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

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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.