2022 Travel Diary

Milan Duomo, one of the highlights of my year of travels

This past year was punctuated by trips to riveting sights in the Czech Republic and Italy. As usual, I went castlehopping on day trips during the spring, summer and fall. My jaunts took me to Sychrov, Mělník, Konopiště and Maleč, to name a few. I visited the former flat of a legendary 19th century historian called The Father of the Nation and his son-in-law, a politician nicknamed The Leader of the Nation. I also visited their chateau out of Prague. I toured the exhibition at the Strž Villa, where Karel Čapek and his wife Olga Scheinpflugová spent three years and three months in the 1930s.

 Exterior of Milan Cathedral

I also enjoyed a week in what is probably my favorite Italian city, Milan, where I saw the most amazing art galleries and stunning architecture. From the Duomo to the Church of Saint Maurizio to the Poldi Pezzoli Gallery to the Ambrosiana to The Last Supper, I was overwhelmed by the incredible artistic creations the city had to offer.

The Last Supper, displayed in Milan

While I did not visit many temporary art exhibitions this past year, the ones I did go to left very positive and powerful impressions. I was lucky to be able to buy tickets for the Titian and Sorella exhibitions in Milan, both so comprehensive and exhilarating. I loved the way Titian masterfully created the material of his models’ clothing; it looked so real. You can almost feel the material just by looking at it. I loved Sorella’s beach scenes and landscapes. I had visited his former home, now a museum, in Madrid, so I was familiar with his work.

From the Kooperativa exhibition

In Prague I went to a few exhibitions. I saw a show at the Kooperativa featuring the theme of water in 19th and 20th century Czech landscapes. Artists such as Julius Mařák, Antonín Hudeček, Václav Špála and Josef Čapek were represented there. My favorite was a tranquil, snowy scene, seemingly out of a Bruegel painting. Čapek’s portrayal of two fishermen also captured my attention. Mařák’s forest landscapes were mystical and magical.

From the East Bohemian Gallery in Pardubice

I also went to Pardubice, where I was immersed in the 19th and 20th century Czech landscape painting at the East Bohemian Art Gallery. The works of Jan Zrzavý, Hudeček, Antonín Slavíček, Antonin Chittussi and Špála all captivated me.

By Peter Paul Rubens from the Prague Castle Gallery

I also saw the temporary exhibition of the Prague Castle Gallery’s permanent collection that had been started by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. I learned about the history of the collection, which was fascinating, and I saw masterpieces by Peter Paul Rubens, Paolo Veronese and many others.

By Alphonse Mucha

Copy of stained-glass window at St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague, created by Alphonse Mucha

I was enamored by the exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s art in Mucha: The Family Collection at the Wallenstein Riding Stables. While Mucha is best known for his posters featuring Sarah Bernhardt, this exhibition also highlighted his drawings, paintings, sculptures, photos and jewelry. Some works were on display for the first time. I especially loved the reproductions of his stained-glass windows for Saint Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague.

Jan Werich

From furnished rooms at Werich Villa

About my day trips: Let’s start in Prague. This year I visited the Werich Villa exhibition for the first time. Located on Prague’s Kampa Island, the villa was the home of actor Jan Werich from 1945 until his death in 1980. I liked the photos from the avant-garde plays of the Liberated Theatre best. The dramatic creations from the 1920s and 1930s were parodies of Dadaistic absurdity inspired by Charlie Chaplin and punctuated by jazz music. I also was captivated by the two rooms made to look as they did when Werich had lived there. Everything from the abstract painting of him and his colleague as actors at the Liberated Theatre to the Ballantine bottle of gin made me feel as if I got a sense of the atmosphere that had prevailed during the decades Werich had lived there.

The legendary Golem in the movie by the same name. Werich starred in the film.

Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec at the Liberated Theatre

I visited the former flat of the first Czech historian František Palacký on Palacký Street in the city center for the first time in many years. I tried to imagine the bubbling conversations in the 19th century living room as the leaders of the Czech National Revival, who were promoting the Czech language and Czech culture, gathered there with Palacký’s family. I saw the desk where Palacký wrote his History of the Czech Nation as well as intriguing sculptures, paintings and portraits. The guide pointed at a box and told me that Palacký’s brain was inside. I wish the guide would have opened it!

Bust of František Palacký at Maleč Chateau

Bust of F.L. Rieger at Maleč Chateau

His son-in-law František Ladislav Rieger, who organized the first Czech encyclopedia and led a powerful political party, also lived at that address with his family as he had married Palacký’s daughter Marie. I saw the desk where he had labored over the encyclopedia volumes and paintings of his modest birthplace. I also saw the beds in which Palacký and Rieger died.

Piano that was often played by Antonín Dvořák

Funeral of F.L. Rieger

The Main Hall where the leaders of the Czech National Revival often gathered

Then I visited Maleč Chateau outside of Prague, a place where Palacký and Rieger had spent much time. The chateau hosted an exhibition about the two and the time periods in which they lived. There, I saw pictures of visiting Americans from Cleveland and Chicago gathered outside Palacký’s flat in Prague and another showing an American group at the chateau. I liked the portrait of Rieger by František Ženíšek and the piano once played by Antonín Dvořák, a frequent visitor to the chateau. The personalities of the Czech National Revival had once gathered in the main hall, which featured an exquisite chandelier, Renaissance stucco decoration and frescoes depicting landscapes. While looking at the picture of Rieger’s crowded funeral procession, I felt as if I was there among the masses dressed in black, mourning a national figure.

