Iconoclasm Tomáš Pospiszyl

The term “iconoclasm” was originally used in connection with various religious movements that struggled to set aside visual portrayals which were opposed to their convictions. Generally it indicates some kind of organized, ideologically reasoned destruction and disposal of images or symbols in general. It has been widely practiced both geographically and temporally; it is recorded as early as Ancient Egypt and we meet it in various forms in most cultures to this day. Iconoclasm is present to some measure in every process of social transformation. It allows us to analyze retrospectively the transformation processes as related to the symbols of the past.

According to Bruno Latour, contemporary iconoclasm shows itself in three fundamental fields: religion, science, and contemporary art.1 Latour also created a basic typology of iconoclastic motivations. In the 20th century, religious and politically-motivated iconoclasm appeared primarily in China (during the Cultural Revolution) and in the Soviet Union (in connection with the liquidation of religion and the lifestyle of the past). The iconoclastic gesture has a long-term effectiveness, and attempts—symbolic and actual—to revise it are not infrequent even decades later. In 1931 the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow was demolished for propaganda reasons. The intention was to build a giant Palace of the Soviets, but this never happened. Instead, in the 1990s building began on a replica of the original church, which was opened in 2000 as a symbolic refutation of Soviet society’s war on religion and the return of Russia to the spiritual values of Christianity.

In the last two decades, iconoclasm has been manifested in Eastern Europe (the fall of the communist regimes), and in Asia (the suppression of Tibetan culture, the destruction of non-Islamic monuments in Afghanistan). Both cases were connected with their own long-term tradition of iconoclasm. For example, the origin of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 was underlined by the ideologically contestable but spectacular tearing down of the Marian column in the Old Town Square. Every further political change in Czechoslovakia has been accompanied by the removal of symbols of the past (the liquidation and reinstallation of monuments, changes in museum displays, renaming of public places).2

In the 20th century, state-organized iconoclasm did not take a violent form; it was more of an emphasis based on the modernist belief that the world (or at least its symbolic manifestations) could be changed according to need. In modern states iconoclasm is centrally managed through the attempt of political forces to control and manage publicly symbolic capital. This power increases with the degree of totalitarianism of any particular state. The central event and symbol of the transformation of Eastern Europe—the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989—had the nature of a collective iconoclastic ritual. The destruction of the Wall symbolically illustrated the forthcoming social changes—the fall of the socialist regimes and the setting up of new alliances in a Europe which had divided into two enemy camps. Television broadcasts showing the destruction of the Berlin Wall by the inhabitants of East Germany showed the closing battle of the Cold War, the essential part running on the level of a contest of symbols. Twenty years after the fall of the Wall, its symbolic potential is far from exhausted; it has been preserved as a historic monument and even restored.

In Eastern Europe, examples of iconoclasm in the not-too-distant past underlined the discontinuity of its historical and political development. In the last six decades, connected with the changes of the political regime or even just its representatives, there was a massive wave in which pictorial symbols and names were removed or transformed. In the Czechoslovakia of the 1980s it was very difficult to obtain photographs of Stalin or other visual materials from the time of the cult of Stalin’s personality. The political regime emphasized its historical continuity through a system of anniversaries, but at the same time it carried out a careful self-censorship which led to a deformation of its historical image. We perceive the years from 1948 to 1989 as a compact, gray, totalitarian system, with a short flash of liberalism at the end of the 1960s. But even in this period, textbooks were replaced several times and streets and squares were renamed. Plainly, the most symbolic (though naturally not advertised) act of iconoclasm in the whole of Eastern Europe was the demolition of the monument to Stalin in Prague in 1956. Stalinist symbols were being felled by the direct inheritors and heirs of the Stalinists. If there were places where such symbols were maintained, then it was only as an anomaly.3

After 1989 in Czechoslovakia and the whole of Eastern Europe there was a rapid and symbolic iconoclastic movement which got rid of the most striking symbols of the past. New museums and museum exhibitions came into existence, suppressing the official art of the preceding decades. Streets, squares and traffic intersections formerly named after figures, places, and events connected ideologically to the communist regime were again renamed. In Prague, 40 streets were renamed immediately after November 1989, and by the mid-1990s around 300 had been renamed.4 At the same time, all over Eastern Europe architectural and sculptural monuments of the socialist era were gradually removed, and sometimes attempts were made to reoccupy the spaces which were left.5 There was a surprisingly widespread trend to create replicas of historic monuments destroyed under the Nazi or communist regimes. To rebuild in a similar way was perceived as a symbolic act which means not only a demonstrative return to old values, but above all the denial of the old system. Iconoclasm thus functions as an act of externalization—by getting rid of symbols, I deny the time in which they originated; I pass on to these things the responsibility for the past.

However, the strategy of getting rid of the remains of socialist decorations was not always organized. The Prague metro represents an elegant solution in the spirit of market economics: in the vestibules, sales kiosks were built in front of ideological reliefs in the spirit of socialist realism. In strategically selected places where prior to 1989 the eyes of travelers had lighted on a portrait of Lenin, or of warriors for the proletarian revolution, they are now treated to advertisements.

The public shows a different level of sensitivity to the change or, on the contrary, continuity of titles linked with the past. The Czechoslovak daily Mladá fronta, originally an organ of the Socialist Union of Youth, transformed itself into Mladá fronta DNES, adding the word “today,” the addition playing a leading role in the new graphic design of the heading of the newspaper. This was completely marginalized, even though it did not disappear from the public awareness. For a decade already Mladá fronta DNES has been the most popular daily in the Czech Republic. Even Rudé právo (“Red Cow”), the “organ of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia,” lost “Rudé” (red) and became a reputable source of information. Debates about the presence of the communists on the Czech political scene often end in the issue of their name. What matters more to critics of the communists than their political opinions is the fact that the political party has only made a cosmetic change to its name (from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia to the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia).

Nostalgia for the symbols of the past is all the more evident in the new millennium. We come across protests against their destruction quite frequently, though today they are rooted in economic rather than symbolic reasons (the Palace of the Republic in Berlin). Iconoclastic tendencies in the last 20 years have tried to reflect their own history critically, at least externally—with the posthistorical conviction, naturally, that there will be no more radical changes in society.


1 / Bruno Latour, “What is Iconoclash? Or is there a World Beyond the Image Wars?” in Iconoclash, Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art, ed. Bruno Latour, Peter Weibel, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2002, p. 14–38.

2 / The laying of the bodily remains of significant Czechs in the Pantheon of the National Museum could serve here as a case study. The years 1918, 1939, 1945, 1948, 1968, and 1989 involved complicated changes in hierarchy and, in connection with these, the moving of national heroes.

3 / The city of Zlín, in 1949 renamed Gottwaldov, was so named after Czechoslovakia’s first communist leader until 1990. Just as curiously, the name Stalin Street remained unchanged in Prague until 1989 (today it is Starochodovská Street in Prague 4).

4 / Václav Ledvinka, Archive of the City of Prague, interview in ČRo 7, May 26, 2006.

5 / In relation to the efforts made to use the empty pedestal on which a memorial to Lenin and other socialist heroes had stood for contemporary art, we can note the competition for the Monument of the Lithuanian Center for Contemporary Art in 1995.