East Side Gallery Photo Diary

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I first visited this permanent exhibition of politically motivated murals on the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall, reaching 1.3 kilometers or just under a mile, back in 1991, when there were six more murals. The East Side Gallery was created in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Artists from more than 20 countries took part.

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I was fascinated by the bold, brightly colored visual statements displayed in the open-air gallery back then, although I had not truly understood them before my second visit in 2019. Having lived in the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia for more than 20 years, I have heard from friends what it was like to live under a totalitarian regime. I have friends who greatly suffered under the Communist regime. The messages of newly found freedom and the zest with which the fall of the Berlin Wall was depicted in those more than 100 murals took on another dimension for me in 2019. I could better appreciate the sheer euphoria and utter joy triggered by that historic event in 1989.

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When the wall was renovated in 2009, six artists refused to recreate their work, so I was able to see more in 1991. Also, the East Side Gallery had been longer back then. In 2006 45 meters of the wall was destroyed for commercial purposes. Then, in 2013, six more meters were taken down.

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Many of the murals made a great impression on me. Of course, the mural of Soviet and GDR leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing was poignantly repulsive. For me, it certainly epitomized the political climate under Communism.

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The Trabant (a GDR-made car that came to symbolize the Communist country) almost leaping through the wall had an amazing three-dimensional quality. The mural challenged me to appreciate better the euphoria of the East Germans as the Wall came down and their thirst for freedom. I noticed that the license plate of the car was the date that the Berlin Wall fell – November 9, 1989.

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I also enjoyed studying the faces in the crowd trying to scramble through the hole in the Wall on November 9, 1989. Not all expressions emitted joy. In those faces I read apprehension and fear as well. A new world had suddenly opened up, and there would be challenges to form a stable democracy, to make the country blossom economically and culturally. The transformation would not happen overnight. There would be trials and tribulations before the change was complete.

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One mural that stood out for me was dominated by the word Berlin in white letters on black. In the left-hand corner were some tall buildings with the words New York. Balloons hovered above the name of the German city. For me this painting celebrated Berlin’s identity. It showed pride in the city of Berlin and the sense of hope that immersed the city after the unification. As one city, without the East and West divisions, Berlin would flourish, it seemed to say. (I am sorry I do not have a picture of this mural.)

Another that caught my attention read Curriculum Vitae at the top and listed many years from 1961 to 1989. Below the numbers I saw the words, “Gratitude to the killed and surviving refugees.”  It made me think of the people that had escaped to West Berlin and then had helped others escape, risking their lives so that others could enjoy the freedom they had found.

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Other murals included joyful people dismantling a wall. White doves fluttered on a blue background in one visual statement celebrating peace. Another mural showed a hand making the peace sign through bars and chained to a white dove, the sun behind the bird that symbolized peace. Some consisted of grotesque or cartoon-like figures. Cartoonish gas masks, all connected to each other, dominated one picture. A few of the paintings seemed set in a sci-fi world. In one mural an American flag and red star appear in the foreground while the Brandenburg Gate is pictured in the background.

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I felt exposed at the gallery because I sensed that I was in the middle of nowhere, though I was near a train and subway station as well as a modern arena, a hotel and high-rise housing. I felt as though I was in the East Berlin I had visited in 1990 – a desolate, dreary place as opposed to what had been the lively western part. After seeing the murals, I fled back to Charlottenburg, a quarter in which I felt very comfortable because it was inhabited mostly by locals, there was an absence of tourist shops, and the streets were tranquil. At the East Side Gallery, I did not feel comfortable. Frazzled, I was even relieved when I had finished touring the sight.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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On the other side of the Wall, there was some interesting graffiti and more murals.

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The other side of the Wall with the graffiti

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Prague’s Baba Colony Diary

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View from Baba with St. Vitus’ Cathedral in the background

I like to take walks through the functionalist Baba colony in Prague’s sixth district, an area made up of 33 individual family homes constructed during the early 1930s in what was then the democratic First Republic. Pavel Janák, who worked for many years as the main architect of Prague Castle, was in charge of creating the housing development, and he had help from several other notable personalities in his field. The houses, whose designs were influenced by the Bauhaus style, were built for historians, writers, translators, publishers, sociologists, university professors, doctors and public officials who worked in ministries, to name a few.

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Many of the homes have been built into steep, sloping terrain on what was once farmland. It never ceases to fascinate me how the functionalist designs can complement the natural setting, using the location as a lively architectural element. The architects worked with the natural elements rather than against them. I also noted that there was a clear division between house and garden. In fact, in many cases, the gardens are not directly accessible from the buildings. I would have loved to have stood on some of those terraces and balconies; I am sure they offer stunning views, but I could only see the houses from street level.

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Typical for functionalism, the exteriors boasted no frills, and no experimental materials were used. Most houses were constructed of concrete and/or iron, for instance. The flooring often consisted of xylolite or linoleum. Many of the houses had central heating. While I could not go inside as they are all privately owned, I read that the interior walls in many of these abodes were white. Still, many of the interiors boasted unique features.

