Charter 77 was the most prominent initiative for basic human and civil rights following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The exhibition, “Charta Story,” is being held at the National Gallery’s Salm Palace until January 13, 2019 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Charter 77.
The exhibit follows the story of Ivan Jirous, a Czech poet and key figure of the Czech “underground” during the communist era. He is best known as the artistic director of the psychedelic- rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe. The band was arrested by the police for “disturbing the peace” and this marked the beginning of the solidarity of the underground community; musicians, authors, artists, etc. banded together to fight for the freedom of basic civil rights.
After the arrest of the band members, prominent figures in Czech society, such as Vaclav Havel wrote and signed a petition protesting the arrest. The exhibit states that, “Charter 77 was a broad platform that brought together people of ‘different convictions, different faiths, and different professions.’” The founders of this initiative framed it within the basic human rights granted to Czech citizens in the 1975 Helsinki Accord.
“Charta Story” begins with Jirous’ life documented in photographs, written materials, and personal belongings. Through these materials, you see the links between various social circles in this time and how their life stories intertwined because of the underground. In the first room of the exhibit, there is a wall covered in the names of the hundreds of people that signed Charter 77.
It commemorates the brave individuals who fought for their rights during the communist regime.
The exhibit highlights the different artists, intellectuals, writers, spokespersons, Christians, and many more that were involved in the activities of Charter 77. Many of the signatories were persecuted, forced to leave the country, or arrested. However, none of this stopped their efforts, which is truly remarkable; those that left the country continued their efforts to fight the communist regime from abroad. The solidarity between these various people was the foundation and leading principle of Charter 77.
The arrest of the members of The Plastic People of the Universe led to the development of this tight-knit community where there was initially no interest in politics, but simply the desire to be themselves. The artists, musicians, intellectuals, Christians, etc. had nothing in common besides the fact that they wanted to pursue their passions. They never would have normally crossed paths, but because they shared this similarity to disagree with the communist regime, they became a close group. The exhibit shows the role Charter 77 had on these people’s lives as well as the role it played in society. A fascinating aspect of the exhibit is the booklet of notecards and little sheets of paper where the signatories were asked to describe what motivated them to sign. It is unique to see how this dissimilar group of people came together as one.
While the “Charta Story” emphasizes the creativity behind the movement and the lives of the signatories, an additional part of the exhibit, “Charter 77 in Photographs,” attempts to capture the atmosphere at the time. The exhibit describes these photographs as, “not merely duplicates of recorded facts, but appear to be the facts themselves accompanied by the prevailing mood.” The photographers were not staging the scene or trying to make it ‘artistic,’ but rather it was artistic in its own form. One of the images shows a group of people holding up peace signs; the Czech people sought freedom and the opportunity for peace and to just be who they were as individuals.
The exhibit ends with a section titled “Secret Surveillance.” These photographs were taken from archives of the secret police and State Security for monitoring individuals. They serve as a reference for the historical events and situations during the communist regime, as well as capturing the atmosphere of the time and everyday life. The photos were never intended to be made public, so they give you an inside look as to what living through this period was like.
Charter 77 was a distinctive initiative to liberate Czechoslovakia in the face of communism. It brought together a broad range of people from various social circles and united them with a similar idea to disagree with the government. “Charta Story” effectively captures the history of the time period, the background on the signatories, and the political climate during the time it was signed.
- Tuesday-Sunday: 10 AM- 6 PM
- Closed Mondays.
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery