Bílek Villa Diary

This museum of Art Nouveau artist František Bílek’s works is one of the most underrated art collections in Prague. The many times I have been there it has not been crowded, making it easier to appreciate fully the emotions triggered by Bílek’s sculptures, furniture, drawings, sketches and book illustrations. The symbolism is religious and mystical and seeps into my soul as I am overcome by emotions. Art Nouveau is a style I cherish, too. I am especially drawn to his dynamic wooden sculptures.

František Bílek, born in 1862, initially wanted to become a painter but switched to sculpture because he was colorblind. He would wind up making a name for himself not only for his evocative sculptures but also for his prints, architectural designs, ceramics and books, for instance. A man of many talents, he was very religious, and the works of the Catholic Modernists greatly influenced his works. He later worshipped at a Czechoslovak Hussite Church, inspired by the teachings of Czech martyr Jan Hus who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415.

Bílek Villa in Chýnov
Bílek Villa in Chýnov
Bílek grave in Chýnov

I had also visited Bílek’s hometown of Chýnov in south Bohemia, where his villa there housed more of his fascinating creations. It was easy to find his grave in the cemetery there – a huge sculpture marks the spot. Bílek passed away during the Nazi Occupation, in 1941.

Exterior of villa in Prague

While I waited for the museum to open, I perused the exterior of the building, which was just as intriguing as the inside. It has huge columns that resemble an Egyptian temple as Bílek brings religion to the fore. The irregular shape of the former home also caught my attention. I liked the inscriptions on the side of the building, too. Indeed, Bílek incorporated inscriptions into some of his works. There were several sculptures in the quaint garden.

Jan Amos Comenius from statuary grouping in garden

Dominating the garden was a sculpture that featured Czech national figure Jan Amos Comenius, who contributed greatly to the education system in the Czech lands and had to leave his native land because of threats of persecution on more than one occasion. The sculptural grouping shows the 17th century religious and educational reformer forced to escape his native land. He lived in many countries, including Poland, Transylvania, the Netherlands, Sweden and England. I recalled the play version of his novel The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart at Goose on a String Theatre in Brno many years ago. I remember the stunning performance of Petr Oslzlý as the protagonist.

I noticed the elegant Art Nouveau doors as I waited for the museum to open. Soon, it was time. I entered the first room, my personal favorite. It contained numerous sculptures made of wood. I was always overcome by emotion as I perused all the sculptures.

Astonishment
Astonishment

I was most impressed with “Astonishment,” which showed an amazed figure looking up to Heaven. I see the figure as being enthralled by what life has to offer, and it brings me back to my first year in Prague, the last quarter of 1991 and 1992, when my hero, the former dissident and playwright Václav Havel, was president of Czechoslovakia. I was learning Czech, which I consider to be a magical language. I also frequented the Czech theatre where Havel had once been resident dramaturg and playwright as I tried to improve my listening comprehension. A theatre major, I was enthralled by the plays, especially by Havel’s The Garden Party. I met Havel at the premiere of one of his plays, which was a big thrill. I had read the English translations of his books in the USA and had done much research on the Velvet Revolution during university. At that time, I yearned to read his books in Czech.

Look at the details of Christ’s disheveled hair.

Everything was new, and the world seemed full of possibilities. To me Havel symbolized hope. I felt this sense of hope in my personal life as I made new friends and started writing for a weekly English language newspaper, interviewing former dissidents and other fascinating Czech personalities.

Grief
Grief

Another sculpture that deeply affected me was called “Grief.” I could feel the sorrow seep through my body as I stared at the female figure clearly devastated by death. It brought to mind moments of sadness when I had felt a deep pit in my stomach. Gazing at the statue, I let myself experience the sadness, not trying to stave off the painful emotions.

