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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Ořechovka Diary

 

OrechovkaZlomena12During 2017, I went on a walk through the Ořechovka section of Prague with Praha Neznámá or Unknown Prague tour company. The guide was excellent, the tour comprehensive. If you speak Czech, I recommend discovering parts of Prague with this agency. However, it was far from my first visit to the area.

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The villa-dotted Ořechovka quarter of Prague’s sixth district is one of the most picturesque parts of the city. For years, I have loved taking walks through the area, admiring the various styles of architecture. Some centuries ago, the property belonged to Jan Kryštof Bořek, who had a superb chateau built in a French style garden that was dotted with sculptures. The chateau was destroyed in wartime during 1742. The land was later used for other purposes, and, after Czechoslovakia was born in 1918, the first villas were constructed there thanks to architects Jaroslav Vondrák and Jan Šenkýř. The duo was especially inspired by English garden towns. The villas often consisted of apartments, from one-room accommodations to flats of four rooms. Many prominent artists settled in Ořechovka.

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The villas that intrigued me the most were the ones designed by Czech modernist architect Pavel Janák, whose creations include the functionalist plan for the Baba Housing Estate, also in Prague’s sixth district. He designed three of the 32 houses in Baba. Janák also drew up the plans for reconstruction work at Prague Castle and made innovative Cubist ceramics. His Kafka Villa – no, it has nothing to do with Franz! – was constructed for sculptor Bohumil Kafka whose works include the Monument to Jan Žižka in Prague’s Žižkov district. That sight ranks as the world’s largest equestrian statue. Inspired by the works of Auguste Rodin, Kafka favored symbolism and secession. Situated at 41/484 Na Ořechovce Street, this villa combines various styles as I noticed features of symbolism, naturalism and impressionism. It also is adorned with a superb Art Nouveau sculpture.

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Janák also cast his magic spell with the villa for painter Vincenc Beneš, a painter influenced by French modernism as well as Cubism and Fauvism. Later works included stylized figural creations and battlefields as well as landscapes for the National Theatre. Located at Cukrovarnická 24/492, this house flaunts a distinctive Dutch style and features coarse brickwork that appealed to me. (The villa for painter, graphic artist and illustrator Václav Špála also is dominated by the Dutch style that shows off coarse brickwork, though it was not designed by Janák.)

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The third villa that Janák contributed to Ořechovka consists of two villas together, built for Cubist painter, graphic artist and sculptor Emil Filla and his father-in-law, psychologist, philosopher and politician František Krejčí, in the 1920s. The structure of these villas is similar to the Beneš Villa.

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Filla’s story is intriguing. Inspired by Picasso, Braque, Munch and Van Gogh, he was noted for his Cubist painting and sculpture. Before World War I, he traveled to Paris and then fled to the Netherlands when war erupted. After the war, he came back to Prague, and traits of surrealism could be found in his works, which included painting on glass. On the first day of World War II, he was arrested by the Nazis, along with other prominent Czechs. He spent time in several concentration camps during the war, but somehow survived. After the war Filla took up teaching at Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design and created mostly landscape paintings.

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My favorite street in the quarter and also my second favorite street in Prague – my favorite is a short, dead-end street in Prague 6, where I lived for 10 happy years – is called Lomená Street. The design of the 1920s townhouses by Vondrák and Šenkýř resemble English cottages. They are so quaint and have an intimate atmosphere that immediately makes me feel calm and at ease despite the world’s turmoil and with my own problems, be they big or small. I love the triangular gables. Other characteristics are narrow, rectangular windows and high chimneys.

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Another one of my favorite places in Prague is the Rondocubism triangular area made by Dělostrelecká and Klidná streets. Similar to Art Deco, Rondocubism is unique to the Czech Republic. Janák paired with fellow architect Josef Gočár to create works in this nationalistic, folk-inspired style. The bright colors make the homes even more lively and dynamic. I like to imagine the time period when these townhouses were constructed, a few years after Czechoslovakia had been christened a new country in 1918. So much hope and positive energy was in the air. I would not mind calling one of these architectural gems home.

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Now the main square of Ořechovka is depressing and dilapidated with only a few small shops, but back in 1926, when it was completed, the central building featured not only shops but also a cinema (which was only recently shut down), restaurants, a café and doctors’ offices. In 1927, the building was extended with a theatre, dance hall and library. I remember seeing the film Kolya, which won an Oscar in 1996 for best foreign film, at the small, intimate movie theatre there. The movie directed by Jan Svěrák and starring his father, Zdeněk, remains one of my favorite films. Back in the late 1920s, the square must have been quite the gathering place, bustling with activity and excitement.

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There is another reason Ořechovka is dear to me. Back in the 1990s, when war was causing havoc in former Yugoslavia, I was teaching English to two girls, a 9-year old and an 11-year old, living in Ořechovka. They resided in a beautiful townhouse resembling an English cottage. Their father worked for the Czech Embassy in Belgrade, but the children and their mother had been sent back to Prague because it was deemed too dangerous for them in Belgrade.

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The late Václav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic for 13 years, resided in the villa pictured above. His widow still lives there.

I have not taught many children. I had previously taught only two youngsters. I do not have any children and do not understand them well. However, these two girls opened their hearts to me. They were such kind and decent people, obviously influenced by their mother, who was a wonderful human being. I looked forward to the lessons because it was so pleasant to teach them. Moreover, with each lesson, I learned a little better how to communicate with children. I remember they loved learning about the US presidents. I had flash cards, one for each president, and we used to create games with them. Therefore, Ořechovka is a place I associate with genuinely good people who have influenced my life. I often wondered what ever happened to those girls. Are they living in Prague or abroad? Do they have families? Did they keep up with their English studies?

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This villa was once the home of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

Unfortunately, not only good people have called Ořechovka home. The most evil person to live in the quarter was Adolf Eichmann, who took up residence in a neoclassical villa that had belonged to Jew Rudolf Fišer. Eichmann fled in April of 1945, and the previous owner was allowed to return to the villa but only to rent a few rooms.

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Ořechovka remains dear to me, and I love taking walks there whenever weather permits. Along with Hanspaulka, it is one of my favorite parts of Prague. I recommend travelers take walks through these villa-dotted quarters in order to get out of the crowded center and experience a more tranquil side of Prague.

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