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.

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Palazzo Leoni Montanari Diary

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My visit to the Gallerie d’Italia in the Palazzo Leoni Montanari of Vicenza proved to be one of the most enthralling art experiences I have ever experienced. The gushingly Baroque palace was built in the 1670s, commissioned by Giovanni Leoni Montanari. The combination of statuary, stucco and fresco decoration in the building enhanced my great interest in the exhibitions. Owned by Intesa Sanpaolo bank and opened in 1999, the gallery houses a collection of vases from Attica and Magna Graecia, 18th century Venetian painting, a unique 17th century Carrara marble sculpture and the most impressive collection of Russian icons I have seen outside of the Russian Museum and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In this post, I am concentrating on the interior of the gallery itself and the exhibition of Russian icons as well as a temporary show of Soviet era icons.

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While the palace is by no means as vast as the Hermitage or Prado, it certainly made an everlasting impression. In fact, its size allows for an intimate atmosphere in which the visitor can become well-acquainted with its displays without feeling overwhelmed, though the gallery is by no means small.

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This definitely is one of my favorite art galleries in the world, ranking up there with the Doria Pamphilj in Rome or Lazaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid. The Baroque palazzo is a work of art itself. Indeed, the palace ornamentation is unbelievably rich. The inner courtyard with loggia features a superb statue of Hercules clubbing a monster to death. Just looking at the statue makes one feel imbued with the mythological character’s strength and determination. I was reminded of the theme of Hercules that was promoted in the Teatro Olimpico, an architectural gem designed by Andrea Palladio and a breathtaking sight I had visited earlier that day. In addition, in the palace courtyard I saw five frescoes sporting classical themes.

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Sculptural adornment greets the visitor in the entrance hall as dragons and hideous creatures make appearances in stucco forms. One space near the main staircase is designed as a sort of grotto with exquisite painting decoration. The Hall of Apollo celebrates that deity as well as Hercules. It features tapestries and stucco portrayals of protagonists from The Iliad, too. The Room of the Old Testament and the Room of Ancient Rome have stunning friezes.  The Room of the Four Continents prominently displays stucco figures of America, Africa, Asia and Europe above the entrances. Frescoes take on historical themes, such as Aristotle mentoring a young Alexander the Great in geography. Allegorical statues also add eloquence to the space.

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The Gallery of Truth is the room that most amazed me. I could not look away for a long time, as I was so mesmerized with the stucco and fresco decoration that covers the entire ceiling. The central fresco celebrates the triumph of truth. Nine muses are represented, too. Putties and garlands abound, and grotesque creatures join in the exuberant fray. The paintings show the feats of Hercules. In this room, I saw him slaying serpents, freeing Prometheus from the rock and holding up the world for Atlas.

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While ceramics are not usually my cup of tea, this collection did feature an impressive 500 items, many unearthed in Ruvo di Puglia, a town in Puglia I had visited the previous year and one of the most tranquil places I had ever seen. It brought back memories of that astounding trip to Apulian Romanesque churches and tranquil settings without hordes of tourists. Puglia had given me a sense of serenity and a feeling of peace. I was reminded of those feelings, as I better comprehended the ancient history of Ruvo di Puglia.

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The 18th century Venetian paintings brought back memories of my trip to Venice, just one of many places in Italy to which I longed to return. The 14 paintings of everyday life in the society of the Venetian nobility by Pietro Longhi triggered thoughts of a Prague exhibition of works by Rococo painter Norbert Grund, who was a masterful observer of his era. Yet Longhi did not only paint common scenes. I also admired his portrayals of exotic animals surprising and enthralling an audience.

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I was entranced with the works of Canaletto and his contemporaries. The Venice landscapes spoke to me. I recalled the exhibition of Canaletto’s works I had seen in Aix-en-Provence a few years earlier. I also thought of the Canaletto painting that I had admired in Nelahozeves Chateau and later in the Lobkowicz Museum in Prague.

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In a room punctuated by stucco decoration, I admired the unique sculpture “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Agostino Fasolato, created in the 18th century. Shaped as a pyramid, the sculpture features 60 intertwining figures, all twisting and turning, carved from one piece of Carrara marble. Once on display in Padua, the plethora of figures exhibit a great attention to detail as masterful as that in paintings by Pietor Brueghel the Elder. I was entranced with the dynamic sense of movement attained by the sculptor. The sculpture, indeed, seemed to be in motion as figures wiggled and writhed.

