Theatre Review Diary: The Act

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Ben Bradshaw as Mrs. Žila dances in The Act. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

I have decided to add theatre reviews to my blog. Most, if not all, of the plays reviewed will be understandable to an English-speaking audience or will somehow enhance an English speaker’s knowledge of the Czech Republic’s culture and history.

Humor is in full force in the Cimrman English Theatre’s production of The Act, a witty and hilarious comedy brought to life in English translation by British, American and Czech thespians. I thought the group performed well when I saw the second performance they ever staged, The Stand-In, three years ago, but now the professional ensemble performs even the minutest gesture seemingly with ease.

The play is expertly written in Czech by the co-founders of the Jára Cimrman Theatre, Zdeněk Svěrák and Jiří Šebánek as well as Ladislav Smoljak. The Act was the first play in the Czech group’s repertoire, premiering in 1967. It introduced Czechs to the unlucky fictional master of all trades, Jára Cimrman, who was chosen as the Greatest Czech in a survey during 2005. Cimrman was not only a prolific writer of plays and works of other genres but also an inventor, self-taught gynecologist, dentist, world traveler, composer, criminologist and philosopher, among other professions. Many of the plays take place during the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s reign over the Czech lands in the 19th and early 20th centuries, though The Act is set in the 1960s.

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The dancing and singing are two excellent reasons to see The Act. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

Cimrman was definitely unlucky: Alexander Graham Bell made it to the patent office just before he did, so Cimrman did not get credit for inventing the telephone. Famous composters stole pieces of Cimrman’s seven-hour operetta Proso and incorporated them into their own works. Cimrman’s writings were discovered during 1966, when a dynamite explosion of a chest in the village of Liptákov scattered his papers, and his creative endeavors were appreciated for the first time.

All the Cimrman plays are divided into two parts. In the first act, the actors play themselves, posing as experts of Jára Cimrman’s life, love of animals, philosophy and inventions, for instance. The actors perform a hilarious scene from Cimrman’s horror play, The Electric Stool, an invention that has a heating spiral and utilizes 360 volts. They perform the skit in witty verse, which is excellently translated into English. An inventor tries to trick his tailor into sitting on the stool so he can find out if it works. His plan backfires, though, and the inventor winds up sitting on the stool and dying.

In the first act spectators also learn of Cimrman’s failed attempt to teach his pet hen Zora to tie his shoes and about Zora’s tragic death. Cimrman the philosopher is the theme of one lecture. His philosophy consists of the idea that the external world exists, but he does not. The actors also explain why spectators will see a big hole shaped like a person in the set’s back wall during the second act. That’s how Cimrman escaped the one performance of this play in his lifetime as it was greeted with a very negative response.

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Ben Bradshaw’s character shines brilliantly in the play. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

In the first act, actors are seated in simple chairs on the stage while one of them speaks at a podium. While the man at the podium tackles a topic concerning Jára Cimrman, the actors in the background also are often interacting with each other silently using gestures and facial expressions as they react to what is being said. Thus, this sort of action in the background complements the action in the foreground, making the lecture part of the play more dynamic and lively. Spectators see how well the actors interact with each other. This is true of the plays in Czech as well.

The second part is the play itself. The plot of The Act revolves around three men who do not think they know each other and seemingly have nothing in common visiting the home of Mr. and Mrs. Žila, who have invited them in order to explain why Mr. Žila (Peter Hosking) never was able to finish his painting of a nude. Their lives are changed forever as they learn secrets about their pasts. Mrs. Žilová (Ben Bradshaw) steals the show with his gestures, facial expressions, dancing and ability to belt back beer. In fact, all the dances are well-choreographed. It is evident that the actors have painstakingly rehearsed the dances. Not only the dancing but also the singing is expertly performed.

Bedřich (Adam Stewart) is very convincing as a man who has done three stints in jail, someone who at first only stays to scarf down the chicken that Mrs. Žilová has prepared for her guests. His thick British accent seems to suit his character.