A charcoal drawing that spoke to me was “The Blind,” portraying a blind man leading a blind woman, perhaps on a path to knowledge. (I apologize for not having a picture of this one. The reflection of light on the glass didn’t allow for a decent photo.) The blind man is clearly upset that he cannot see as evidenced by his hand gesture. While they cannot see, they have an inner vision that is necessary to develop as one goes through life, experiencing trials and tribulations. It made me think of the many times I had made mistakes and how I learned from them. I also had learned not to be niave and not to trust everyone or take everyone at their word.

I also marveled at Bílek’s massive furniture, created with light and dark wood. Much of the furniture sported religious motifs as a desk even resembled an altar. I also saw family portraits that reminded me that the villa had once been a home. It gave the place an intimate quality. I wondered what kind of conversations had taken place in that villa when the Bílek family resided there. What had they worried about? What had made them happy?

After a while, I left, feeling so much stronger mentally. This was a museum I could visit often and still be greatly affected by the works of art.

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

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.

Dušan Jurkovič’s Villa Diary

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I was able to go by car to the villa where Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič lived from 1907 to 1919. It was in a tranquil village near Brno, the capital of Moravia.  The architectural gem had opened in 2011. I did not know much about Jurkovič except that he was responsible for much of the stunning décor in the Coffer Room of the Nové Město nad Metují Chateau as well as the renovation of that chateau’s two-tiered garden.  While visiting the villa, it would become clear to me that Jurkovič was one of the leading architects in the Czech lands during the 19th century and that this house was his most prominent work.

This leading Slovak architect had been inspired by Austrian architects Josef Maria Olbrich and Josef Hoffmann, both of whom, along with artist Gustav Klimt and others, co-founded the Viennese Secession or Art Nouveau movement at the end of the 19th century.  Jurkovič had especially been influenced by Olbrich’s Secession style Darmstadt Artists’ Colony, where Art Nouveau artists lived and worked. One of the Secession features on the houses included the decoration at the entrance with its gold-plated floral motifs. Olbrich’s style mixed British tendencies with central European qualities. Hoffmann’s Hohe Warte Artists’ Colony, launched in Art Nouveau style, was another influence. Jurkovič had originally intended that his villa would become part of an artists’ colony, and he even opened the villa with an exhibition of 119 artworks, many his own, in 1906.

First, I walked through the garden, bursting with color and featuring pergolas and trelliswork. The view of the house from the garden confirmed that Jurkovič had created his own unique style by meshing several styles together. The house was a mixture of English Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and traditional Moravian folk architecture. During the 19th century, the Habsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire supported European folk art because it united its regions. Folk art would play a major role in architecture during that century.

ImageAs I understood it, the English Arts and Crafts movement had emphasized simplicity and had employed romantic and folk styles. The materials used were also accented. Also British architects often featured a staircase hall, which dominated Jurkovič’s main achievement. The movement reached its peak from 1860 to 1910.

Jurkovič’s villa looked like it belonged in a fairy tale. I expected princes and maidens to stick their heads out its windows. I loved the playfulness of its design as if it had popped out of a story book. It was no wonder that it had been dubbed “the Fairy Tale House.” The villa was made of stone, wood and cork with lime-coating on the exterior and plaster on the interior. It resembled a country house or cottage in England.

At the entrance gate there was a mosaic of two peacocks standing opposite each other. There used to be a mosaic showing a scene from The Shephard and the Dragon fairy tale, but it was destroyed because it had been made on a cork rather than plastered base. The mosaic that replaced it lit up at night. The entrance loggia featured the statue, “The Thinker,” by sculptor Jan Štursa, who had helped define modern Czech sculpture. It was one of the few original pieces that were now in the villa. The house had been renovated to look as it had when Jurkovič and his family had lived there from 1907 to 1919, when the architect returned to Bratislava, Slovakia, where he died in 1947.

