Navrátil (1904–1961) and, in his texts, references to the works of René Descartes, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger may be found.
The period we are mostly interested in is that of 1950s. After the political changes of 1948, when the Communist Party seized power in Czechoslovakia, Chalupecký started to work at Textilní tvorba [The Textile Production], later transformed into Ústav bytové a oděvní kultury [ÚBOK, The Institute of Housing and Dress Culture]. This position, as well as his writing on the applied arts, is owed to the ideological circumstances of the early years after the Communist takeover and is often interpreted as an inevitable demand in a time of political repressions. As a result, his texts from this period are mostly overlooked, understood as a rupture in his otherwise coherent writing about literature and fine arts, which I cannot agree with. The connection between the fine arts and the applied arts in Chalupecký’s texts is tight, especially if we consider his interest in the avant-garde’s goal to overcome the division between high and low culture that is present for example in his article “Svět, v němž žijeme” [The World We Live In] where Chalupecký expressed his belief that art should be interested in all the things that surround us, however they should be taken as something else than as an object of illustration. The argument used by Chalupecký in the article “The Production of Art,” stating that the applied arts or, to be more specific, the textile design might become the vehicle for a broad dissemination of arts into each and every household, does not seem to be a surrender to the political power, but rather a radical way to independently rethink the role of art in the society, continuing further his ideas mentioned in the article “The World We Live In.”
In all his art writings Jindřich Chalupecký always tried to consider his arguments in the context of a larger narrative. For Chalupecký writing about anything makes sense only in relation to the current organisation of society, to the past and the future. Thus, it is not important if he ponders on painting, literature or product design. For him all are equally embedded in society. In the case of “The Production of Art,” the context is defined by the organisation of society as a whole. “The society of producers has been transformed into a society of consumers,” Chalupecký says in the very beginning of his article. How should we understand this statement? Chalupecký explains it by using examples: “People gave up producing things; they buy ready-mades. Even art is not produced by them. They do not sing, but they buy books of poetry and LPs. […] they do not make […] sculptures of the gods, but they visit exhibitions. […] There are more and more people around us, but less and less artists. As a result, the production of artistic artefacts does not satisfy the social consumption.” People are still longing for works of art and, as a consequence, any form of art is appreciated. The society admires the unfinished work of imperfect artefacts that are often, according to Chalupecký, close to kitsch. “Instead of art we have craft substitutes that fulfil the function of art only in a formal way,”  he writes. Chalupecký was not the only one to reflect upon such themes as the consumer society, however art critic Clement Greenberg in his essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch” (1939) understood this consumer society as a threat on art, as something negative, whereas Chalupecký does not judge its given state. He simply tries to find artistic means for the contemporary situation that would fulfil the desire of society to produce art for everyone.
According to Chalupecký this new society of consumers does not need more artists; it needs new forms of automated production of art. The task is to improve the technological background of the art production that would replace the traditional hand production. Due to the fact that the modern society is dependent on the world of machines, the only logical way to handle is the mechanisation, which might offer a solution. However, it is not that easy. A pure mechanisation of production itself would not ensure quality and thus Chalupecký has to ask himself: “But is it possible that machines will produce works of art?” Mechanisation may be a tool for a reproduction of existing works of art but that is not what Chalupecký asks for.
It should not come as a surprise that the technology of reproduction plays an important role in Chalupecký’s text and that it is understood in a similar way as Walter Benjamin did 20 years earlier in “Art in the time of mechanical reproduction.” They both project a new organisation of society, they both look for special attributes of new forms of mechanical reproduction that would not be just a means of imitation, as Chalupecký stresses, and they both mention the importance of artwork’s materiality that becomes a critical argument in the technique of reproduction itself.
Similarly to Benjamin, Chalupecký does not care about the formal aspects of the new art. Based on the illustrations used in his article on art production, one can say that the new form of art advanced was not progressive at all. The abstract forms and the stylised animals on rectangular scarfs are a rather conformist standing somewhere in between the style of avant-garde and socialist modernism. Chalupecký does not comment on the reproductions used in the text, but it is obvious that it represented his selection, as all the authors included were his colleagues from ÚBOK. Chalupecký pays attention to the technique employed rather than to the artistic expression and his argument goes as follows: the design itself is still in the process of development; it is the technique, in our case the technique of screen printing that makes it possible. So how can we define the contemporaneity of this technique? Chalupecký helps himself with a parallel to concrete music, the form of music that became possible only after the invention of music recording and music reproduction. Concrete music does not need any musical instrument; it is being produced though the mixing and the repetition of recorded sounds. Screen printing uses a similar method; through reproduction, an existing form may be used for the production of something new; it is neither a hand production, nor a purely mechanical task. Even if the screen printing was invented earlier, Chalupecký challenges the conventional use of it, as it will be later explained.