Konopiště Chateau

In the spring I took the third tour at Konopiště Chateau, a place I had visited at least eight or nine times. I hadn’t been on the tour of Franz Ferdinand d’Este’s private apartments for many years. I loved the portraits lining one hallway. The historical figures included Dante Alighieri, Titian and Christopher Columbus. In one room there were 1,307 hunting trophies. I enjoyed seeing the family’s photos from their travels in the late 19th and early 20th century.

View from Konopiště Chateau

We briefly visited the chapel, perhaps my favorite of all Czech chateaus with its gold stars dotting the blue ceiling, stained glass windows and Renaissance sculptures. Near the end of the tour, I was reminded of that tragic day in June of 1914, when Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that triggered the first world war. I saw a bloodied handkerchief, one of the bullets from Gavrilo Princip’s pistol and the death masks of the royal married couple.

Arcades of Mělnik Chateau

At Mělnik Chateau I was once again overcome with amazement when I peered at detailed 17th century maps of European cities in the Big Hall and the small 18th century black-and-white vedutas of European cities in the Small Hall. The artwork at Mělnik was incredible. I saw paintings by Baroque legendary artists Karel Škréta and Petr Brandl and even a painting by Veronese. I yearned to show this chateau to my parents.

Front page of Lidové noviny announcing Karel Čapek’s death

Karel Čapek and his wife Olga Scheinpflugová

I also visited the museum of the legendary and versatile Czech writer Karel Čapek at what once was his villa in Stará huť. At the Strž Villa I saw 3-D diagrams of stage sets from his plays and the desk where he had written many works. The exhibition included photos of his childhood, pictures of his dogs and cat, and the front page of Lidové noviny newspaper with the large, bold headline announcing his death in 1938. Sections of the exhibition were devoted to his wife, a famous actress, and his brother, a prominent painter and writer.

Staircase at Sychrov Chateau

Neo-Gothic facade of Sychrov Chateau

Another chateau I visited for maybe the fourth time was the Neo-Gothic Sychrov in north Bohemia. The Rohan portrait gallery included 242 portraits of French origin, including French kings and queens as well as members of the Rohan family, who owned the chateau for 125 years. It ranks as the biggest collection of French portrait painting in Central Europe. A narrow, spiral, wooden staircase as well as rich wood paneling and leather wallpaper in many rooms also caught my attention.

La Scala Opera House

Finally, this past year I made it to Milan! In this magical city I had so many memorable experiences. I watched some minutes of a rehearsal of Giaconda in the royal box at La Scala Opera House. I finally saw The Last Supper with my own eyes, although we were only allowed to stay in the space for 15 minutes.

Stained-glass window at Milan Cathedral

I gazed at the mostly Gothic exterior of the Duomo at six in the morning, when the square was free of pedestrian traffic. The stained-glass windows inside and the views from the rooftop were other highlights. The artifacts of the Museo del Duomo, including the original stained-glass windows, tapestries and gargoyles, added more context to the tour of the Duomo.

The Basilica of Saint Ambrose

The Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio was one of the most beautiful Romanesque buildings in the world, originating in the fourth century AD and getting its current appearance from a 12th century makeover. The 19th century shopping gallery Galleria Vittorio Emaneuele II with its mosaics on the floor and near the dome was stunning. The bookstore in the shopping gallery was comprehensive and huge, just the way I liked them. I saw impressive vedutas of Milan Cathedral, Alpine scenes and paintings of the Navigli district of Milan as well as sculpture by Antonio Canova in the Gallerie d’Italia.

In the Ambrosiana

The Ambrosiana’s library stunned me. I gazed at the Leonardo da Vinci drawings of inventions in the Codice Atlantico exhibition as well as the library itself, such an overwhelming place. I loved the paintings in the Ambrosiana, too. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Musician, Titian’s Adoration of the Magi, Botticelli’s Madonna del Padiglione, the paintings by Francesco Hayez, Paul Brill’s fantastic landscapes and Jan Bruegel’s fantasy-tinged renditions all impressed me. Caravaggio’s superb depiction of a bowl of fruit was another highlight.

At the Brera Art Gallery

The Brera Art Gallery was another superb cultural venue. I was enthralled with the Italian paintings from the 13th to 20th centuries, including works by Raphael, Andrea Mantegna, Donato Bramante, Titian, Veronese, Caravaggio, Giovanni Bellini and Bernardino Luini. Flemish art also made an appearance. I was overwhelmed by the paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and Anton van Dyck. And who could forget the vedutas of Venice by Canaletto and the famous painting The Kiss by Francesco Hayez?

Museum of the Risorgimento

Around the corner from the Brera, I stopped in the Museo del Risorgimento, which featured 14 rooms of paintings, prints, sculptures and artifacts depicting Italian historical events from the call for Italian independence to the Italian unification. I learned about Napoleon’s reign in Italy as well as the Austrian monarchy’s control of what would later become a unified and independent Italy. I spent a lot of time staring at the photos of soldiers in the Album of the Thousands, the volunteers in  the Expedition of the Thousand. Portraits of the 1,089 soldiers in business card format made up this album. I loved the paintings that brought the turbulent era to life, such as those by Stragliati and Canella.

At the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum

While I loved these museums, my two favorites had been former homes, the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi and Museo Poldi Pezzoli, the first located in an apartment, the second situated in a palace. Two brothers collected Renaissance and Neo-Renaissance art – tapestries, paintings, sculpture and weapons – at the end of the 1800s to decorate the interior of their apartment, which would later become the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi. It is one of the best-preserved house museums in Europe. The furnishings were diverse – Italian, British, German, French, Japanese and Spanish, for instance. It had a more intimate feel than the Poldi Pezzoli, though that was an amazing museum as well.