Soon it was time for my tour, which had to be booked in advance. My tour guide and I entered the main room of the villa, the Staircase Hall. It was dazzling. I especially loved the folk elements of traditional Moravian architecture, such as the red, white and blue abstract wallpaper on one side. The folk-oriented carpet featured reds and blues, too. The wine red and forest green colors represented in the room also symbolized Moravian folk art. I thought they complemented each other well and gave the place a cozy atmosphere. I recalled that in the Coffer Room at Nové Město nad Metují, reds, greens and browns played major roles.

Ceramics and tapestries also filled the room. The tiled stove was dark green, and the doors took on the same hue. The wallpaper was not the only part of the room to have blues in it. Even the exquisite, wooden table had a stunning, blue tone.  The chandelier, though, was pure Art Nouveau and had featured light bulbs, as the villa had utilized electric lighting.

ImageThe alcove, designed for Jurkovič’s wife Božena, was light and airy in contrast to the dark central section of the room.  I admired the tapestries in the alcove. One showed a log cabin with mountains in the background. The others shared the countryside theme, depicting fields and cross stations. The room was assembled like a gallery of Jurkovič’s work. He had also designed the furniture. I realized that the villa itself was an exhibit with smaller exhibits inside.

Jurkovič’s former study rooms featured a temporary show of furniture designed during the middle of the 20th century. Artists Zdeněk Plesník and Miroslav Navrátil used materials experimentally. Their armchairs were made from bent lamellas, which were fine sheets of material positioned in the shape of gills. The armchairs could be put into several positions. They could function as chairs or as a bed, if all three were placed together. I was surprised to find out that Navrátil had created the chairs on trams. Even now, trams 1, 3 and 11 in Brno were equipped with the style of chairs that he had created. I often took tram 1 to the center, so I had actually sat on a chair that he had designed!

Other spaces that used to serve as a bedroom, children’s bedroom and bathroom were now decorated with pictures of Jurkovič’s other designs, interactive materials and furniture from his other buildings. I found out that he had also designed the interior of the Vesna boarding house in the Czech lands. The bedroom there boasted vibrant hues of greens, yellows and reds. Jurkovič also incorporated a dovetail motif. I saw a stunning wooden chair with a dovetail masterfully carved on its back.

ImageJurkovič would also design a diner and hostel in Wallachian Pustevny in triumphant folk architectural style. The diner boasted an interior with a turquoise hue illuminated by side windows. The walls were covered with pictures of Czech figures, such as the country’s patron Saint Wenceslas and the Radegast pagan mountain god.

Jurkovič’s designs for the Luhačovice spa town were harshly criticized by Brno architect Karel Hugo Kepka and the editorial board of Architektonický obzor journal, which caused his commissions there to cease after 1914. Today, though, residents of Luhačovice are very proud of Jurkovič’s work there. He also designed a house in the Bubeneč district of Prague 6, using concrete instead of wood and constructing an elevated gable.

During World War I he designed about 40 cemeteries for fallen Austrian soldiers in what was then Galicia. After the war he concentrated on war memorials, and in the late 1920s he began to experiment with the functionalist style. Jurkovič moved out of this villa in 1919, after democratic Czechoslovakia was created because he wanted to help reshape his native, reborn Slovakia. So he moved back to Bratislava, where he died in 1947.

I loved the red color with floral pattern of the wooden beams on the ceiling. It had a log cabin appeal and gave the beams a vibrant folk architecture appearance. The entire villa exuded a warmth and coziness that I had also felt at Nové Město nad Metují’s Chateau. 

I was impressed with the tour, but disappointed that only the Staircase Hall looked as it had when Jurkovič had lived there. I understood that Jurkovič had sold a lot of the furniture. The Staircase Hall had such a dynamic quality. It was so vibrant, so cheerful, yet at the same time intimate. I wished that more than a few pieces of the original furniture and ornamentation had been preserved. While the temporary exhibition and spaces documenting Jurkovič’s works were intriguing, the Staircase Hall was definitely the highlight of the tour.