The other actors are just as convincing – there’s Pepa, the sexologist (Brian Caspe) whom Mrs. Žilová mistakes for a barber because he dons a white doctor’s coat; Mr. Žila, who hit his wife on the forehead with a mallet so she would lose her memory; and Láďa (Curt Matthew), who defecates in his pants whenever he gets very emotional. It is clear that director Michael Pitthan has studied the Czech version down to the minutest detail.

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Mr. Žila and Mrs. Žila with the nude painting. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

During the past several years, the ensemble has gelled into a group that works masterfully together. Teamwork is the key to the success of this production, as the actors seem very comfortable performing with each other. The translation, especially the dialogue in verse and the lyrics of the songs, is top-notch, bringing out the humor of the Czech original.

The Cimrman English Theatre also performs in English three other plays from the Czech Jára Cimrman Theatre’s repertoire – The Stand-in (Záskok), Conquest of the North Pole (Dobytí severního Pólu) and Pub in the Glade (Hospoda na mýtince). My review of the latter play is on www.czechoutyourancestors.com. The English-speaking ensemble has received accolades for their performances in America as well.

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Žižkovské Divadlo Járy Cimrmana

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Prague 3 – Žižkov

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Bedřich, played by Adam Stewart, has everyone’s attention. Photo from @CimrmanTheatre.

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The dancing is brilliant. Photo from prague.tv.

 

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

Jaroslav Weigel Diary

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Zdeněk Svěrák and Jaroslav Weigel. Photo from Divadelní noviny.

I’ve decided to focus not only on places but also on people in my blog. Unfortunately, this post takes the form of an obituary as Jaroslav Weigel passed away September 5, 2019 in a Prague hospital at the age of 88. I saw Weigel act in many of the 15 plays performed at the theatre I love to frequent, The Jára Cimrman Theatre. This theatre is unique because it only showcases plays about the fictional character Jára Cimrman, who lived during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All 15 plays take place at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th century. The comedies employ witty and often history-related jokes as well as language-oriented puns.

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Jaroslav Weigel from the play Africa. Photo from style.hnonline.sk

They all center on the genius Jára Cimrman, whose talent remained undiscovered until his posthumous papers were unearthed in a cottage in the Jizera Mountains of north Bohemia during 1966, according to the playwriting duo of Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak, two of the creators of the Cimrman legend. Cimrman was a man of many trades: an inventor, a playwright, a collector of fairy tales, a traveling dentist, a composer of operas, a gynecologist, a criminologist and a world traveler, to name just a few of his professions. The tales of Jára Cimrman have become national folklore that to no small extent defines the country’s culture.

Over the years, this theatre has helped me deal with stress and hardships, making me laugh when I dearly needed a reason to smile. Seeing the performances allows me to achieve a mental balance in my life, so that I can think more clearly and solve problems more easily.

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Miloň Čepelka and Jaroslav Weigel in The Act. Photo from zpravy.aktualne.cz.

Back to Jaroslav Weigel. Ever since I started attending performances some years ago, I have been fascinated by Weigel’s accomplishments, by his stellar resume of talents and achievements. While I thought of him as an actor, he also made a name for himself as a painter, graphic artist, scene designer and costume designer. He was a member of the theatre ensemble since 1970. His association with the theatre started in the 1960s, when he worked as an editor with the influential magazine Mladý Svět (Young World). There, he came across a story by a young Zdeněk Svěrák, who co-founded the theatre. That marked the beginning of cooperation that would span five decades.

Weigel studied to be an art and history teacher at Charles University, and one of his mentors was the acclaimed Cyril Bouda, a much-acclaimed illustrator and painter. The talented student sometimes visited Bouda at his unique family house in the functionalist Baba quarter, a section of Prague six through which I often take walks. I sometimes try to imagine a young Weigel walking with a determined gait through the streets of Baba on the way to see his professor.

