Teodor Rotrekl: The Case of the Too-Socialist Pop Art

Teodor Rotrekl: Memento J.R Oppenheimer, 1966 acrylic and photograph on board, 165×120 cm recent location unknown

The name of painter and illustrator Teodor Rotrekl (1923–2004) does not usually come up when we speak about Czech art. The eleven-volume History of Czech Visual Art (2005 and 2007) does not mention him. His works are owned by several museums in the Czech Republic, but they are not a part of any permanent exhibitions, and when art historians engaged in a reassessment of 1960s Czech art at the turn of the millennium, Rotrekl was mentioned only in passing.[1] In 2008 and 2009, two exhibitions at Galerie Brno exhibited Rotrekl’s best works from the 1960s.[2] More than among art historians, his work has resonated strongly among fans of science-fiction, which he illustrated all his life. Rotrekl did not find much understanding during his life, either. He went through a period when he was a part of the artistic establishment, but there were also years when he could not exhibit his works. In the 1960s, reproductions of his paintings were published in renowned Czechoslovak art magazines such as Výtvarná Práce, although by far the greatest number was printed in the army’s weekly magazine Czechoslovak Soldier (Československý Voják). Perhaps the most logical explanation for the low popularity of Rotrekl’s work is that he was simply not a good artist. With just a few exceptions, his paintings do not explore experiments in form, they feel too safe and lukewarm. They in no way differ from mainstream painting production of its time:  Socialist Realism with a touch of Modernism. This is perhaps one reason why the only accepted portion of Rotrekl’s oeuvre has been his Pop art-related work from the second half of the 1960s. His political views and personal life also place him outside mainstream Czech postwar art—he belonged to that group of artists who in the 1950s and 1960s did not feel themselves to be in an antagonistic relationship towards the regime—in fact, he was a staunch communist. His political conviction predated the communists’ ascent to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and was based on his experiences before and during the Second World War.[3] As an artist, he did not adapt his artistic style to communist ideology as much as he did his understanding of the social function of art. The artist should not be an isolated genius, but someone who contributes to building a socialist culture. His objective was not individualist self-expression, but the confirmation and further development of official ideology. In the 1950s, he was a representative of Socialist Realism in the field of book culture. From drawings for books promoting Lysenko’s biological theories, he went on to illustrate works of socialist science fiction, and he had no problem exhibiting his paintings at army clubs or the School of Politics.[4] His position in the 1950s and 1960s can be described as someone who belonged to the privileged class of artists. But he never abandoned his communist ideals—not even later, when they brought him no benefits.

As already mentioned, the most remembered part of Rotrekl’s oeuvre are his works from the second half of the 1960s. At first, he began to add elements of assemblage to his paintings. Above all, he began to change the manner in which he composed his paintings, replacing a single visual plane with a collage of diverse elements. In paintings such as Double Portrait of Downed Pilots (Dvojportrét sestřelených pilotů, 1964), we find a photorealistic depiction of military fighter planes, expressively painted figures with a textured and scorched surface, and photocopies of Western magazine advertisements. The resulting style evokes the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg. His association with Pop art is primarily thanks to Rotrekl’s exhibition at the gallery of the Československý Spisovatel publishing house, held in 1965 in Prague.

Teodor Rotrekl: Fresh Goods Daily, 1965 object (tiles, paintings, photographs, hooks), 180×250 cm private collection

The exhibition was undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking. One of the exhibited works was  Fresh Goods Daily (Denně čerstvé zboží), one of the first Czech works of installation art. Onto a series of hooks set in front of a tiled wall reminiscent of a butcher shop, Rotrekl hung allusions to the informel paintings of the respected Czech painter Mikuláš Medek or the work of Francis Bacon, juxtaposed against images of suffering African children and a photograph of a person’s back burned by napalm. Rotrekl showed contemporary art as a blood-stained product that—both in its form and depraved morals—could easily compete with imperialist war and colonialism. The highlight of the show was a group of monumental works made in the spirit of Rauschenberg, in which Rotrekl combined painting with large photographic prints. Unlike Fresh Goods Daily, their aim was not to engage in social criticism but to reflect positive values.

