Museum of the Risorgimento in Milan Diary

Museum of the Risorgimento in Milan Diary 

After visiting the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, I walked to the nearby Museo del Risorgimento, which featured 14 rooms of paintings, prints, sculptures and artifacts depicting Italian historical events from 1796 to 1870 as well as arms. It traces the periods from the call for Italian independence to Italian unification. I learned about Napoleon’s reign in Italy as well as the Austrian monarchy’s control. I noticed how prominent Milan’s role had been during the Five Days of Milan, the nickname of the 1848 uprising against the Austrians.

I saw paintings depicting Italian King Victor Emmanuel II, who took the throne in 1861 and reigned until his death in 1878. Two of the paintings were created by Gerolamo Induno. Nicknamed the Father of the Fatherland, Victor Emmanuel II had the distinction of being the first king of a unified Italy since the sixth century. He was born the eldest son of Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and made a name for himself in the First Italian War of Independence during 1848-49 before being crowned king.

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, a campaign that took place in 1860. The group of volunteers armed only with out-of-date muskets defeated the more powerful navy of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Portraits of the 1,089 soldiers in business card format made up this album. I saw the volunteers as individuals rather than as a group of soldiers who conquered Bourbon rule in south Italy. Looking at their portraits, I felt as if I could see the personalities of the men.

Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the most prominent generals in modern history, guided the volunteers in the Expedition of the Thousand. Their uniforms were made up of red shirts and grey pants. In the exposition I saw the actual poncho and red shirt donned by Garibaldi, who also had military successes in South Africa and elsewhere in Europe.

I loved the paintings and sculptures most of all. These collections were especially noteworthy. The collection of paintings depicting the Imperial period from 1804 to 1814 was perhaps the most poignant of all eras represented by this genre. Francesco Hayez, whose works I had seen in the Brera, had depicted Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria in a moving portrait. Also, powerful canvases of the Five Days of Milan had been rendered by Carlo Canelli, Carlo Bossoli and Pietro Bouvier, for example. Gerolamo Induno and Domenico Induno contributed to the paintings depicting the Second War of Independence. The original Italian flag that flew over the Duomo in Milan on March 20, 1848 was another highlight. The cloak and regal insignia from Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy were also enthralling.

The 18th century Palazzo Moriggio that houses the museum had an intriguing history as well. The museum had been situated there since 1951. Under Napoleon’s reign the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then the Ministry of Defense had been located in the palace.

This museum really opened my eyes to many events in Italian history. I had known only very basic information about this museum before my visit. It wasn’t on my list of most important places to see. I learned so much about the time periods in which the Risorgimento took place. I had never been a big fan of battle scenes, but I was struck by the details and by the historical significance of these paintings. While the museum is relatively small, it allows visitors to develop much knowledge about poignant eras in Italian history. In this museum I could actually feel the history come to life. Each artifact tells a story.

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

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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.

Museum of Ancient Art and Arms at Sforza Castle Diary

The Sforza Castle in Milan was built for Galeazzo II Visconti in the second half of the 14th century. It was destroyed in the 15th century, but Francesco Sforza rebuilt it. Then the Sforza family used it as a residence. The end of the 1400s was a time of splendor. During the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci and Bramante created frescoes in the castle. The castle became one of the largest in Europe in the 16th century.

Later, the castle was changed into a citadel. The ducal apartments were used as barracks and stables under Spanish, Austrian, French and again Austrian rule. An armory was for a time also on the premises. At the end of the 1800s, the castle became the property of the city of Milan. When Italy was unified, the castle was in a very dilapidated state, but the complex to be reconstructed and made into a museum. The castle took on the appearance it had when it had been under Sforza control. Though the central tower is not original, it is made to look like it had when built in 1521.

During World War II, the complex suffered much damage but was reconstructed. Now the castle includes museums and cultural institutes.

The collection of the Museum of Ancient Art and Arms features sculpture from the fifth to the 16th century, some from Lombardy and others from Tuscany. Some rooms are decorated with stunning frescoes. An armory containing European weapons from the end of the 14th to the 19th century and an impressive room of tapestries also make up the exhibition. Sixteenth century Flemish tapestries intrigued me. Saint Ambrose dominates another tapestry. Two medieval portals and tombstones are also on display.

Visitors walk through the ducal apartments decorated by Galeazzo Maria Sforza. I was especially impressed with the ducal chapel. Leonardo da Vinci designed and frescoed the Sala delle Asse (Room of Wooden Boards), which was being restored when I was there. I read that the walls and vaulted ceiling of this room are painted with trompe l‘oeil. The vault shows off branches leaves and berries that give the illusion that the space is outside instead of in a castle. In other rooms the Spanish domination is highlighted with sculpture and the remarkable funerary monument of Gaston de Foix, created from 1517 to 1522.