At the Museum of Poldi Pezzoli

The art collection in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli came into existence during the 19th century, when the Poldi Pezzoli noble family lived there. Artists represented there included Giovanni Bellini, Mantegna, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Hayez, Tiepolo and Canaletto as well as Lucas Cranach the Elder. Many Renaissance and Baroque works punctuate the collection. An armory, a glass collection, ceramics and tapestries also make up the superb objects on display.

The Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan was another highlight. The villa, now a museum, was built from 1932 to 1935 and included an enchanting garden, the first private pool in Milan and second pool in the city plus tennis courts. The exterior is an example of Italian rationalism with a no-frills attitude of simplicity.

A work by Picasso in the Villa Necchi Campiglio

The interior included Art Deco décor. The Smoking Room featured a large Renaissance fireplace while many paintings and much sculpture from Italian artists in the early 1900s dotted the house museum. Paintings by Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico and Umberto Boccioni come to mind. Parts of the villa also exuded the atmosphere of the 1800s due to a reconstruction. Some 130 works of art hail from this period – Canaletto and Tiepolo were represented. I also saw intriguing ceramics and Chinese porcelain. The spaces themselves were architecturally evocative.

Main altar at the Church of San Maurizio

The interior of the church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore was a work of art in itself. Divided into two parts, it included a vaulted nave and vaulted chapels plus the Hall of Nuns. The Renaissance church featured 16th century frescoes by Bernardino Luini, his brothers and his son. On the dividing wall in the Hall of Nuns, I gazed at Bernardino Luini’s creations from the 1530s – the figures of Saint Catherine and Saint Agatha as well as scenes from the Marriage at Cana and the Carrying of the Cross of Christ. I also saw his frescoes showing the life of Saint Maurizio. In one chapel Bernardino Luini rendered the martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The main altar with the painting of the Adoration of the Magi by Antonio Campi took my breath away, too.

The Last Supper

At long last I saw The Last Supper in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church. It was a dream come true. The moment following Christ’s assertion that one of those seated at the table would betray him was masterfully portrayed. The facial expressions and body language are works of art in themselves. As Christ utters those immortal words, all the dinner guests look riddled with horror except Judas, who clutches his silver ever so tightly. Even though we were only allowed to be in the room for 15 minutes, I was overcome with amazement at the Renaissance fresco in front of me. It told a complex story so clearly. I was in awe of those gestures and facial expressions.

Gallerie d’Italia in Milan

In the Czech Republic, I had mostly traveled to places I had been before, except for Maleč Chateau, the Strž Villa and the Werich Villa. I saw Milan for the first time, though the trip had been planned and cancelled during two years. I was in awe of the sights I rediscovered and those I experienced for the first time. The visits were eye-opening as I learned new information about Czech and Italian history and culture. The exhibitions of painting, sculpture and more also proved poignant and powerful.

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

Duomo Museum in Milan

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Mucha: The Family Collection Exhibition Diary

I have been a fan of Alphonse Mucha’s Art Nouveau works ever since I came to Prague in the 1990s. While he is best known for his exhilarating posters of actress Sarah Bernhardt, Mucha was a very versatile artist – as is evidenced in this comprehensive exhibition of creations owned by his descendants. The first extensive showing of his works in 30 years is housed at Prague’s Waldstein Palace. The exhibition highlights not only the advertising posters but also his drawings, paintings, sculptures, photos and jewelry, for instance. The family displays some originals to the public for the first time.  

Family portraits evoking Mucha’s childhood add an intimate feel to the exhibition. Born in Ivančice, Moravia, Mucha called home a building that also included the town jail. The Czech lands were under Austrian rule when Mucha grew up. They were part of the Habsburg Empire in which German was the official language. Yet, during that era, the Czech National Revival took place, when Czech nationalists promoted Czech culture and the Czech language.

At the end of 1894, Mucha became a star overnight when he designed a poster for Bernhardt’s production of Gismonda. The following year he created posters that decorated calendars, postcards and menus as well as theatre programs. His work would find enthusiastic audiences in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Munich, London, New York and other cities during subsequent years.

I loved how, in his advertising posters, Mucha utilized folk features not only found in Czech art but also in Byzantine, Islamic, Japanese, Gothic, Judaic, Celtic and Rococo works. Much of this genre focuses on beautiful, young women with an optimistic and cheerful flair. They are wearing flowing robes in pastel colors. I loved the touches of floral and plant ornamentation plus arabesques and naturalistic elements, too.

The exhibition boasted family portraits and photos, such as those of his friends Paul Gaugin and Auguste Rodin. Gaugin even was Mucha’s housemate for a while. During the Paris Exposition Universalle of 1900, Mucha represented Austria-Hungary as the show focused on the accomplishments of the past century. I had not known that in 1899 Mucha had designed a jewelry collection that was featured at this major show. One of the jewelry pieces on display at the exhibition features a snake-shaped broach that Bernhardt wore during her portrayal as Medusa. I also was captivated by Mucha’s decorations for a German theatre in the USA. He would wind up making three trips to the United States, hailed by The New York Daily News as “the world’s greatest decorative artist.”

Works in the exhibition illustrated how mysticism had influenced him. His philosophy is also apparent in his creations. For example, he believed in beauty, truth and love to guide him on the spiritual path. For a monument he created a triptych called The Age of Reason, the Age of Wisdom and the Age of Love, fusing these three characteristics into one piece of art. Unfortunately, Mucha didn’t get the chance to finish it.

