What happened in the realm of fine art at the very beginning of the Czech history? Many magnificent paintings and other fine art pieces can be seen in Czech galleries or in places for which they were specifically created.
The prehistoric world in picture
In the beginning there was woman, or actually the statue of a woman: a 17-centimeter-tall, oval-shaped statue made from a mixture of ash, clay loam and bone dust. Archeologists estimate that she is as much as 30,000 years old. They call her the Vestonice Venus after the place where she was found, at a mammoth hunters’ encampment in Dolní Vestonice in Moravia.
Embossed works, frescos and illuminations of Romanesque art
Romanesque art played an important role in the culture of the Czech lands from the year 1100 up to the start of the 13th century.
A well-preserved example of embossed Romanesque sculpture is the appearance of the windows of the palace in Olomouc, which is probably the work of Italian stonemasons. The triptych of St. George’s cloister on the grounds of Prague Castle with the figures of Přemysl I and the abbess Agnes (Anežka) is also very attractive.
All Romanesque churches were adorned with frescoes. The oldest and most artistically important monument comprises the murals in St. Catherine’s rotunda in Znojmo, standing on a high buttress above the Dyje River.
Book painting enjoyed great popularity. The most exquisite work, which cannot be compared with anything else from this period in Central Europe, is the Vyšehrad Codex. Besides numerous initials and scenes from the Old Testament, it also contains up to 30 pictures from the New Testament.
Emperor and the Bohemian king Charles IV stood at the head of an extensive super-state encompassing what is today Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Benelux countries. Charles IV’s court painter was Master Theodoricus, who was given the task of decorating the Chapel of the Holy Cross (kaple sv. Kříže), the most important space of Karlštejn Castle, where the imperial crown jewels, valuable state documents and precious relics of saints were originally meant to be stored. He filled this ceremonial room with 129 panel paintings containing the venerable figures of martyrs, holy widows and virgins, popes, bishops and abbots – the holy warriors of the Heavenly Soldiers of Christ.
Another important figure is the Master of the Vyšší Brod Altarpiece. His name emanates from a cycle of nine pictures of Christ’s life, which was originally an order intended for the monastery in Vyšší Brod. With his work he became a founding figure of the “beautiful style”, which dominated European output around 1400, particularly that which was produced by royal courts.
Bizarreness fascinated Emperor Rudolph II. Perhaps this is why he chose the Italian Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1532-1593) as his court painter. His distinctive artistic expression encompassed allegorical heads symbolizing the seasons and individuals composed of various items – vegetables, fruit, fish, etc. He even depicted the emperor himself in this way with a portrait of Rudolph II as Vertumnus created from flowers and fruit.
Rudolph II was surrounded by German and Dutch painters and sculptors, who were mostly trained in Italy. These also included three master artists: Bartholomeus Spranger, Hans van Aachen and Adrian de Vries. The painter Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611), who was commissioned to do a cycle of mythological pictures inspired by Ovidius’ and the amorous adventures of Venus, the excellent portraitist Hans van Aachen, and the sculptor Adrian de Vries, whose works adorned the garden of Wallenstein Palace until they were stolen by Swedish troops in 1648.
Baroque art in the Czech lands
Painters and sculptors strived to depict their protagonists’ state of mind (pain, joy, surprise, fear, concentration) as convincingly as possible and bring them closer to the viewer.
One of the greatest Baroque masters was Petr Brandl (1668-1735), the author of many large altar pictures. All the characters in his biblical scenes are animate, and are often shown in extreme emotional situations, but this is always done convincingly.
His friend and peer Jan Kupecký (1667-1740) was close to him in his conception. In his portraits, Kupecký managed to perfectly capture the appearance of a person and his character traits.
The graphic artist Václav Hollar (1607-77) is a peculiar figure in Baroque art in Europe. His pictorial views of European cities attain a high artistic standard and documentary value. Because of his faith, he belonged to the large group of exiles who had to abandon Bohemia. He settled in England, where he became acquainted with the paintings of Rembrandt and other important artists, whose work he transposed into graphic form. He created a number of free art prints with allegories of the seasons.
The two faces of Czech Baroque sculpture are represented by two workshops with a different concept of statues, who competed with each other for orders in Prague. Ferdinand Maxmilián Brokoff (1688-1731) is one of the members of a long family tradition. His monumental statues give a calm and contemplative impression. At the same time, they are full of internal tension expressed through restrained gesticulation.