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

Museo del Duomo in Milan Diary

When I visited the Cathedral Museum in Milan, I didn’t expect it to be so big. The museum measured 2,000 meters square, and there were 26 rooms. Set up in chronological order, the artifacts included stained glass windows, paintings, tapestries, architectural models, sculpture, bronze doors, goldsmithing artifacts and more. The museum, located on the ground floor of the Palazzo Reale, allowed me to see the various phases of construction from its foundation in 1386 to the 20th century. The museum dates back to 1953. Ten more rooms were added in 1960, and it was reopened in 1973. It underwent major renovation during this century, too.

Placed in the museum during 2013 after renovation was completed, the Treasures of the Cathedral are on display in two rooms and feature liturgical objects from the 5th to the 17th century. I saw the Cross of Chiaravalle, a masterpiece of Romanesque goldsmithing art. The Cross of San Carlo was another goldsmithing object that amazed. It was made in Mannerist style during the 1500s. The cross is even used in cathedral ceremonies new archbishops are inaugurated. La Pace di Pio V, dated around 1565, utilized lapis lazuli decoration on columns and a sarcophagus. The cross was studded with diamonds. Gold decoration added to its beauty. Il Calice delle Arti Liberali is a chalice placed on a copper gilded frame. Made in Milan during the 1500s, the chalice has enamel decoration.

Perhaps my favorite part of the museum was the section with the stained-glass windows. I was enthusiastic about having the opportunity to see stained-glass windows up close. These panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament had been created by artists from Lombardy, France, Germany and the Netherlands. I loved stained-glass windows, and they were my favorite part of the cathedral’s interior. I spent so much time staring at those windows when I was inside the cathedral.

The sculpture was another delight. The marble Late Gothic figures hailed from the first 50 years of the cathedral’s construction. There were also statues made of terracotta from the Mannerist and Baroque eras. A few of the noteworthy sculptures featured Saint Agnes, Saint George and Galeazzo Maria Sforza. The Sforza noble family had had a vast influence on the city’s development and politics. I also was amazed by the gargoyles. I was thrilled that I had the chance to see them close up.

A model of the entire cathedral comprised three centuries of work and was made at a scale of 1:20. Another model that caught my attention was an early 16th century wooden rendition of the cathedral, made by Bernardino Zenale from Treviglio. This model provided insights into the structural development of the various sections of the cathedral, such as the apse, transept and tiberium.

I found the objects in the museum stunning. I was flabbergasted by their beauty. I had expected a small museum of liturgical items, not such an amazing array of artifacts. I had learned how the cathedral had been constructed in various eras and about the main players in the history of the structure.

Leaving the Museo del Duomo, I was very satisfied with my visit and ready for the temporary Titian exhibition in the Palazzo Reale.

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

Galleria d’Arte Moderna Milano Diary

Walking through the charming courtyard of the gallery, I noticed that the villa was in Neoclassical style as was the La Scala Theatre, which I had toured a few days earlier. On the other side of the main street was a vast park. In part of the courtyard was a posh, crowded restaurant. The edifice had two facades, one visible to visitors. Statues and reliefs with a mythological theme decorated the facades. The second façade looked out upon Milan’s first English landscape garden.

Founded in 1903, the modern art gallery was initially housed in Milan’s Castle. In 1921 it moved to its current location, the Villa Reale. Built by Leopold Pollack from 1790 to 1796, the building was originally named Villa Belgiojoso and was used as a private residence. Later, when Napoleon’s adopted son lived there, many famous people gathered at the villa, which was notable for its lavish ornamentation. On August 6, 1849, the Pace di Milano treaty was signed there, making Milan part of Austria.

Austrian Field Marshall Joseph Radetzky von Radez, a Czech noble and Chief of General Staff for the Habsburgs during the Napoleonic Wars, even called the villa home for one year in the 1850s. At one point Radetzky was even knighted for his bravery. Johann Straus composed the Radetzky March after him. His troops appreciated his valor and fairness. He died in Milan during 1858.

When the various states merged into the Kingdom of Italy, the building was no longer used. It was nationalized in 1920 and was refurbished so the Modern Art Gallery could open there the following year. Still, the gallery had to wait until 2006 before they could use the entire building for their exhibits. Before that the gallery had shared the building with other institutions.

The permanent collection started on the first floor. The first six spaces covered Neoclassical art. The works of Antonio Canova were represented there. Two rooms were dedicated to portraiture, including the renditions of Francesco Hayez. His Portrait of Matilde Juva Brunea from 1851 was one of the gallery’s masterpieces. A luxurious ballroom and the Parnaso Room with its astounding 1811 fresco had come into being during Napoleon’s era. After gazing at these two luxurious spaces, I continued to peruse artwork from the Romantic, Divisionist and Symbolist periods. There was also a temporary exhibition of Italian designer Joe Columbo’s 20th century furnishings on that floor.

From the Joe Columbo exhibition
From the Joe Columbo exhibition

The second floor housed the Grassi Collection and Vismara Collection. The Grassi Collection covered both Italian and foreign works ranging from the 14th to 20th centuries. Eduard Manet, Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh were all represented. Oriental art was on display, too. The Vismara Collection showcased 40 works of art from the 20th century. The paintings and sculptures included creations by  Picasso, Matisse and Renoir.