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Sputnik playground equipment, once in Stromovka Park

The Home of the Palička family is notable for the placement of its terrace on the ground floor instead of on the roof. In the garden of this house, there is a unique piece of equipment from a playground, a colorfully dotted, plastic contraption called Sputnik. It used to be in Stromovka Park during the 1960s. When the equipment was deemed unsafe for children, it was removed from the park. Now it serves as a relic of times past, displayed prominently in the tranquil garden.

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Cyril Bouda from Artmuseum.cz

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Illustration by Cyril Bouda for a children’s book

Installed in the House of Cyril Bouda, a prominent illustrator, painter and professor, was a studio with unique features. The living room was connected with the studio by a sliding wall. From the two-floor studio, there was an exterior staircase leading to the garden. Janák designed the House of Karel Dovolil, which features a steel staircase connecting the garden to the terrace. Janák’s creation for Václav Linda and Pavla Lindová featured a stepped terrace above the garage. The House of Jan Bělehrádek and Marie Bělehrádková boasts four sections on four levels. The entrance is underground, on the second level. Looking at the façade, it is evident that the architect used the terrain as a contrasting element. The walls of the house are smooth, in stark contrast to the rather rough, sloping ground.

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Josef Gočár from Brněnský architektonický manuál

Josef Gočár, who was responsible for four houses, designed the House of Julius Glucklich, which boasted an intriguing interior that looked like one continuous space. The hall and dining room were only separated by a sliding wall, a characteristic I also mentioned in another example. The House of Marie Mojžíšová and Stanislav Mojžíš, designed by Gočár, featured a Raumplan design, a design created by famous Czech-Austrian architect Adolf Loos. The Raumplan structure meant that each room was on a different level. The House of Václav Maule and Jarmila Mauleová, another masterfully built edifice by Gočár, features bedrooms situated on a raised ground floor while the living room is located on a higher level, perched on corbels. I would love to see the splendid views from that living room!

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Pavel Janák from Brněnský architektonický manuál

What to me is even more interesting than the architecture of the homes are the stories of the lives of their occupants. Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of functionalist architecture, but I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in some of these houses.

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The Munch couple had a house with both an exterior and interior staircase. Náďa Munková had served as personal secretary to Alice Masaryková, a daughter of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. I wonder what it was like to work with Alice and how often she saw or spoke with Alice’s father, one of the heroes of the Czech nation. I often wonder what it would be like to live during Czechoslovakia’s First Republic, which was short-lived, only lasting from 1918 to 1938. I would have loved to have met both Alice Masaryková and President Masaryk. Náďa and her husband František emigrated to the USA in 1939, the year the Nazis took over Bohemia and Moravia. František studied and worked at Harvard and Columbia for a time.

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Václav Řezáč

Vaclav Řezáč, whose house was built by František Kerhart during 1932 and 1933, made a name for himself as a writer who became successful in the 1930s by penning books for children. His best work, The Almanach of the Czech Book, was published during World War II, when the Nazis had control. He also began writing psychological novels during that era and received many accolades. His novel Black Light also became a film in which legendary Czech actor Josef Abrham played the lead role. I most admired Abrham for his role as the pickpocket pretending to work as a waiter in Run Waiter, Run!, the first screenplay that Zdeněk Svěrák wrote. Řezáč worked as an editor for the daily Lidové noviny from 1940 to 1945 and then took up screenwriting. A lot of his screenplays were made into films, some even under the Nazi Protectorate. For many years, he was the director of the state publishing house, Československý spisovatel.

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After the Communists took control in 1948, Řezáč took a strong social realist stance in his writings, promoting totalitarian ideology. I wondered if he had believed in Communism or had been pressured into becoming a mouthpiece for the regime. Maybe both? Every day I was grateful that I had not had to endure living under Communism. I had heard enough stories from my friends who grew up during totality. Hearing those tales, I felt as if Communism was something that was almost tangible, while growing up during the Cold War in the USA I had considered it to be something gray and murky, something that existed far away, in a place I would never go.

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Cyril Bouda, who had lived in the area, was such a significant artist in the Czech lands during the First Republic that he nabbed many awards. From 1946 to 1972, he was a professor at Charles University. One of his students was Jaroslav Weigel, who I have seen act many times on the stage of the Žižkov Jára Cimrman Theatre, one of  my favorite places in the world. Weigel also worked as a painter, graphic artist and screenwriter. I had always thought of him as an actor before reading about his life. I hadn’t realized he was a man of so many talents.

