Exhibition on the web
from 11. 11. 2014
The City of Prague Museum's set of posters from the Velvet Revolution is an important piece in the mosaic of poster production in November and December 1989. It provides a picture of the spontaneous work created by professional graphic artists and amateurs that rode on the wave of revolutionary enthusiasm at a time when there was an overpowering desire for change. Shop windows, walls, poles, bus stops and other surfaces were flooded with countless resolutions, posters, leaflets and declarations. For a while public space became, in the true sense of the word, a form for free speech. The revolutionary symbols that were used reflect an authentic testimony of significant iconographic value and vividly mirror the demands, attitudes, desires and vision of the people who created them.
The Mánes Gallery on what was then Gottwaldovo nábřeží (now Masarykovo nábřeží) became an important centre for the creation of revolutionary posters. There was a large workshop here where students, artists and others volunteered day and night to create banners, posters, and leaflets containing demands and proclamations. At first the posters were hastily produced, in makeshift conditions, and were painted by hand. Gradually their work became increasingly professional and the first printed posters began to appear. Many Czech artists who are prominent today contributed to them: Pavel Beneš, Michal Cihlář, Pavel Hrach, Václav Jirásek, Ivan Král, Aleš Najbrt, František Skála, Pavel Šťastný, Rostislav Vaněk, Jiří Votruba, Roman Werner, and others.
On 17 November 1989, to mark the 50th anniversary of the shutdown of universities by the Nazis, the SSM (the Socialist Youth Movement), alongside independent student unions organised an event in Albertov, Prague, to commemorate the student, Jan Opletal. The rally that was originally planned and permitted was supposed to officially end with a final gathering at the grave of Karel Hynek Mácha at Vyšehrad. But some people decided to head for the centre of Prague. Those at the front of the march, which numbered several thousand people and which continued to grow during its journey, were stopped on Národní třída by a police cordon and were then surrounded by emergency regiments of the SNB (the National Security Corps). In an enclosed area where there was nowhere to escape protesters were brutally beaten by members of the Red Berets (OZU MV – the Special Troops Division of the Ministry of the Interior, i.e. the counterterrorism unit). According to the results of an independent investigation 568 people were injured during the crackdown. Immediately after it reports that a student, Martin Šmíd, had been killed began to spread among people. Although this was not confirmed it was soon reported on Radio Free Europe and other foreign agencies also ran with it. This rumour significantly contributed to the radicalisation of the whole of society. In the following days people came to the site of this brutal crackdown on Národní třída to lay flowers and light candles to commemorate the dead student and other people who had been injured.
In response to the resistance against the brutal intervention by the police units, on Sunday 19 November, at the instigation of Václav Havel representatives of different strands of opposition met at the Činoherní klub and established a common platform – the Civic Forum. This political movement took on the role of the public's representative in dialogue with the Communist state power and thus became the decisive political force in the country. The first leader of the Civic Forum was the respected leading figure of the opposition, the playwright Václav Havel.
The Civic Forum was established as a loosely defined independent political movement which was intended first and foremost to be a space for free dialogue, respecting the principles of openness and democracy. It was supposed to represent an open community, to which basically every honest and democratically-minded citizen, who felt responsible for future political developments, had access. In the early days it did not aspire to have its own share in the exercising of state power but sought to create social pressure that would lead to political change and democratic reforms.
The Civic Forum was not meant to be a political party but only a kind of free association of various political movements which would guarantee the transition to a democratic, pluralistic rule of law. It considered the main focus of political change to be in the local horizontal structure and the autonomy of individual Civic Forums. Logically a movement containing many different opinions arose which covered a wide spectrum of new forms of political representation from members of pre-November independent initiatives to 'turncoats'.
The smiling logo of the Civic Forum was created by Pavel Šťastný, who at the time was a first-year student at the Academy of Arts. It arose on 25 November 1989 originally as a joke in response to the very short amount of time in which it had to be created.
From the seemingly quiet and inert atmosphere that still prevailed in early November, after the brutal intervention by the security forces on Národní třída in Prague a wave of long-suppressed discontent poured out. By Monday 20 November more than one hundred thousand people demonstrated on Wenceslas Square. Participation by people at mass rallies culminated on Letenská pláň on 25 and 26 November. The number of demonstrators who were expressing their support for the Civic Forum was between 750 and 800 thousand people. By this time the rallies were being broadcast by Czech Television.