Some significant paintings on display included Paul Gauguin’s Donne di Tahiti from 1891; Vincent Van Gogh’s Breton Women and Children from 1888; Giuseppe De Nittis’ Breakfast in Posillipo from 1878; Eduard Manet’s Portrait of M. Arnaud from 1875 and Umberto Boccioni’s The Mother from 1907. The sculpture was just as impressive as the paintings. A bust of a madwoman caught my attention. It showed not only unique facial features but also delved into the psychological being of the woman. Via the sculpture, it was possible to see into the woman’s soul.  Other busts were just as revealing. A small statue by Rodin was exquisite, too. A bust of Beethoven was very expressive and innovative.

One bust that captured my attention.

I was thrilled to see so many amazing paintings and sculptures and looked forward to my next stop at another nearby villa, which was devoted to modern art of the 1930s.

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

A bust of Beethoven

Gallerie d’Italia of Milan Diary

These three palaces, located on the Piazza della Scala near the Scala Theatre, displayed extraordinary artworks of the 19th and 20th century. In the 19th century sections, I was amazed at the vedutas of Milan Cathedral, the system of canals in Milan called Navigli and the Alpine scenes. I found myself thinking of vedutas I had seen in the Czech Republic, such as the masterful ones at Mělník Chateau near Prague.  

The landscapes from the second half of the 19th century gave me a tranquil feeling. I especially liked the landscape with a magnificent yet mysterious castle perched in the mountains. The painting of the Colosseum reminded me of showing that sight to my parents some years ago, watching them gaze with awe and amazement at the historic monument. That was one of the happiest moments of my life.

The paintings of Milan’s Duomo allowed me to appreciate the exterior and interior of that sight to an even greater extent. I recalled walking down from the roof to the ground floor of the cathedral. I had been worried I would fall because I had nursed a bad leg for nine months not long before my trip.

The bas reliefs of Antonio Canova were delights as well. They were inspired by the works of Homer, Virgil and Plato. I remembered seeing Canova’s works at the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

The Lombard painting of the 19th century showed Milan as a vibrant artistic hub and often told pictorial tales of a rapidly changing society. I saw works by Francesco Hayez and other Romanticist artists. Giovanni Migliara focused on ancient monuments.

Works representing Symbolism, Pointillism and Futurism also made up highlights of this museum’s collections. The historical paintings of fight for the unification of Italy profoundly expressed this political and social movement called the Risorgimento, which led to the formation of the Kingdom of Italy. Genre painting showcased people’s daily lives.

The Divisionism of Neo-Impressionist painting that separates colors into dots played a large role, too. The works falling into the Futurism category centered on technology and modernity, for instance. Often cars, airplanes and the industrial city figured in works of this nature.

A special exhibition displayed the Torlonia Marbles, a very significant private collection of Roman statuary with many busts. I loved how the busts, though dating back many centuries, brought out the character of the person sculpted.

The 20th century was highlighted as well. Five halls housed artwork from the 1950s to 1980s. Abstract art between the 1940s and 1950s stood out, too. The Sixties were emphasized with a focus on signs, words and images. Kinetic art also was displayed.

While I was most impressed by the landscapes and pictures of Milan’s cathedral, I gazed at each and every piece of art with awe and wonderment. This was truly a great museum.

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

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.

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

Bode Museum Diary

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Inaugurated in 1904 as the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, the building was designed by Ernst Eberhard von Ihne, and construction lasted seven years. In 1956, the museum got its current name, in honor of the first director, William Bode, whose trademark was showcasing a variety of artworks – sculpture, painting, coins, medals, crafts. Indeed, what I liked best about the Bode was the variety – the sculptures, paintings and crafts all mixed together, sometimes even in one room. The collections were full of surprises that made me enthusiastic about each work I came across.

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I especially liked the sculpture collection. The medieval sculptures moved me the most. The large triptychs were overwhelmingly beautiful. Byzantine art played a major role in the collections. The art from Ravenna reminded me of my trip there as I had been dazzled by mastery of the works there. One of the largest collections of sculpture in the world, the pieces date from early medieval times to the late 18th century. Donatello, Lorenzo Bernini, Giovanni Pisano – they were just a few of the creators represented in this unbelievable array of artistry. Architectural sculpture included a Romanesque tribune from Germany. Glazed terracotta was also on display as were small sculptural works from bronze, alabaster and ivory. I also saw mosaic icons and artifacts from Egypt. The museum itself was a work of art with fireplaces and rich decoration hailing from the Italian Renaissance.

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I was intrigued by one display in particular. I learned that the artworks from this museum had been stored in a bunker in Berlin-Firedrichshain during World War II, but a fire broke out in May of 1945, destroying many of the sculptures. I imagined furious flames engulfing so many precious works of art and thought how formidable the collection would have been with even more dazzling sculptures. It was a great loss, for sure.

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I was in awe as I took in all the artifacts from Roman sarcophagi to silver sculpture to Byzantine works from Italy and Turkey to German Late Gothic sculptures. The mixture of different kinds of art from various periods gave the museum a dynamic quality and unique character.

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

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