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The Russian icons enthralled me so much that I was just as astounded by this gallery as I was by the comprehensive Van Gogh exhibition at the Palladian Basilicata with its elegant arches and arcades. At this gallery I saw 140 icons ranging in age from the Middle Ages to the 20th century and giving a superb overview of the history of the icon in Russian society throughout the centuries.

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The icons boast various themes. They are inspired by the Bible, legends, liturgical hymns, theological texts and feasts, for instance. The Mother of God and Saint Nicholas are featured in some of the artistic creations. Icons of saints and monks, some with monasteries in the background, make many appearances. I also saw frames and covers for icons made with precious materials. A mastery of the goldsmith trade also is illustrated in some items. The schools represented include Moscow, Novgorod and Vladimír. The icons are organized by subject matter, which was helpful and intriguing.

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I also found the temporary exhibition of Soviet icons by Grisha Bruskin to be very impressive. A monumental painting called “The Fundamental Lesson,” created in 1945, features 256 white figures. The painting stresses the significance of statues in the Soviet Union as each person represented has an ideological meaning. Instead of a celebration of saints, Madonnas and monks, I saw workers, pioneers, athletes, functionaries, astronauts, soldiers and doctors exalted onto ideological pedestals. Small sculptures of these figures are also displayed. There are 25 porcelain pieces and 49 renditions in bronze.

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“The Fundamental Lesson”

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I remembered how, as a child growing up in America, I had been taught by society that Russia was the enemy, all Communists were bad people, and everything was black-and-white. Russia was evil, we were good. I had wondered what life was like in a Communist country. Did people ever cry with joy or truly feel happy and at peace with themselves and with the world? I wondered what people ate, what people wore, what people were thinking about.

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Overall, I was most impressed with this exhibition because it exposes the dangers of Soviet ideology. It impressed upon me how Soviet society had been inundated by the ideological myths represented by the painting and small statuary.

More Russian icons from the permanent exhibition:

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I came away from this gallery with a heightened appreciation of having grown up in a free, democratic society. I had attained a deeper understanding of the art of Russian icons. I had seen a unique sculpture carved with precision. The visit had triggered golden memories of Venice. I had examined Venetian society in the 18th century thanks to Longhi. I had seen artifacts from one of my favorite Apulian towns, Ruvo di Puglia and had thought about that unforgettable trip. I had experienced all this in a building that was a masterful work of art, the Gallery of Truth being my favorite space.

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

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Palazzo Chiericati Diary

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In March of 2018, I spent time in Vicenza, where I admired Renaissance Palladian architecture. I was enthralled with Vicenza. The elegant arches and arcades of the Basilicata Palladiana and the Renaissance masterpiece called the Theatre Olimpico were two sights that took my breath away. The two art galleries I visited also were stunning. I could have spent hours at each gallery. The Civic Museum, housed in the Chiericati Palace, displays amazing art from the 1200s to the beginning of the 20th century. Even though renovation was ongoing, the collections were extensive.

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The palace itself is a masterpiece designed by Palladio in 1550. The building is a work of art with enthralling frescoes and superb stuccoes and has been recognized by UNESCO. The Chiericatis were fans of Palladio; he also designed a villa for them. One prominent architectural feature involves Palladio making the palace look elegant by placing the structure on a podium. The central section, accessible by a grand staircase, resembles a temple, as Palladio respected antique forms. By raising the building, Palladio also was able to protect it from floods, so it served more than a merely decorative purpose. I also found these architectural elements at the Villa Rotunda and the Villa Malcontenta, two places designed by Palladio. The façade has a two-story loggia, typical of Palladio’s designs. One side of the loggia is closed off by a wall with an arch.

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While I was enamored with the exterior of the building, I was not prepared for the onslaught of beautiful artworks that greeted me inside. The ground floor showed off frescoes, stuccoes, grotesques and lunettes. Seven lunettes told the story of the city’s prosperity during the 1500s and 1600s.