Conversely, the works of Matthias Bernard Braun (1684-1738) have an unsettling effect. The sculptor also emphasised exalted moments with tense theatrical gestures and rich folds of clothes. Both the representative of the local tradition and Braun, who came to Prague from Austria, gave the statues on Charles Bridge their present-day appearance. The most famous is Brokoff’s statuary of the Saints John of Matha, Felix of Valois and Ivan (sousoší sv. Jana z Mathy, Felixe z Valois a Ivana), with the very realistic figure of a Turk guarding Christians, and Braun’s Vision of St. Luthgard (Vidění sv. Luitgardy).
Antonín Mánes (1784-1843) is the most famous figure of classicist painting. His work underwent a colorful evolution from composed classicist landscapes with ancient temples to romantically ragged scenery with ruins and stormy clouds, and ending up with very realistic landscapes with natural daylight.
Tha nation for itself
The second half of the 19th century saw a massive economic boom in the Czech lands, which were part of the state ruled by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Patriotic sentiments were put in concrete terms with the construction of the National Theater in Prague in the years 1868-83 and the home of art – the Rudolfinum – in 1885. This focused the attention and interest of artists known as the National Theater generation. These included important sculptors Bohumil Schnirch (triga above the entrance), Antonín Wagner (the muses – goddess of arts and science) and Josef Václav Myslbek (the bronze statue of Music), painters František Ženíšek (painting decorations of interiors), Mikoláš Aleš (proposal of 14 lunettes named Vlast – Homeland), Vojtěch Hynajs (author of the stage curtain) and others.
The romantic works of painter Josef Navrátil (1798-1865) was of a European standard. He had perfect control of color, through which he was able to animate a rococo fountain, still life or a bouquet in a vase. The decoration of the chateau at Jirny, which was done in the Second Rococo style in 1857, is one of the pinnacles of his achievements in mural painting.
Josef Mánes (1820-71) was the antipole of Navrátil. He painted landscapes, portraits and genre pictures. The result of his studies is the calendar disc of Prague’s Astronomical Clock from 1866.
The extensive work of Josef Václav Myslbek (1848-1922) represents the apex of Czech sculpture of the 19th century overlapping into the 20th. Myslbek’s principal works, however, are the statue of Music in the foyer of the National Theater and the St. Wenceslas monument on Wenceslas Square in Prague.
The realist period harbors one other outstanding artistic figure – Antonín Chittussi (1847-91). He saw his own concept of the landscape in vivid terrain, in the disorderly nature of a segment of reality, and in natural diffuse light. He was fascinated by the landscape of South Bohemia and of the Bohemian and Moravian Highlands. In particular, his smaller pictures replete with quick, easy brushstrokes are among the jewels of Czech painting.
Impressionism, symbolism, Art Nouveau
The National Theater generation, which was imbued with patriotic feelings and the need to celebrate the national past, was supplanted by the generation of the 1890s, united under the umbrella of the Mánes association of artists. They did not want to be severed from the roots of the home-based tradition; they merely wanted to enrich it so as to also embrace new modern impulses in international art. The stylistic unity of the group fragmented. Several small movements evolved, particularly in the fine arts. They destroyed all the old trends and pulled against academic rigidity. Impressionism and symbolism were borne of this spirit.
Antonín Slavíček (1870-1910) stands at the beginning of modern Czech landscape painting. In his pictures, he didn’t just portray visual atmospheric phenomena, but strived for an expression of the destinies of people and the inner substance of the landscape.
Symbolism first manifested itself in the sculptural work of the mystically oriented František Bílek (1872-1941). His statues express the tragedy of life and at the same time they are a common symbol of human existence.
Jan Preisler (1872-1918) was a leading figure of the generation of the 1890s, who links both symbolism and impressionist influences in his work. Preisler’s pictures, namely Černé jezero (Black lake) and Pohádka (Fairytale), give a mysterious, enigmatic and sad impression.
Max Švábinský (1873-1962) was a virtuoso draughtsman, graphic designer and painter. He created colored line drawings. The list of his activities is long: He was the founder of a school of graphic arts, the first professor of a special graphic arts section at the Academy in Prague, an excellent portraitist, painter, sketcher, illustrator and a creator of stamps and bank notes. In addition, he was also the author of several monumental works.
A kind of second wave of symbolism, which took place before the First World War, is associated with the Sursum society in the Czech milieu. “Dream work” was the creative principle. Sursum comprised figures such as Jan Zrzavý and Josef Váchal (1884-1969), major names of Czech modern art.
Decorative Art Nouveau
The name of Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) reverberates when you mention Art Nouveau. Awareness of the work of this painter quickly spread beyond the borders of the Czech lands. It even appealed to the people of Paris. This was where he designed theater programs and posters in the 1890s for the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt and her Renaissance theater, which captivated the Parisian public.
