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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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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German Historical Museum Diary

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Signs from the demonstrations of 1989

This museum was the highlight of my time in Berlin, and I visited it twice because I was so impressed with the more than 7,000 objects representing 2,000 years of trials, tribulations, joyous occasions and everyday life in German history from the reign of Charlemagne to the departure of the Allies in 1994. The museum not only enthralled me with its portrayal of significant events but also with its depiction of everyday life during the various epochs. The upper floor, where I spent the better part of an entire day, tells a narrative ranging in time from 500 AD all the way to the Germany’s defeat in World War I. The ground floor focuses on topics from the Weimar Republic to the departure of the Allies in 1994. The section on World War II is particularly fascinating. We see Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933 through the historical narrative of World War II horrors.

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A plague mask from the 17th century

Perhaps the item that intrigued me the most was a mask with a long beak that doctors had donned when tending to patients with the plague. It reminded me of a commedia dell’arte mask. Doctors wore leather gowns with these masks. Herbs or sponges were soaked with vinegar and placed into the beak in order to filter air. This mask was made of velvet, green glass and leather.

An artwork that I found thought-provoking depicted 19th century German emigrants huddled in a boat, trying to escape the awful conditions of their homeland, trying to build a better life for themselves, on their way to another country. Their sorrow of leaving so much behind and their uncertainty of what awaited them were revealed so well in the 1860 painting by Antonie Volkmar, “The Emigrants’ Farewell.” The sad yet brave people who were risking their lives for a better future moved me.

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I wondered how my ancestors had felt leaving Slovakia and Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire for America in the late 19th century. Did they miss their homeland? When they crossed the ocean, did their faces reveal sorrow and uncertainty, too? Had they had second thoughts during their long, arduous journey, or had the hope in their hearts given them strength to weather any storm, to overcome all the inevitable difficulties?

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I also saw photos of concentration camp prisoners that almost made me burst into tears. The photos reminded me of my trip to Auschwitz some years earlier. That visit remains forever etched in my memory. Sculptures of emaciated concentration camp prisoners vividly portrayed their suffering and desperation.

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The front page of one newspaper caught my attention. On it a big, bold headline announced, “Hitler Dead.” I could imagine the relief that so many people had felt after perusing those two words.

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A photograph of a corpse-ridden street in Dresden, shortly after the Allies’ bombing in 1945, made me shiver. I saw the horrors of war vividly in John Hearside Clark’s painting depicting the morning after the Battle of Waterloo, with so many dead and injured lying on the ground. I found the portrayal of the aftermath of the battle in which Napoleon was defeated to be chilling.

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Viewing parts of the Berlin Wall, marked with graffiti, triggered memories of my first visit to Berlin in 1991, when I saw parts of the wall still standing. At that time, I had found it fascinating to see how a city could be divided in this way, how two different worlds had evolved from the construction of that wall, one representing freedom, the other oppression. My perspective changed when I went to see the Wall Memorial featuring a standing segment of the Wall during my 2018 visit. Then, seeing the Wall then made my stomach churn and made me want to throw up. I had met too many Czechs and Slovaks who had lived under the Communist regime – which had asserted its own mental walls – to see the Wall as anything but horrific. I was no longer fascinated by the disgusting structure. Living more than 20 years in Central Europe had changed my perspective.

I also took notice of an 18th century ornate Swabian glass bridal crown donned at rustic weddings. I saw a remarkable tapestry of a festive procession of explorers returning from one of the first expeditions to India in 1504. Shields from the 13th century were also on display. A triptych from the 16th century included a panel with the coats-of-arms of the territories governed by Charles V while a likeness of this ruler dominated the central part of the artwork. I also saw handkerchiefs decorated with pictures of current events from the 19th century. I viewed tapestries promoting Nazi Germany plus many posters from that era.

For me my two visits to this museum gave me unforgettable lessons in German history. I learned that when Napoleon beat Prussia in 1806, he took the Quadridge from the Brandenburg Gate with him to Paris. Luckily, it was returned eight years later. I learned that in the 18th century, two-thirds of the population of Germany lived in the countryside as opposed to cities. I learned that the abdication of Emperor Franz II in 1806 had triggered a trend of nationalism in Germany.

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I learned about the industrialization and economic crash of 1873. I learned how the Social Democratic Movement had grown in the 19th century. I learned that the Marxist SPD Social Democratic Party of Germany had the largest membership before World War I started. I learned that 700,000 Germans died of malnutrition and related illnesses in World War I and that, in the summer of 1918, two million US soldiers fought on western front against the Germans.

