Saturday, 28 February 2015

Alfons Mucha and the Slav Epic

When I was young there was quite a fad about the graphics of Alfons Mucha. It was the 1970s and his posters were blu-tacked to the bedroom walls of teenage girls all over the UK. I was no exception, but while my friends preferred his pensive and languid portrayals of women I went for his dynamic theatre poster of Sarah Bernhardt as Jeanne D'Arc. Had you asked me then about his nationality I would have confidently told you that Mucha was French. He wasn't - he was Czech and proud of it.

Born in Ivančice, a small town south of Brno, Mucha studied in Brno and Munich, before going to Paris. Despite his success in Paris most of Mucha's life was spent in his homeland. If you only know Mucha from his French graphics, you will be surprised by his work in the Czech Republic. You soon realize that Mucha was an artist with a much greater scope than you had imagined, interested in portraying complex subjects in a very original way.

Mucha considered his greatest work to be the Slav Epic. The piece is made up of twenty enormous panels, depicting key scenes in the history of the Czechs and other Slavic peoples. Mucha hoped that it would inspire his fellow countrymen, but not in a militarist way - there a strong strand of pacifism in the later paintings. Instead the paintings have a very spiritual aspect to them, celebrating the soul of the Slav peoples.

It took Mucha eighteen years to complete the sequence of paintings and when he had completed them he gave the paintings to the city of Prague. The Epic was very much a labour of love. Sadly the time it took Mucha to take the Epic from conception to completion meant that the work was out-dated almost as soon as the completed works went on display. When it was begun there was no independent state for the Czechs, by the time it was completed Czechoslovakia was already ten years old. Only ten years later the Nazis arrived in Prague and the Epic was hidden to avoid its destruction. Unfortunately the same was not true of its artist. Mucha was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo and, although eventually released, his health was broken. The artist died in July 1939 and was buried in Vyšehrad cemetery.

You can see the Slav Epic in its own room at the Czech National Gallery's Veletržní Palace in Holešovice. When I visited people were walking around in awe-filled silence. Nothing that I knew about Mucha's work could have prepared me for the paintings, not even photographs of them. They are altogether larger, darker (both literally and in terms of subject matter) and more complex than the works of other painters of his generation. If you are interested in art, then this exhibition is a must.

Sunday, 22 February 2015


Spilberk castle, Brno

I am a great fan of the Czech Republic's second city. Indeed at times I think I prefer it to Prague. The two are very different in their feel. Prague to my mind feels like a Northern European city, whilst Brno has more of the Mediterranean about it. In Prague everyone seems to be going somewhere, whereas Brno has more of a relaxed cafe culture. It helps that the climate is milder there, and also that the historic centre is pedestrianized. As a result people sit at tables outside the city's many cafes and restaurants and chat to friends over coffee or maybe the local wine. 

I have visited the city many times over the years and each time I find something new to do. Brno's most famous building is Villa Tugendhat, and it certainly should be on any visitor's to-do list, but there is much more to see. The Villa isn't even the only major modernist building in the city. If you are interested in the architecture of previous periods, you will find Gothic and Baroque churches, Renaissance palaces, Art Deco villas and Art Nouveau apartment buildings and shops within easy walking distance of the city centre.

Called the "Moravian Manchester", Brno boomed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the back of a vibrant textile industry. As in Manchester the industrialists invested in the best architects and artists to create the buildings and institutions appropriate to their city's status. These included the Moravian Museum of Applied Arts. The permanent collection of this excellent museum has free entry and features some stunning examples not only of textiles but of furniture (including pieces designed by locally-born Josef Hoffmann), glass, graphics (Alfons Mucha was also a local) and other objects.There is currently a temporary exhibition on display at the museum entitled Brno - Moravian Manchester. 250 years of the capital of the textile industry. Frustratingly the exhibition closes a month before I bring a textiles tour to the city, but so it goes. My suspicion is that the exhibition is actually the one that will eventually be permanently installed in the Loew Beer Villa, which is due to open a month after the tour.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Hobbit holes

Many of the vineyards in Moravia are small family affairs, the vineyards small, the wine-making a part-time activity at best. Alongside roads and up lanes you will come across small cellars built into the hillside; they resemble nothing so much as hobbit holes. In season you may find them open and someone sitting outside ready to sell you a bottle or three.