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Jaroslav Weigel designed the Secession-like covers of the DVDs of the plays.

 

Weigel designed the theatre’s distinctive Secession style publications such as the DVD cover of České Nebe or Czech Heaven. Photo from mksvyskov.cz.

Weigel’s talent as a graphic artist has greatly influenced the theatre’s artistic image. He designed all the printed matter for the theatre, including posters and programs, which have a charming and elegant Art Nouveau quality and are artistic works themselves.

However, his contributions did not stop there. He also designed the costumes and the stage sets, which bring the stories to life, helping to shape a fictional world in which the spectators can become engrossed.

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Jaroslav Weigel and Zdeněk Svěrák in Lijavec. Photo from topky.sk.

Weigel also designed postage stamps dedicated to Jára Cimrman, one of which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the theatre that took place several years ago. It shows Cimrman’s practically featureless bust.

The artistic guru also acted on television and in films written by Zdeněk Svěrák, including Svěrák’s first screenplay, Run, Waiter, Run! He last appeared on the big screen during 2007, when he had a role in the much-acclaimed Empties, directed by Jan Svěrák and written by Zdeněk Svěrák.

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The long-time actor’s achievements do not stop there. He also designed covers for records and illustrated books and magazines as well as calendars. He even co-designed a comic strip with Kája Saudek.

What I will remember Weigel for most is his acting. Over the decades, he had performed in all 15 plays, taking on roles as the baron leading an expedition to Africa in a hot air balloon and as the 15th century religious martyr Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415. In Messenger from Liptákov, Weigel played major roles in two short plays. In the Messenger of Light, he played the father of a son who decides to turn his parents’ home into a factory to make flashlights, with plans to have his parents walk 30 kilometers to a retirement home in the mountains. Weigel’s character, who often acts confused, winds up outsmarting his son, hitting him over the head with a flashlight. Then the mother and father make sure their son will not be able to ruin their lives.

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Jaroslav Weigel in Messenger from Liptákov

In the other play of Messenger from Liptákov, Weigel played Hlavsa, who sees into the future by peering into his huge wood stove. A coal baron named Ptáček asks him to find out which suitor is right for his daughter, and Hlavsa tells the wealthy man that he sees the name Petr Bezruč on the gate of one of Ptáček’s mines. The baron, played by the very talented Miloň Čepelka, assumes he sells his mine to the poet Bezruč, not realizing that the mine will be taken away from him during the totalitarian era and that Bezruč’s writings will become a mouthpiece for the Communist regime.

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Jaroslav Weigel as Jan Hus and Petr Brukner as Saint Wenceslas in Czech Heaven. Photo from Třebíčský deník.

The character of Smrtka, personifying death, wears a black suit with black hat and holds a scythe. He waits for Weigel’s character to finish his prophesies in order to lead him to Heaven because it is the day that Hlavsa is scheduled to die. It turns out that Smrtka misses his chance to take Hlavsa to Heaven as the designated time passes, and he has to hurry to his next customer. Smrtka tells Weigel’s character that he has two more years before another younger Smrtka comes along to escort him to Heaven.

I guess that September 5 was the appointed time for Jaroslav Weigel to go on his last journey, ending an illustrious career that helped form the image of the Jára Cimrman Theatre and that helped the ensemble survive more than 50 years.

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

 

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Jaroslav Weigel designed the cover of the collected plays

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A stamp celebrating the 50th anniversary of the theatre ensemble, designed by Jaroslav Weigel.

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The book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jára Cimrman Theatre. Cover designed by Jaroslav Weigel.

 

 

 

Isola dei Pescatori Diary

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After visiting the palace and botanical gardens at Isola Madre, we set off for Isola dei Pescatori or the Fishermen’s Island in the Borromean Islands off Lake Maggiore. The only island inhabited year-round, as of 2018, Isola dei Pescatori had 25 permanent residents. The island has been inhabited for about 700 years.

