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

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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.

Check­list

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.

Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages

One of a kind: The Cafe Grand Ori­ent fea­tures dis­tinc­tive cu­bist fur­ni­ture

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