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Miloň Čepelka as Mrs. Žilová and Jaroslav Weigel as Mr. Žila in the Jára Cimrman Theatre’s first play, Akt

Bouda was known mostly for his graphic art and illustrations in books. He often illustrated fairy tales and legends as well as humorous and historical books. Bouda also designed some Czechoslovak stamps and a stained glass window in Saint Vitus’ Cathedral. He created a tapestry of the capital city for the Hotel Intercontinental in 1958. He was dubbed a National Artist in 1976, when the rigid normalization era of Communism was in full play. A year later, he signed the anti-Charter that opposed Charter 77, a document calling for human rights. I wondered if he had been pressured to sign the anti-Charter or if he really was against Charter 77, which was created by dissidents, including Václav Havel. I know many artists signed the anti-Charter under pressure from the regime. They must feel very guilty now for having signed it back then. I imagine it is a part of their past of which they are ashamed. But, during Communist times, things were not always black-and-white. Then again, life is full of grey areas, no matter what era you live in.

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Antonie Suková and Václav Suk had a house in Baba, too, designed by Hana Kučerová – Záveská, whose architectural signature appears on two homes. It stood out as the largest house in the area, and the design had been in part influenced by Corbusier. Suk was arrested by the Communists at the end of the 1950s, an especially dark decade for Czechoslovakia. He passed away while behind bars. Unfortunately, his story is not unique.

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The amazing athlete Jan Zadák had a house with folding wooden blinds, which were characteristic for functionalist creations in the early-to-mid 1930s. He competed in nine sports, but for fun played another 21 as well. I would love to have his stamina and to have been that fit. As a child, I had played baseball with boys and ice hockey with boys and girls. Some of my favorite afternoons involved taking part in a hockey practice followed by a baseball practice, being able to participate in two sports during one day. Zadák was especially known as a soccer goalie who became a referee when he retired. He played for Kolín and then for Sparta Praha, a famous team in the Czech lands. Even though he was so fit, he died at the early age of 66 in 1954.

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The occupants of the house with the stepped terrace garden, Václav Linda and Pavla Lindová, did not have easy lives, even though their home was architecturally impressive. Still, luck had been on their side in the end. Pavla was Jewish but was not ushered away to a concentration camp because her husband was not Jewish. The couple’s son, however, had to toil in a work camp during the Second World War. In 1968, during a more liberal time of Communism, the family emigrated to the United States.

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Stanislav Mojžíš served as director of the National Theatre when his house was built by Gočár during 1935 and 1936. The living room was very lavish with its fireplace and three big windows. He worked as director from 1932 to 1939, the year the Nazis marched into Prague. He also penned poems, historical plays, feuilletons and essays. He often used the name Stanislav Lom instead of his birth surname.

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Jan Bělehrádek’s work centered on medicine and biology. While living in Prague, he taught at Charles University. During the 1930s, as a resident of Baba, he aided anti-Fascist endeavors and even chaired the underground Czech organization, We Remain Loyal. I wondered if he had been paranoid every day that the Nazis would come to his door and take him away forever. When it seemed that the Nazis would harm his family, he scarpered off to a sanatorium on the pretense of having tuberculosis, though his illness was purely fabricated. His ruse was not successful in the end, though. In 1945, the Nazis deported him to the Czech work camp Terezín. He was lucky. He came back alive. During the Second democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia, he served as rector of Charles University. Bělehradek fled to Paris after the Communists took control in the late forties. However, his family was not able to escape with him. Finally, in 1951, he was reunited with his family abroad. He wound up working for UNESCO and settling in London.

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Karel Kytlica, the occupant of a house accented by terraces and a garden with a pergola, was a hero to many during World War II. Employed by the Ministry of Education and fluent in German, Karel was able to keep many of his employees safe and out of work camps. Karel was no fan of Communism, either. He refused to join the Party in 1948. He wound up training dogs after retiring as an invalid.

Václav Maule played significant roles as a translator, writer and publisher during the First Republic. He was incarcerated in Terezín but escaped at the end of the war. His freedom was short-lived, however. Three weeks later, he died of typhus.

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Janák had built a house for himself in Baba, too. I sometimes visited Janák’s grave in the cemetery of the Church of St. Matthew in Hanspaulka, a part of Prague’s sixth district next to Baba This prominent architect of Czech modernism style had put his John Hancock on the city of Prague. In the capital city, he not only reconstructed buildings at Prague Castle but also designed two bridges, villas in the Střešovice district, a Cubist kiosk in a park, the Adria Palace, the Škoda Palace and the Juliš Hotel. He carried out reconstruction on Černín Palace, the home of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Old Town Hall. He was also interested in art and founded the Artěl movement of handicrafts. He designed many objects and much furniture in this style. It was after 1925 that he changed from a decorative style and took up functionalism and urbanism. He also designed pavilions at the Jubilee Exhibition of 1908 and the pavilion for Czechoslovakia at an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro during 1922.

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View from Baba

While Janák’s works dotted Prague, Gočár made a name for himself in Hradec Králové and Pardubice. He was known for his creations in Cubist style before taking up functionalism and urbanism. He studied under the tutelage of well-known Czech architect Jan Kotěra. Gočár served as a professor of the Academy of Decorative Arts in Prague until 1939 and for a time also was the school’s rector. In Prague he is best known for designing the Rondocubist Legio Bank and the Cubist House of the Black Madonna, which had housed a museum of Cubism for many years. The café there was Cubist, too, a real architectural gem. Gočár also designed gravestones.

