Sondergotik

Through Germanic eyes, Prague was a dark and gothic city, quite different to the stately neo-classicism of civilised Berlin. Leppin depicted Prague as not just culturally other, but other in terms of being female and Jewish as well; ironic since the Jews were more germanicised than the Czech population. Rilke, in spite of his sympathy to Czech nationalism, dwelt on macabre stories of Dalibor and suicides from the towers of the Hrad in his Prague Stories, while Meyrink dwelt on the Jewish legends of the Golem. Meyrink proceeds through all the various tropes of gothic fantasy; from doubles and prisons to somnambulism and hidden rooms. What is most striking about it are the anthropomorphic depictions of Prague, where the lights of street lamps in the fog are seen as eyes in the dark, where the Vltava rages as it pounds against the Charles bridge and the sunless houses speak to one another at night. Equally, Csokor saw houses dripping with blackness, ready to pounce. The defining images of the city in this Germanic view were the blackened gates and towers such as those of the Tyn Church with its carious spires heaped on spires. Even the more recent buildings are wreathed in gargoyles of owls, eagles and demons with eyes that seem to follow you around.

It’s difficult not to sympathise with this view. More than London, the sondergotik of Prague reminds me of an Oxford where the stones were never cleaned to reveal their warm colours but remained as blackened as they were in the last century. There’s even a street that has two bridges of sighs along it. However, the Czechs saw their city in quite different terms, seeing the blues and pinks its houses were painted with, the cheerful Dutch gabling and mansard roofing, the jostling of baroque and secession architecture. In this respect at least Prague reminded me of Barcelona with its modernist eruptions amidst more restrained nineteenth century buildings (Andre Breton’s description of Prague as "the magical metropolis of old Europe" comes to mind). But then, more than most cities Prague is defined in terms of how its visitor wishes to see it. Nor is the city shy when it comes to offering places from which it can be seen; the great steeple of St Vitus’s Cathedral, the replica of the Eiffel Tower at Petrin, the Klementium’s observatory tower and the many other towers and gates that are scattered throughout. Never was there a more narcissistic city. This is hardly surprising; in a sense Prague is a hollow city, many of its treasures looted by successive invading armies throughout its history. To see the originals of the Adriaen de Vries statues in the Waldstein Palace gardens, one would have to go to Drottingholm Castle in Sweden, or to see some of Arcimboldo’s paintings one would have to go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Vienna. But if the city itself is the main exhibit, it isn’t just the architecture; like Barcelona, Prague’s hills and streets are wooded, with the Petrin woods giving way to Strahov monastery’s orchards. Like Amsterdam’s canals or the Thames, the Vltava languidly coils underneath the many bridges, sunlight glinting across its surface (the river defines the city, a proxy for the seashore Shakespeare bequeathed Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale).

Architecture and the visual arts were then the crowning glories of Bohemain culture in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, since the loss of the Battle of White Mountain ensured both Catholic dominance and the decline of Czech as a written language. Where Protestant England succeeded in literature more than art and music, sensuous baroque architecture became the hallmark of Prague, with each Viennese confection being a mausoleum for the Prague that had once been.

