Czech women delight me, especially mothers and daughters together. Attempting to open a conversation with a pair a few years ago at a Veletřižni Palác show called “National Style: Culture and Politics,” I noted how there were six busts of Tomas Masaryk to just one of Edward Beneš.
“Masaryk is obviously very important to you Czechs,” I said. Mom agreed and seemed ready to engage but her serious daughter dismissed me like a lazy student.
“Of course, what do you expect?”
I was expecting a best-case scenario involving a shared jaunt through the rest of the First Republic and then flirty coffees at the museum café, but instead I shuffled off alone to study 1920s Czechoslovakia.
Daughter was right: Masaryk made the First Republic; Beneš caved in 1948 to the Communists, who made the second one from which Czechs are still recovering.
How wonderful if we could blot away the bad parts of history and dance always in the rare good moments! Tears attended the First Republic’s birth, of course, but Jan Stursa’s “Legionnaires” show they were tears worth crying. These heads of veterans from the World War I Czechoslovak Legions who fought for liberty each show a different face of redemptive suffering: here is noble submission; there brave resignation; there and there too an almost ecstatic exhaustion that reminds me of Rodin’s “Woman of Sorrow”.
Otto Guttfreund’s “Return of the Legions,” on the other hand, suggests how the panels depicting legions on Roman arches would have looked had the arches been built at the Roman republic’s dawn and not largely at the empire’s sunset: proud but not arrogant. A beaten man returns to a loving wife who takes his rifle from him. A young woman weeps into the shoulder of an old man who’s removed his cap, old woman by his side: one legionnaire did not return to the new republic. With his back turned so we can see neither joy nor sorrow, another legionnaire hugs the swaddled baby his wife has handed him while his son, also with back turned, shoulders his rifle. Only the wife’s serene face faces us, as if to say, “here is the future for which you fought.” Gottfreund’s characters like Jenik and Adélka from his “Study of Božena Nĕmcová’s Babička Monument” in the town of Ratibořice remind me of the small, humane lessons of Czech opera, so different from the big cruel ones of Italian opera: theirs is a studied innocence.
Continuing that flush of Czechoslovak national pride, in 1924-25 Gottfreund made monuments to be placed in Rome, too, already under Fascism. Gottfreund’s frieze for the Czechoslovak Pavilion’s central hall at the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts, better known as just the Paris Exposition, is the culmination of this idealized national vision: mothers and babies and a teacher and a young scholar and a worker flank the Bohemian big mama, Libuše, mythical foundress of the race, who in place of breasts embosoms Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral.
That exhibition marked Art Deco’s explosion onto the world scene, and in 1925 Prague entered a brief happy heyday. A culminating work is Karel Dvořak’s set of sculpted city denizens. My favorites are his “News Vendor” astraddle a delivery truck alongside a building with “Bio” — the Czech word for cinema — written on its side, and his “Finance” who studies a spreadsheet at a podium. They perfectly accompany his polychrome “Joiner” and “Sailor” and “Woman Weaver,” a highly humanized celebration of workers so opposite the monolithic inhuman one solidifying eastwards in the new Soviet Union. What if these charming figures instead had represented state socialism? Could monstrous personality cults, witch hunts, and show trials also have been avoided?
National Style not only humanized stereotypical characters, but also historical ones, epitomized by Štursa’s busts. His “Jan Žižka”, the one-eyed 15th century Hussite general whose massive mace-wielding equestrian statue on Vitkov Hill makes him a badass, here is a more genial eyepatched fellow, a revolutionary with a heart. Štursa’s “Bedřich Smetana” is humble, exhausting all variations of mind in service to humanity.
The Czech pavilion was a hit in Paris and a flop in Prague, criticized for its decorative qualities. I could imagine how budding Czech Marxists would have criticized the lovely upholstered settee and chair by Pavel Janák, who co-designed the pavilion with Josef Gočár, and the exquisite glassware by Alois Metelák, and František Novák’s gorgeous black and brown wooden wastebasket, not to mention children’s room items like a pig-shaped painted jar when most 1920s Czech households didn’t even have children’s rooms, according to the exhibit.
Exiting that show, I stumbled back a decade to the permanent exhibit on European modern masters and almost fell flat before Egon Schiele’s “Dead Town” — a portrait of Český Krumlov, surely today the least dead of all small Czech towns. In fact it’s now routinely called the most beautiful one, but Schiele’s mother’s hometown was problematic for him then: drawn by happy memories of childhood visits and disgusted by Vienna, he settled there in 1910 first with a couple fellow bohemian artists and then with his girlfriend Walpurga Neuzil, on of Gustav Klimt’s former models. Their shenanigans and his underage models — which would get him a month in an Austrian jail for “public immorality” — drove them out by August 1911. Picturesque Český Krumlov’s winding streets, its tidy and colorful Gothic houses, its inns and shops, now making it the country’s top tourist draw outside Prague, back then suffocated him.
“Life is not to have fun, it is to suffer, be enchanted, be amazed.” The saying on the wall at Veletřrižni Palác’s modern masters section is some Czech common sense from Karel Čapek , the proto-scifi modernist who gave the world the term robot. Leave it to a Czech to rule out fun. To rule it out as a primary goal, a Czech might answer, but we 21st century Americans want equality of all goals and, in our cynical way, fun’s right to come first. I danced around a Montana fire in favor of this outlook once long ago, but have since reconsidered.
Just then a little girl marched into the section and pointed at a painting. “František Kupka!” she shouted. Then another: “František Kupka!” And on into the next room, a chant from early modernism through the abstract —
“František Kupka! František Kupka!”
I tracked back to the room where the girl must have started. There was Kupka for the first time, with his cycle Peniže (“Money”) from about 1900 and his over-the-top recreations of Babylon and Rhodes from a bit later. Money with his big belly begs kneeling and leering before a fleshy naked woman in the eponymous 1899 work; in 1902’s “Equality” Money remains the main character, dwarfing and crushing the little people as he bellies (literally) up to a posted “Loi Au Nom Du Peuple.” Some little people, the most daring and upright a little bigger than others, scramble to read it, but he reads it confidently, line by line and word by word above his fat and greasy fingers. Or is he scratching out the lines, the law of the people? Well, one could see where a young Kupka was headed….
But then something else seemed to obsess him: lines and colors, and abstraction. I speak at least as ignorantly as that little girl, for I know almost nothing about him. But here you see him spending two decades, from 1907’s “The Piano Keys” to 1924’s “Four Stories in Black and White”, daringly exploring abstract art in work that sometimes looks like it should be from the 1950s instead. Why had I never heard of František Kupka before?
So much more of First Republic Czechoslovak art awaited my discovery, and in subsequent years I’ve spent days in Veletržní Palác on such joyful explorations. I’ve learned about Josef Čapek, Václav Špála, Jindřich Stysrký, Toyen, and my favorite who is officially Austrian or maybe a citizen of the world but still deeply Czech, Oskar Kokoschka. Once this pandemic relents and the museums re-open, rest assured I will be back, immersing myself in that “national style” still alive in the hearts and minds of Czechs and Slovaks today.
The above is excerpted from Andrew Giarelli’s nonfiction book-in-progress Millennial Mitteleuropa, to be published by danzig & unfried. His novel The Talking Statues will be published by Danzig & Unfried in February 2021.
You can purchase Andrew Giarelli’s travel book “American Romanista” here: https://www.amazon.com/American-Romanista-Andrew-Giarelli-ebook/dp/B00AH1HUNW