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View from Baba

Baba is not only architecture; it is people, the people who spent their everyday lives in the functionalist development, those who had experienced joy and hardship. I loved the stories those houses could tell. It was as if I could almost hear them whispering to me as I perused the exteriors. Walking through Baba is one of my favorite activities on a pleasant day. Now maybe you can understand why.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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St. Vitus’ Cathedral as seen from Baba

2018 Travel Diary

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A building in Rovereto, one of my favorite places I discovered this past year

For me 2018 will always be associated with Palladian villas and the Veneto region of Italy, the excitement of Berlin and remarkable Czech sights. I also visited some unforgettable art exhibitions in Prague and elsewhere in Europe.

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Basilicata Palladiana, Vicenza

During March I traveled with a friend via the arsviva agency to the Veneto to see Palladian sights and other architectural gems in Vicenza, Padua and Rovereto. The three cities were fascinating, each with its own unique character. I was especially drawn to Vicenza for the Teatro Olimpico, Palazzo Leoni Montanari and Palazzo Chiericati. Of course, I admired the elegant arches and arcades of the Basilicata Palladiana.

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The highlight of my tour of Palladian architecture was the Teatro Olimpico, one of only three Renaissance theatres in existence. Palladio’s plan was based on classical architecture. I most admired the illusive architecture in the set for Oedipus Rex, the oldest existing theatre scenery, which featured painting with a false perspective. It looked as if the seven roads of Thebes led from the stage into the horizon. Also, it was difficult to fathom that the clear sky was really painted. The illusion seemed so real.

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A Russian icon in the Gallerie d’Italia

I cherished my time in the galleries of Vicenza. The Gallerie d’Italia was decorated with rich statuary, stucco ornamentation and frescoes. It houses 18th century Venetian painting, a unique 17th century sculpture made of Carrara marble and vases from Attica and Magna Graecia. However, the highlight of the gallery for me was its superb collection of Russian icons. I had only seen more intriguing collections in St. Petersburg.

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The interior of the Civic Museum

The Civic Museum in the Chiericati Palace also caught my undivided attention. The palace itself was a work of art, designed by Palladio in 1550 with frescoes and stucco adornment decorating the interior. The art spanning from the 1200s to the 20th century was incredible.

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Villa Rotunda – no pictures allowed inside

I also saw some Palladian villas, including La Rotunda, which inspired Thomas Jefferson in his design of his home at Monticello. The exterior’s appearance is that of an antique villa. The geometric design connects the sloping portico roofs with the ribs of the dome. The geometric interior was planned for comfort and beautiful views. The rooms are organized around a central hall with a dome. The villa has three floors and a mezzanine.

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Basilica of San Antonio or Basilica del Santo – no photos allowed inside

In Padua I gazed in wonder at the Basilica of Saint Antonio, which is huge with eight cupolas. The interior has a Latin cross pattern with three naves separated by pilasters. The various chapels were outstanding. The Chapel of Saint Giacomo, hails from the 14th century with six columns of red marble included in the décor. The work, “The Crucifixion” is divided into three parts on the walls. Pictures on lunettes narrate the life of Saint Giacomo the Great.

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Basilica of San Antonio, Padua

The main altar of the basilica was created by Donatello. The pictorial narration of the altar includes four miracles of Saint Antonio, sculpture of the Crucifixion, Madonna with Child and the figure of Saint Antonio, for example. The Chapel of the Saint includes the tomb of Saint Antonio. On the walls are nine reliefs of marble figures recalling miracles performed by Saint Antonio. There was so much to see, a person would need a few days to do this place of worship justice.

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Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

I also was enthralled with the Scrovegni Chapel, which featured amazing 14th century frescoes by Giotto di Bondone. Thirty-eight panels of frescoes cover three walls on three levels. I was flabbergasted, staring at each fresco in a trance.

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From the Depero Futurist House of Art, by Fortunato Depero

I was very impressed with Rovereto, a picturesque town below the Dolomites. Its charming, narrow streets and squares cast a magic spell on me. I visited the Depero Futurist House of Art, the only Futurist museum in Italy, featuring the works of Fortunato Depero, a painter, sculptor, writer and graphic designer. I learned that Futurism rejected the past and celebrated modernity as well as technological advances. The museum included furniture, painting, tapestries, cloth material, drawings, collages, posters, toys and a film. I loved the vibrant colors of many of the works.

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Nowadays school children hang out or wait for tours at the Berlin Wall remnants

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Glazed dome of Reichstag

In May I spent five days in Berlin, a city I had not visited since 1991 except for a one-day visit to the Gemaldegalerie several years earlier. The East had undergone radical changes since then, to say the least. Most of the Wall is gone. The former Communist section of the city is lively with bars and restaurants and includes most of the main sights. Now a Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks greet visitors past the Brandenberg Gate. Back in 1991, the difference between East and West Berlin was almost tangible, the East being gray, depressing and drab.