Teodor Rotrekl: In Honor of Yuri Gagarin, 1964 acrylic, tin foil and photograph on canvas, 102×52 cm recent location unknown

For instance, In Honor of Yuri Gagarin (Ke cti Jurije Gagarina, 1964) depicted a hero for the new age, the world’s first man in space. The unusually titled Votive Painting in Honor of Sir Alexander Fleming ( Votivní obraz ke cti sira Alexandra Fleminga) celebrated the famous inventor of penicillin, the discovery of which has saved millions of lives.

Teodor Rotrekl: Votive Painting in Honor of Dr. Jan Navrátil, 1965 acrylic and photograph on canvas, 250×125 cm private collection

Meanwhile, Votive Painting in Honor of Dr. Jan Navrátil ( Votivní obraz ke cti prof. MUDr. Jana Navrátila) was an homage to the doctor whose daring heart operation saved the life of Rotrekl’s son. Votive paintings and sculptures are usually associated with religious art, and are commissioned to express a vow or to give thanks for a wish fulfilled. Rotrekl took this tradition and translated it into a modern context with an emphasis on the values of universal humanism and progress.

Journalist and Rotrekl’s friend Vladislav Stanovský in his text in the exhibition catalogue cautiously described Rotrekl’s work as reflecting contemporary expressions of reality. He mentioned—and polemicized with—its similarities to Western Pop art only in his talk at the exhibition opening: “If it wasn’t for Pop art, Rotrekl’s work would probably have taken a different direction, at least in some respect. And yet… Rotrekl is not a conscious proponent of Popart. I don’t think he has ever seen any of Rauschenberg’s paintings in the original. He arrived at Pop art by a different path than authentic Pop artists.”[5] Although Rotrekl belonged to those artists who had begun visiting Western Europe at the start of the 1960s, he remained critical towards both Western art and capitalist society. According to art historian Luboš Hlaváček, Rotrekl first encountered pop art in the form of several reproductions at the 1964 Venice Biennale. He, too, felt that Rotrekl’s works differed from Anglo-American art: “For him, Pop art was not an external fashion or the assimilation of the latest international -ism […] Rotrekl’s paintings differ strikingly from all that this new movement has produced in the USA, England, or Italy. They are more contemplative and do not as passively adopt techniques derived from the fields of comics or advertising, for they are created in a geographical and socio-economic environment that is fundamentally different from one in which artistic viewpoints are directly inspired by the products of commercial and business relations.”[6] Hlaváček defended Rotrekl’s socialist Pop art for its sense of engagement, political awareness, and even its adherence to the party line.[7]

Rotrekl’s 1965 exhibition at Československý Spisovatel gallery was written about extensively. Many critics tried to find a way of reconciling Pop art with socialism and with an artist who proclaimed his allegiance to official state policies. Libuše Brožková resolved this conflict as follows: “Since the beginning, Rotrekl’s paintings have reflected the views of a man who lives under socialism and does not see civilization as a curse but as a tool for progress, and who under no circumstances wants to see things through a lens of romanticism.”[8] Miroslav Lamač was more critical: “Teodor Rotrekl’s paintings exhibited at the gallery of Československý Spisovatel are probably the most Pop art of Pop art to ever be exhibited in our country­—though only from the viewpoint of the stylistic tools applied, for Rotrekl merely applies. His engagement is didactic and clichéd. His paintings, as for instance In Honor of Yuri Gagarin, are excellent exhibition panels. They possess inventiveness and wit, but they lack the nerve we seek in art, they lack the ability to say something about reality that we didn’t know before.”[9] Such criticism required a certain audacity. Regardless of the kind of paintings he created, Rotrekl was a representative of regime art. One half of the artistic community did not take him seriously, while the other perhaps feared him.