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After each visit, I took my time in the atmospheric, bustling museum café and enjoyed an omelet. Then, when I walked out into the sunshine, I realized that the history in which I had been immersed was not only contained on two floors of the museum. It was everywhere, on every street corner, in each building, on the prominent Unter den Linden and down less noticeable side streets. Lessons from German history had allowed Berlin to grow into the vibrant city it was in the present, into a magical place dominated by the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate but also by the many cafes, busy streets, parks and museums. Most of all, these lessons of history reverberate in the city’s spirit and soul.

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

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National Museum Diary

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I was introduced to Prague’s National Museum during July of 1991, when, for the first time, I saw objects and attire from World War II on exhibit there. I couldn’t believe that I was actually looking at real Nazi uniforms and authentic items from the horrific era of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a period I had only read about in books while growing up in the USA. The exhibition made me even more aware of what a nightmarish time of oppression and terror it had been. I had never felt so close to history before that trip to Prague. It was an unforgettable experience for me, as were many moments during that first foray to one of the lands of my ancestors. By the time I moved to Prague in September of that year, the exhibition was gone. I occasionally visited the museum after that, but nothing there would influence me that strongly.

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Fast forward to late October of 2018, when the National Museum reopened after seven years of reconstruction. The once grimy façade of the Neo-Renaissance gem now looked squeaky clean. Inside the most significant scientific and cultural institution in Bohemia was an exhibition about Czechs and Slovaks during the 100 years of existence since Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918. Right now, though, I am going to write about what I saw in the building itself as I savored the beauty of the sculpture, painting and architecture of the interior.

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First, it is necessary to have some background about the museum in order to appreciate it fully. The year 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of its founding, as Kašpar Maria Šternberg and other prominent Czechs established the institution in 1818. During the 19th century, the museum became a symbol for Czech nationalism. At the time, Czechs were experiencing an era of Germanization with the Habsburg rulers at the helm. The Journal of the Bohemian Museum published there in Czech had a profound influence on Czech literature.

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The current building was erected from 1885 to 1891 thanks to architect Josef Schulz. The edifice survived World War II but not without damage. The items normally housed in the museum had been transferred to another location, fortunately. Still, that wouldn’t be the last time the National Museum became a victim of historical events. When the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Prague in August of 1968, the Soviets shot at the museum, riddling it with bullet holes. The Russians also destroyed some sculptures, for instance. During 1969, university student Jan Palach set fire to himself as a protest against the rigid normalization period in front of the museum. He would succumb to his injuries in the hospital. The National Museum was also damaged during the construction of the Prague Metro in 1972. Six years later a large highway around the museum would prove a detriment.

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The museum has served as a backdrop for many demonstrations and events throughout Czech history. I recalled the museum looming in the background as I walked around the State of Saint Wenceslas in December of 2011, observing all the candles and tributes to former dissident-turned-president Václav Havel shortly after his death. I had set a rose in front of the statue. Thinking back, I missed those days when Havel had been in the Castle.

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The exterior of the National Museum that dominates Wenceslas Square is noteworthy. Sandstone statues, stucco and exquisite reliefs all add to its elegance and distinction. Allegorical statues are situated above a fountain, for example. The building consists of a large central tower with a dome and a lantern. There are four domes. A pantheon is located beneath the main dome. The exterior staircase is grandiose, too. In front of the museum, there is a splendid view of Wenceslas Square.

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The moment I stepped inside the museum I was again entranced with its elegance. The entrance hall consisted of a monumental staircase fit for royalty with a coffered ceiling and 20 tall columns of red Swedish granite. Above are two floors with decorated arcades and beautiful floors. Upstairs I saw portraits of rulers of Bohemia and four paintings of significant castles in Bohemia – Prague Castle, Karlštejn, Zvíkov and Křivoklát. I loved spending my spring and summer weekends castle-hopping. I remember the many strolls I took to Prague Castle across the Charles Bridge many early mornings when I first moved to Prague and resided in the center. The chapel at Karlštejn Castle was one of the most beautiful sights in a castle interior. I also spent time admiring the 12 depictions of historical places in Bohemia, such as that of Český Krumlov, the most picturesque town in the country after Prague with its castle boasting three tours and Baroque theatre as well as extensive castle garden. Bronze busts rounded out the decoration.

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The pantheon is perhaps my favorite section of the museum because it celebrates Czech history and culture, two subjects dear to my heart. The paintings, statues and busts serve as poignant reminders of the nation’s cultural accomplishments and historical contributions. Even the door of the pantheon is magnificent with its rich woodcarving. In the pantheon I found statues of Czech historical figures who have made me excited about the nation’s history – František Palacký, a 19th century historian, politician and writer dubbed The Father of the Nation. His seven-volume History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia remains a significant source of information for modern day historians. He also was a major participant in the Czech National Revival.