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the Gemaldegalerie

Once again I inspected the art ranging from medieval days to Neoclassicism in the Gemaldegalerie. I was very moved by the 220 meters of original Berlin Wall at the memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Berlin’s Cathedral impressed me a great deal with the eight mosaics decorating its dome. I had a tour of the Reichstag’s glazed dome, a superb structure of modern architecture soaring 47 meters. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe greatly moved me with its 2,711 concrete blocks of equal size but different heights. The DDR Museum with its multimedia exhibits gave me an idea of what life was like for East Germans under Communism. The Old National Gallery bewitched me with its 19th century art collection, and the temporary exhibition Wanderlust featured 19th century landscapes with travelers on foot. I particularly liked the pictorial renditions of Naples and places in Sicily. I saw the Ishtar Gate and a building from Aleppo in the Pergamon Museum, for instance. The Museum of Decorative Arts was a treasure, too, with amazing exhibits in fashion, design and object art from the Middle Ages through Art Deco.

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Plague mask worn by doctors in the German Historical Museum

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Pictures of concentration camp prisoners

What impressed me the most was the German Historical Museum, where I spent a good part of two days. Encompassing 2,000 years of German history, the museum takes the visitor from the reign of Charlemagne to the departure of the Allies in 1994 by presenting historical facts, personalities and events and by portraying everyday life in the various eras. I especially liked the plague mask worn by doctors treating patients with this disease. Made of leather, it had a long beak and looked as if it belonged in a commedia dell’arte play. The section about World War II was especially gripping. The Germans were certainly facing that horrific part of their past head-on in this museum.

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Troja Chateau from Prague’s Botanical Gardens

When my parents visited, we toured the dazzling Rudolfinum with its beautiful Dvořák concert hall. President Tomáš G. Masaryk was elected in that building on three occasions, when Parliament had met there during the First Republic. I visited the lovely and vast Botanical Gardens in Troja, examining the southern part and the greenhouse. The views of Troja Chateau from the gardens were unbeatable.

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Prague’s National Museum restored

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Painting of Karlštejn Castle in National Museum

Shortly after it reopened after a seven-year renovation, I spent time in the National Museum of Prague. The exhibition about Czech and Slovak relations during the past 100 years and life under Communism was outstanding. The permanent display also was captivating, but the place was so crowded. A Neo-Renaissance gem, the National Museum features amazing sculpture, painting and architectural elements. I especially liked the pantheon, where paintings, statues and busts celebrate Czech culture and history. The four paintings of castles in Bohemia impressed this avid castlegoer. I also explored the Hanspaulka, Ořechovka and Baba sections of Prague with their distinctive villas.

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Gothic archway in Horšovský Týn Castle

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From Horšovský Týn Chateau

Out of Prague I made my way back to Osek Monastery below the Krušné Mountains, established in the 13th century. The Chapter Hall was one of the first Gothic buildings erected in the Czech lands while the interior of the church takes on a Baroque appearance. Hořovice Chateau is much younger, hailing from the late 17th century. The Late Baroque décor includes a fantastic ceiling fresco in the hall of the main staircase. The Large Dining Hall amazes with Second Rococo adornment. Horšovský Týn Castle and Chateau offers six tours; we had time for two. Established in the 13th century, it includes an 18th century pool table with its sides decorated in tortoiseshell and intarsia. A Rococo jewel case and Holland Rococo display case caught my attention, too. The Italian vedutas of Venice made me long for that Italian city. The 18th century Dancing Hall features four big wall mirrors and a 28-branch chandelier made of Czech glass. Ceiling frescoes also captured my interest. However, the original Gothic portal at the entrance to the chapel was the most outstanding architectural feature. The chapel was magical, too. Velké Březno, one of the youngest and smallest chateaus in the Czech lands, also amazed.

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Ceiling fresco at Hořovice Chateau

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Velké Březno Chateau interior

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Velké Březno Chateau exterior

I also spent time in museums this past year. In Vienna I saw the excellent Monet exhibition as well as the Pieter Bruegel the Elder exhibition. Both captivated me. In Prague the exhibition showcasing the various collages of Jiří Kolář was an art highlight. The exhibition about Czech and Czechoslovak history in the Riding School of Prague Castle was unforgettable. There were many more art-related highlights, but I do not have time to mention them all.

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Collage by Jiří Kolář

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Prague Castle Riding School exhibition

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From Czechoslovak Exhibition at National Museum, cash register from beginning of 20th century

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

 

 

 

Jiří Kolář Exhibition Diary

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I recently saw an exhibition of artist Jiří Kolář’s breathtaking collages and other works at the Kinský Palace in downtown Prague and was very moved by Kolář’s emphasis on freedom, personal expression and democracy. Many of his works were created when Czechoslovakia was oppressed during the totalitarian regime. His 66 political collages from 1968, after the Russians sent in the Warsaw Pact tanks to crush the liberal reforms of what was called “Prague Spring,” poignantly show how the Soviets had strangled Czechoslovakia in what would lead to an era of normalization, which encompassed rigid totalitarian reforms. Kolář confronts viewers and challenges their perceptions by often combining images that do not necessarily seem to correlate. He distorts and destroys images, expressing the cruelty of the Communist era and the longing for democratic ideals.

