From sacred illuminated manuscripts to the profane creations of David Černý, these are the movements, faces, and places that have shaped art in the Czech Republic.
Ancient Art and Romanesque
The story of Czech art begins with a woman. Made of clay and ash she is the Vestonice Venus, named after the site in Moravia where archeologists discovered her. It is believed that she is 30,000 years old. The next most important piece on the timeline is the exquisite Vysehrad Codex, a late-11th century illuminated manuscript honoring the the coronation of King Vratislav in 1085. Today you can find it at the Czech National Library. The Romansesque tradition that followed appears in the forms of church frescoes – the murals in St. Catherine´s rotunda in Znojmo are a fine example of Romanesque work, as is the triptych of St. George´s Cloister on the grounds of Prague Castle. Lucky individuals who get the chance to visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross, the most important space at Karlstejn Castle, can drink in the 129 gothic panel paintings by Master Theodoricus, Charles IV´s court painter. The panels depict martyrs, virgins, popes, and other venerable figures. Another court painter who made a mark on Czech art history was Rudolph II´s Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1532-1593). Considered a Mannerist, his artistic expression tended toward the bizarre: he composed a potrait of the Emporer from flowers and fruit.
Baroque and Classical
Baroque witnessed a shift in sensibilities as painters and sculptors attempted to convincingly depict human emotion. Baroque master Petr Brandl (1668-1735) painted large altar pictures that portrayed biblical scenes touched with raw emotion. His contemporary Jan Kupecky (1667-1740) was equally adept at capturing character traits. Sculptors Ferdinand Maxmilian Brokoff (1688-1731) and Matthias Bernard Braun (1684-1738) bestowed the statues on the Charles Bridge with their present-day appearance. Famed classical painter Antonin Mánes (1784-1843) was the first artist to take interest in the Old Jewish Cemetery motifs and encouraged his pupils to derive their inspiration from this source.
The National Revival
Students of Czech history are familiar with the surge of patriotism that characterized the literature, music, and art of this time. In the art world the construction of the National Theater (1868-83) and the Rudolfinum (1885) embodied the renaissance in Czech culture. Artists who contributed to these projects were known as The National Theater Generation. They included Bohumil Schnirch (triga above the entrance), Antonin Wagner (the muses – Goddess of Arts and Science), the founding father of modern Czech sculpture, Josef Vaclav Myslbek (the bronze statue of Music), and many others. Myslbek is alternatively known for sculpting the St. Wenceslas monument on Wenceslas Square. Romanticism played a role in the nationalist fervor as well. It´s leading figure was Josef Mánes (1820-71) the son of Antonin. He illustrated numerous genre scenes that included detailed depictions of traditional Czech costumes, and also lent his skilled hand to books of folk songs. His most notable work is the calendar disc of Prague´s Astronomical Clock (1866).
Impression, Symbolism, and Art Nouveau
The National Theater Generation gave way to a new school of artists who strived to create more modern movements in form and style. They united as The Mánes Association of Artists. Their legacy is alive today in the form of Prague´s Mánes House, one of the most significant works of functionalist architecture in the city, that currently serves as a premiere exhibition space. The Mánes artists splintered into smaller movements. The symbolists appeared in two waves. The early symbolist ideals were manifested in the work of sculptor Frantisek Bilek (1872-1941) whose statues expressed the tragic nature of existence. His contemporary Jan Preisler (1872-1918) painted works of an enigmatic, mysterious, and, ultimately, sad nature. The second wave of symbolism took place just before World War I. Brought to life by Jan Zrzavy and Josef Vachal (1884-1969), this movement was driven by the artistic recapturing of dreamscapes. Decorative Art Noveau is where the name Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) reverberates loudest. This painter´s talents were snapped up by theaters in Paris who commissioned him to design programs and posters for Parisian thespian du jour Sarah Bernhardt.
Avant gard movements were also springing up before and after both wars. Proponents of Picasso´s work, painters Emil Filla and Bohumil Kubista are among the most interesting figures of the cubist era in Czech painting, as was Josef Capek (1887-1945) and sculptor Otto Gutfreund (1889-1927). Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957) was the pioneer of abstract painting. Painters Jindrich Styrsky (1899-1942) and Toyen (1902-1980), whose real name was Marie Cerminova, led the surrealist movement in the Czech Republic. Styrsky was one of the first artists to tackle color collage, injecting his work with eroticism and black humor. Toyen, famed for her outrageous, cross-dressing ways, used a number of mediums to express the absurdity of war. Experimental art continued to dominate the scene throughout World War II, with painter Kamil Lhotak´s Group 42 concerning themselves with the role of the individual in modern civilization.
Carrying on the traditions of experimental heavy-hitters that came before them, David Černý (1967) and Jaroslav Rona (1957) are two contemporary artists who embody the spirit of the postmodern. Prague sculptor Černý´s controversial works can be seen in many spots throughout the city. In 1991 he gained notoriety by painting a Soviet tank that served as a war memorial in central Prague pink. Another of Černý’s contributions to Prague is ‘Tower Babies´a series of black infants ascending Žižkov Television Tower. In 2005, Černý created ‘Shark´, an image of Saddam Hussein in a tank of formaldehyde that lampooned Damien Hirst´s similar formaldehyde-soaked installation. ‘Horse´ is a recreation of St. Vaclav sitting atop the stomach of his dead horse. Acclaimed sculptor and painter Rona´s famed Kafka statue that adorns the corner of Dušní and Vězeňská streets is a fitting tribute to the great writer.
Internationally renowned Czech photographer Frantisek Drtikol (1883-1961) is known for his characteristically epic photographs, often nudes and portraits, created in his famed studio on Vodičkova Street. He is considered the founder of Czech modern photography.
Josef Sudek (1896-1976) was the first photographer to be honored by the Czech government. His haunting and remarkable still lifes reflect his enigmatic personality.
Jan Saudek (1935) is recognized in the West as one of the Czech Republic´s most famous photographers. His work is noted for its eroticism, evokation of childhood, and the ambiguity between man and woman.