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The first floor included a medieval section, where work by Hans Memling and others were showcased. I also was introduced to the paintings of Bartolomeo Montagna and his contemporaries. The second floor concentrated on Venetian paintings of the 1500s, with works by Bassano, Tintoretto and Veronese. The 17th century was also represented.

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When I reached the attic, I no longer felt as if I was in a museum but rather as if I had set foot in a three-room house. These spaces held the paintings, drawings and etchings that once belonged to Marquis Giuseppe Roi. The works dated from the 15th century to the 20th century. Intriguing furniture also made up the collection.

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The basement hosted temporary exhibitions. I could see the 14th and 15th century foundations of the palace, where kitchens and cellars used to be. There was a well and a barrel staircase, for instance. Walking through the basement was like walking back in time.

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We got off the bus in Vicenza across from the Palazzo Chiericati, and this was the first building I saw in the city. The exterior certainly didn’t disappoint, and the interior was full of surprises and delights.

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

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National Gallery of Umbria Photo Diary

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One of the highlights of my trip to Le Marche and Umbria was visiting the breathtaking National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia. The collection consists of Umbrian painting mainly from the 13th to 16th centuries and is located in the medieval Palazzo dei Priori, a magnificent medieval palace that also serves as the town hall and municipal library. There is some significant sculpture, too. The oldest piece in the gallery is a wooden crucifix from the early 13th century. Artists represented include the Pisano brothers, Perugino, Ottaviano Nelli, Benedetto Bonfigli, Pinturicchio and Raphael. Many Umbrian artists were influenced by painting in Tuscany, especially by the Sienese masters.

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

Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte Diary

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One of the highlights of my trip to Naples was visiting the Palazzo Reale di Capodimonte museum, which houses a gallery of 19th century art, porcelain, ceramics, an armory and historical apartments. Founded by Charles Bourbon in 1738, the palace was not completed until 1838. Artwork featured at the museum includes The Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope by my beloved Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Madonna with Child and Angels by Botticelli and three portraits of Pope Paul II by Titian. Raphael, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Pieter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, El Greco and Caravaggio are just a few of the artists represented. The museum is also home to seven tapestries showing scenes from the Battle of Pavia. The Gallery of Rare Things shows off miniatures, small bronzes, works of majolica, ivory and crystal pieces, gems and jewelry, for instance. I took pictures mostly of the royal apartments, which included the stunning Ballroom. The design of this room was influenced by 18th century findings at Herculaneum and Pompeii. The crystal chandeliers, the Neoclassical divans and the marble floor featuring geometric designs all enthralled me.

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

Palazzo Reale Photo Diary

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The Royal Palace of Naples was the seat of the Spanish and Austrian viceroyalty for 200 years, from the early 16th century to the early 18th century. Then the Bourbons took up residence, from 1734 to 1860. Even though the foundation stone was laid in 1600, the actual construction of the palace was not finished until after 1843. It is connected to the majestic Teatro di San Carlo and is located on the symmetrical Piazza del Plebiscito, where festivals and parades had taken place before 1860. The Palazzo Reale was first open to the public in 1919.

The façade is impressive as Tuscan, Ionic and Corinthian columns, obelisks, globes and vases all make appearances. Statues of the kings of Naples adorn the façade as well.

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When I was there only the first floor was open, but I was still able to see stunning tapestries, fine porcelain, impressive furnishings and superb ceiling paintings, some allegorical and others celebrating the Spanish rulers and their realm. Paintings that amazed included 17th and 18th century works by Neapolitan School artists, landscapes, views of seaports, pictures of royal Spanish palaces as well as portraits.

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

 

Musée du Petit Palais Photo Diary

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In June of 2015, I visited the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon and was enamored by the Italian primitive and early Renaissance painting as well as the impressive Renaissance works rendered by the French Avignon School. The 14th century building houses art created from the end of the 13th century to the beginning of the 16th century in chronological and geographical order and includes The Virgin and Child by Sandro Botticelli. Some styles represented include the Siennese School, Florentine Renaissance and the Marches School. There are about 300 Italian paintings housed in the museum that was established in 1976. The structure used to be a citadel, an archbishopric and a Catholic secondary school before it became a museum.

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