Perhaps what always captivates me the most about Mucha’s art is his emphasis on Slav identity. Indeed, his phenomenal Slav Epic paintings feature the heroic tales of the Slavs in 20 historical, symbolic canvases. Several reproductions of these works at the exhibition reinforced Mucha’s identity as a Czech and Slav patriot.

I saw panels devoted to Mucha’s decorations in the Municipal House, for which he designed numerous pieces – three wall panels, a ceiling painting depicting prominent Czech personalities, eight pendentives and furnishings. I remember seeing these for myself on tours of the Art Nouveau Municipal House, something I recommend to every Prague visitor. It is notable that, while Mucha’s works often were rooted in Slav identity in the past, he also looked to the future for a prosperous Czech nation.

I was enamored by the reproductions of his stained-glass window designs. The originals decorate the interior of Saint Vitus’ Cathedral at Prague Castle. In 1931 he portrayed Saint Wenceslas, the nation’s patron saint, as a child with his grandmother Saint Ludmila in a central panel along with other panels featuring the lives and work of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Seeing examples of his colorful and vibrant stained glass renditions close-up was for me one of the highlights of this exhibition.

Mucha’s life was cut short by the arrival of the Nazis in Prague, where they set up the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during March of 1939. The 79-year-old Mucha, riddled with health problems, was targeted by the Gestapo. Mucha was a Freemason, Judeophile and a promoter of democratic Czechoslovakia. He was one of the first to be interrogated by the Nazis. Mucha was stricken with pneumonia due to the strain from grueling interrogations and died in Prague 10 days short of his 79th birthday on July 14th, 1939. He is now buried in Prague’s Vyšehrad Cemetery along with other prominent Czechs.

This exhibition takes museumgoers on a unique and unforgettable journey from his childhood roots in Moravia to his time as an outsider in Paris to his experiences in the democratic Czechoslovakia until his untimely death. It stresses his identity as a Moravian, as a Czech, as a Slav and as a European. It shows his accomplishments in the art scene by displaying an eclectic collection of his creations that profoundly punctuated the artistic world.

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

Prague Castle Picture Gallery Diary

Joseph Heintz the Elder – The Last Judgement

The permanent collection of the Prague Castle Picture Gallery has been closed since 2019 due to an air-conditioning defect and a lack of financial means for repairs. A special exhibition of about half of the collection’s works opened at the Castle’s Imperial Stables during July of 2022 and will last for three months.

Veronese – Saint Catherine of Alexandria with an Angel

The Picture Gallery originated during the reign of Emperor Rudolf II, at the end of the 16th century. Rudolf II chose Prague as his residence when he was Holy Roman Emperor. The ruler was passionate about collecting works of art – paintings, curiosities, statues and more. For almost 30 years, Rudolf II amassed artifacts, and inherited other pieces. He exhibited his vast art collection in the then newly constructed north wing of the Castle, the part of the complex where he built the Spanish Hall. The majority of his painting collection was Italian in origin.

Joos van Cleve – Altarpiece with the Adoration of the Shephards, Saint Jerome with the Donor and Three Sons and Saint Lucy with the Donor and Three Daughters

Stellar artists worked as court painters in Prague: Hans von Aachen, Bartholomeus Spranger, Pieter Stevens and many others. First, allow me to mention Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a portrait painter serving Emperor Maximilian II and Emperor Ferdinand I. Arcimboldo began serving the emperor in 1562. Rudolf, the son of the emperor, was very taken with his work. He composed still lifes for Rudolf, and, after Arcimboldo returned to Milan in 1587 due to illness, he had a now famous portrait of Rudolf, called Vertumnus, sent to Prague. Arcimboldo’s portraits were allegorical, often composed of various objects that would make up the person’s head, for instance.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – Saint Catherine, Saint Barbara and fragments of the figures of Saint Dorothea and Saint Margaret, from Prague Altarpiece

Hans von Aachen was Rudolf II’s favorite when he was emperor. He began painting for Rudolf II in 1592 and wound up making Prague his home, where he created his best portraits. The painter became good friends with Rudolf II, too. The picture gallery still has von Aachen’s portrait of his daughter Maria Maxmiliana. His style was a precursor to the Baroque features that would later dominate Czech art.

Bartholomeus Spranger – Allegory on the Triumph of Fedelity over Destiny

Spranger’s tenure in Prague lasted from 1580 to 1590. His often complicated and ornate works displayed Mannerist features. Spranger created numerous paintings for the Rudolfine collection. In 1607, Spranger created Allegory on the Triumph of Fidelity over Destiny – Allegory on the Fate of Hans Mont, referring to the sculpture to worked for Rudolf II until an eye injury prevented him from doing so. Mont’s whereabouts were unknown. This is one of Spranger’s paintings that has remained at the Castle throughout the centuries. He also created a masterful portrait of Jacob König, a German goldsmith who was selling antiques in Italy.

Pieter Stevens – Forest Landscape with a Water Mill

Pieter Stevens was another masterful court painter. He resided in Bohemia with his family and excelled at landscapes, influenced by Paul Brill and Hans Bol. He often portrayed village scenes or rendered forests and mountains in his unique way.

In 1585, Rudolf II’s collection was comprised of 3,000 paintings, including many Italian, Dutch, Flemish and German works, not to mention the numerous curiosities and statues.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Ill-Matched Couple

After Rudolf II died in 1612, his successor Emperor Matthias had many of Rudolf’s paintings taken to Vienna, where he had his imperial residence. The Bohemian Estates sold some of Rudolf’s works so they had enough money to pay their soldiers. After the Catholics defeated the Protestant nobles in the Battle of White Mountain during 1620, Archduke Maximilian of Bavaria confiscated many of the works. Others were destroyed. During 1630, while the Thirty Years’ War was raging, Saxon soldiers took over Prague Castle and stole much of the artwork.

