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The big picture: childish defiance in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia

The Observer, 17 June 2018, Tim Adams


Dagmar Hochová’s delightful image makes a subversive statement when freedom of expression was outlawed

It is 50 years since the Prague spring, that expression of rebellion and love in the Czech capital that ended in August 1968 with Russian tanks on the streets and another generation of Soviet repression. Dagmar Hochová took photographs that captured all of the hopes and fears of the long postwar struggle for freedom in her country, which culminated in the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Hochová was born in 1926 and lived most of her life in Prague until her death in 2012. Though her pictures were sometimes overtly political – the young, ostracised Václav Havel, at home; the “march of silence” against the Russian invasion – Hochová became best known as a photographer of children. This was partly a question of expedience. Childhood was one of the few aspects of the city’s life that was effectively beyond the censor’s control. Hochová’s camera sought out the mischief and spirit of Czech kids playing in the streets. The exuberance she was drawn to was no doubt a statement of subversive intent at a time when freedom of expression was outlawed – there was also plenty of pure innocent joy.

This picture, part of the first UK retrospective of Hochová’s work, captures all of that youthful Bohemian spirit. It was taken on a bridge over the Vltava River in 1959. After the Russian coup in 1948 there had been long years of Stalinist purges of artists and agitators, and the creation of all the grey apparatus of a police state, but that world seems far removed from these two girls. They lean into Hochová’s lens with freckled and dimpled devilment, challenging the viewer not to share their grins, infant fists clenched in an innocent echo of a wider defiance.

The Power of Sympathy: The Photography of Dagmar Hochová, organised by the Czech Centre, runs from Wednesday until 29 June at the 12 Star Gallery, Europe House, London SW1

Two girls on the bridge, 1959 by Dagmar Hochová
courtesy the Dagmar Hochová archive at the Moravian Gallery, Brno