Ten thousand changes are changing again. This sentence by Bohumila Grögerová could be the motto not only of the Setiny /Hundredths exhibition, but also of the time in which it is taking place. How is 2021 different from 1921? Who was Bohumila Grögerová? Characterizations such as “writer”, “translator” or “experimenter”, far from portraying reality, are to some extent formative for her generation in general – and the generation of women artists and intellectuals of the time in particular.
The 1940s, marked first by the World War and soon after by the communist coup, did not favour allow long studies. University education was replaced by spontaneous “formations of autodidacts”, such as the circle of intellectuals and artists who met daily with writer and artist Jiří Kolář in Slavia café in Prague. Kolář kept his finger on the pulse of everything that was happening on the literary and art scene beyond the borders of the then hermetically sealed Czechoslovakia; he was also the first to abandon the written word to find the extension of language in visual art expression, anticipating the definitive blurring of the boundaries between the individual Muses, their expansion into everyday life and the claim to “total art”. His influence on the work of Hiršal and Grögerová was fundamental – and can still be clearly seen in Grögerová’s late work, which never completely abandoned the method of collaging various texts that she soon mastered.
The necessity to survive the 1950s and the censored, distorted language of communist totalitarianism, the effort to confront and oppose these circumstances, did not only inspire the specific form of Czechoslovak concrete poetry, of which Grögerová and Hiršal were the main domestic protagonists, but also, as a side effect, shaped an exceptional Czech school of translation. Instead of writing, talented, highly linguistically equipped authors often translated and wrote children’s books to be able to express themselves a little more freely – and to earn money.
The personality of Jiří Kolář is also interesting in terms of the role of women artists in the shadow of men. The work of Běla Kolářová, a close friend of Bohumila Grögerová, was only fully appreciated at the end of her life; the same was actually true about Grögerová’s work, albeit under different circumstances: she attracted the most attention with works written more than a decade after Hiršal’s death. While a number of accounts document the fact that Grögerová found it hard to accept that her and Hiršal’s joint translation work was at first attributed only to him, and hardly ever presented by him, the reflection of the other party – Josef Hiršal – is probably gone forever.
The 20th century was said to be the time of the greatest amount of change that man could experience, not only politically but also technologically. The Grögerová – Hiršal duo was in tune with these changes at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s – related to the Stuttgart School of Max Bense and the world Concretist movement. They took a similarly clear stance towards communist totalitarianism. They never abandoned techno-optimism, the most tangible proof of which was Bohumila Grögerová’s rapid adaptation to audiobooks in her late eighties when she was nearly blind. This was a few years before audiobooks experienced a planet-wide boom, while Grögerová still had to have them shipped from a Swiss centre for the visually impaired, where they had an extensive library for the most demanding readers. In Czech, there were mostly only fairy tales at that time. Again, it was her literally avant-garde mindset – and her polyglotism – that saved her in this situation. It confirms the truth of the saying that nothing ever happens to us that we are not up to; the challenge lies in not collapsing a priori, but simply in accepting the situation. If one succeeds, they stand a chance of not becoming bitter and changing beyond recognition; on the contrary, they remain the same despite their changing body. Bohumila Grögerová could be an example of such an approach. This is also illustrated by the figures in her books: the image of a little girl cavorting with her doppelganger in the opposite window meets the image of old women who have poor eyesight, walk with French canes and are not sure who is who. The game itself, or the soul that plays it, is still the same, despite the change of the physical body.
At the time of the Setiny/Hundredths exhibition, we are in a completely different atmosphere than a hundred years ago, not only because of the pandemic and revolution that the internet, or rather digitalization, has brought to the world of art and the perception and treatment of everything in general. What is essential for the context of the exhibition, or for how we perceive the personality of Bohumila Grögerová today, is the emancipation that has taken and is taking place: the emancipation of women, minorities, animals, the rights of nature – and the closely related transformation of museum, exhibition and curatorial practices.
In the introductory texts in each room, entitled temporarily love – creation – mirroring – transformation – death – samadhi, and everywhere possible, we let Bohumila Grögerová speak for herself. Sometimes her texts and thoughts are accompanied with the words of her creative and life partner Josef Hiršal, without any interpretation. However, the interpretation cannot be avoided: in the installation itself we have tried to start from the principles inherent in the work and the psychological make-up of the writer: we have taken into account her systematic yet playful nature, her fascination with various inventions (including their inevitable obsolescence), the mirroring of everything in everything, the intermingling of temporal and spatial planes, the souls of people and the spirit of houses and places in general. We have also touched on her cautious but unwavering belief that, just as the borders between people or between languages are permeable, so are the two worlds separated by the mythical Acheron River: our physical world and the one we enter once we leave the body.
From 1952 until the end of her life, Grögerová kept a reading list. She was also systematic in “collecting” extracts from literature, from which she created a rich card catalogue, as well as hundreds of recipes she divided not alphabetically but thematically. She revered rhythm, which was reflected in her numerous radio plays, and in her graphic visualisations of words she proved a flair for geometry and a deep sense of balance. Her systematic thinking also included the space she lived in – she would certainly have counted the stairs, windows and doors of the geomantically constructed Star Summer Palace – for better orientation, or perhaps for a moment of appropriation.
The staircase of the Star Summer Palace thus represents the imaginary backbone of the building. The inner staircase is its spinal cord. The stairs are its ribs. The staircase, with its inner and outer parts, symbolizes the Sun as painted by children. The seven decades of reading on the inside of the staircase capture the knowledge gained, from which a list of self-published books radiates on the spokes of the stairs. The direction of the exposition is a deliberate departure from Grögerová’s favourite principle of ‘walking against time’, which by some – and we will never know how deliberate – internal order determined that her last two books were indeed about her earliest youth and childhood. All for the sake of another principle she articulated a little less clearly but lived by consistently: mirroring – doubling – reflection, which also leads to a movement against time, only in a different way. Love mirrors creation and creation mirrors love. These are essentially identical entities. Bohumila Grögerová meets “Joska” Hiršal – Joska meets Jiří Kolář – Jiří Kolář meets Běla Kolářová – together they meet Ernst Jandl – who meets Friederike Mayröcker... The situation is similar to Grögerová’s childhood memory of “meeting” a little girl in the opposite window, with whom she played a game of tongue-lashing until her mother told her stop – only to start playing the game again almost ninety years later, when she doesn’t know whether the lady in the opposite window or on the opposite bench and with a similar stick is someone else or herself. There are countless readings for each artwork – in the end, the most important chair in the room is Adriena Šimotová’s chair ideogram; an overture to the carefully calculated samadhi of the dome/soil, after which the dance of earthly existence may or may not begin anew.
If Bohumila Grögerová could have found herself alone at her exhibition-celebration, if she could have chosen to do so, she would undoubtedly have preferred to see something unexpected rather than a recapitulation of her life and creative work, something that uses a bold invention unknown to her (in this case, the photochromatic phenomenon in the central room on the first floor), or at least some consistent method; not just a play on method (the compositional procedures of mathematician Milan Guštar in the Banqueting Hall on the upper floor of the Star Summer Palace). The first and last wish of every writer is to be read. We have attempted to fulfil it – in a transient star-shaped temple of the body in which we were “sextons, organists, parish priests and prude women” for a while. What viewers/readers take from what is presented and how is always co-created by the viewers/readers themselves. As Bohumila Grögerová wrote: “It is your fantasy, your imagination, your intentions: take from me what suits you.”