Bassano – The Good Samaritan

When the Swedes occupied Prague Castle in 1648, they took some of Rudolf’s collection to Queen Christina in Stockholm, but the most significant works had already been sent to Vienna. The queen sold some of the artwork and gave away others. She also took her favorites to her residence in Italy. Part of the collection was destroyed in a fire at the Royal Palace of Stockholm. Some works stayed in Prague when the Swedes took control because they were hidden.

Tintoretto – Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery

A few paintings made their way to England, becoming part of Lord Buckingham’s collection. Several were returned to Prague from Vienna. Other paintings were sold in Europe. Empress Maria Theresa had the picture gallery at the Castle shut down. In 1782 many of the Rudolfine artworks were sold at auction.

Domenico Fetti – Saint Jerome

Some paintings have perhaps miraculously remained at Prague Castle throughout the trials and tribulations of history. Paolo Veronese’s Portrait of Jakob König and Christ Washing the Feet of his Disciples as well as The Adoration of the Shepherds became property of the gallery in the middle of the 17th century and never left. Titian’s Young Woman at Her Toilet has called Prague Castle home since the 18th century. Several of the paintings by the Bassano brothers have remained in Prague, though many were transported to Vienna.

Bassano – September

In 1796, Czech aristocrats and burghers organized the Picture Gallery of Patriotic Friends of the Arts in Prague, which would later become the National Gallery. Some paintings were not sent to Vienna because they were on loan at the time to this Prague society. The year after its creation, the group was able to get 67 of Rudolf’s paintings back from Vienna. Gradually, they obtained more and more paintings from Vienna.

In 1918 Czechoslovakia was formed, and Prague Castle became the office of the president. In 1930 the Masaryk Fund began to purchase paintings for Prague Castle. During the Nazi Occupation some of the paintings hung at the president’s summer residence of Lány and others stayed at Prague Castle.

Peter Paul Rubens – The Annunciation to the Virgin

Much reconstruction took place at Prague Castle from 1960 to 1961. The National Gallery Commission brought many paintings to the National Gallery and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. Many paintings were stored in a depository at Opočno Chateau during 1961. After the reconstruction, the Prague Castle Painting Gallery was established, taking up six rooms and including works of Titian, Rubens, Veronese and Tintoretto. German masters and Baroque artists from the Czech lands and the Netherlands also made up the collection.

Titian – The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist

The Velvet Revolution of November of 1989 triggered the downfall of Communism. A few years later, in 1993, the Prague Castle Administration was set up. One of its purposes was to organize new exhibitions at the painting gallery. From 1995 to 1998, much reconstruction took place at the Castle, and the Prague Castle Administration bought more paintings from Rudolf’s collection.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – Portrait of a Lady with an Apple

There has not been such a vast collection at Prague Castle since Rudolf’s death. It is impossible to faithfully recreate the Rudolfine collection because there are not enough inventories. Many of the paintings taken during the Thirty Years’ War have disappeared. Still, the Prague Castle Picture Gallery houses 120 outstanding works, including ones from the original collection.

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

Veronese – Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples
Johann Heinrich Schonfeld – Battle of Jericho
Peeter Snayer – An Ambush in a Village

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.

Rembrandt Exhibition Portrait of a Man Diary

I had enthusiastically sought out Rembrandt’s works at various galleries throughout Europe. I had marveled at his masterful chiaroscuro at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, at the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, at the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, at the Louvre in Paris and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to name a few.

One of my favorite memories of traveling with my parents was visiting the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, which included a printmaking studio as well as some of his paintings and prints. Rembrandt lived there from 1639 until 1656, when financial woes forced him to move. None of the furnishings is original because he had sold them, but the 17th century interior still delighted and awed both my parents and myself. We were happy. I had recently turned 30 while my parents were still young enough to travel abroad without health concerns. Therefore, Rembrandt’s works had a personal meaning for me, evoking such memories of joy.

I was very excited when the Rembrandt exhibition of his portraits came to Kinský Palace on Old Town Square in Prague on September 25, 2020. The palace’s space for the exhibition took up one floor and was considerable in size. Even though it didn’t end until January 31, 2021, I was eager to see the masterpieces. I went there shortly after it opened, on September 28. Many of the works were normally displayed in Prague, Olomouc, Brno, New York, Antwerp, London, Dresden and Vienna while others had been loaned from private collections. The exhibition featured both his paintings and drawings as well as modern works inspired by the masterful artist. It was a good thing I went so soon after its opening because soon the gallery would be closed due to the high number of coronavirus cases. We had to wear masks, and it was quite crowded, even though only a limited number of people could be in the gallery at the same time. (The gallery would reopen in December.)

The highlight of the exhibition was the painting A Scholar in His Study, permanently housed in Prague’s National Gallery. The painting exemplifies how Rembrandt achieved great success at portraiture. His work shows not only the physical characteristics of the subject but also the psychological nature of the man in a dramatic way that is unique to Rembrandt’s style.

I was most entranced by Rembrandt’s portraits because they showed the soul of the person. The subject was not standing rigidly. The appearance was very lifelike. Moreover, there was much more to his paintings than the appearance. I felt as if I could look deep into the people in the portraits as his works narrated a visual story of the subject’s life. His portraits showed that he truly cared about the subject.