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

Nové Město nad Metují Diary

ImageThe journey was easy. It only took two and a half hours on a direct bus from Prague to get to this small town in the foothills of the Eagle Mountains, not far from Poland. It was sunny, almost too hot. From the stop I had to walk straight for about 10 minutes and turn left onto the large, impressive main square on which buildings of various architectural styles were erected. I noticed the remains of chiaroscuro decoration on the facade. Because I had been here 10 years earlier, I knew the interior was truly a sight to behold.

First, a little history about the chateau itself: Built during 1501 in late Gothic style, the chateau underwent Renaissance renovation thanks to the Stubenberg family owners during the second half of the 16th century. More renovation work took place during 1651 to 1660, when early Baroque style made its way into the chateau.  A historical event took place here in June of 1812, as Russian Tsar Alexander I stayed at this chateau during his trip to meet with leaders of the Prussian and Austrian governments. (He wouldn’t be the only historical figure to spend the night in the chateau. During 1926 first democratic president of Czechoslovakia Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk slept here.)

The main square of the town

The main square of the town

But it wasn’t until the chateau was bought by the Bartoň family that perhaps the most significant renovations were carried out. Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič and Czech architect Pavel Janák did many renovations in Art Nouveau, Art Deco and functionalist styles in this chateau also known for its collection of Czech and Slovak art from the 17th to 20th centuries. While Jurkovič concentrated on Art Nouveau, Janák took over the Art Deco and functionalist styles, his last renovations taking place from 1940-41. Jurkovič also was responsible for redesigning the two-tiered chateau gardens. Though the Bartoň family emigrated to Canada in 1949, they got the chateau back in 1992 and are its present owners.

The stunning facade of a building on the main square

The stunning facade of a building on the main square

Before the tour I had time to visit the gardens and see Jurkovič’s outdoor masterpiece for myself. Terraces and flower beds punctuated the upper gardens while a quaint wooden bridge led me to the lower section. The sculptures of the stone dwarfs caught my attention immediately. They were the skilled work of famed Czech sculptor Matyáš Braun from the first third of the 18th century. I also noticed a statue of legendary Czech composer Bedřich Smetana and Baroque statues of the God Poseidon and the Goddess Demeter as well as two statues of bears. A Baroque fountain was situated in the garden, too. I felt like reading in the sun for a while here, but the tour was going to start soon and anyway, there was a wedding procession about to cross the wooden bridge and head in my direction. The gardens seemed to be the perfect place to bring a book and relax, occasionally glancing at the stone dwarfs and Baroque fountain.

ImageOne of the first places we visited on the tour was the Rising of the Holy Cross Chapel from the 17th century. The fresco on the ceiling and the white stucco decoration had me gaping in awe.  But more about that later. Then, in the hallway, I was overwhelmed by a 15th century Gothic altarpiece as we walked toward the Winter Garden. It was absolutely exquisite, depicting Saints Peter and Paul with an icon of Jesus Christ.

The Winter Garden was one of my two favorite rooms, designed in the decorative style by Jurkovič in 1910. Plants abounded, and there was lovely white wicker furniture as well as many ceramics in the space. The walls looked to be made of rock inlaid with a tree design in brown. I thought how much I would love to sip a cup of green Eilles tea at the white table, surrounded by so many thriving plants and intriguing ceramics.

NoveMestonadMpark4My other favorite was the Coffer Room, a Jurkovič masterpiece from 1913. The wine red carpet and dark brown leather and oak furniture contrasting with a light and airy ceiling made me feel comfortable. There was also leather wallpaper on the ceiling and a huge green and brown marble fireplace made of ceramic tiles. A brass chandelier decorated the room as well. An avid Czechoslovak history fan, I loved the portrait of former President Masaryk, set in a gold frame. The room, with all its couches and tables, appealed to me as a place I would like to come and read on a cold winter’s night, while sipping hot chocolate.  I somehow felt safe there, away from the worries of my life and the world.