Teodor Rotrekl’s votive paintings recall the visual aesthetics of Rauschenberg’s flatbed paintings, a compositional approach that numerous other artists were working with in the 1960s as well. One such artist was Renato Guttuso, whom Rotrekl mentioned in his notes as an important influence in overcoming conservative Socialist Realism of the Soviet type. We also find the use of a flatbed picture plane in the work of the East German painter Willi Sitte, as in his two monumental polyptychs from 1965–1969 named after the Leuna chemical plant near Halle. For his part, Rotrekl was more reserved in his relationship to Pop art: “I saw Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, Warhol, and the others in the original only many years later at an exhibition in Düsseldorf, and I can say that I was somewhat disappointed. Perhaps dissidents had the chance to watch them at work in New York. As a communist, I had neither the opportunity nor the money.”[10]

Rotrekl’s work is an example of a style that can be called global Pop.[11] Pop art, whether in its global or American variety, is not just a criticism of consumerism and an appropriation of advertising. It is an artistic style characterized by an interest in depicting reality; it is the realism of the postwar era. Whereas the world of the advanced Western countries was saturated with advertising, this element was missing to the east of the Iron Curtain. Instead, there was extensive experience with government propaganda. Rotrekl’s paintings differed from American Pop primarily in terms of content. He captures important events in society, publicly reflects on personal traumas, and explores ethical, existential, and political questions.

Teodor Rotrekl: The Steam Hammer Is Unforgiving, 1966 acrylic and photograph on board, 165×120 cm recent location unknown

In the liberalizing atmosphere of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s, Rotrekl remained a devout communist. Although he did not identify with the ideas of the Prague Spring, he insisted on the possibility of criticizing conditions in the country. The 1950s were a painful subject for him. As early as in 1966, he addressed the history of Stalinism and media manipulation in The Steam Hammer Is Unforgiving (Buchar je nemilosrdný), in which he depicted his own head being pressed by newspaper articles celebrating Stalin. The work was exhibited in 1967 and did not arouse any negative response. The August 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion was a shock for Rotrekl, who saw it as a threat to his political ideals. “And then that unhappy year 1968 came along. No occupation can resolve anything. Not in the past, and not today. History has taught us that. It only manufactures resistance and hatred. Once again, transport planes thundered over Prague and people locked their doors. Five countries of gravediggers, occupants. It was the beginning of the end of socialism.”[12]

Teodor Rotrekl: Sorrow and Wrath, 1968 acrylic and synthetic varnish on board, 200×150 cm private collection

In April 1969, Rotrekl held another exhibition at the Československý Spisovatel gallery, featuring works full of political statements on the current situation. The exhibition took place against the backdrop of important historical events. The reformist Alexander Dubček was replaced as the head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party by Gustáv Husák, who launched a period of “Normalization” aimed at leading the country out of crisis or even—as Husák argued—to prevent civil war. In his view, it was necessary to establish peace, to suppress expressions of anti-Sovietism, and essentially to ignore to country’s military occupation. The inhabitants of Czechoslovakia were to be given the sense that if they failed to support Husák’s regime, the country would devolve into chaos. But Rotrekl’s new paintings were highly critical and anti-Soviet.

Sorrow and Wrath (Smutek a zloba) combines the image of a closed gate with a panoramic view of Prague Castle being run over by the tires of military vehicle; the public’s response to the occupation is represented by a woman weeping in desperation and by a beer mug, a symbol of Švejkian resignation. His most explicit work in this regard is the monumental Funeral Ceremony (Pohřební slavnost), in which five five-pointed stars with figures wearing helmets and holding spades hover over Prague, which has been transformed into a graveyard. Each star represents one of the gravediggers of the Prague Spring—the five Warsaw Pact countries whose armies participated in the 1968 invasion. Trial by Fire(Zkouška ohněm) was a clear reference to the student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in Prague in January 1969 as a protest against the occupation.