I especially was keen on the self-portraits as Rembrandt showed his inner self, capturing his psychological state. It was as if he could be objective about himself. I could read the self-portraits as a sort of visual autobiography – as a young man Rembrandt looked a bit insecure, at the peak of his career he appeared successful and confident and finally I saw a sadness and resignation that was both touching and tragic. I recalled his sad fate – a poor man when he died, he was buried in an unknown grave in a church, and his remains were destroyed after resting there for 20 years.

I liked the portraits in which he was making faces. In one particular work, he looked surprised and amazed. I noticed his clothes from bygone eras in some works as he dressed as a historical figure for some self-portraits. A theatre major, I loved the sense of drama in these works.

The self-portraits were dynamic and powerful. This effect was in part achieved by his mastery of light and shadow. I also appreciated the details. His works featured great attention to detail, and that helped bring the portraits to life.

While I made sure I didn’t stand too close to anyone, I perused the works with a sense of enthusiasm that I had missed since early September, when my friend and I stopped visiting castles, chateaus and caves because the number of coronavirus cases had greatly increased. I reveled in that enthusiasm.

I thought I would have the chance to visit other exhibitions in the near future. Alas, soon the museums and galleries closed for a lengthy period, only opening again in December. I missed the excitement of peering at an artwork that spoke to me, that was powerful and poignant.

The Portrait of a Man exhibition was one of my favorite all-time exhibitions. Rembrandt’s works never cease to amaze me, and seeing so many in one place was phenomenal.

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

Průhonice Park Diary

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I have been to Průhonice Park many times, exploring its 250 acres of natural beauty and admiring its Neo-Renaissance Chateau and its graffito façade commemorating the fight between St. George and the dragon. Some highlights of the English style park include open meadows dotted by haystacks, three lakes, brooks and waterfalls as well as many intriguing floral and woody species. I enjoyed the view from the lookout terrace of the chateau and always found myself awe-struck by the views of the chateau from the park. I particularly liked the chateau’s reflection in the lake.

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The views from this park near Prague are so calming, even more so as a pandemic ravages the world. While walking around the park with a friend, I thought of my parents in the USA, both in their eighties, and worried about them catching COVID-19. I always worried about them, ever since the coronavirus came to America. Somehow gazing at haystacks in an open meadow and seeing the chateau’s beauty from a distance made me less anxious. Of course, I also worried about friends in the States, here in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the world. I had friends in the States who were essential workers and worried about them not having suitable PPE, for instance.

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The park was the masterpiece of Arnošt Emanuel Silva-Tarouca, who married Marie Antonie Countess Nostic-Rieneck and moved to Průhonice, where he created the park and had the chateau undergo a transformation in neo-Renaissance style.

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I loved the flowers, too, especially the rose beds. Other flowers seen in the park include dwarf iris, Chinese Sargent hydrangea, Dog’s tooth violet, Asian skunk cabbage, primroses, rhododendrons and woody yellow peonies. My mother’s favorite flowers – tulips – were present as well. Woody species feature English oak, Nikko maples, Norway spruce, Douglas fir trees, Bosnian pine and copper beeches.

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I was glad to visit the park with a friend as often I had come there alone previously. While I like to walk through parks alone and mull over life’s trials and tribulations, I also needed occasionally to travel with someone, to share the experience and make animated conversation.

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We found a terrific restaurant away from the central drag, which boasted pizzerias rather than Czech or international food. We were the only people in the restaurant, seated on the scenic terrace, when we arrived. I had beef with dumplings, one of my favorite Czech foods. It was a delightful way to end a day trip that had featured calming thoughts and amazing scenery.

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

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Wallenstein Gardens Diary

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I have taken many strolls through Wallenstein Gardens in Malá Strana (the Little Quarter) to clear my head or bask in beautiful weather on a weekend afternoon. Once I met a friend whom I hadn’t seen for 10 years there, and it was an unforgettable reunion as we walked by all the remarkable features of the gardens. I also was thrilled to show my parents this gem situated behind the Malostranská Metro, near the Wallenstein Riding School, a building housing fantastic temporary art exhibitions. For me it has been an oasis of tranquility, a place of eternal wonder no matter how many times I set foot on its grounds. One minute I am on a busy street near the Metro, the next I am in a sort of paradise with Prague Castle in the horizon, giving the gardens a dreamy character. Whenever I saw the Castle in the distance, I thought back to my many morning walks there during 1991, when the sellers on the Charles Bridge were just beginning to set up their stands.

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The Senate occupies Wallenstein Palace in the gardens that date back to the original construction of the palace, between 1620 and 1630. The complex is named after Albrecht von Wallenstein, a military hero of the Thirty Years’ War who commanded the Catholic army. He only lived in that palace for about one year because he was assassinated in Cheb on the orders of Emperor with whom Wallenstein had serious disagreements.

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The Early Baroque Italian gardens feature a pond boasting a statue of Hercules, a Renaissance fountain, much statuary, a grotto wall, an aviary and a sala terrena with fantastic arches. Peacocks saunter on the grounds. The limestone wall has some grottoes and is situated next to an aviary that features an eagle owl. The grottoes and aviary date back to the original structure. Rows of bronze statues include the pairs Adonis and Venus; Apollo and Bacchus; Hercules and the Centaur; and Neptune and Laocoon as well as his sons. Sandstone statues also abound. A marble fountain displays a bronze statue of Venus and Cupid.

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The sala terrena, an open and arched structure, is the dominant feature of the gardens. I always spend a lot of time staring at the ceiling and walls. While the ceiling features mythological frescoes, three lunettes show pictorial narratives of the Trojan War, and medallions portray heroes of Trojan Wars.