Among the main demands of the striking students and the opposition was the abolition of the constitutional Article on the Party's leading role. But the biggest priority became the demand for an investigation into the events on Národní třída and punishment of the culprits responsible for the brutal crackdown, the release of political prisoners and respect for human rights. The first declaration by the strike committees called for the initiation of discussions throughout society as a whole about current conditions which “should include finding solutions to the catastrophic social, political, economic and environmental situation”.
From midday until 2 p.m. on 27 November a general strike was held throughout the Czech Republic. Under the slogans “An end to one-party rule!” and “Free elections!” it was estimated that three quarters of the entire population joined the strike. In enterprises and hospitals which had to operate non-stop employees expressed their support for the strikers with a show of solidarity.
General Secretary Miloš Jakeš, along with the entire Presidium of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (CCP), resigned on 24 November and on 5 December he was expelled from the Communist Party. In the 1990's criminal proceedings were conducted against him regarding his activities at the time of the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, at the end of which he was acquitted. Miroslav Štěpán, a member of the CCP Central Committee, head of the CCP municipal committee in Prague and commander of the Prague people's militia resigned from all party functions at the end of November following his disastrous appearance in front of ČKD factory workers in Prague and, like Miloš Jakeš, he was expelled from the CCP at the beginning of December. He was the only Communist politician to be sentenced after 1989 to four years in jail.
On 3 December Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec appointed a rehashed government, in which the Communists still held a major influence. With this step he ran into staunch public opposition. The Civic Forum threatened a further general strike, planned for 11 December, unless citizens' demands were met and a new government was created which reflected the new distribution of power in society. A new “government of national understanding” headed by the Communist politician Marián Čalfa was appointed on 10 December. The popular director of the Prognostic Institute, Valtr Komárek, took on the role of first vice-premier.
The main demand of the revolution that resonated throughout society was the call for a democratic form of government which envisaged the abolition of the Article on the Communist Party's leading role and its replacement with a system of pluralistic democracy. The Federal Assembly, which was accustomed to voting unanimously, approved the abolition of this Article on 29 November.
The first free elections were held in early June 1990 and an incredible 96% of voters participated in them. The elections to the People's Chamber of the Federal Assembly in the Czech Republic were won by the Civic Forum with 53.15%. Against forecasters' expectations the Communist Party succeeded in coming second with 13.48% of votes, followed by KDU (The Christian and Democratic Union) with 8.69% and HSD (The Movement for Self-governing Democracy) – Society for Moravia and Silesia with 7.89%. The Civic Forum achieved a similar result - 49.96% - in the elections to the Chamber of Nations, the Czechoslovak Communist Party received 13.80% of votes, HSD – Society for Moravia and Silesia 9.10% and KDU 8.75% of valid votes.
Considerable emphasis was placed on the dismal environmental situation. Six days before 17 November people had demonstrated in smog-ridden Teplice for clean air. Here the concentration of pollutants several times exceeded the permissible limits. After a few days environmental action had grown into a political event.
In the Civic Forum's first programme declaration “What we want” on 26 November one of the seven points was dedicated to the subject of the environment and its urgent need for improvement. One of the main proponents of these efforts was the co-founder of the Civic Forum, environmentalist and later Minister of the Environment, Josef Vavroušek.
The “Back to Europe!” poster calls for a return from the totalitarian abyss back to the European society of free democratic nations. The demand for democracy, which had been emphasised so much at the rallies and demonstrations in November 1989, was also understood to mean a return to the western cultural traditions of the pre-war Czechoslovakia of T. G. Masaryk. Our country's post-November foreign policy was clearly aimed at strengthening European ties. The Czech Republic joined the European Union on 1 May 2004.
Along with the removal of the constitutional Article on the leading role of the Party, the Article on education in the spirit of Marxism-Leninism was also abolished at an extraordinary meeting of the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia.
The paraphrase of the motto “Truth prevails” on the presidential banner expresses the belief that Hus's motto, which since the founding of Czechoslovakia, with the exception of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, had appeared on all the flags of the President of the Republic, was finally being fulfilled. The photograph on the poster has an interesting history. It was created in the spring of 1989 by members of the Bratrstvo artistic association as a response to the false optimism of the 1950s'. It originally bore the words “Never again will our eyes shine as they did in 1953...”. During the hectic days of November 1989 it was then used for the poster with the motto “Truth will prevail”.
This photo of a cracked wall in the shape of Czechoslovakia with a barred window is an apt statement about the state of pre-November society. The metaphor of a normalising prison with the tricolour suggests new hope for the future.