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Born in 1914 in the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire that enforced Germanization, Kolář witnessed the establishment of a democratic Czechoslovakia at the age of four. While he took up cabinet making initially, he would go on to become one of the most significant poets, writers, painters and translators. Even an injury that resulted in him losing a finger did not stop him from making a difference on Czechoslovakia’s literary and art scene. For a while, he took on odd jobs, working as a construction worker, butcher, waiter, security guard and bartender, for example.

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The country was introduced to his collages as early as 1937. During 1942, he joined the Group 42 existentialist artists that greatly influenced Czechoslovak culture. It was not until 1943 that he started to devote all his time to writing and, soon after, to editing as well. His brief stint in the Communist Party, during 1945, lasted less than a year.

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Certainly, the Communist regime was far from kind to him. When the Communists took control of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Kolář became a banned author. While he was not allowed to publish, he scribed poetic diaries and authored manuscripts such as Prometheus’ Liver and Aesop from Vršovice. In the early 1950s, he was even imprisoned for nine months after the authorities found at his home a samizdat work written by a fellow dissident.

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During the 1960s, he took up experimental poetry, writing literary collages, and was one of the most influential artists to frequent the Café Slavia in Prague, where he met a young Václav Havel and others who voiced opposition to the Communist regime. His work was seen abroad during the 1960s, too. Some of his collages from this time included items that seemed misplaced, such as string, keys and shavers. He also started placing apples in his collages and designing apples of various sizes in various colors. The apples might symbolize temptation and the fact that all fruit looks similar, a powerful reminder of mass society in the modern world.

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Kolář experimented with various techniques of collage, even using textile and paper in his works. It was also during that decade that he mixed poetry with painting, finding a powerful and provocative voice by using both forms of expression that combined visual and literary art in a masterful way. He made collages of pictures he cut out of magazines and utilized excerpts of texts that epitomized the fragmentation of his country and the world. By doing so, he created new thought-provoking images.

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Even after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia during 1968, he continued to support freedom and democracy despite the rigid era of normalization that followed. He even signed Charter 77, a document drafted by dissidents, calling for human rights in Czechoslovakia. The Communist regime made sure there were severe repercussions for anyone brave enough to put their John Hancock on the proclamation.

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The Communist authorities forced him to emigrate, not allowing him back in his homeland after a stint in West Berlin. From 1980, he resided in Paris, though his Czech wife was not permitted to visit him there until five years later. He obtained French citizenship in 1984.

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After the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist regime, he visited Prague often. When he became severely ill in 1998, he moved back to Prague and even had to relearn how to walk. At the age of 88, in 2002, he succumbed to the spinal injury that had kept him hospitalized for the last years of his life.

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Kolář’s creations have entranced me for decades. I was introduced to his work in the early 1990s. I admire his direct confrontation with the viewer. He combines images that I would have never thought could be grouped together, challenging my view of the world. His messages often deal with harsh reality, but he also yearns for personal and national freedom.

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

Prague’s Botanical Gardens in Troja Diary

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I had visited Prague’s Botanical Gardens in the Troja district about 15 years earlier, but, for some reason, every time I thought of going back, the weather was bad or I did not have time. I love botanical gardens in foreign cities I have visited, such as Madrid. Why hadn’t I spent more time in the botanical gardens in the city where I lived? I chided myself one day in 2018.

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I finally got there again in the summer. I went with a friend in the morning, before the humidity and heat became too much to bear. The botanical gardens in Troja is vast. It measures more than 20 hectares with a greenhouse that had not been there when I last visited and an outdoor area divided into the southern and much larger northern parts.

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First, we explored the greenhouse that was erected in 2004. It is 130 meters long and 17 meters wide. Inside was a tropical forest. I loved the small bridge surrounded by foliage. The structure looked like it had jumped straight out of a Monet painting. I loved watching the fish in the glass tunnel that divided the freshwater pond into two sections. The fire eels and iridescent sharks were amazing. I would not like to stick my hand in that tank. I’m sure it would have been bit off right away. We also saw meter-long arowanas, angelfish and archerfish. We wanted to see some butterflies, but we only managed to set our eyes on two, but they were two beautiful butterflies!

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In the greenhouse, there is a lowland rainforest section with species from Australia, Africa and Vietnam, for instance. The biggest section features lowland rainforests of tropical areas in America, Asia, Australasia and Africa. Here we saw deciduous trees, lianas, coniferous trees and palms. We saw some well-known plants, such as begonias, but there were many rare species as well. One section of the greenhouse features vegetation from subtropical and tropical regions, which often experience dry seasons. We saw plants from Australia, Central America, Madagascar and places in Africa. The smallest section is dedicated to tropical regions found in the high mountainous regions. Only a few greenhouses in Europe have a cooled section that could support such species in that kind of climate. The air in this part is humidified by mist.

