27 January 2011

Prague and Its Art

Before I delve into today's post, I have two announcements.
1) Next week's theme is MUSIC.  In case you're wondering, I'm going to discuss contemporary CEE music.  Get psyched.

2) The EU news as of late has been exciting!  Kosovo and the organ trade, Lukashenko, Hungary's controversial media law (which the EU cannot force Hungary to change––big surprise?), and possibly fining France and Sweden for not protecting its wildlife...it's been an interesting week.  I do have to sadly let you all know that European Voice is not entirely free!  Ack!  I signed up for a 4 week trial, but it's too expensive for me to do  more than read the headlines.  Phooey.

On to Prague's art.  Today is a departure from museum space to the public space.   Naturally, this is another place I visited, but I'm including it in art week because it was actually Prague's public art that made me curious about the post-communist transition.  Prague is a rather progressive city that is full of history and tradition.  I'm mainly focused on post-communist era public art (another given), but I have a few examples of art that is not.  All the photos below, except for the one labeled otherwise, are mine and if you use them, you better cite my blog.

I found this graffiti on my way out of a tunnel.  This isn't "sanctioned" public art, but graffiti is a phenomenon that erupted after the fall of Communism.  Graffiti has always been considered a subversive art form meant to flout authority.  It has been adopted in CEE in the same manner.  There is artistic expression and exposure as well, but graffiti is meant to attack authority in silence.  It's a visual assault on who has the power to control public space.  I really liked the sentence this anonymous tagger wrote.  My interpretation is far more based on the transitional period, but it's also a human message.  But graffiti is an effective medium for this message because you can place it in the public eye and it seems so benign and delightful in comparison to other artist's elaborate name tags.  It's a conscious, aware message in a medium ascribed to hoodlums, which makes it seem far more profound.

This is a cross in the ground near the National Museum at Wenceslas Square.  It's in commemoration of Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, both students who protested Communism in 1969 (though Palach is said to have protested against the demoralization of the Russian invasion).  There's a better photo here that is not as artistically angled.  Both set themselves on fire (self-immolation, which is a very cool word) in that square and died in 1969 as martyrs of an oppressive system.  I found it fascinating that there is simple a cross laid in the cobblestone and that the ground is two humps.  The cross is a loaded symbol and it could signify their innocence, their sacrifice, their martyrdom, etc., not to mention that a religious symbol used in honor of two protesting comrades touches on a Marxist nerve.  The two humps are likely representative of their two bodies lying on the pavement dying and burning, as it were.  The cross seems to begin at one and finish at the other, which could also signify that Palach started the movement and Zajíc finished.  It was twenty years later, on the anniversary of Palach's death (Zajíc's was a month later), that the people of Prague protested on the very same square.  This turned into Palach Week and the police mercilessly beat protesters.  These events are considered the important beginning of the Velvet Revolution.

Now to rewind in time to Alfons Mucha, the prominent Art Nouveau artist.  I will warn anyone making a trip to Prague to not see the bogus Dali/Mucha museum in Old Town Square.  The Mucha Museum is the only one worth seeing.  His work is world famous and if you look up his work, you'll probably instantly recognize it.  When you think Art Nouveau, he should be the first artist to come to mind.  This window in the north nave of St Vitus is his work (see here for better detail photos).  I love that in the 1930s Prague was progressive enough to let Mucha do a window for their main cathedral.  I'm not sure they realized his window would be the central point of interest for tourists decades later, but score for the Czech Catholics!  His style is so distinct that even though he depicts Biblical and Catholic history scenes (I'm guessing...) it stands out, which makes it surprising he was only commissioned for one window because I would think that it would detract attention from other details.  Prague was on its own plane of thought even in the 1930s.

If you doubt Prague's progressiveness, you haven't seen the Dancing House, also known as Fred and Ginger.  Frank Gehry famously designed the building, finished in 1996, to replace one that was bombed out in 1945.  It was the first real big change in Prague and was very contemporary and Western.  You couldn't get more cutting edge than Frank Gehry in the early 90s.  Prague so wholeheartedly embraced the wave of change that it gave the building an unlimited budget.  They wanted this building (which is only apartments and one restaurant) to be on the map, much like Hundertwasserhaus' apartment building in Vienna.  It was controversial at the time, understandably, but it's become a major focal point in the city.  It says, "We're here, we're up to speed, and we are ready."  I like the tenacity this building represents.

You will have to excuse the fact that I am in this picture.  I do not have Photoshop, nor would I bother if I did.  It's in front of the Kafka Museum in Prague.  I loved this piece.  The pool is the shape of the Czech Republic (clearly done after the Velvet Divorce) and the torsos of those two lads swivel as the penises go up and down, pissing all over the country.  A Czech woman there make a crack that I should be delighted at their penis size, but that's just an aside.  A video to depict this is here.  So why would Prague put up a statue that pisses on the country?  Isn't that a bit odd?  However, the blog Visiting Prague has enlightened me because I did not know that they are actually writing quotes from famous Prague residents with their pee (or that you can send an SMS to a number and it will pee the message).  Now, it makes sense that the statue in front of the Kafka Museum would be bizarre (much like a statue in the Jewish Quarter, based on the story "Descriptions of a Struggle"), but it seems disrespectful to pee on your own country.  I wish I knew what quotes they were writing because I'm sure it would make infinitely more sense.  But then again, after finding a site documenting some of the sculptor's more bizarre work, I'm not sure it's doing anything but being controversial (maybe ironic) and extremely tongue in cheek.  I'm sure I'll come back to his work later.

And then we came to the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, which seems straightforward enough.  This statue changed my perspective.  It's loaded with some obvious symbolism and the lack of sophistication (or women) has upset some people.  I really loved the depiction of decay (demoralization) because it gave such a visual image to that feeling.  The statues also have thumbprints, looking like they were made of clay (the arisen from the dirt image) and made by hand instead of by a machine.  It's raw.  The breaks in the statue are not just lopped off appendages, but like deep wounds.  The placement of the wounds is significant because head and heart are the first to sustain injury.  Then it slowly wears away at everything else as your feet drudge on until you can't even do that anymore.  I wonder if Jan Palach would have like this memorial and if the reason behind his self-immolation served as any inspiration for the statue.  Yes, it may be simple, but does it need to be fancy?  Does it need to really make the struggle more abstract?  The previous art has shown some real visionaries in Prague, so perhaps that's their standard.  In any case, I liked it and it started me on a journey that lead to this blog.  So it's done some good.

Remember, next week is MUSIC WEEK!