There are of course major wine-producers in the region and they offer tours and wine-tastings, but I prefer the small family version. In Znojmo a group of Australian artists and I were given a personal guided tour of one such family cellar. The walls were covered with a blue mould, which gave the cellars in the area their name, Modré sklepy (the Blue Cellars). The jovial lady, whose family had been making wine there for generations, handed around glasses for us to try. And I was confident that the wine was lovely even before ten wine varieties we savoured started to have an effect. 

We voted for our favourite red and white wines and sat down at a long table in the front area of the cellar. Copious plates of open sandwiches and other Czech finger foods arrived along with jugs of wine. Both the plates and the jugs kept being refilled and we got merrier and merrier. The owner and her daughter joined us at the table and the evening passed most agreeably.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Pancake Day in the Czech Republic

Today I went again to the local primary school to talk to the children. I showed them a video of the Spitalfields Great Pancake Race and explained the traditions of Pancake Day to them. They learnt some useful English nouns - eggs, milk, pan, pancake, race, costume; some useful English verbs - go, run, drop, catch, throw, turn, as well as the adjective - silly. Then we had a pancake race, indoors because outside was Czech snow. Their English lesson ended with the consumption of pancakes in the English style - with the sugar and lemon. The children were surprised by the lemon.

The video is of the race I organized with my neighbours on the lane outside my house.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Fairy Reserve

I stumbled across the fairy reserve near my home last Autumn. I wanted a short walk and decided I would go into the hills above Horice Na Sumave. Originally it was my intention to just walk up to the open-air theatre which is home to the annual Horice Passion Play, but I saw signs to the fairy reserve and my interest was piqued. My other motivation was that the signs were pointing towards a wooded hill, and in Autumn Czech woods mean mushrooms.

At the edge of the wood was a red and white toll both, closed now, but the price list was still visible. Underneath was some graffiti in English: “I want to believe...” There were other signs in various parts of the wood. One read that it was forbidden to go under the mushrooms. A signpost's two arrows pointed “This way” and “There”. This was all that remained of a time in the summer holidays when the reserve had been full of children entertained by actors playing fairytale characters. Now I was alone to imagine their fun, or maybe the fairies just weren't showing themselves.

I wandered around the hill following in places a pilgrimage trail with its stations of the cross up to a ruined chapel and the top of a ski-slope. The chapel walls were destroyed by explosives in the 1960s. Grass grew between the stone paving stones and the winding head of the ski-lift stood rusty against the blue sky. Again here was a place that once thronged with people processing up from the small town, but now was empty.

Turning back, I started to notice strange formations of small rocks and twigs among the trees. Leaving the path, I looked closer and found that they were miniature settlements, made by the children for the fairies. I looked up and saw horn of plenty mushrooms pushing through the leaf litter. I thanked the fairies and filled my basket, before walking home.

A few weeks ago I took some British visitors for a walk. I took them to the fairy reserve and the ruined chapel. I explained to them the very Czech love of fairy tales, of how television dramatizations of fairy tales made in the sixties and seventies are part of every family's Christmas TV viewing, of how adults would talk with a straight face about fairies and other spirits, and I told the story of the builder who put milk out to appease the threshold fairies. When I told them that I was thinking of writing an insider's guide to the Czech Republic, they urged me to do so, saying that you would never find anything about fairies or their reserves in a normal guide book.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

The Museum of Romany Culture

Last year I took a friend and some Australian artists to Brno. Sometimes when you organise a visit serendipity takes a hand and things just happen. We had of course visited the Villa Tugendhat and members of the group decided it would divide up to explore the city on their own.