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Major renovation on the gardens took place from 2000 to 2001. Then the floods of 2002 ravaged the gardens. It was reconstructed, though. Various types of trees adorn the gardens, such as English oak, honey locust, magnolias and figs.

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

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Misunderstandings Diary

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An American who has been living in the Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia since 1991, I have had numerous misunderstandings with Czechs – some concerned traditions, others had to do with language.

Valentine’s Day

As a child growing up in the USA, my classmates and I made Valentine’s Day cards for each other. When I became an adult, I would habitually send Valentine’s Day greetings to good friends. They would understand that I was wishing them love in their lives and that I was not in love with them. In the Czech Republic this special day has become popular with younger generations. Street vendors sell gingerbreads shaped as hearts on this occasion. One February 14th in the Czech Republic, I gave a Valentine gingerbread that said “For the boss” to the head of the English department where I taught. He was American and thanked me for it. Then I made the mistake of giving a heart-shaped gingerbread with “Don’t smoke” on it to my ice hockey coach who was trying to quit smoking. I wanted to show my appreciation because he allowed me to train not only with the women’s team but also with a boys’ team so that I could practice four times a week. Little did I know that he was unhappily married.

“I know what you want,” he told me, smiling mischievously, after I gave him the Valentine.

“To play in more games,” I responded.

“Wait for me after practice,” he said.

At first I thought there would be a team meeting, and then it suddenly occurred to me that he was under the impression that I wanted to have an affair with him. I had not realized that in this country Valentines are only given to show feelings of physical love. I did not wait for my coach, and he wound up dating the best player on our team. I was relieved he had found someone else.

Cookies hearts love.

Valentine gingerbreads, from http://www.123rf.com

Odd or even?

That was not the only Czech tradition that confused me. During 1991 I was at a premiere of an absurd comedy written by then President Václav Havel, the playwright-turned-president. I wanted to show my appreciation to my hero, so I bought President Havel six roses that the ushers gave him when he took his bow on stage. Only later did someone inform me that you only give an even number of flowers to pay homage to someone who has died.  The living always receive an odd number. Nevertheless, Havel took the roses and bowed modestly to the crowd.

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Václav Havel, from lifee.cz

Language problems

I have also had many linguistic misunderstandings, especially during my first years in Prague. A male friend wrote me a text message that said, “Mám tě rád,” which I thought meant, “I like you.” I knew I could say, “Mám rada hokej.” (“I like hockey.”) And if I used the third person with this verb, I could say, “Mám ho rada,” which could translate as “I love him,” but I thought also could mean, “I am fond of him.” Convinced I was communicating that I liked this kind, friendly man, I wrote back, “Mám tě rada,” not realizing I had just professed my love to him. This proved quite the dilemma. After explaining to him that I only wanted our relationship to be platonic, he refused to speak to me. I never heard from him again.

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One misunderstanding took place at school. Photo from classics.phil.muni.cz

Experiences

That would not be my only encounter with a language mix-up. My first year teaching English, in 1991, I was trying to impress students that I knew some Czech. I asked a boy if he had had any “zkušenosti,” which I thought meant “experiences.” I had no idea that it was used to refer to sexual experiences. The dimpled, red-haired teenager responded, “I am only 16 years old. I have not had any zkušenosti.” The entire class burst into laughter, and I wondered what was so funny.

Dealing with editors

Other misunderstandings have concerned communication or rather the lack of it.  A writer penning articles in Czech as well as English, I have sent my writings to editors of various Czech publications. Some editors did not answer. I did not mind if it meant he or she was not going to use the piece, but occasionally an editor planned to publish the article at a later date and just did not bother to inform me. After receiving no response to an article I sent out to a newspaper and no answer to my follow-up letter, I sent one particular writing to a magazine. The piece wound me being printed in both publications.

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Bust of Lenin, from Antiques and Collectibles Paretski

Czech humor

Yet more misunderstandings revolved around Czech humor – a witty, black humor filled with irony, sarcasm and a love of the absurd. During 1991, I went to the pub with advanced students after our English lessons. The first time I entered the pub, I suddenly stopped, in shock. The bar area was filled with busts and paintings of Vladimír Ilyich Lenin. “This is a Communist pub,” I said, in a panicked tone, to my students.

They laughed. “Don’t you get it? It’s funny. It is mocking Communism, not supporting it.” Later I would discover that a lot of good Czech films made during the totalitarian era would tackle the depressing era with humor – a key element for Czechs in dealing with life during those dark 40 years.

So, I got the gist of Czech humor when it comes to busts and images of Vladimír Ilych: I just hope I don’t stumble into a pub or café where a 10-foot statue of Stalin is staring at me!

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

The Jára Cimrman Theatre Diary

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Bust of Jára Cimrman, from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

My way of dealing with stress and keeping my blood pressure textbook perfect is going to hilarious plays performed by the Jára Cimrman Theatre in the gritty, down-to-earth Žižkov district of Prague. For me it is a sort of home, a cozy theatre with a little more than 200 seats on a steep, cobblestoned street. I go as often as I can get tickets, usually between once and four times a month.

The plays have helped me cope with life’s trials and tribulations. On November 9, 2016 I was in shock and despair because Donald Trump had just been elected president of the USA. I just happened to have a ticket to the Czech version of The Conquest of the North Pole (It is performed by different actors in English, too.)

