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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.