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Intriguing species that we saw include the Dutchman’s pipe, which is one of the most endangered species in the world. Its brown flowers look like mushrooms. It is located in the wild only in seven places in Central America. The giant fern is one of the oldest plants in the world. Its leaves can grow up to seven meters long. The trunk can be as much as three meters tall and one meter in diameter. The climbing pandanus, which can grow to 20 meters in height, is found in the wild in the Luzon Island of the Philippines. We also saw cocoa trees, which were once sacred to the Aztecs, who considered it to have seeds that are the food of the Feathered Serpent. I loved the turquoise color of the jade vine, which is found in the wild only on three islands in the Philippines. The torch ginger flowers, red with yellow edges, were beautiful. It is from Southeast Asia, and paper can be produced from its stems. We also saw the marsh pitcher plant, native to the mountains of Venezuela.

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Then we visited the southern part of the gardens. I loved the Ornamental Garden best with its large, colorful flowerbed. The Japanese Gardens dotted with azaleas is another delight. A wine press, a wine shop and Mediterranean vegetation are also located in the southern section. In addition to the Ornamental Garden, my favorite feature was the view of St. Claire’s Vineyard and Troja Chateau, a place dear to my mother and me. The Baroque chateau had been built from 1679 to 1685, its desin inspired by Roman villas. The chateau’s French garden boasted superb statuary. From the Botanical Garden the views of the city and of the chateau were breathtaking.

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Baroque Troja Chateau

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St. Claire’s Vineyard, which we saw from the top of a hill, has a long history that goes back to the 13th century. You can buy wine made from its grapes in the wine shop, but I do not drink alcohol, so I have not tried it. We saw the Baroque chapel of St. Claire, too.

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Alas, it became too hot and humid to continue after a few hours, so I did not get to the northern section during this visit, though I did go there when I first came to the gardens. I have to go back to see the variety of gems that it offers – a Mediterranean garden, forest biotopes from Asia and North America, a North American prairie, a cacti section, wetlands, a lake and a semi-desert section. I saw a picture of the peony meadow, and it was so enchanting. I will definitely go back there when the weather is not scorching hot. The northern part is so big that I do not know if I could see everything in one visit.

I was very glad that I had begun to get acquainted with Prague’s botanical gardens again, and I am sure I will be back to discover more of its treasures.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin Diary

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Located next to the Gemaldegalerie of painting masterpieces, the Museum of Decorative Arts(Kunstgewerbemuseum) in the Kulturforum complex holds a very underrated and impressive collection of top-notch exhibits in fashion, design and object art from the Middle Ages through the Art Deco period. I was particularly impressed with the monumental Renaissance tapestries.

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To be sure, the medieval and Renaissance art was astounding, especially the Guelph Treasure from the 12th century. Objects from the Baroque era also stood out, including furnishings and a cabinet of curiosities from that era. Rococo porcelain, such as Meissen, is well-represented, too. The Art Nouveau and Art Deco collection spans from 1900 to 1920. I was drawn to the Art Deco vases and the furniture in both styles.

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On the lower level, there is an intriguing exhibition of chairs from the 19th century to the present. It was fascinating to see how chair design had developed through the ages. One chair was made of what looked like wire; I could not imagine how painful it would be to sit on it. Another resembled an ice cream cone in a playful yellow with white color combination.

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Normally, I am not interested in fashion at all, but this collection caught my undivided attention. I loved the stunning evening dresses plus the older fashions from 1700 to 1850. I could never wear a corset! This museum outdid my expectations, and I came away with a fonder appreciation of fashion, design and art in general.

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Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Berlin Wall Memorial Diary

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Part of the original Wall at Bernauer Strasse

Seeing the 220 meters of the original Berlin Wall at the memorial on Bernauer Strasse during 2018 triggered memories of my first visit to that city, in 1991, when long stretches of the Wall had yet to be taken down. Back then, on a jaunt to Europe after college graduation, I had been amazed at everything I saw in the city. Even though I had done much research about Berlin and the history of the Wall as a student, I saw the Wall with emotional detachment. During 1991, I could not truly realize what the Wall represented. I knew it divided East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989, and I remembered watching the joyous moments of the Berliners climbing the Wall in October of 1989 as a new era was ushered in and no one would look at the Berlin, Germany, Europe or the world the same way again. I knew there had been escape attempts, some thwarted, others successful, some resulting in death, others resulting in new beginnings in the West. But I hadn’t felt the history the way I did this time, at the Bernauer Strasse memorial during 2018.