As it happened, my first experience of Prague was that described by Leppin and Meyrink; Josefov, the area of the city’s Jewish quarter. The present district stands in the ghetto whose demolition was recorded by those writers and seems little different from the surrounding old town; at this point the Jewish community was doing its utmost to assimilate into Austro-Hungarian society and the majority of the synagogues (especially the Klausen and Maisel synagogues) here are little different from the baroque churches they stand beside. On the other hand, there are the dark crenellations of the Old Synagogue, the Hebraic clock on the town hall (which goes backward in direct opposition to the more conventional timepiece above it) and the haphazard decay of the Jewish cemetery. More unusual than any of these is the Spanish synagogue, whose interior is certainly more beautiful than that of any other religious building in the city. Walking through the door little can prepare you for the blazing fire of the colours, the dark reds and blues embroidered with gold against dark wood. Though the name of the building obviously suggest the style (that is, suggesting the religious tolerance of Moorish Al-Andalus in contrast to Christian Spain), modern eyes still find the arrangement of the David star into arabesque patterns and the vine imagery of the stained glass set in Moorish arches odd and not more than a little saddening. In another of the synagogues the cause for such sadness is evident; written on the walls are the names of all the Czech Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The following day was taken up by the Hrad. I travelled to it through what has arguably become Prague’s defining feature, the Charles bridge and the Brokof statues that adorn it, is a rather peculiar experience. As an exercise in hagiography the sheer weight of saints seems more like an excessive invitation to kitsch; Wenceslas, Ludmila, Nepomuk, and (rather inevitably) George. Perhaps fittingly, most of the statues are copies, some of the originals being in the city’s lapidarium, others entombed inside Vysehrad’s casements. The Hrad itself is a medieval castle on a hill, softened by the centuries as it was surrounded by formal gardens and baroque palaces. At the centre of this, ensconced with a set of courtyards is St Vitus’s Cathedral. The nineteenth century painter Ludvik Kohl’s painting of the Cathedral imagined this as a symmetrical affair, with gothic spires on either side instead of the single steeple with its gently gabled spires. In spite of Josef Mocker’s efforts leading to the declaration of the Cathedral’s completion in 1929, it remains unfinished in many respects; some chapels have their ceilings decorated, others do not. Some windows are stained, others are not. Of those that are, one is an art nouveau affair by Mucha, others striking modernist mosaic and others more traditional. Where I had imagined an interior more like that of the Peter and Paul Church at Vysehrad with its ceiling covered in painted greenery and gold leaf, it proved to be rather disappointingly monastic. The oddity is accentuated by the Plecnik’s modernist alterations; the gold sphere fountains or black and gold bull gates.

Alongside the Cathedral is the Old Royal Palace, whose plain ribbed ceilings in the Vladisvlav Hall rather reminded me of a more spartan Hampton Court (the Palace was largely empty of furniture, save, rather oddly for large green tiled stoves), a Romanesque basilica and the various towers that compete with the ivy to line the walls. Beyond that lies a wooden stag ditch and the formal gardens beyond it, one of which was hosting a falconry display patronised by bored owls. Amidst the azaleas, almond trees and singing fountains of the Royal Gardens, Music Palaces and Summer Belvederes, tulips were naturalised into Europe from Turkey; now it settles for brazen red and black squirrels. Further down is the Waldstein Palace, current home of the Czech Senate, whose formal gardens include an rather awkward faked grotto, an aviary (more bored owls) and a pond filled with voracious carp. Of the buildings here, the nearest that any of them come to recalling the days of the Rudolfine cabinet of curiosities is the Strahov monastery, with its odd collection of shells, stuffed animals and the occasional narwhal tusk.

The lower town on the other side of the Vltava from the Hrad, sharply accentuates the city’s contrasts, a confusion of buildings like the Estates Theatre and Klementium. Art nouveau halls and baroque palaces stand alongside the gothic tower that houses the Horologe. The baroque St Nicholas Church sits opposite the gothic Tyn Church in the town square.The interior of the Tyn Church is one of the most striking in Prague, where plain whitewashed buttresses and walls descend to black and gold altars and wooden tombs, like that of Tycho Brahe. The stately buildings of the national revival here, the National Museum, Opera House, National Theatre and Rudolfinum are, perhaps rather oddly given contemporary Czech antipathy to the Germanic, the parts of Prague that most reminded me of Berlin, the National Theatre’s sculptures being rather like that stop the Brandenburg Gate. Finally, the botanical garden has a small tropical and desert greenhouse and a garden dedicated to South Asian plants (thief time inhabited by black squirrels), but is overall more another garden than anything like Kew. I was rather disturbed by a bird fair in the greenhouses; the parrots and finches seemed less than comfortable in their cramped cages.