Contemporary critics praised the (to borrow Miroslav Lamač’s turn of phrase) “didactic and clichéd engagement” of Rotrekl’s new paintings, but without analyzing his specific motifs. On 21 May 1969, the exhibition received a positive review in Rudé Právo, the official newspaper of the communist party: “Teodor Rotrekl, who is exhibiting at the gallery of Československý Spisovatel, is a man aching with the problems of society. […] He is not apathetic to the fate of society, the fate of a people assaulted by all the tools of modern civilization, living in a society that rules through an immense machinery of advertising and media that it uses to influence the people.”[13] An article on the exhibition published in Mladá Fronta saw the key to Rotrekl’s engagement in The Steam Hammer Is Unforgiving: “It is basically a large visual collage composed of newspaper clippings. In them, we can read the bitter biography of our own lives, whose early youth was confused by the events of the 1950s, with their sudden twists and turns and permanent reassessment of yesterday’s beliefs. Rotrekl was a firm supporter from the beginning, meaning that his awakening from the intoxicating dream must have been all the more cruel.”[14]

In May 1969, Rotrekl decided to exhibit the same series of paintings at the gallery of the School of Politics in Prague. This time, however, he failed to anticipate the reaction his works would arouse in such a setting. The School of Politics represented the conservative wing of Czechoslovakia’s communists. During preparations for the exhibition, the school was hosting a conference of the Communist Party, which proclaimed its support for Normalization. At the time, a group of 81 teachers, students, and school employees sent a letter to the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. The letter, which was quoted in Rudé Právo on May 29, 1969, listed problems at the school related to anti-socialist and anti-Soviet views. As one example, the authors mentioned (without giving any names) Rotrekl’s exhibition: “The letter refers, for instance, to an exhibition of paintings that, in response to student protests, was taken down prior to its opening.”[15] Over a span of just eight days, the official party newspaper thus published a positive review as well as an ideological condemnation of the same group of Rotrekl’s paintings. It was also the beginning of the end of Rotrekl’s career.

The most effective way in which the communist regime disciplined artists was to deny them the chance to express their views in public, and precisely this was Rotrekl’s fate as well. He insisted on criticizing the occupation, and so he was expelled from the Czechoslovak Communist Party. The normalization of Czechoslovak culture took on a more hardline course in 1970 with the dissolution of the Union of Czechoslovak Fine Artists, which had more than three thousand members. Membership in the union was a vital necessity for any artist wishing to be professionally active.[16] In 1971, the original union was replaced by a highly selective organization with a membership of just a few dozen carefully vetted individuals. Rotrekl knew several of them quite well, but he was unwilling to make any compromises, and so he was excluded from the upper tiers of the art world for ten years without ever abandoning his leftist convictions. “When they kicked me out of the party, I said to myself that I would continue to be a Marxist and a communist. I would not respond by joining the Christian-Democratic Union and swear allegiance to god and capitalism. That I could not do.”[17] He still managed to organize an exhibition in 1971 at the Fronta gallery—a series of highly decorative nudes, Polyester Rusalkas (Polyesterusalky), made of layers of sprayed synthetic resin. After this, his only artistic activities involved helping his wife weave tapestries, painting murals in car dealerships, and the occasional illustration for science fiction. His return to sci-fi shows us the things that bothered him under Normalization. The new system offered no vision for the future. “This [Normalization-era] criticism of the past [Stalinism and the Prague Spring] indicated that the project for consolidating society would be founded on conservative values such as ‘order,’ ‘socialist lawfulness,’ and ‘peace for work’— and not on revolutionary enthusiasm and a vision of a new world.”[18]

Rotrekl could not exhibit until 1980, but even then he did so only marginally. His isolation from mainstream Czech art continued after 1989 as well, when it wasn’t just his past that was artistically and above all ideologically unacceptable; so were his contemporary anti-imperialist and anti-American paintings reflecting his unchanging political beliefs: “Private ownership of the means of production is the origin of all evil.”[19] Rotrekl’s communist leanings were not in conflict with an interest in Modern art. Nor should Rotrekl’s life and career be seen as a curiosity of its era, for his example offers an important vantage point from which to view Czech postwar art as a whole. Critics have often disparaged the illustrative nature of his work, although this can be seen as reflecting their unease at his unquestioned acceptance of the world of socialism. The Critics’  main problem was in ideology. How could he be a good artist if he believed in values that most of the artistic community had a problem with? We also find that both during socialism and afterwards, it was essentially unimportant what form his paintings took—what was important was their ideological content.