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Poles mark where the Wall once stood at Bernauer Strasse

Here’s a little background information. The Wall, built in August of 1961, divided East and West Berlin until October of 1989. Some 156.4 kilometers of Wall bordered West Berlin and consisted of concrete walls lined with pipes at the top. There were 186 observation towers and 20 bunkers plus fences built 100 meters from the Wall. The area between the metal mesh fence and concrete wall was a clearing called the death strip, and border guards had a clear view of anyone trying to cross it. The Wall area also included signal fencing, trenches to deter vehicles from trying to cross, barbed wire and beds of nails under balconies of apartments over the death strip.

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Sculpture at the Chapel of Reconciliation

One reason I had a different perspective during 2018 was because I had spent more than 20 years living in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. I had scores of friends who told me harrowing stories of life under Communism – about the physical hardships and especially about the mental hardships of having one’s life inundated with the Communist ideology day in and day out. Looking at that small section of the Berlin Wall and the posts that marked where it had continued up and down Bernauer Strasse, I felt almost as if I knew the pain and anguish of the East Berliners, even though I had grown up in middle class America as a spoiled only child. This time, I could feel the history, and it seeped through my body, almost making me nauseous from my thoughts of life in East Berlin, behind that Wall, where now a group of teenagers gathered as they studied their mobile phones, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings, as if the Wall were nothing more than a wall.

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Another reason the memorial affected me so strongly was the poignancy of the exhibition about the Wall in the Documentation Center. It featured stories of individuals who had tried to escape, worked as escape helpers or served as informers for the secret police. I looked into each face, read each name and felt as if I had met each person.

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Postcard of the Berlin Wall around the Brandenburg Gate

There was Siegfried Uhse, a hairdresser who had resided in the West area of the city since 1960. He became an informant a year later. By pretending to look for an escape route for his girlfriend and her family, he was able to contact escape helpers who believed his lies. Because of Siegfried, five escape tunnels were betrayed from 1961 to 1963. Because of Siegfried, 89 refugees and escape helpers were arrested. Despite all the bad things that had happened in the world during my lifetime, it still amazed me that someone could do something so evil.

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Photo of a line for food in the DDR from exhibition at Documentation Center

One of those arrested was Harry Seidel, a racing cyclist who could not participate in the 1960 Olympics because he lived in East Germany. He made it to West Berlin and even got his wife and baby out as well. Then he wanted to help others gain the same feeling of freedom he was able to experience. He dug escape tunnels in 1962. Once he was almost ambushed; it was a close call, but he made it. However, in November of 1962 he was not so lucky. It was a trap. The secret police were waiting for him at an escape tunnel because of Siegfried’s intel. He was sentenced to life in prison. Before his arrest, he had helped 100 people flee to the West. That, I mused, was what real heroes were made of.

I also learned about Hartmut Richter, a railroad worker who tried to escape in 1965. His hopes were dashed, though, and he was convicted with a suspended sentence. In 1966, he did succeed in escaping. From 1971 to 1975, he was an escape helper. Then, in 1975, he was caught and received a 15-year prison sentence. He only served five years in jail, though, as West Germany paid ransom for his release during 1980.

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A watchtower at the Wall

I also learned about an escape attempt at the Invalidenstrasse border crossing – I had walked down that bustling street on the way to Bernauer Strasse. Eight young Berliners tried to drive a bus through the border. Fate was not kind to them. They were gravely injured by the 138 shots fired by border guards and arrested. They all spent many years in prison.

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Postcard showing the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989 near Brandenburg Gate

I read about the VW Beetle that drove at top speed through the barbed wire fence erected on the first day the wall was built, August 13, 1961. It stopped in West Berlin, and the driver was free to open a new, exciting chapter in his life.

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The Chapel of Reconciliation

Residents of Bernauer Strasse had been very innovative in their escape attempts. Some had jumped into rescue nets of fire engines from West Berlin after making calls to the fire department, others had jumped from their roofs to the West, and still others had slid down ropes from their apartments on the border.

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Postcard showing the fall of the Berlin Wall, November 10, 1989

I saw remnants of the inner wall with green area behind it, a place where youngsters leisurely kicked a soccer ball. I imagined a guard in the watchtower being ready to fire on anyone trying to make a dash for it through No Man’s Land, which afforded the border guards a clear line of fire. I could imagine patrol cars driving by and anti-vehicle trenches preventing cars from crossing. I could almost hear the fierce barking of the dogs, their teeth barred, as they spotted a refugee in the border area.

 

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Interior of the Chapel of Reconciliation

I remembered watching American President Ronald Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin, on June 12, 1987 and declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I had just graduated from prep school and took the concepts of freedom and democracy for granted. I hadn’t been interested in my Czech and Slovak roots back then. I had never thought about life behind the Iron Curtain. That was some mysterious place I was sure I would never go.

I did not stay as long as I had hoped at the memorial because I began to feel sick as I tried to put myself in the shoes of those East Berliners who had dreamed of freedom. I wound up retreating to a museum in the city center. I hope to go back to the Berlin Wall Memorial and spend more time there on a future visit. There is a lot of history to soak in, and one visit does not do the place justice.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Section of Berlin Wall in Museum of German History