The Art of Prague
My first and last experience of Prague before this year was as a 13 year old on a youth orchestra tour in 1994 and while I can vaguely remember the Old Town, that is where my memory of the city ends. I am currently on a mission to revisit the tour cities of my youth now that I am old enough to truly appreciate what I am seeing and Prague was one of the first on my list. I was particularly interested to see what the music scene was like today of course, and I expected to be amazed by the local history and architecture, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of art available around the city at every turn.
This post is only going to cover just a fraction of what can be found around the streets of Prague. Art has a place in almost every city in the world and it wasn’t until I found myself happening upon some interesting and sometimes wacky pieces of street art that I thought about finding out what more Prague had to offer. It was a journey that led me to one of the greatest art exhibitions that I have ever seen; a journey that I feel compelled to share with you.
One sight that I had planned to see was the John Lennon Wall. I mentioned this collaborative mural dedicated to love and peace in my article ‘Prague - 5 Tourist Traps to Avoid and 5 to Embrace’ and it certainly deserves a mention here too. Originally an outlet for disgruntled youths who felt defiance with the world and with the political situation in the Czech Republic, the John Lennon Wall is now an ever changing piece of art with offerings from locals and international visitors alike who feel the need to share a message with the world.
John Lennon's Portrait
You could spend hours upon hours here reading and deciphering the many messages against war and discord and for world peace, there are hundreds of them, possibly thousands hidden under the new layers of paint. Some are new and vivid and some are old and partially covered, but one thing they have in common is the idea of an international community of people sharing the idea of peace. The messages are moving, the quotes are emotional and strangely, so is the atmosphere around the wall. You can’t help but feel lost in the moment and and optimistic about the world.
Moving Messages for Peace
The mixture of colours is overwhelming and they paint a picture of hope and happiness. It is also a work of art that you can feel connected to in so many ways. You recognise the desperation in the words shared and you feel a part of their fight. You can even buy a pot of paint and add to the creation yourself. Perhaps most wonderfully, it is a piece of art that will forever change. It will be different, yet current and relevant each and every time you see it.
People of the World Share Their Thoughts
Aside from the John Lennon Wall, I hadn’t considered chasing art as an activity in Prague, but sometimes these things are meant to be. You cannot walk anywhere in Prague without coming across one or two of the city’s sculptures. They are everywhere! From the replica statues on the Charles Bridge to the weird and wacky creations of local artist David Cerny, sculptures can be found in the most unexpected of places. These are just some of what I came across while on my feet and best of all, they were all free to admire!
Prague's Franz kafka Statue
The Statue of Franz Kafka, an author born in Prague and now regarded as one of the major figures of 20th century literature, can be found on Vezenska in the Jewish Quarter of Prague. His works are known to fuse elements of realism with the fantastic, they have a sense of surrealism and absurdity, ideas that have certainly been explored through the many works of art inspired by him. The Statue of Kafka by artist Jaroslav Rona has certainly drawn on his style. The sculpture is based on a scene from Kafka’s first novel, ‘Amerika’, in which a political candidate is help on the shoulders of giant man during a campaign rally and is carried through the streets.
Josef Klimes' "Wild Girls", Franciscan Garden, Prague
Lost behind Wenceslas Square is the stunning baroque oasis, the Franciscan Garden. It is well worth the time and effort to hunt down this space for its attractiveness and people watching opportunities alone, but you will also find some wonderful sculptures on display here. The centre piece is a work by artists Josef Klimes. At first I thought the artist was projecting the idea of fallen angels and to be honest it took some effort to find out anything about these hallowed beings. It turns out that the work is simply called ‘Divozenky’, which means ‘Wild Girls’.
The Faces of the "Wild Girls", Franciscan Garden, Prague
Another addition to the Franciscan Garden are these odd looking sculptures of hollow men, covered in what I assume are bullet holes. Another work I can find no information about, my interpretation is that it represents the many victims of communism. If any of my readers have any information about this work, please feel free to share!
Men with Bullet Holes?
The official Memorial to the Victims of Communism is located at the base of Petrin Hill in the Lesser Town area. The work of Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek shows seven bronze figures descending a flight of stairs, each one appearing more decayed the further away they are from you. Some are without limbs, some with parts of their bodies broken away. There is also a bronze strip running along the centre of the work showing the numbers of those affected by communism.
Memorial to the Victims of Communism
The plaque nearby reads, “The memorial to the victims of communism is dedicated to all victims, not only those who were jailed or executed, but also those whose lives were ruined by totalitarian despotism”. 205,468 were arrested, 170,938 were forced into exile, 4,500 died in prison, 327 were shot trying to escape and 248 were executed.