Some decided they would follow my advice and visit the Museum of Romany Culture. Meanwhile I stayed at the hotel. The phone rang. "Listen to this," said my friend Maggie. Gypsy music and the sound of fast dancing feet came down the phone. "There's an open-air festival here. All the gypsies are enjoying themselves." I left the hotel immediately and made my way to the museum.

The Museum is easy to get to - it's on several of the main tram routes and not far from the centre - but the area is a bit run-down, as is to be expected given that the gypsy population tends to live in the poorer areas. When I arrived the open-space outside the museum was milling with people, many in traditional brightly-coloured costumes, but the music had stopped temporarily. I looked around for my party and decided they must be inside.

The gentleman on the museum counter told me that, although the museum was officially closed for another hour because of the festival, my Australian friends had been allowed in. The museum staff had been so delighted that a group of Australians had come to visit their museum, they had opened up specially.

Inside the museum the members of the group were walking around the exhibition rooms listening to their English-speaking audio guides. The museum's story starts with the Romanies' departure from India, and then follows them as they arrive in Europe. It shows their traditional way of life on the road, their traditional crafts, customs and society. One room is devoted to the Holocaust, or the Devouring as the gypsies call it. They, like the Jews, were sent to the gas chambers, but we do not hear much about that. The last room in the museum is a celebration of contemporary gypsy culture and its influence on music, film and fashion. It is a fascinating museum offering an insight into a people and culture about which we non-Romanies know pitifully little.

When we left the museum, after over an hour's visit, the festival was still in full flow. Excited girls in their lovely red and gold dresses ran through the foyer. A Brno radio station was recording a performance by one of the local groups. We walked back to the city centre and the music faded behind us.

A few days later I went online to write a review on Tripadvisor and found that alongside the 5-star reviews, there were two 1-star ones. These were in Czech and were nothing more than expressions of the blind racism that the Romany Museum so eloquently counters. I wrote a response and I am glad to say that when I looked recently the 1-star reviews had been removed.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The Bear and the Mushrooms


This is one episode in a children's television series shown on British television in the mid 1980s. It uses that traditional Czech puppet form - black-light theatre and it has a very Czech theme. All of which is not surprising because it was written, directed and performed by my Czech friend Hannah (Susan) Kodicek.  Hannah was the person who taught me pretty much all I know about collecting mushrooms and also introduced me to the Czech Republic. My son had a picture book of this story and loved it.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Alchemists' Laboratory

Unlike the rest of Prague's Jewish quarter number 1 Hastalska survived the demolition and the redevelopment of the 19th century. Prior to that it survived the great fire of 1689. The house at number 1 might be said to have a charmed life. And there are plenty of legends to support that assertion. A chariot pulled by fiery goats was said to exit the house. Smoke, strange sounds and foul smells rose from the ground. There was talk that tunnels ran from the house to The Old Town Hall, under the river to the Castle, and to the Barracks.

An investigation in the historical records reveals that the possible cause of these legends - the building had been a centre of alchemical activity. Here in the 16th century, supported by the Emperor Alchemist Rudolf II, alchemists from across Europe gathered in their efforts to turn base metal into gold, to find the philosopher's stone and the elixir of eternal life. The alchemists went their ways and the house was used for more mundane affairs.

In 2002 the house survived another natural disaster - the flooding of the River Vltava. But when the waters subsidized, a hole had appeared in the basement where a wall had collapsed. Once the rubble was cleared a maze of tunnels was revealed together with a series of workshops with some of the alchemical equipment still in place. Every part of the alchemical process took place there - from drying the herbs, to distillation, to even creating the glass vials in which the elixir was stored. Spiralling stoves allowed alembics to heat to different temperatures. Vents and chimneys carried the smoke, steam and fumes up to the surface where they alarmed passersby.

The owner set about restoring the workshops to the state they would have been in at the time when John Dee and his fellow alchemists were working in the house. It is now open as a museum and is well worth a visit. You can even buy some elixir in the shop. One is a potion for lovers, even though it was made by monks. 


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