What makes a Czech person Czech? National identity is hard to define when a country is only 17 years old. It becomes an even harder question, a touchy subject even, when a country has been repeatedly invaded, subjugated, and oppressed for centuries on end. In 1620, the Czech state was absorbed into the Habsburg Empire, in 1804 became part of the Austrian Empire, and in 1867 became part of Austria-Hungary. Things got worse in the 20th century, when the Czechs were sacrificed to Nazi Germany before getting swallowed and smothered by the Soviet Union for half a century.
Conquering armies, monarchs, and tanks have rolled over the Czechs and back again, and yet the Czechs are a rather economically stable, tourism-friendly central European country. They might even be getting their own Michael Jackson statue! How’s that for prosperity in the 21st-century? But if you can tear your eyes away from the King of Pop for just one second, you’ll be able to see that the Czech lands are overflowing with culture and beauty.
Prague is a jewel of a city, situated between lush green hills on the Vltava river. I was visiting with my family on vacation, and we decided to spend a large part of it exploring Prague. My family loves museums and castles, which the Czech Republic has in abundance. Prague itself is like a museum, where contemporary architectural gems are situated next to old landmarks. It’s an embarrassment of riches. Just by walking through the city you can find an endless supply of sculptures and paintings decorating the outsides of what would otherwise be totally nondescript buildings. One day we walked through Prague’s 10th century castle district, then went down the hill a couple of blocks to find a Frank Gehry-designed office complex, and continued throughout the city to see Baroque, Gothic, Art Nouveau, and Cubist buildings. But if you had to visit just one Prague museum, it would have to be the Veletrzni Palac (Fair Trade Palace), a truly massive collection of Czech and European work originally built in 1925 for trade fairs. It was gutted in a fire in the 1970s, and rebuilt as part of the National Gallery system, and now contains a huge hoard of work. I can’t stress this enough: this place is huge.
Visiting the Veletrzni Palac
We spent a solid three hours in it and had to skip two of the six floors. The amount of quality artwork feels endless. Also quality is the institution’s photo policy, which has an affinity to the paradoxical Czech restaurant smoking policy — meaning no-smoking signs on most restaurant doors but ash trays on every table. People in Prague light up before, during, and after meals without a second thought. So, once I realized that the “no camera” signs on the gallery doors were only a suggestion, I embraced the local tradition and started taking photos myself, cheerfully smiling and nodding to each gallery attendant as I snapped away.
We began our three hour tour (look out for the obvious Gilligan’s Island reference coming up) not fully comprehending what we were getting ourselves into or knowing for sure whether or not we’d have to make a radio out of coconuts for someone to rescue us (There it is! As promised. You’re welcome.) in a large exhibition hall on the first floor. Taking place there was an exhibition of 52 recent graduates from the various local fine art academies. There was a large amount of painting, mostly surrealist inspired, that looked a little like they were done in Microsoft Paint. There was a very impressive sculpture anchoring the entire exhibition in the middle of the great hall, and some video and installation work, some of which was interactive. The quality of the work was wide-ranging.
While a portion of the painting was unimpressive, there were almost as many pieces that demonstrated careful brush control and a solid understanding of the medium. One of the standouts for me was a series of three paintings, all gray with hints of white, yellow and brown, that were painted to look as if they had been stapled or bent in some way. At first glance, from a distance, I thought that the artist had just hung three pieces of sheet metal in the wall and dented them. When I moved closer, the revelation that they were actually paintings gave me that that feeling you get when you get fooled by a really good trompe l’oeil. Yeah, you know the one.
Finding Post-apocalyptic Suicidal Poodle Humans
I moved to the other side of the ground floor to look at a grouping of 12 canvases displayed together under the title of Contemporary Czech Painting. Strangely, none of them struck me as having “earned” their place in this small show. Were the best Czech painters on holiday for the past decade? Judging by this collection, all that exists from that time period are some drippy, blurry, abstract-y, and odd paintings. There was a grimy canvas on which was painted what can only be described as anthropomorphic poodles with shaved heads going for a Sunday drive in the countryside, all of them pointing pistols into their mouths. Yikes. I’m still kicking myself for not taking any photos, I must have been too dumbfounded to react.
