Images of the Other Europe

`MAGICAL'' is a word so often associated with Prague. The castle, the Charles Bridge, the old Jewish quarter all seem landmarks of an enchanted kingdom, which was not long ago awoken from the spell it had been under since - when? 1938? 1948? or some time in the Middle Ages?

Since the ``velvet revolution,'' and subsequent ``velvet divorce,'' the Czechs and the Slovaks have been moving toward postcommunist free-market economics, the former notably more successfully than the latter. Reading of the shiny new shops and restaurants sprouting up, one hopes that the ``golden city,'' which survived Nazi occupation and 40 years of communism, will move into capitalism with its Baroque splendor intact and tacky signage and other detritus of commercialism held to a minimum.

One is reminded of all this by an exhibition called ``The Spirit of Two Peoples: Czech and Slovak Photography 1919-1991,'' which has been traveling around New England; it has just completed a stint at the Boston Athenaeum and opens at the Boston Public Library in April.

Organized by Murray Forbes, president of the Navigator Foundation, which owns the photos, the show is intended to provide a ``window into the cultures'' of these two countries of ``the other Europe.''

The exhibition certainly does that: It gives us memorable images of lands so near and yet so far away, familiarly European and yet so far from the Western mainstream that some of them, especially those from more rural Slovakia, seem to have more to do with time travel than documentary photography.

But the Navigator exhibition is not just about exotic dreamscapes; it is also about ``living in truth,'' in Czech President Vaclav Havel's memorable phrase. One considers the historical context for each of these images, whether taken during the years of independence between the wars, under Nazi occupation, or at the time of the Prague Spring of 1968, and sees that each is part of a tradition of truth-telling that runs like a cultural aquifer through the earth, no matter what structures are put up over it.

This is the unofficial culture Mr. Havel celebrated in his 1978 essay, ``The Power of the Powerless.'' He wrote of the Prague Spring, ``The attempt at political reform was not the cause of society's reawakening, but rather the final outcome of that reawakening.''

He gives a parable of a greengrocer who one day decides to remove from his shop window the sign bearing a political slogan he didn't really believe in. In removing the sign, Havel writes, ``He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.''

One of the most vivid pictures in the Navigator exhibition shows the spiritual cost of not living in the truth: Vladimir Birgus's 1978 picture of a marcher in a parade commemorating the 30th anniversary of communism in Prague.

No victory marcher ever looked less victorious than this stooped, sad-eyed man with a drooping flag over his shoulder: Here is Havel's greengrocer before he took the sign from the window. But the photographer had the eye to see and the integrity to record the image: It was his effort to live in the truth.

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