PRAGUE — Standing like a bridge between the banks of the Vltava river and the shore of an island, Manes, a box-like three-story building constructed in the early '30s Bauhaus style was designed as a gathering place for artists before World War II to meet and show their work. In Prague, buildings for the arts are often named for historical figures, and Manes took its name from Josef Manes, a 19th-Century Czechoslovak painter.
After the war, and especially since the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, Manes became the bastion and the symbol of the powerful Czechoslovak state artists union, an organization loyal to the country's Communist Party, which had a monopoly over public exhibition, commissions and jobs in the visual arts.
But this fall, when artists seized the building and occupied it, they scored a major political victory as well as a triumph for creative freedom. The seizure also reflects the important role played by a wide range of artists in helping to bring about the tumultuous changes that have shaken this country over the last month.
On Nov. 18, the Friday morning after the historic night when thousands of student demonstrators were chased and beaten by police in Prague's Wenceslas Square, artists began gathering at Manes. First, they removed an exhibition of paintings by a party approved artist and installed a huge show of photographs of police clubbing demonstrators.
The following day, a network to support the newly declared student strike was created. By Monday, 15,000 artists had converged on the building. They formed a new independent committee of Czechoslovak artists to revamp completely the way visual arts had been controlled by the government, and to provide a support structure for the newly formed Civic Forum. Playwright Vaclav Havel is leading the opposition coalition, which over the last three weeks has become the principal organization vying with the Communist Party for power.
Since last week, Manes has become an important headquarters for Havel's presidential campaign, with a staff composed entirely of visual artists.
Artists themselves admit they're dumbfounded at the speed and efficiency of their takeover of the building. But the occupation of Manes is far from an isolated incident--film makers, actors, art students and writers have also taken over buildings in Prague that before Nov. 17 were bastions of officialdom.
The artists see their presence, working and sleeping in their places of work, as another, albeit dramatic stage, in what has been a long effort by artists to create small spaces of creative independence while helping sustain a broader spirit of support for democratic change, a position that artists and writers have been identified with historically in Czechoslovakia.
Leaning back in his chair, in what had been a dining room for elite party artists at Manes, 34-year-old sculptor Stefan Milkov looked up at one of the two remaining works of party art in the building, a heavily painted canvas of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in a style that might be described as gift-shop primitive. Milkov wears a crudely made badge in the red, white and blue colors of the Czechoslovak flag that reads: "Visual Artists * Civic Forum, 1968-1989."
"The union of artists up to now has had the same structure as the Communist Party," says Milkov. "So membership was determined not by merit but by political acceptability. If we were going to change the structure of society, we also had to change the structure of the artists association."
Over the past several years, independent visual artists, most of them around 30 years old, have been trying to chip away at the power of the official union.
Milkov and a small group of other Prague artists, however, had not waited until students lay injured on the streets in November to act on that goal. More than two years ago, Milkov, whose wood and earthenware sculptures look like three-dimensional renderings of Philip Guston's late cartoonish paintings, joined with eight other painters, sculptors and printmakers to show their works that had failed to meet the standards of the official union. They were joined by their "manager," then 27-year old Vaclav Marhoul, an impish film production manager by profession, with uncanny instincts for promotion that he applies in a breakneck English acquired, he says, from American movies. Marhoul's calling card is a facsimile of a Marlboro cigarette logo that bears his own name. The group adopted the name Turdohlavi, or Hardheaded, and so far its determination has paid off.
Hardheaded's first group show opened around Christmas of 1987, a time of year when the cold and snow keep most people in Prague at home. Still, more than 4,000 visitors stood in line in sub-freezing temperatures outside a suburban workers' hall far from the center of Prague to see oil paintings using folk imagery by artist Jiri David, bright graffiti-inspired acrylics by Stanislav Divis and elongated surreal woodcarvings of birds by Frantisek Skala.