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First, something about the name Borromeo. Indeed, the Borromeo dynasty played a major role in the history of the islands. While the Borromeos own the other two islands we visited, they never had possession of Isola dei Pescatori. They first gained control of the other two islands back in the 1500s. The wealthy family worked as merchants during the 1300s until they took up banking in Milan sometime after 1370. The most renowned Borromeos were cardinals and archbishops. Carlo was even canonized as a saint.

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At first glance, it was evident that this was not a place where I would find a luxurious palace or elaborate gardens. This was a fishing village, gritty and down-to-earth, with cobbled streets, cafes, stands and small boats near the lakefront. The houses were equipped with long balconies for putting dried fish.

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The island was just as picturesque as Isola Madre, even without a palace or lush gardens. Narrow alleyways led to gorgeous views of the sea and rocks on which one could sit down and contemplate life. It reminded me a bit of the views of the sea at Cefalu, when I sat down on the rocks and thought about nothing and everything at the same time. The island was picturesque, romantic even, with its tangle of alleyways and meandering, narrow streets. Many of the buildings housed shops with local goods, such as amaretto cookies in various flavors and many types of pasta. There were restaurants where you could have a proper meal as well as tacky souvenir shops where you could buy a variety of t-shirts and postcards.

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The most beautiful building I saw on the island was the modest yet elegant Church of St. Victor, which was built as a chapel in the 11th century. Now the only part of the Romanesque structure that still stands is the apse. While the church was expanded in the Gothic and Renaissance eras, it was also transformed into Baroque style during that particular period. It was first dedicated to Saint Victor when it took on the status of a parish church in 1627. Remnants of 16th century frescoes can be seen even today. The high altar included the busts of four bishops, a simple, modest affair that suits the church’s intimate atmosphere. The paintings in the church were also intriguing. I found the sense of intimacy that could be felt during prayer to be the most favorable characteristic of this church. It didn’t feel cold from an emotional standpoint, even for someone who was not especially religious. Wanderers could feel a palpable connection to the church, regardless of their relationship to religion.

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I ate at a café on the lakefront, gazing at another island and the calm waters as I finished lunch with a pistachio gelato. And, yes, I did go into one of those tacky tourist shops and buy some postcards for relatives in the USA.

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

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Isola Madre Diary

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View from Isola Madre

On a tour of the Italian Lakes, we spent the last day at Lake Maggiore, visiting three Borromean islands – Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Bella.

First, something about the name Borromeo. Indeed, the Borromeo dynasty played a major role in the history of the islands. In fact, the Borromeo clan still owns the islands, except for Isola dei Pescatori, today. They first gained control of the islands back in the 1500s. The wealthy family worked as merchants during the 1300s until they took up banking in Milan sometime after 1370. The most renowned Borromeos were cardinals and archbishops. Carlo was even canonized as a saint.

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View from Isola Madre

First, we took a small covered boat from Stresa to Isola Madre. This island was the largest of the three and featured a botanical park with exotic plants and flowers as well as a palace that boasted an intriguing collection of 16th to 19th century furnishings and paintings as well as marionettes and puppet theatre sets. The palace especially showed off 17th century Lombard paintings.

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I did justice to the five-terraced garden before entering the villa. The rare birds were a real treat. White peacocks proudly strutted on the grounds. The flowers were striking. I spotted rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias, for instance. There was an entire section of camellias, a kind of flower that has been nurtured on the island since 1830. I loved the pond adorned with water lilies. It reminded me of the Monet paintings I had seen at The Orangerie in Paris so many years ago, on that warm February morning, shortly after it first opened following a lengthy period of reconstruction.

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I also saw a banana tree that measured more than three meters in height. Palm trees appeared in the lush park. On the Gobbi Lawn stood a conifer tree that was still rather young, only about 200 years old. These types of tree can have a lifespan of 4,000 years.