Teodor Rotrekl helped to shape socialist art in the 1950s and 1960s, but he was not an “obedient” artist. Particularly telling in this regard is Rotrekl’s relationship to the powers that be after 1969. He rejected the invasion and subsequent Normalization from his position as a socialist artist and refused to participate in it. In response, the system ceased to support him, but he was still tolerated. Shunted aside and aggrieved, Rotrekl continued to disdain dissidents and émigrés and remained faithful to communist ideology. And he did not change his views after 1989, instead becoming a dedicated critic of the new political order. Rotrekl was both a victim and a perpetrator and does not fall into simple moralistic categories of black and white.

[1] Ludmila Hájková, Rostislav Švácha, “Kde budeme žít zítra.,” in, Akce, Slovo, Pohyb, Prostor; experimenty v umění 60. Let, ed. Vít Havránek (Prague:Galerie hlavního města Prahy,  1999),. 119.

[2] Teodor Rotrekl, Mementa 60. let, Galerie Brno, Brno 2008. Teodor Rotrekl, Motorky etc.: Obrazy z přelomu 50. a 60. let., Galerie Brno, Brno 2009.

[3] His father František Rotrekl—a leading representative of the Czechoslovak Communist Party during the interwar period—spent six years in the Buchenwald concentration camp. After the war, Teodor Rotrekl founded and led a party cell at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design, where he was a student. In the 1960s, he sat on the board of the Union of Czechoslovak Fine Artists.

[4] Exhibitions at army clubs were organized by Army Art Studio (Armádní výtvarné studio), an organization that was a stronghold of soviet-style socialist realism in 1950s, and, in 1960s, continued to unite artists with a communist worldview. School of Politics was an educational institute of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party with extremely conservative reputation. The majority of the artists in former Czechoslovakia would consider a collaboration with these two institutions ideologically unacceptable.   

[5] Vladislav Stanovský, unpaginated and undated typescript, archives of Teodor Rotrekl.

[6] Luboš Hlaváček, “Hledání pocitu současnosti,” Literární noviny 16, no. 50 (1967).

[7] See Hlaváček’s review of the exhibition at Československý Spisovatel in 1965: Luboš Hlaváček, “Kulturní tvorba” 48/III 1965. Here what is the name of the journal? 48?

[8] Libuše Brožková, “Theodor Rotrekl,” Výtvarná práce no. 26 (1965).

[9] Miroslav Lamač, “Buffalo Bill a slavnost v laguně?,” unidentified newspaper clipping from 1965.

[10] Kateřina Kolínová [pseudonym of Teodor Rotrekl], “Od řemesla k umění,” in: Teodor Rotrekl, Tamara Rotreklová, 1923–2003 Obrazy, kresby, grafika, gobelíny (Říčany:Orego 2004), 16.

[11] See, e.g., Dávid Fehér, The “Pop Problem” – Pop Art and East Central Europe, in Ludwig Goes Pop + The East Side Story, (Budapest: Ludwig Museum, 2015) 121.

[12] Kateřina Kolínová, Ibid, 42.

[13] jš, “Čtyři umělci,” Rudé právo, May 21, 1969

[14] šH, “Teatrum mundi,” Mladá fronta, May 10, 1969.

[15] “Důležitá konference; Nad problémy Vysoké školy politické a sociální,” Rudé právo,  May 29, 1969, 2

[16] The artists’ union organized handed out commissions, supervised galleries and the art market, distributed art-related materials, and owned and rented out studios.

[17] Teodor Rotrekl, “Vzpomínky malíře,” unpublished, p. 135.

[18] Michal Pullmann, “Konsolidace, pokojný život a neviditelné násilí; Vznik a vývoj normalizační ideologie v Československu.” in: Pavel Kovář, Michal Pullmann, Co byla normalizace? Studie o pozdním socialismu, Nakladatelství Lidové noviny a Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů (Prague: NLN, Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 2016), 73.

[19] Teodor Rotrekl, “Vzpomínky malíře,” unpublished, 161.

Tomáš Pospiszyl is a Czech critic, curator, art historian, and teacher. He has published extensively on 20th- and 21st-century art, and co-edited, with Laura Hoptman, Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1950s (MIT Press, 2002). His most recent book is a collection of essays An Associative Art History (JRP Ringier, 2018). He teaches at the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts and the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague.

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