To mark the half-year anniversary of the massacre on Tiananmen Square in Beijing Czech students held a demonstration rally in front of the main building of Charles University's Faculty of Philosophy and Arts on what was then náměstí Krasnoarmějců (now Palachovo náměstí) on 3 December 1989. The students then marched to the Chinese Embassy in Prague 6 – Bubeneč where a protest petition was handed over.
On this date the President of the Republic, Gustáv Husák, appointed a new federal “government of national understanding” headed by the Communist, Marián Čalfa. The Czechoslovak Communist Party had the most seats in the new government – ten. Seven seats were reserved for non-party people and ČSS (the Czechoslovak Socialist Party) and ČSL (the Czechoslovak People's Party) each got two seats. Gustáv Husák abdicated. Theatres ended their strike and the Secret Police began destroying sensitive documents in an abandoned quarry in Záluží u Plzně.
The most significant figure of the Velvet Revolution was undoubtedly Václav Havel. In the second half of the 1980's he enjoyed unparalleled influence and respect at home and abroad. He was clearly the main opposition leader and he was also recognised by his opponents from independent initiatives.
This poster with raised fingers in the shape of the letter “V” indicating victory promotes Václav Havel's candidacy as president. This symbol originated by Churchill was a typical emblem of the demonstration rallies in November 1989.
In 1989 Havel underwent a personal rebirth from independent observer, writer, intellectual and critic of the situation in the country to the role of political protagonist, which he initially shied away from. The Velvet Revolution propelled him to the post of head of state. The Civic Forum announced his candidacy as president of the Republic on 10 December.
In view of the principle of parity in occupying the highest state functions (a Slovak as Chairman of the Federal Government, a Czech as President, or vice versa) it was assumed that the new president would be a candidate of Czech nationality. Still left in the game were the reforming Communist, Čestmír Císař, the politically discredited Ladislav Adamec, and Václav Havel, supported by the Civic Forum. Alexandr Dubček, who was favoured by the Slovaks, eventually won the position of Chairman of the Federal Assembly.
On 29 December in the Vladislav Hall of Prague Castle, with the unanimous votes of all the deputies of the People's Chamber and the Chamber of Nations, Václav Havel was elected President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic for a two-year term.
This poster presents one of the most characteristic mottoes of the Velvet Revolution and Václav Havel as a fighter for truth and love through peaceful means. Havel based his ideas on Patoček's concept of “living in truth” which he tried to apply on a practical level.
The Velvet Revolution got its name because of its non-violent nature. The emphasis on peaceful protests, non-violence and pacifism is also reflected in the posters designed during those days. This poster has a quote from one of the greatest political and spiritual leaders of India and the Indian independence movement who advocated a philosophy of active but non-violent resistance, Mahatma Gandhi (see On Truth and Justice).
The “Let's be kind to each other” poster vividly complements the euphoric mood of the revolutionary days and reflects the desire for non-violent political change but at the same time also captures the naivety of the designers themselves.
An extract from the song “A Prayer for Marta”. This song which was banned during normalisation became one of the symbols of the Prague Spring and later also of the Velvet Revolution. Sung by Marta Kubišová it was again heard at the demonstration on 21 November from the Melantrich building on a packed Wenceslas Square.
The Civic Forum's optimistically-minded New Year's greeting in the form of a poster. By this time an official Civic Forum logo already existed but in an atmosphere of general euphoria all kinds of things were excused.
This Christmas lino-cut “A Quiet Christmas with the Civic Forum” is exceptional for its sophistication. It was created during a single week n December 1989 in Michal Cihlář's studio. The Nativity scene – the site of a miracle, the birth of Jesus Christ, is depicted here as a public space and the place of birth of a new democracy. This public space is meant to be the Civic Forum.
On this Civic Forum Christmas card in the form of a poster angels proclaim love and truth to every family. Havel's motto runs like a red thread through the poster art that was created during the Velvet Revolution.
Here the Christmas mood was combined in a wonderful way with the universal joy of freedom regained. This poster attributes an almost messianic destiny to the Civic Forum. The Star of Bethlehem proclaims the glory of the Civic Forum.
This poster by the designer, Aleš Najbrt, stands out from the conciliatory nature of other Velvet Revolution posters with its angularity and aggressiveness. Najbrt supported a stricter approach towards the representatives of totalitarian power: “My friends and I tended more to be supporters of a Non-Velvet Revolution and a harsher approach towards the Communists. … This attitude was not particularly welcome.” (Filip Blažek: Posters of the Velvet Revolution, Prague 2009, page 51).
The works of art from the City of Prague Museum collection are made available to the public via this online presentation. We have been unable to contact some of the artists so if you happen to be the copyright owner of any of the works in question, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org