Perhaps my favorite sight in the park was the Cashmir cypress tree because it had a fascinating past. The cypress tree was brought here from the Himalayas, presented to the Borromeos by an acquaintance in 1862. Initially a packet of seeds, the tree grew and grew and grew, finally weighing a total of 70 tons and becoming the largest of its kind in Europe.

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Fate would put an end to the tree’s claim to fame. During the tornado of 2006, the cypress fell. Still, it was not destroyed. The tree was pulled up again, thanks to cables and winches. It is truly an amazing sight that astounded me.

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Later, I would read in depth about the history of the island, which was the first of the three to be populated. (No one lives there anymore.) A document from 846 provides written evidence of Isola Madre’s existence. It is not clear why the name Madre was chosen. Perhaps it was because the island was the first one that people called home. It is also possible that the name refers to Count Renato Borromeo’s mother. The appearance of the island has changed little since the end of the 18th century.

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Then I entered the palace with a double arcade that made it look light and airy. The furnishings of the palace had been transported there from homes owned by the Borromeo family. I noticed the mannequins dressed in intriguing uniforms from several centuries ago, attire relating to their professions.

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The Fireplace’s Room included Milanese paintings from the 1600s and octagons decorated with portraits of kings, but what I really liked were the two Lombard cabinets, intricate and detailed craftsmanship on display. The front panels looked like they were made from semiprecious stones, but it was actually a visual effect of the scagliola technique, which involves using a substance made with colored plaster. They hailed from the late 17th century.

Scagliola was also present in the Room of the Four Seasons in the form of an octagonal table dating from the 17th century. Its intricate decoration awed me. The Collector’s Room included impressionist landscape paintings that caught my eye. My favorite style was Impressionism, my favorite genre of painting landscape. I noticed some Buddha figures, too among the many, various artifacts.

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The Green Bedroom did not disappoint with its scagliola-adorned tabletop, hailing from the 17th century. The Yellow Bedroom was named after its four-poster bed with yellow damask lining. There was also a cradle shaped like a boat and a strange sculptural grouping on a table made from silver-plated terracotta. A baby, fast asleep, had placed one hand on an hourglass, symbolizing the countdown to death. The other hand was touching a skull. The 17th century object seemed so macabre, but the macabre had been in fashion during that era, I mused. It reminded me of the grotesque Cycle of Death frescoes at Kuks, a former hospital, which showed off many skeletons. The Baroque era was fascinated by death.

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Then we came to my favorite rooms, the three displaying puppet theatre settings, puppets, machinery and plays. In the first room, the curtains and wings did a good job of hiding the machinery from the audience. The stage seems much more spacious than it really is. The wings and backdrop were created by Alessandro Sanquirico, a scenic designer who created stage set for more than 300 productions for La Scala Opera House in Milan. His sets were made in the Romantic style. He even designed the decorations for the crowning of Ferdinando I of Austria as king of Lombardy and the Veneto and was responsible for some ceiling adornment in the cathedral of Milan.

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The next room focused on marionettes and machinery. One puppet had a metal head, allowing it to breathe fire through its mouth like a grotesque attraction of a circus performer or a mythical dragon. Some creative machinery included pipes that could simulate fog and lamps that were used for fire, lightning and thunder. It fascinated me how such objects could simulate sounds used in plays. It was ingenious to use these contraptions to make the sounds seem real.

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The stage setting in the third room was grotesque, to say the least. Dragons, devils and skeletons all made appearances in this ghoulish design. There also was an organ with three pipes that served the purpose of creating terrifying noises. I could easily imagine the audience being frightened by a play with this hellish stage set. I wondered about the plot of the play for which it had been used. Maybe it was for something Dante-ish in which the marionettes wound up in Hell.

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In the hallway, I saw more stage sets, including one of a Chinese temple and another showing a Renaissance building.

