In the outskirts of Prague, a three-minute walk from Pankrác metro station (C line), is the Centre of Queer Memory (Společnost Pro Queer Paměť). Founded in 2015, the organisation’s mission is to research Czech LGBT history and present it to the public. There is an archive of documents, publications and artefacts, and a library of historical literature on homosexuality. On top of all that, one of their most engaging project is an oral history archive of life interviews with older people in the Czech LGBT community, exploring and making visible the personal and community characteristics and life strategies in the LGBT community in Czechoslovakia during the Communist era. Their mission is to help preserve the LGBT community’s historical memory. The presentations, film screenings, discussion forums and other events organised by the institution, are published on its website and facebook page. The archive is open to the public every Monday from 6 to 8 pm.
Tyršův sen : the Sokol’s visual representation from a queer perspective
Besides the permanent exhibition, which presents the landmarks of the Czech and global LGBT community’s history and provides clear definitions of the basic terms, a temporary show opened this February. It explores the visual representation of the organisation called Sokol (or it is more precise to call it a movement rather than an organisation). The title of the exhibition is Tyršův sen (Tyrs’s dream). Permanent SPQP staff member František Tymir was in charge of the show.
Photos: courtesy of SPQP
The historical relevance of Sokol does not need to be explained to the Czech audience. Meanwhile, most foreign visitors and readers probably need some explanation here. The gymnastics organisation Sokol (Falcon) was established by Jindřich Fügner és Miroslav Tyrš in 1862 in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The organisation was open to men of any age or class, and eventually, from around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, to women too. Based on the principle of “a sound mind in a sound body”, the organisation started as a society above politics. However, eventually, it came to play a decisive role in the emergence of Czech nationalism of the late 19th century.
In the decades after its foundation, the nationalist movement promoting the importance of physical, moral and intellectual training became immensely popular in the Czech population, and it found large numbers of followers in other Slav and migrant communities. Articles about Sokol, studies of the basic principles, goals and achievements, public presentations and mass events (slets) contributed significantly to the emerging discourse. Then, after the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the leaders of the movement undertook political roles. While Sokol changed leaders several times over the decades, the criteria of being a member, the social composition of the organisation, its goals, political orientation and visual representation remained consistent for a long time.
To a large extent, Sokol’s aesthetics was defined by one of its founders, Miroslav Tyrš. Holding a doctor’s degree in philosophy, in the 1860s Tyrš educated himself in the fields of the history and philosophy of art. His first book, titled Hod olympický (Olympic Feast), explored the relationship of art and sports in ancient Greece. In line with that, and perhaps also not independently of the fact that Neoclassicism was the trend in those days, he used the classical Greek tradition of body representation in promoting Sokol’s ideology. As a result, besides Sokol members appearing in uniform and sports attire, the partly or fully nude human body was also a significant part of the movement’s visual representation. By doing so, the ideologists of the movement drew a parallel between the greatness of classical cultures and the emerging Czech national identity, where the personal body became a metaphor of the body of the nation as well. Furthermore, although the public could see naked boys and men in works on historical and mythological subjects, Tyrš pioneered in making the aestheticized contemporary male body (albeit in a classicising form) a tool of mainstream communication.
Deciding not to deal with the historical context or the political and organisational changes of the movement, the curator of Tyršův sen made this visual tradition the focus of the exhibition. Tymir chose the postcard, one of the most popular media in the age, to present the subject. The exhibition showcases some 70 postcards, most of them from 1860 to 1940, the first 80 years of the organisation’s history. Nude or half nude men appear in each image, in solo or in groups, doing sports or presented as a kind of allegory of the nation, photographed, drawn and/or painted.
How is this related to LGBT history and a queer reading? The exhibition does not suggest that these images were intentionally made with homoerotic content. Besides popularising the sportive and well trained body, representing homo-sociality was a natural part of Sokol’s message: presenting the those forms of trust and friendship among men that were necessary for the representation of comradeship, brotherhood, togetherness, with all these notions being part of the idea of nationalism. In normative social systems, traditionally determined by the heterosexual male way of thinking and the male gaze, the bodies in these postcards are seen as the strong and vigorous pillars of a healthy nation.
Meanwhile, the exhibition points out meanings beyond these. It calls attention to the fact that, at a personal level of viewing, the very same bodies become objects of desire. Objects of desire for such marginalized groups, excluded from the mainstream social discourse, as homosexual men or even heterosexual women. Consequently, in an age where the nude male body had very limited visibility in the public space, these bodies and the homo-social relations represented in the images, certainly came to carry a homoerotic content as well for the homosexual subcultures of the age. Therefore, besides being part of the tradition of the emerging national identity, Sokol’s visual representation is also part of queer history.
Whether they occur in art, literature or even political propaganda, studying such cases is part and parcel of the histories of LMBT people and communities, of learning about and getting to understand, in more depth, the relationship of the majority and the gay and lesbian minorities in the society.
If you have any documents, objects or stories that you would like to share with the archives or the public, please do not hesitate to visit the archives during its opening hours or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Translation by Zsolt Kozma