We also entered a room full of Cubist furniture designed by Janák. A hundred coats-of-arms of Czech towns were painted on the walls. On the ceiling I noticed pictures of the towns of Náchod, Český Krumlov and the Black Tower in České Budějovice.

Some of the other rooms that particularly impressed me included: The Baroque bedroom, redesigned by Jurkovič in 1913. Swirling patterns decorated the arched ceiling, and there were three circular Renaissance frescoes on the wall above one bed.

The Gentleman’s Study had an Art Deco interior forged by Janák in 1924. The central fresco was by František Kysela, who also painted many other frescoes in the chateau. Renaissance paintings hailing from the 16th century lined the walls. Textile art work and ceramics also punctuated the room. The space had a romantic flair, and I felt safe here. A sense of warmth exuded from the room. Dark wood mingled with a bright green color, with green upholstery on the dark wood chairs. The brown and white frescoes on the ceiling complemented the choice of furniture.

ImageWhat caught my attention in the Zodiac Room or Summer Dining Room was the exquisite handmade carpet. Inside an orange and light blue circle was another circle, this one in blue and orange, showing a proverb for each month. This Art Deco room, a 1923 creation by Janák, with brown wood furniture also boasted frescoes by Kysela.

I had a ticket for the long tour, so I followed the guide, a tall, bespectacled man in his forties, to the second floor, where the frescoes in the rooms all showed scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. In the Hall of Victors, which was really a Baroque dining room, I noticed the neo-Baroque interior and Flemish tapestry from the 16th and 17th centuries. Still lifes also decorated the walls which were a light yellow color. The frescoes sported sea blue and dark green. The white and blue porcelain was ravishing.

I cannot leave out the St. Hubert Room or the Hunters’ Room. This 17th century bedroom also boasts a ceiling fresco of Hypnos, the god of sleep. I was impressed with the vibrant colors of the fresco. Neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance furniture from the 19th century contributed to the stunning look, too.

From the Oratory there was a fantastic view of the chapel. There were vibrant ceiling frescoes and white stucco decoration on the ceiling. The left-hand side of the altar was decorated with a painting of Saint Barbara, forged by the Baroque master Petr Brandl, one of my favorite Baroque painters. The black with gold columned altar was flanked by statues. The small size of the chapel gave it a sense of intimacy. What awed me in the Oriental Dining Room was its luxurious, long and sleek chandelier with the bottom shaped as a Chinese pagoda.

NoveMestonadMpark1Before the tour ended, the guide told us the legend of the Black Lady, who haunts the chateau. From 1624 to 1629 Marie Magdalena was one of the owners of the place, and she was called “Evil Manda” for a very good reason. She was exceptionally cruel to animals, and the townspeople were fed up with her. They rebelled in 1628. Soldiers put down the uprising, though, and proceeded to treat the rebels cruelly. Many men were killed in a gunpowder explosion in the tower, leaving many widows and orphans in the town. “Evil Manda” died in 1633, but she still walked the halls at night because she was looking for the two or three bodies of the farmers who were never found after the gunpowder explosion. She wanted them to be buried.  One could hear her footsteps at night, and sometimes paintings fell off the walls.

Then I left the chateau and went to a nicely decorated restaurant across the square. The restaurant was decorated in orange and yellow and had a cheerful appearance. It served good food as well, and I was able to eat my favorite food on my excursions – chicken with peaches and cheese plus a diet Coke.

Then it was time to get the bus back to Prague. When I made it to the stop about 20 minutes early, I was the only one there. Before long, about 10 people had joined me. We waited. And waited.  And waited. The elderly women standing next to me grumbled to themselves about how it did no good to complain in this country. A teenager with hair dyed pink read a book on the bench. Finally, the bus arrived – 45 minutes late. The bus driver did not offer an excuse or an apology. I was just glad the bus came.

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

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