Because I had studied theatre in college and often went to the theatre in Prague, I was very interested in the history of theatre on the islands. The drama tradition of the islands can be found in writing as far back as 1657, when a theatre – for people, not for puppets – was built in the gardens of Isola Bella. Then a theatre building where comedies were presented was constructed in the garden. The thespians put a halt to their theatre activities in 1690. The puppet theatre tradition was initiated at the end of the 18th century.

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I soon came to Federico VI’s Bedroom. While other Federicos in the family had become cardinals and archbishops, this one contributed to the cultural sphere in Milan during the 1700s. Playwright Carlo Goldoni even dedicated his play The Antiquarian’s Family to Federico. The room included a 17th century four-poster bed, but I found Federico more fascinating than any of its furnishings.

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The Dining Room was elegant. I loved the delicate decoration of ivy leaves on the 19th century set of Viennese china adorning the long table. Some paintings included three landscapes of architecture that showed off ruins and neglected terrain.

In The Family Drawing Room, there were portraits of the dignified Borromeos. The portrait of Gilberto Borromeo and his wife Maria Elisabetta Cusani featured the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the background. It made me think back to my fortieth birthday, when I walked to St. Peter’s Basilica at sunset. Seeing the sun rise over the dome was stunning and gave me strength to be positive about turning forty and to look ahead and move onward rather than look back and get depressed. Another portrait that caught my eye showed four children and dog, the kids immersed in a game of backgammon. It brought back memories of playing board games – Monopoly, getting a get out of jail free card or buying up hotels and chess, which I took up briefly to impress a boy I liked in grade school. The room itself was not without impressive décor. Lunettes at the top of walls showed off allegories of youth, old age, honor and nobility, for instance.

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Besides the puppet theatre rooms, my favorite was the Venetian Drawing Room. The painted decoration on the walls made it resemble a pavilion with columns sporting plants and flowers. The door panels were adorned with vines as well. Even the mosaic flooring boasted a detailed pattern. The Rococo décor gave it a certain elegance. It was a light and airy room, perfect for morning tea, pondering over daily life and setting the world to rights as well as jotting notes for a new story or essay. It was a tranquil space where one could relax and get away from the stress and problems of the outside world. It was a sort of haven in which only my dreams and I existed.

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In the gardens near the palace, I also peaked into the family chapel, simple yet elegant. The small space included only one room, yet it had a certain charm and appeal.

I walked through the garden to the exit and joined my friend at a café with a terrific view of the lake. Throughout the gardens I had seen breathtaking views of other islands and the calm waters. I had a pistachio gelato while we waited for the boat to Isola dei Pescatori, a fishing village that now was filled with shops, stands, restaurants and cafes.

Tracy A. Burns is an editor, proofreader and writer.

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View from Isola Madre

The First Republic Art Exhibition Diary

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Josef Čapek, The Sailor

A long-term temporary exhibition, the First Republic art exhibition in Prague’s Trade Fair Palace showcases mostly Czechoslovak paintings and sculpture from 1918 to 1938, when Czechoslovakia was a democratic state under the guidance of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, and Masaryk, who had been living in exile, was welcomed back into the Czech lands with much celebration and fanfare. The Munich Agreement, signed in September of 1938, proved a dark and dismal event in Czechoslovakia’s history, as the country ceded its German-minority Sudetenland to Hitler’s Third Reich. On March 15, 1939, the Nazis would march into Prague, and Hitler would set up the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, starting a horrific chapter in Czech and Central European history.

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Josef Čapek

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Myslbek

The exhibition examines the flourishing of art in the various cultural centers of Czechoslovakia, first and foremost in Prague but also in Brno, the capital of Moravia. In Slovakia the cultural hubs were located in Bratislava and eastern Košice. Zarkarpattia was a section of Czechoslovakia from 1920 to 1938, and its city of Užhorod was the setting of some intriguing exhibitions. The exhibition not only features Czech art but also Czech-German production and Slovak artistic endeavors.