Vysehrad is another castle on the hill, or rather a place where one might have been supposed to be. The hill is saturated with stories that seems a Czech answer to the Arthurian myths and its park is filled with statues of knightly figures, but the only trace of any latterday Camelot are the Hapsburg fortifications and the casemates within them. Today, its role is more like that of Highgate cemetery, the churchyard having a pantheon style monument to the likes of Mucha, Gocar and Kubelik, while Neruda, Capek, Dvorak and Smetana are buried nearby.

As mentioned above, Prague lost many of its treasures through looting; the Sternberg gallery on the Hrad is a rather slight affair, having an excellent Rembrandt, two Brueghels and a Hals and little else of interest except an engraved Dutch nautilus shell. However, the nineteenth and twentieth century works remain. Prominent amongst these is the Mucha museum. Although for many artists their greatest work is rarely the one that impinges on the public consciousness, this doesn’t seem the case for Mucha. His own view of his greatest work, the Slav epic series of paintings, can often be sentimental and tainted by a rather awkward mysticism. Equally, his art nouveau posters are a trifle insubstantial, which leaves the works that made him famous; the posters of Sarah Bernhardt, as Medea, Hamlet and Lorenzo de Medici, where the darker themes of the plays perfectly balance Mucha’s frothy style.

The other artistic style for which Prague is notable is cubism, being the only city where this became a form of architecture as well as design and painting. Cubist villas are dotted through the Vysehrad suburbs and the new town (as well as a cubist lamp-post of all things), where the House of the Black Madonna can be found. This is probably not the best example of the form, but it is the most idiosyncratic; painted in a burnt orange (where all the others are grey and have become somewhat dilapidated; the Czechs seem bemused by foreign interest) and bearing an icon of its namesake on the outside. I was especially taken with the idea of a cubist spiral staircase, with most of the landings apparently trying to become a mirror maze in miniature. The interior displays Emil Filla’s Braquist paintings and the more exuberant responses by Josef Capek and Vaclav Spala, the latter having created paintings that more resembled Picasso (especially les Demoiselles d’avignon), Gauguin and Cezanne. But his cobalt blue painting of the Vltava was the finest work I saw in Prague. The rest dwelt on design, showing Janak’s odd crystalline boxes and Gocar’s jagged chandeliers.

The main gallery in Prague is the modernist Trade Fair Palace, tucked out of mind in the northern suburbs. The Palace has a bright white (rather cavernous) interior courtyard of the Corbusieresque Trade Fair Palace can be ascended by a somewhat unnerving glass elevator (rather unintentionally reminiscent of Roald Dahl). Its exhibition of twentieth century Czech art, dwelt largely on the Cubists again but also included Frantisek Kupka’s peculiar brand of surrealism, where the paintings are often named after musical terms and alternated between resembled the mandelbrot set and some of Mondrian’s more famous works. The most interesting part of the gallery was the nineteenth century Czech collection. This traces Czech landscape painting from the Constablesque paintings of Karel Postl to Bredrich Havranek, Julius Marak and August Piepenhagen’s more romanticist conceptions. At this point Czech art diverges into differing strains, like Max Svabinsky’s symbolism and Slavicek’s impressionism. Amidst this, Caspar David Friedrich apparently counts as Czech, and his small North Sea in Moonlight is one of the highlights of the collection. The gallery does have a section for foreign painters; limited interest save a stunning Klimt painting, two excellent Munch paintings and surrealist seediness from Ernst. There is a separate section for French art, housing works by Delacroix, Corot, Daumier, Pisarro, Sisley, Monet, Degas, Lautrec, Seurat, Gauguin, Cezanne, Derain and Braque. Again, towering above these was a Van Gogh (who apparently counts as French) called Green Corn.