I was a little crestfallen to find even more of the same upstairs on the fifth floor, proving that yes, these paintings were in the permanent collection and yes, some curator might feel compelled to trot them out every once in a while when they think the tourists are clamoring for some post-apocalyptic suicidal poodle humans. The graduate show was better than this, which made me hopeful about the new generation.
The top three floors of the Veletrzni Palac provide a comprehensive survey of Czech artists and art movements. Czech artists of the 19th and 20th century typically incorporated many different styles in their work. There is Jindrich Prucha, whose paintings portray landscapes in a manner that looks Impressionist, Fauvist, and Expressionist all at the same time. There is Josef Vachal, whose fascinating rural and woodland paintings are Expressionist but contain Art Nouveau motifs. And then there is the grandfather of modern Czech painting, Jan Preisler, who laid the foundations for future Czech artists by combining dream analysis and symbolism with his modern approach. There is also Karel Mylsbek, who combines ennui and hopelessness with depression for an overall dark oeuvre. Just imagine people dying at home, at work, in the fields, and on street corners, and you’ll understand.
Some people may see Czech culture as a bridge between Western and Eastern European culture, but I think a more accurate metaphor would be a blender, resulting in a delicious cultural smoothie of movements and styles. Influences from Paris combine with those from Russia, which are in turn combined with Dutch and other influences. It’s not unusual to find visits abroad and studies with the great masters of 20th century art in the biographies of famous Czech artists. In some instances, the hand of the mentor is too present and the work can appear like imitation. Some can escape the influence of their artistic mentors, such as Jan Preisler, whose “The Wind and the Breeze” triptych (1896) definitely evoked Gustav Klimt’s paintings, but had enough of Preisler’s own personal style and symbolism to pull away from the Austrian master.
Other highlights included the work of Antonin Slavicek, an Impressionist-style painter and masterful mood-setter. In the same vein is Frantisek Kavan, a late 19th and early 20th C. landscape painter who you could tell really really really liked painting clouds. Kavan’s work is strongly reminiscent of Jacob van Ruisdael’s idyllic landscapes of the 17th century. Some canvases even rivaled the Dutchman in terms of atmosphere and tranquility. As enjoyable and pretty as Kavan’s works are they seem too steeped in history and a historic sensibility. You come to realize that the Czechs were not typically at the forefront of any avant-garde artistic movement. Even one of my personal favorites, sculptor Otto Gutfreund, began his love affair with Cubism the way so many other Czechs did: studying in Paris with Picasso, Braque, Gris, and other pioneers of the movement. But when the Czech’s embrace a style, they do so completely, and I think it’s safe to say that no other city wholly embraced Cubism like Praguers did. Their infatuation with the movement extended to every detail to such an extent that they even created the only Cubist lamp-post in the world.
So, you’re saying to yourself, “Even if the Czechs weren’t always the inventors of exciting new art styles, at least they enthusiastically embraced the styles that were brought home, and instilled them with their own particular ‘Czech’ meanings and values.” Right? But hang on a second, there’s a very important Czech artist in Veletrzni Palac whose work we haven’t discussed yet.
And then there was Kupka …
His name is František Kupka and he’s the major Czech contributor to modernism. Kupka is credited with painting what may be the first ever abstract painting (now THAT’S a claim to fame) … and he is an artist whose works the Veletrzni Palac (not to mention many other Czech institutions) has in abundance. The granddaddy of abstract art, Kupka was a prolific painter and draftsman. He seemed to excel at every medium he tried, including political cartoons. In fact, his painting style, allegorical subject matter choices, and even his political cartoons make me consider him a kind of Czech Goya. But unlike Goya, Kupka eventually shifted his focus to abstract art and color theory.