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Antonín Slavíček, House in Kameničky, 1904

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Adolf Hoffmeister, Bridge, 1922

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Bohumil Kubišta, Quarry in Braník, 1910-11

Some of the Czech and Slovak artists whose works shine in the exhibition are Antonin Slavíček, Max Švabinský, Josef Čapek, Václav Špála, Jan Zrzavý, Jan Preisler, Ľudovít Fulla, Martin Benka, Bohumil Kubišta and Josef Šíma as well as Toyen and Jindřich Štyrský. The German and Austrian artists represented include August Bromse, Max Pechstein and Oskar Kokoschka, a favorite of mine.

Sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Paul Cezanne, House in Aix, 1885-87

French art from the 19th and 20th century is also on display as the Mánes Association in Prague held an important exhibition of French art at the Municipal House during 1923. The dynamic renditions of Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, Rodin, Rousseau and others are in the limelight, too. The paintings of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso explore Cubist tendencies.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Green Wheat Field, 1889

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Henri Rousseau, Self-Portrait – Me. Portrait – Landscape, 1890

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Paul Cezanne

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Georges Seurat, Harbor in Honfleur, 1886

I was particularly impressed by the works of a Czech artistic group called the Obstinates, established at the Municipal House. It included artists who spent World War I in Prague. I liked to eat chicken with potatoes at the Art Nouveau Municipal House, and I sometimes would imagine what it had been like for those artists to discuss their ideas and theories of art there. Three of my favorite Czech painters belonged to this group of avant-garde art that had traits of Cubism and Expressionism: Josef Čapek, Špála and Zrzavý. The Municipal House at that time was one of the most prominent exhibition spaces. It still houses art exhibitions and nowadays also includes a concert hall.

On right: Jan Zrzavý, Lady in the Loge, 1918

I also tried to imagine the avant-garde Devětsil group having its first exhibition during 1922 at the Union of Fine Arts in the Rudolfinum, now the main concert house for the Czech Philharmonic. I have attended many concerts there, even seeing my favorite violinist Joshua Bell on its stage twice. I wondered what it had been like to see the works of Karel Teige, Adolf Hoffmeister and Štyrský in that majestic building during 1922 and 1923.

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Jindřich Štyrský, The Puppeteer, 1921

My favorite painting in the exhibition was called “Woman with a Cat” by František Zdeněk Eberl. I am a cat fanatic, and the woman in the painting is holding her cat on her shoulder so lovingly. You can sense that the cat is an important part of her family just as my Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová is for me. (My cat is named after President Masaryk’s wife, the First Republic’s First Lady of Czechoslovakia.)

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František Zdeněk Eberl, Woman with a Cat, around 1929

The exhibition also highlighted the importance of the Mánes Association of Fine Artists, which had been established by Prague students in 1887. It had many functions, organizing exhibitions and lectures as well as editing magazines, for instance.

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Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Village Square, 1920

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Václav Špála

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Vincenc Beneš, Behind the Mill in Písek, 1928

There were African art relics in the exhibition as well. I thought of Josef Čapek, who had been greatly influenced by African art. The exhibition informed museumgoers that Emil Filla’s paintings had been on display with African art at the Mánes in 1935. Filla had a strong interest in non-European art and was an avid supporter of the surrealist trends in Czechoslovakia.

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Another significant exhibition space during that era was the Dr. Feigl Gallery. Hugo Feigl made quite a name for himself as a private gallery owner. The exhibitions he put together did not only display Czech art but also highlighted Czech-German, Jewish and artists from around the world. He did not only organize exhibitions at his own gallery. One art show that interested me was Feigl’s exhibition of German and Austrian artists who had come to Prague as refugees, fleeing Hitler as the dictator amassed more and more power. Oskar Kokoschka, one of my favorite painters, was a refugee who had made his home in Prague. I loved his view of the Charles Bridge and his view of Prague on display. They captured the magical spell of Prague using avant-garde techniques.