The Decaying Bodies of the Memorial to the Victims of Communism
Don Giovanni, an opera by Mozart which depicts the ego and confidence of a young man who thinks he is invincible. While attempting to seduce a young woman, Don Giovanni becomes embroiled in a duel with her father, the Commendatore. Giovanni kills the man and goes on with his flirtatious and egotistical ways. Later in the opera, he comes across the statue at the grave of the Commendatore marked “Here am I waiting for revenge against the scoundrel who killed me”. The statue warns that Giovanni’s laughter would not last beyond sunrise and the statue is invited to dinner. When Giovanni rejects the statue at his house, demons descend upon him and pull him to his fate in hell.
Don Giovanni Statue, Estate Theatre, Prague
Outside the Estate Theatre in Prague (where Mozart debuted this opera) stands the statue of the Commendatore by Czech artist Anna Chromy.
As soon as I had been impressed by the amount of interesting works of art scattered across the streets of Prague, I decided to research if there was anything that I should be specifically looking for and as soon as you google ‘art in Prague’, the name David Cerny fills your screen. In hindsight, the works of this man should have been firmly on my radar and he should be on yours too. You could spend an entire day walking around the city in search of his art installations, but you are also likely to come across one or two by accident. His art encapsulates a sense of the city’s history and strangely his art doesn’t feel out of place, despite its risqué connotations.
David Cerny's Peeing Statues at the Franz Kafka Museum
The controversial artist has become something of a national hero to the Czech Republic over the years and he continues to produce works that are shocking and incredibly symbolic of the state of the world today. He first came to prominence in 1991 when he painted a Soviet tank pink, creating a war memorial in central Prague. The Monument to Soviet tank crews was a national cultural monument at the time and his artwork was considered to be an act of civil disobedience and he was arrested. The monument was then painted pink once again by members of parliament in protest of his arrest. Since then, a huge number of his notorious sculptures have appeared on he streets of Prague and trying to find them all has become a tourist attraction in its own right.
David Cerny's Work Can be Found all Over Prague
His installation ‘Pistole NY’ displayed four gigantic guns laid out across a street in the shape of a cross. The guns shoot out the sounds of slamming doors, flushing toilets and brakes, possibly a metaphor for domestic violence killing more than actual bullets do. ‘Shark’ was a monument of Sadam Hussein floating in a tank of formaldehyde, created a year before his execution. It was meant to poke fun at Damien Hirts’s ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ and was banned in Poland and Brussels. Two giant statues installed next to each other with ladders leading up to their behinds was named ‘Brown Nosers’, with videos inside the bottoms showing footage of Czech President Vaclav Klaus and the head of the National Gallery, Milan Knizak spoon feeding each other. The inspiration behind the work is a metaphor of Czech politics, but also makes fun of the many citizens who complain about the politics without taking action against it.
The Peeing Statues Write Messages in the Water
The two works that I came across on my travels around the city of Prague are possibly the most well known. The first can be found outside the Franz Kafka Museum; the ‘Peeing Statues’. Two naked men made of bronze stand in a pool of water shaped like the Czech Republic and their hips move to allow their pee to write quotes by famous Prague residents in the water. The sculpture access text messages at a number provided and the statues with spell out each message sent before resuming their pre-programmed quotes. The second was ‘Hanging Out’, found within the narrow cobbled streets of Prague. A sculpture of Sigmund Freud, hangs from an extended pole by one arm and is meant as a statement about intellectualism and its place in the 21st century.
Sigmund Freud, "Hanging Out" by David Cerny
One work by David Cerny that cannot be missed, even from a distance. The Zizkov Tower is an example of communist-era architecture and is believed by locals to be the ugliest building in the world. David Cerny added ten 6ft tall babies, seen to be crawling up the tower, each with a bar code for a face. While strange and slightly confusing, ‘Babies’ became loved by the Czechs and became a permanent feature in 2001.
David Cerny's "Babies" Crawl up the Zizkov Tower, Prague
If photography is the kind of art that you are looking for and you have a particular interest in discovering Czech photographers, there are three places in Prague that should be on your radar. As a keen student of photography myself, I decided to enquire about the best places to see exhibitions and I really loved how intimate the settings and experiences were. The first must-see is the homely Leica Gallery. Located not far from Wenceslas Square, it is the perfect accompaniment to a day spent in the area visiting the National Museum and perhaps the sculptures of the Franciscan Garden mentioned above, which is just a couple of hundred feet away.