The Bilkova Villa is largely interesting for the dark building itself, which although designed to be in keeping with natural motifs (the pillars on the outside represent sheaves of corn), stands starkly against the trees that surround it. The interior seems similar to the arts and crafts love of the medieval but is a more ascetic variant; whitewashed walls, plain wooden furniture and stone clad lintels. Frantisek Billek’s symbolist sculpture has more of an organic quality, its fluid line worked with the grain of the wood they are made from, just as all the villa rooms are interconnected and flow into one another.

The first concert I went to in Prague was held in the St Nicholas Church in the old town square. Most of the concert was played on the organ on an upper gallery out of sight, and one could only look round the paintings on the domed ceiling, the oddly orthodox (for a Hussite church) painting of Jesus above the altar and the enormous glass chandelier hanging like the sword of Damocles above as Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Minor and Liszt’s Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of B-A-C-H reverberated around the walls. The other organ work (Toccata from Suite Gothique), by someone I hadn’t heard of before called Boellman was also exceptional; all organ works should be as deranged. The other pieces were performed by a brass ensemble, working rather better with pieces I knew like Handel’s Messiah than Suite D Major by Telemann. The second concert was held in the art nouveau Municipal House, an odd building sitting next to one of the blackened gothic gatehouses, whose interior is all red marble corridors with gold decorations, with the Smetana Hall itself being white with a illuminated glass ceiling and impressionist murals covering the walls; oddly the stage furnishing was dark wood. Sadly the performance of Mozart’s requiem could only be described as workmanlike (the orchestra was rather ragged in places and the gyrations of the conductor are best left undescribed), in spite of good choral and soloist performances.

Walking round Prague it is somewhat disconcerting to realise that the languages being spoken are as likely to be any other European language as Czech (especially since one’s own presence can only contribute to this), partially as a result of tourism, partially as a result of foreign property ownership having priced the Czechs out of their own capital. The city seems little different to anywhere else in Europe, filled with branches of Tescos, Lush and McDonalds (though clearly not all of these are for the Czechs) and largely lacking the scars all too evident in Berlin and Leipzig. On the other hand, one does not have to look too far before seeing a skyline filled with panelaks. Communism has certainly left traces on the city. The Hotel International, an hideously predictable example of Stalinist wedding cake architecture has murals on its walls of smiling peasant women standing next to chemical factories. The star at its summit is green, probably at the recent behest of its new Western owners. The ball games hall in the Hrad gardens has had its renaissance graffito adjusted to show one of the muses holding a sickle and Stalin’s five year plan. The Museum of Communism recalls the horrors of communism, but equally treats it as amusingly nostalgic kitsch, rather begging the question of whether one would wish to see a Museum of Fascism in Madrid or Rome.

The food was especially enjoyable; lunch on the wooded Zofin Island (condemned by Berlioz since "immodest young males and females indulge in brazen dancing, while idlers and wasters .. lounge about smoking foul tobacco and drinking beer."), sipping Turkish coffee in the Austro-Hungarian Cafe Imperial or eating boar in a gothic cellar. Though coffee is the preferred Czech drink, there are some good tea houses in the city. The notion that tea was introduced into Prague by Bakunin is one of those patently false myths that deserve to be cherished. While Czech beers live up to their reputation, Moravian wine deserves to be better known; sweet, like Italian wines. The best food has to be at the Hanavsky Pavilion, an exercise in Baroque Chinoiserie that has possibly the best of all the views over Prague. As I sat down, the day faded and orange glow of street lights shimmered across the Vltava. Birds wheeled overhead, crickets serenaded the night and fireworks bloomed in the sky above the city. Words like magical were meant for moments like that.

The city has been having a cow parade, scattering identical fibreglass cows across the city but giving each a different design. I rather liked the cow with the horologe clock face splashed all over it, a chessboard, worthless communist silver coinage and an delightful cow with antennae and the wings of a red admiral butterfly. Damien Hirst would love it; one hopes that the Czechs have been advised to deny him a Visa.

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