Earlier I mentioned that the reproduction of existing artworks was not what Chalupecký longed for. In his search for new means of artistic production, the reproduction technique is understood not just as a technique for reproduction of something that exists, but it is rather a creative tool. In the logic of the mentioned parallel with the concrete music, Chalupecký states: “The technique of reproduction became a new form of artistic production.”  This thesis, which Chalupecký highlighted in his article by modified typesetting, has to be understood as a central point of the text. It is repeated again later when he writes: “The only originals are the reproductions.” Even though this declaration seems to be rather abstract, in the context of textile design and screen printing it is received as a perfectly clear form of “non-unique interior artworks that supersede hand-made unique images” in a similar way as book printing superseded illuminations.
The use of screen printing (or film printing as it is called in his article), employing photo-reactive chemicals, plays a key role in imagining a new way of producing art. According to Chalupecký, the technique traditionally utilised for transferring the existing pattern on textiles by applying a special liquid and transparent foils can be modernised through a more creative approach. The technology stays the same, the change has to happen in the mind of the designer as s/he has to start designing in the medium of screen printing. Instead of a mechanical transfer of an existing pattern on a canvas, the film foils should be conceived only as a tool for the production of artwork on the surface of the textile. “The former finished design will become a sketch; author himself will start to make pauses, or to skip the photomechanical process and will work straight on the net template,” Chalupecký says. Thus, the artist will have to be present during the process of printing, the difference between a worker and an artist would therefore vanish and the production of art would take place in the factory. In this way, the only truly original is the reproduction itself and it can be mass-produced. Considering the new technique of art production, such high quality art that corresponds to the spirit of modern society may become part of any household and will be affordable for average families. This utopic vision was never fulfilled, since the progressive forms of textile and the challenging of the modes of screen printing did not become part of the mass production. In the context of the contemporary art theory, Chalupecký’s text has a specific place somewhere in between avant-garde utopias, socialist industry and modern art. The complexity of mentioned views should be understood as the most important aspect in Chalupecký’s approach. Even though his employment at the ÚBOK, as well as the nature of the journal of arts and craft, had certainly influenced the case studies he presented, it should not be taken as something that stands outside of Chalupecký’s interests. Rather it might be seen as a symptom of something that was strongly present at the world fair Expo 58 in Brussels. The concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, of the art that shapes all parts of everyday life into one big artwork could be invoked here.
Although Chalupecký focuses only on textile design and no any explicit thread to contemporary fine arts can be found in his text, there are still possible connections between the two. Besides the logical proximity to concrete music, which was explicitly mentioned in his article, and to neo-constructivist experiments implied in the way Chalupecký explains the possible function of design, we should mention Chalupecký’s interest in the work of Marcel Duchamp. Chalupecký manifested it in his text accompanying the exhibition Marcel Duchamp taking place at the Václav Špála Gallery in 1969. Even if the core message of “Duchampian Meditations” is the transcendence of life and art, there are more parallels to the text discussed above, such as Duchamp’s belief that modern society experiences an inflation in art, more and more art being consumed, this being the reason behind Duchamp’s specific approach in the production of art.
In 1958 textile design became for Chalupecký a material on which he was able to express his thoughts regarding the role of art in the new society. It would be interesting to see what would have happened to his humanistic and techno-optimistic thinking about the medium after the Prague Spring and later. The introduction of textiles in field of arts became quite popular in the 1960s and 1970s, however it is surprising that no similar ideas to those expressed by Chalupecký, at the end of the 1950s, are to be found. If we go through the texts on textiles published in Czechoslovakia between 1960s and 1970s, we can observe a reverse perspective upon the potentialities of the medium. The techno-utopic understanding of mechanisation as an expressive tool in modern society slowly disappeared and it was tapestry as a unique work of art that stood at the centre of attention. This goes hand in hand with a shift in the Czechoslovak society, which became after 1968 again more individualistic, while the collective utopian vision disappeared under the pressure of state enforced collectivism. Maybe the ideas expressed in the text “The Production of Art” have to be understood rather in the context of the modernist thinking of the 1920s and 1930s, manifested for instance in the case of the exhibition Bazar of Modern Art, organised by the Devětsil Group in 1923, where the paintings were accompanied by parts of machines and other mass produced objects, than that of the time when the aspirations of the avant-garde were appropriated by the socialist state.
Chalupecký’s writing represents just a marginal chapter in the postwar history of textile theory. Still, I believe that it says a lot about a certain way of thinking about art and its role in society. It is particularly interesting because it places textiles into a totally different context than the feminist or the postcolonial approaches.
Johana Lomová is an art historian based in Prague.
This study is a result of the research funded by the Czech Science Foundation in the frame of the project GA ČR 19-24996S “In the Search of the Meaning of Art. Jindřich Chalupecký (1910–1990).”