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The Conquest of the North Pole, Dobytí severního Polu

One of my two favorite plays, The Conquest of the North Pole  focuses on an expedition to the North Pole, led by Czech Karel Němec (then played by the late Bořivoj Penc), whose common Czech surname translates as “a German.”  The play takes place during the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Germanization was enforced throughout the lands. At one point, when they think they are out of food, the Czechs even consider eating one of their fellow travelers. Although the Czechs are the first to conquer the North Pole –one day before the Americans -, the feat goes unrecorded because the Czechs do not want hated Austria-Hungary to get credit for their accomplishment.

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Blaník

That performance saved me from falling into a deep depression. I watched the Czech expedition overcome a bout of pessimism and other obstacles to go on to conquer the North Pole, and I thought that I, too, could get through four years of Trump’s presidency. I thought I could keep my sanity as I watched the events in the USA unfold from Europe. That play provided me with an outlook that wouldn’t allow me capitulate to negative thoughts. At the theatre that evening, instead of crying over Trump’s victory, I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed.

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Pub in the Glade, Hospoda Na mýtince

Significant contributors to Czech culture and Czech national identity, the 15 plays performed by the all-male Jára Cimrman (pronounced Tsimmerman) Theatre ensemble feature an unlucky fictional Czech character living in the Austrian part of the oppressive Habsburg-controlled Austro-Hungarian Empire in which German was the official language. (Several plays do not take place during the monarchy’s rule. For instance, The Act is set in the 1960s.) The ensemble, which even includes two octogenarians, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in October of 2016, and all performances from its inception have been sold out. Many spectators know the plays by heart. Most actors have been with the theatre for decades. In Murder in the Parlor Car, two father-and-son acting teams (one for each cast) performed until one of the fathers (the talented Václav Kotek) died in 2019.

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The Plum Tree, Svěstka

Humor is how the Czechs have come to terms with a past punctuated by oppression. Czechs found themselves living in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during World War II and later in Communist Czechoslovakia for more than 40 years, before the Velvet Revolution of 1989 brought democracy to the nation. The plays were written by co-founders of the theatre Zdeněk Svěrák (who is perhaps best known for his 1996 Oscar-winning performance in Kolya) and the late Ladislav Smoljak, who made a name for himself as an actor and director in both theatre and film.

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The Long, Short and Sharp-sighted, Dlouhý, krátký a bystrozraký

The productions are divided into two parts. The first hour is a seminar in which the actors, as themselves, discuss various aspects of Cimrman’s fictional life and work. After the intermission, the ensemble performs the play itself.

Chosen the greatest Czech in a survey conducted during 2005 (though disqualified because he isn’t a real person), Jára Cimrman was a Czech nationalist who was adamantly anti-Habsburg. An inventor who came too late to the patent office with his creations, Cimrman is presented as an unlucky outsider whose feats go unrecognized until 1966, when Svěrák and his cousin discover Cimrman’s posthumous papers and bust at Liptákov 12, a cottage in a hamlet nestled in the Jizera valley.

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The Stand-In, Záskok

Born to an Austrian actress and a Czech tailor, Cimrman was much more than an inventor. He was a prolific writer of plays, operas, fairy tales and novels as well as poetry and amassed the largest collection of stories in the world. He was also an avid traveler who visited six continents, including the North Pole. The man whose parents forced him to dress as a girl for the first 15 years of his life was also a philosopher, teacher, filmmaker, psychologist, builder, self-taught gynecologist and physicist, among numerous other professions. He did time, incarcerated for two months because he told a joke about the emperor. While in prison, Cimrman formed a choir and orchestra with the inmates and organized contests in Morse Code. At another time, he worked as a travelling dentist, lugging with him a foot-operated drill on wheels and a dentist’s trolley.

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Czech Heaven, České nebe

Perhaps what makes this theatre unique is the sense of mystery that pervades Cimrman’s identity. The only photos of Cimrman are group shots taken too far away to make out his features. Cimrman’s bust is so damaged that it is only possible to decipher two eye sockets, two ear holes and two chins. No one even knows when exactly he was born or when he died.

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Cimrman in the Paradise of Music, Cimrman v říši hudby

In Cimrman in the Kingdom of Music, another of my favorites, the actors discuss how Cimrman entered a contest for best operetta with his seven-hour, 96-scene creation but, because he did not send it registered mail, famous composers stole his ideas. In that same play, the group performs Cimrman’s operetta The Success of a Czech Engineer in India. The plot revolves around a Czech engineer (Miloň Čepelka or Petr Reidinger) tinkering with a broken machine that is supposed to make sugar. He fixes the apparatus so that it makes Czech beer. At the end, a British Colonel (Svěrák) sings that he wishes he had been born Czech. A small orchestra plays superbly during this play, and Čepelka’s singing is a true delight.

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The Act by Cimrman English Theatre

For the last five seasons, the character of Jára Cimrman has been introduced to English speakers. The popular Cimrman English Theatre performs four of the plays – The Stand-In, The Conquest of the North Pole, Pub in a Glade and The Act – in English at the same theatre. These plays are perfect for theatregoers who don’t speak Czech but want to experience Czech culture and understand Czech history. The translations are top-notch. The acting and singing by the professional ensemble are amazing.

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The Act, Akt, Czech production

In a world that often seems overwhelming, I keep my sanity and balance in life by going to the Žižkov Jára Cimrman Theatre on 5 Štítného Street, where I can always count on humor to give me a fresh perspective on my problems and the world’s troubles.

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

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Blaník, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Conquest of the North Pole, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Africa, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Names of Important Czech Historical Figures with Cimrman also listed, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

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View from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

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View from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

 

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