Prague's Leica Gallery
As you enter the gallery, you are met with a contemporary but welcoming café surrounded by photographic works for sale and shelves full of books. The entry fee is minimal and also offers a discount on any purchases from the café. The Leica Gallery only promotes Czech photographers and the exhibitions cycle fairly regularly. Visit their website for an informative introduction to some of the best photographers that the Czech Republic has to offer. While I was there I enjoyed a display of photographs taken depicting the effects of the Soviet rule of Czechoslovakia and the differences between society then and now. The space is clean, bright and minimalist, small but perfectly sized for a decent browse of interest. I highly recommend this friendly gallery for a rainy afternoon.
The Nikon Photo Gallery is located in the Lesser Quarter, just a few steps from the tram that takes you up Petrin Hill. The gallery was opened by Czech Photo, a charitable society which also runs the Czech Press Photo Competition and the Czech Photo Centre, but this particular space is supported by Nikon. They exhibit photography by renowned Czech artists alongside some international names, but more interestingly, they also run lectures and workshops. Of course any artist features at the gallery, must only use a Nikon camera! The gallery is comprised of three rooms, approximately 150 images and is free to enter.
Czech History in Photographs
The Josef Sudek Gallery, found near Hradcany is housed in the very building where the famous photographer Sudek once lived and worked himself. Once a popular meeting point for the top artists in Prague of their time, including poet Jaroslav Seifert and painter Jan Zrzavy, the space now exhibits Josef Sudek’s own work, photo essays by modern Czech photographers who focus on inter-war years and historic photography from the 19th century to the present day.
I came across the name Alfons Mucha while I was at Prague Castle. He designed one of the stained glass windows of the St Vitus Cathedral that sits at the centre of the grand complex. Of course this led me to believe that he must have been quite a big deal in Prague and so I turned to trusty Google once again and found that he was probably the Czech Republic’s most loved and successful artist. It then became my mission to find some more of his work while I was in Prague.
The Mucha Museum in Prague
One of my favourite afternoons of mooching involved a couple of hours at the Mucha museum. I went in believing that I knew nothing about Alfons Mucha and very quickly realised that I had seen much of his work before. The popular artist found prominence in Paris after leaving jobs in Brno and Vienna painting theatre sets. He found his groove producing magazine and advertising illustrations and was in the right place at the right time when he was asked to produce a poster for a play featuring the actress Sarah Bernhardt, the result of which was a six year contract. Mucha’s style quickly became known as Art Nouveau and those cute little vintage postcards that have become so popular over the century, were most likely designed by or at least inspired by Mucha. He produced his art as jewellery, carpets, wallpaper, biscuit tins and food trays; you could say that he was the very first Cath Kidston!
An Example of Alfons Mucha's Art Nouveau Style
The Mucha Museum mostly displays examples of the artist’s Art Nouveau works which are interesting and beautiful, but it is the 30 minute film shown at the back of the gallery which is unmissable. The reel shows the story of his life, how his work progressed with international influences and ultimately, his love for his homeland and how he wanted to give back to his country. It was this film that led me to seek out one of the greatest art exhibitions I have ever seen.
When Mucha eventually decided to move back to Czechoslovakia, he was not only looking for a way to pay homage to his Bohemian roots, but also wanted to distance himself from the Art Nouveau scene that he had unwittingly created. With a grant from American Philanthropist Charles Richard Crane, Mucha and his family moved into the wing of a castle in the countryside where he set about creating one of the most wonderful collections of oil paintings the world has ever seen. While working on the paintings, he bestowed the collection to the city of Prague who agreed to display the collection in Czechoslovakia. To this day, the collection of no less than 20 monumental paintings has only ever been seen in the Czech Republic and was named the Slav Epic.
Alfons Mucha's Slav Epic
When the cycle was bestowed to Prague in 1928, the city built a special pavilion for the exhibition. Prior to 2012, the collection was part of the permanent exhibition at the chateau in the town of Moravsky Krumlov in the South Moravian Region of the Czech Republic. In 2012, the paintings were moved to the ground floor of the Trade Fair Palace, a building that is part of the city’s National Gallery, locally known as Veletrzni Palac.
Prague National Gallery's Veletrzni Palac
Why is it the greatest exhibition of art that I have ever seen? Well the wonders of the Slav Epic can only be described in an article of it’s own, so you will have to read that! (Read "Mucha in Prague - The Slav Epic" here). I find it quite amusing that one great and powerful work of art, first created by the people of Prague, led me on a journey around the streets of this great city on a tour of some of the most inspired and heartbreaking pieces of art, and my journey ended as I stood amazed at the incredible feat of Alfons Mucha, another great and powerful work of art, created for the people of Prague. It was quite some journey!
Please take my advice; if you happen to be in Prague in the future, make the journey out to Veletrzni Palac and treat your senses to a feast of art like no other. Discover Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic and tell the story of your journey to others.