THE QUIRKY COLLECTIONS TEST Out of the box
The Museum of Czech Cubism in Prague celebrates a forgotten golden age in the city’s history, explains Tony Perrottet
immediately inviting. A chic Czech girl, who looks like she’d rather be working a nightclub’s velvet rope, hands me a ticket with studied indolence and answers queries with a world-weary shrug. ‘‘You go upstairs,’’ she snaps. ‘‘Yes, just go!’’
When I insist on some information, she grabs a leaflet in English and presses it into my hand. Welcome, it announces, to the Museum of Czech Cubism.
I soon learn that the House of the Black Madonna was dedicated to a unique art movement that a century ago promised a shining new future for Prague and its denizens. Designed by a once-renowned artist named Josef Gocar, the house was shockingly modern, even revolutionary, when it opened as a department store in 1912. It still seems rather startling. The overall shape is suitably box-like for a cubist edifice and even rather austere, but on closer inspection the facade is broken by the inventive use of angles and planes. Large bay windows protrude like quartz crystals and angular ornamentations cast subtle shadows.
The interior of the building was just as radical for its day, with the first reinforced concrete used in Prague creating generous open spaces. The peculiar name comes from a 17th-century statue of the Black Madonna and child, which was rescued from the previous house on the site, owned by a pious 19th-century burgher, and is still perched like a figurehead on one corner.
But even the resilient Black Madonna could not protect this house from the vagaries of Czech history. When the communists took power in 1945, the original department store was gradually gutted and divided into office spaces. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution ended communist rule, the building had a brief life as a cultural centre, but it was not until 2003 that it found its logical role in the fabric of Prague as a shrine to the singular glories of Czech cubism.
Most of us think of cubism as an esoteric, avant-garde movement espoused by Parisian artists such as Picasso and Braque in the years before World War I before sinking without a ripple. But the movement swept across Europe and was embraced in Russian and eastern European capitals and none more avidly than Prague, where cubism was seized on, if only for an incandescent moment, as a possible key to the future.
‘‘In Paris, cubism only affected painting and sculpture,’’ explains Tomas Vicek, director of the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery, which oversees the Museum of Czech Cubism. ‘‘Only in Prague was cubism adapted to all the other branches of the visual arts: furniture, ceramics, architecture, graphic design, photography.
‘‘In central Europe, the tradition has always been for all the branches of culture to be closely related. So cubism in Prague was a grand experiment, a search for an all-encompassing modern style that could be distinctively Czech.’’
The coterie of Czech cubists first came together in 1910, founding a magazine called and organising their own exhibits in the years before World War I. It was a time of intense optimism and energy in Prague. This compact central European metropolis, one of the wealthiest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, drew on its vibrant Czech, German and Jewish traditions for a creative explosion.
Expatriate artists were returning from Paris and Berlin to share radical new ideas in the salons; Kafka was scribbling his first nightmarish stories and Albert Einstein was lecturing in the city as a professor. ‘‘It was something like paradise,’’ says Vicek wistfully.
Today, the Museum of Czech Cubism is a shrine to the movement’s heyday, from 1912 to 1916, with the building a prime exhibit. The portal is an angular study in wrought iron and one immediately ascends a staircase of cubist design. Don’t imagine Marcel Duchamp’s fragmented as the steps are thankfully even, although the banister is as convoluted as a statistical graph.
There are three floors of cubist exhibits, filled with the art forms that were unique to Prague.
There are wonderfully elegant sofas, and dressing tables and lounge chairs all make use of dramatic oblique lines. There are asymmetrical coffee pots that one might be hesitant to pour from. Here a skewed chandelier, there a cockeyed vase, ashtray or mirror.
Graphic posters with zigzag letters announce the first exhibitions of the local Group of Fine Artists in 1911 and 1912. One show in 1918, the giddy year Czechoslovakia gained its independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire, is called
Looking over the exhibits, one has the feeling of intruding on a family collection. The black-and-white portraits of obscure artists posing in bowler hats and bow ties reveal a thriving bohemian life unknown to the outside world.
One sofa was ‘‘designed for actor Otto Boleku’’, another for ‘‘Professor Frantika Zaviku’’. This may sound like a Woody Allen-esque parody of cultural selfabsorption, but it captures the idiosyncratic nature of Prague, a compact metropolis that takes pride in its most arcane history.
A few subtle touches bring the ghosts of the Czech cubists back to life. Visitors can retire to the original (and, yes, world’s only) cubist eatery, the Grand Cafe Orient, designed by Gocar for the department store in 1912. This once-boisterous artists’ hangout was closed in the 1920s and remodelled in the communist era, but meticulous researchers used the few surviving plans and photographs to re-create it exactly. Now, after an eightdecade hiatus, bohemians can once again settle beneath the same cubist light shades in a cubist booth (which is not as uncomfortable as it sounds), to argue politics over a pint of unpasteurised pilsner.
As I relax, a patriotic waiter confides a last obscure Czech fact. It was near Prague in 1843 that Czech genius Jakub Krystof Rad invented the sugar cube. Cubism was obviously in the Czech blood.
Finally, on the ground floor, the museum store has recreated a range of cubist coffee cups, vases and tea settings from the original designs of Pavel Janak, and offers custom reproductions of cubist furniture by Gocar.
After an afternoon immersed in all that is cubist, I begin to notice other subtle traces of it in the architectural cornucopia of Prague’s streets: a cubist doorway on a former labour union headquarters, for example, or a cubist arch built over a baroque sculpture.
Inspired, I decide to track down a cubist lamp post from 1913, designed by one Emil Kralicek. It takes a little wrestling with Czech street names, but I finally find it in a back alley in the New Town; it looks like a stack of crystals placed on end. If Kralicek were ever teleported to modern Prague, he’d surely be proud to see passersby pausing at his work with a mix of surprise, perplexity and admiration, before disappearing into the maze of the city’s baroque streets.
House of the Black Madonna-Museum of Czech Cubism is in the Old Town of Prague on Ovocny trh 19; open daily except Mondays, 10am-6pm. The Grand Cafe Orient is open 10am-10pm. The museum store sells an excellent fold-out map that highlights cubist architecture in Prague. More: www.prague.cz/black-madonna-house.
One of a kind: The Cafe Grand Orient features distinctive cubist furniture