Kupka’s influence extends well beyond the borders of what was then Czechoslovakia. The museum presents an excellent overview of the life and work of Kupka. I found it fascinating to watch the progression of the artist’s style, starting at first with his allegorical figurative work before gradually increasing the amount of abstraction. His early paintings and drawings are at times eerie and dark, and at other times lighthearted and amusing, demonstrating a versatility that is very enjoyable to see. Moving on from the early work, I was able to see Kupka’s landmark painting I had heard so much about in art history class, “Piano Keys, Lake” (1909). In the painting, the keys of the piano float upwards into the lake and become ripples in the water. It is an especially interesting painting to see in the context of Kupka’s earlier and later work. The painting morphs from figuration to abstraction, mimicking Kupka’s own stylistic transformation. Kupka’s later works are interesting as well for their color choices, and for the depth of their visual vocabulary. In some paintings, lines are given “solos” and dance across the canvas, whereas in other paintings shapes ooze and ripple out towards the viewer. Straight lines, curved lines, angles, circles, triangles, dark colors, light colors — Kupka could do all of it and make it all look stellar. Not an easy accomplishment.
After what felt like a comprehensive review of Czech art history, I moved to the lower floors which contained a hefty French art collection. There were many Rodin sculptures, and works by other recognizable names (Delacroix, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Renoir…). There was a superb room filled with drawings and lithographs made by Rodin and Matisse. There was a noteworthy Picasso room and also a Braque room, as one might expect from a country that really enjoys its Cubism. The third floor of Veletrzni Palac contained slightly less renowned Cubist painters, mostly Czech, as well as a collection of Social-realist art, an unfortunate art movement if there ever was one. The walls of this particular section were inexplicably coated with a pink that was soo Pepto-Bismol that pictures don’t do it justice.
Exiting this section, I did a quick lap of the second floor while my other family members were taking a breather. There was a handful of famous Pop Art names – Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist – as well as a good amount of Chinese and Japanese art. Following this, we rallied to take on a special exhibit called 101/ II – Masterpieces from the Collection of Prints and Drawings of the National Gallery in Prague (1800-1945). At the Veletrzni Palac, even the titles are massive. As we were well into hour three, I almost couldn’t work up the interest to go in to see another huge collection. But it was worth it to see some more Kupka studies and a 10 inch-by-10 inch Josef Lada street scene drawing that was so jam-packed with amusing caricatures of all sorts of townsfolk that I stood in front of it for quite a while, enjoying the commotion. You may be interested to know that Lada is most renowned for being the man who provided illustrations for the 1920s novel The Good Soldier Svejk, a witty & ingenious war novel.
We finally stumbled out of the museum — by way of the gift shop, of course — and into the 30 degree Celsius heat, which was still shocking but quite welcome after what felt like the sub-zero temperatures of the Palac. Our visit confirmed my original thought: there is no doubt that if you had to visit just one Prague museum, make it the Veletrzni Palac. They could make admission $20 and you would still be getting your money’s worth. Oh, and did I mention that there were several Klimts, Schieles and Matisses? No? Because there was way too much to put it all down in one article. And we even skipped a third of the place! Pepto-Bismol walls and suicidal puppy-people aside, a trip to the Palac deserves many return visits. The work inside is a testament to the Czech spirit of perseverance and beauty.
Throughout the museum there are quotes from Czech cultural icons, but there is one quote by Jaroslav Vrchlicky that I feel best summarizes the Czech experience: “To long for something is a sufficient reason to live.” For centuries Czechs have longed for the right to live how they wished. Sometimes they longed quietly, sometimes publicly, sometimes violently. Under Communist rule their culture was suppressed and any music, book, painting, or play not explicitly approved by the government was banned. Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident, and first president of the Czech Republic as it exists today, instructed fellow citizens on the importance of living parallel lives under the Communist regime. The idea was to put forth the appearance of being the perfect party-member in public, while dedicating one’s private life to the continuation of authentic Czech culture. It was a dangerous idea, and many artists and intellectuals’ lives were ruined. Thankfully, Czechs can now peacefully and openly enjoy their culture thanks to a democratically elected government and beautiful museums like the Veletrzni Palac. Of course this museum can’t teach you everything about the Czech people, but it makes a great starting point for understanding a the city and the amazing culture that thrives in it.