You can see an example of Art Nouveau sculpture on Prague’s Old Town Square if you look at the Jan Hus monument by sculptor Ladislav Šaloun (1870-1946), or the František Palacký statue by Stanislav Sucharda (1866-1916). Together with Myslbek’s St. Wenceslas, which was not completed until 1924, these are monumental works beyond comparison in Czech sculpture.
The explosion of expressionism is associated with the names of Emil Filla,Bohumil Kubišta and Antonín Procházka.
It represents a pinnacle in architecture and applied art, which has never been achieved elsewhere.
The fact that Emil Filla and Bohumil Kubišta are among the most robust figures of Czech cubism brooks no argument. Filla’s work even contains a strong reflection on both military conflicts. He had his own experience in the Buchenwald concentration camp, which affected him deeply. He produced what is perhaps his best cubist still life during his stay in Holland in the years 1914-18, where Dutch painting of the 17th century made a big impression on him.
Bohumil Kubišta was a passionate defender of modern art and a critic of the old styles. He built on his deep knowledge of optics and the physiology of vision, which he then applied to elaborate canvas compositions.
Antonín Procházka made the beauty and poetry of everyday things apparent. His distinctive work is based on a feeling for beautiful painting material. He used old techniques of painting with the aid of hot wax (encaustic) to express himself.
The essence of Josef Čapek ’s personality (1887-1945) consisted of deep social feeling and humanism. It was because of his opinions and political activity that he was arrested by the Nazis in 1939 and deported to a concentration camp.
Otto Gutfreund (1889-1927) occupied a privileged position in cubist sculpture. His statues correspond to parallel trends in painting. His polychrome sculptures, which had no parallel in world sculpture at that time, bear witness to the difficulty of man, civilization and work.
Landscape painting of the interwar period
Important landscape painters of the interwar period included Rudolf Kremlička (1886-1932), as well as artists whose work has a more modern feel, such as Václav Špála and Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977).
František Kupka (1871-1957) began with geometrical abstraction. His concept is called orphism. It expresses a musical rhythm through the motion of a colored line or the dynamic gradation of colored areas.
Besides this world-renowned figure, several other Czech painters devoted themselves to abstract painting in this period, e.g. Vojtěch Preissig (1873-1944) and František Foltýn (1891-1976).
The 1930’s spirit of surrealism
The paradox of the life of Czech surrealism is the fact that its painters and theorists were not only persecuted during the occupation but also by the communists in the 1950s. Subsequently, the Ra Group was probably most associated with surrealism. The most celebrated pair of painters is indisputably Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942) and Toyen (1902-1980).
Within the framework of international surrealism, credit belongs to Styrsky as one of the first to concern himself with color collage and for the fact that he systematically investigated dreams as an inspiration for artistic work. Apart from dreams, the fields of eroticism, aggressive imagination and black humor were also touched on in his work.
Toyen (whose real name was Marie Čermínová) was a key European-caliber figure of surrealist avant-garde art. Moreover, she was a rebel with a huge imagination. Using the resources typical of surrealist art, she succeeded in expressing the senselessness and absurdity of war.
Josef Šíma (1891-1971) is associated with France and surrealist imagery. His pictures introduce us to a mysterious stillness where rocks transform into living beings, floating weightlessly, while inanimate things take on living forms.
The wartime 1940s
The war affected the nature of Czech art in the 1940s and caused a tendency toward experimentation in the direction of new humanist subjects. Artists had to encipher art into symbols because they were addressing a state of existential distress. Artists of the older generation (Filla, Čapek) encountered the younger generation on this platform. The younger artists began to discreetly appear on the scene under the patronage of the avant-garde E. F. Burian theater at the turn of the 1930s and ’40s.
Three important groups of artists gradually formed who brought artistic life to the new great themes of civilization. Skupina 42 – “Group 42” (František Gross, Kamil Lhoták, Jan Kotík) endeavored to depict the role of the individual in modern civilization, which changes man into a mere machine and steals his distinctive individuality. An all-embracing vision of destruction was encoded into the program of the Skupina Ra – “Ra Group”. Its work was most intertwined with the imaginative line of Czech pre-war art, e.g. Václav Tikal, Bohdan Lacina and Josef Istler.
The Sedm v říjnu (Seven in October) group appeared with the “aesthetic of the naked person” and included artists such as Václav Hejna, Josef Liesler and František Jirousek.
Lovers of fine art can spend some quality time in The Czech Museum of Fine Arts in Prague, in the City Gallery Prague and in The National Gallery.