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Jan Amos Comenius’s likeness was there, too. He was a religious and educational reformer who authored textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries as well as one of the most important works of Czech literature, The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart. The statue of Antonín Dvořák made me think of his New World Symphony, which I saw the Czech Philharmonic perform in an awe-inspiring concert. Karel Čapek’s statue brought to mind my graduate studies that in part focused on his plethora of works of various genres. The paintings in the chamber are also extraordinary. One of the lunettes that celebrates Czech history in the pantheon shows the founding of Prague University, now Charles University, in 1348 with Emperor Charles IV playing the central role.

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The statue of first Czechoslovak President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk has an intriguing history. It was removed during World War II and slated to be melted, but somehow survived a tenure in a junkyard and was reinstalled after the war. During the Stalinist 1950s, the government wasn’t exactly enthralled with Masaryk, so his statue was placed in the depository. When the liberal reforms of the 1968 Prague Spring were in full swing, the statue of Masaryk was reinstated in the pantheon. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Masaryk’s likeness remained there, even though the Communists did not put him in a favorable light. If I could live in another time period, I would choose the 1920s of Czechoslovakia, when the country was freshly on a democratic path with Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk leading the way.

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Once again, the building cast a magical spell on me as I felt overwhelmed by the painting and sculptural decoration. Both the exterior and interior were filled with a sense of grandeur and splendor that made me reluctant to leave.

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

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View of Wenceslas Square from the National Museum

The Old National Gallery in Berlin Diary

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One of my favorite museums in Berlin, the Old National Gallery has the shape of a temple from antiquity, which appealed to me. The museum opened in 1876. While it suffered damage during World War II, it was renovated and opened again in 1949. From 1998 to 2001 it underwent modern reconstruction.

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I was so impressed with the collection collection of 19th century art, which ranges in style from NeoClassicist, Romantic to Impressionist. Because Impressionism is my favorite period, I was most struck by the paintings of that era, specifically by the works of Monet. I also admired paintings by Manet and Renoir. The museum also is home to the largest collection of paintings by Adolph Menzel, who I had not heard of previously.

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While I was visiting in 2018, there was a fantastic temporary exhibition called Wanderlust. It featured 19th century paintings of landscapes with travelers on foot. I had become a much stronger person from traveling alone, and it reminded me of all my solitary journeys to places unknown. The paintings could represent a person’s journey through life.

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From Wanderlust exhibition

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From Wanderlust exhibition

I was particularly enamored by the Italian settings of Naples and Sicily in several paintings. I thought back to my trips to those places as I had discovered many gems in Italy and would develop a love for Italy almost as strong as my passion for the Czech Republic.

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

From Permanent Exhibition

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Wanderlust Temporary Exhibition

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My favorite painting in the temporary exhibition

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National Gallery of Le Marche in Urbino Diary

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One of my most memorable experiences of my trip with arsviva to Le Marche and Umbria was my visit to the National Gallery of Le Marche in Urbino, a medieval town with steep, romantic streets, a stunning cathedral and the intriguing museum at the birthplace of master painter Raphael. The gallery is located in a majestic building – the Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, built in the 15th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We entered a elegant porticoed courtyard. The collection focuses on the Renaissance period, with works by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello and Titian, for instance. Raphael’s masterpiece La Muta, Uccello’s six-panel Miracle of the Desecrated Host and Titian’s The Resurrection are three of the many gems in this collection. The building also includes a small study that is decorated in trompe-l’oel style. The intarsia work is this room is remarkable. I especially love the squirrel! The doors boast latticework.

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

Museum of City History in Leipzig Diary

While visiting Leipzig on a day trip, I spent nearly two hours in the Museum of City History, which documents the history of the city that was first mentioned in writing during 1015 and founded as a town in 1165. The museum is located in the first Renaissance hall in Germany, built in 1556. It functioned as the town hall until 1905. The Museum of City History has been housed there since 1909. There was a special exhibition called “Modern Times,” which dealt with 200 years of city history from the revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849 to 1995. I learned about the development of trade fairs, industrialization, life during the Weimar Republic with the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression of 1929, the history of publishing houses in the city, the Nazi regime during World War II, the nationalization of companies and founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949, the role music played in the city, the 1989 demonstrations and the first free elections in 1990 after two dictatorial regimes that lasted 58 years. In many respects, the history of Leipzig was the history of Germany, and I was fascinated about life during the Weimar Republic and life during East Germany’s existence, for instance.

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