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Oskar Kokoschka, Prague – View from Kramář’s Villa, 1934-35

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Oskar Kokoschka, Prague – Charles Bridge, 1934

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August Bromse, Descent from the Cross, before 1922

In 1937, Feigl even organized a daring exhibition of German Expressionist works from a German collection of which the Nazis were by no means fans. This exhibition encouraged people to protest against an exhibition in Munich, one that glorified the Nazi regime with its display of Nazi-approved art.

Václav Špála, By the River – Vltava near Červená, 1927, sculpture by Otto Gutfreund

I was also enthralled by the exhibitions that had taken place in Brno, Zlín and Bratislava. I had poignant memories of all three places. I had helped out at the first international theatre festival organized by the Theatre on a String in Brno many years ago. People in Brno had been so friendly, and my Czech really improved thanks to my time spent there. I had also visited some villas in Brno and knew the city’s sights well.

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Max Švabinský, In the Land of Peace, 1922

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Otto Gutfreund, Business, 1923

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I had spent several days of one vacation in Zlín, where I had toured the fascinating Báťa shoe museum, which probably featured every kind of shoe imaginable. More than a decade ago, I had visited Bratislava once a month to help take care of my favorite Slovak writer’s grave. I had also visited the Slovak National Theatre, learning Slovak in part thanks to its performances. I loved the Slovak language and felt at peace hearing people around me speak it. I also felt this way when I heard Czech. I especially liked the works of Slovak painter Ľudovít Fulla. His use of bright colors, in his work “Balloons” for example, gave his paintings a dynamism and vitality that was unforgettable.

On right: Ľudovít Fulla, Balloons, 1930

Košice and Užhorod were featured as artistic centers, too. I had spent a lot of time in Košice during my travels to Slovakia as some of my ancestors had been from that region, and I had also used Košice as a starting point to visit other places in east Slovakia, such as Humenné and the Vihorlat. I had never been to Užhorod, which Czechoslovakia had begun to modernize during the early days of the country’s existence. I was surprised that architect Josef Gočár had designed some functionalist buildings there. I often walked by some of Gočár’s architectural achievements in the Baba quarter of functionalist individual family homes.

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Anton Jaszusch, Landscape, 1920-24

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Pablo Picasso, Still Life with a Goblet, 1922

The exhibition also informed me that between 1933 and 1938, about 10,000 refugees from Germany and Austria had officially made their way to Czechoslovakia while the number of unofficial refugees was about the same. Many significant artists came to Czechoslovakia to flee Hitler’s hold on Germany and Austria.

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Caricature of Hitler, John Heartfield, Adolf the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk, 1932

I was surprised to discover that as early as 1934 an exhibition of caricatures and humor protested Hitler’s ascent to power. It took place at the Mánes Association of Fine Artists. The caricatures were not limited to Hitler and even included some of the “good guys.” For instance, artists also poked fun at Masaryk. I was very moved by Josef Čapek’s versions of the painting “Fire,” showing a person unable to escape the dancing flames, artworks providing a stark warning about the danger of Hitler’s ideology and reign. The caricature of Hitler was chilling. Hitler’s head was perched atop a chest x-ray. His spine was made up of coins. His heart was shaped like a swastika.

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A sculpture commenting on the Munich Agreement of 1938

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Josef Čapek, Fire, 1938

The exhibition ended with those works commenting Hitler’s control of the region, specifically on the Munich Agreement of 1938. While those paintings and the sculpture profoundly affected me, I preferred to concentrate on the avant-garde creations that had been featured in an artistically flourishing democratic Czechoslovakia, when artists boldly experimented with their artistic visions, during an era that I had always wanted to visit if I could go back in time. I would have loved to experience the atmosphere of the country when democracy was fresh, the state new and full of promise. Little did anyone know at its inception that the First Republic would not last long and that such a chilling chapter would follow.

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

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Furniture set from First Republic, Jan Vaněk

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