Saturday, 22 October 2016

Artsy Prague: Kampa, Mucha, Kafka

The entrance to Museum Kampa

1) Museum Kampa

Having had a glass of emerald potion it is time to immerse yourself in modern Chech art. Best way to do it is to visit Museum Kampa. Museum Kampa owes its existence to the well-known Chech-American art lover, Mrs. Meda Mladek, and her vision to transform the historical Sova Mill complex into a musuem showcasing Central European modern art, and in particular Chech art. Kampa celebrates Mrs. Mladek's passion for art and her belief that culture is the basis for the survival and future development of the nation. For many years Meda, together with her husband Jan, supported local artists during Communist regime and amassed a comprehensive art collection over their lifetime. Following the Velvet revolution, the couple bequeathed their private collection to the city of PRague. They sealed their unique collection in time and gave it to the future

Some witty and dynamic creations at the Kampa Musuem grounds. The Red Horse sculpture is a work of the Prague-born artist - David Cerny. 

The museum was open to the public in September 2003 in the Sova Mill - a 600 year old building located on the banks of romatic and very picturesque Kampa Island. Along with paintings and drawings by Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957), a pioneer of abstract art, and Cubist statues by Otto Gutfreund (1889-1927), works by Jiri Kolar (1914-2002) and other contemporary Chech artists e.g Karel Malich, are on the display. 

The newly restored Sova Mill building which is a home to Kampa Museum has a long history. The first written record of a water mill on Kampa Island dates from 1393, however it is believed that a mill already existed on this site as far back as the tenth century. Sova Mill takes its name from one of its early owners, Vaclav Sova of Liboslav, who acquired and restored the mill in 1478 after it had been damaged in the Hussite revolution. Over the centuries the mill has been rebuilt and reconstructed many times due to damage caused by fires, floods and wars or changes and advances in new technology and style. Reconstructed in stone in the late 16th century folowing a fire,the mill was used as artillery bullwark by the Swedish army during the Thirty Years War. It retained its Renaissance architecture until the mid-19th century, when the prominent entrepreneur Frantisek Odkolek commisioned several leading architects to expand and renovate the complex into American style steam mill and a family residence with a neo-Gothic romantic style facade.

Some witty and dynamic creations at the Kampa Musuem grounds. The Red Horse sculpture is a work of the Prague-born artist - David Cerny. 


Kampa Museum is a little gem for lovers of modern art. It perfectly combines light, shadow and various pieces of art work. You will see some works by Frantisek Kupka, Karel Malich, Jiri Mrazek and by some more modern Chech artists whose works are surpsingly impressive and evocative. I am going to focus on four artists whose works I liked most, namely Frantisek Kupka, Karel Malich, Jiri Mrazek and David Cerny.

Frantisek Kupka

 Frantisek Kupka, Moving Blues, oil on canvas

A permanent exhibition of Kupka's works at the Museum Kampa creates a historical narrative around the painter's artistic evolution. Kupka belongs to the group of the international abstract painters of the beginning of the 20th century. He is thought to have first publicly displayed a non-figurative painting at the Salon d’Automne in 1912. 

Kupka's works are dynamic, fluid and abstract. His most famous series Blue Movements demonstrate his idea of the perpetual, continuously repetitive water's movements which are captured by blended and contrasting colour forms, reminiscent of the sea waves.  As Karen Archey, independent curator and art critic based in Berlin so aptly observed "Kupka’s concern with encapsulating movement, action and rhythm can be seen most plainly in the works in ‘Moving Blues’ at Museum Kampa, an exhibition comprising works borrowed from international collections, which specifically focuses on his studies of movement within the ‘cosmic realms of sea, sky and land’, according to the exhibition catalogue. The show features works from the ‘Moving Blues’ series, which are marked by undulating, at times jagged, rings rendered in cool whites, blues and greens, as well as related studies and reference material" Click on a link for the full article

"Kupka’s approach stands apart for its blending of Bohemian spirituality with a total, self-constructed system of logic. The tangible influences on his style are numerous: his teenage apprenticeship to a saddle maker, who taught him to become a spiritualist medium; and his training at the local arts and crafts school in Jarome˘r˘, which emphasized the traditions of his native Bohemia and taught the young Kupka about ornament as well as how to draw by breaking down complex forms into basic geometric shapes. The nature of Kupka’s early work as a commercial illustrator and political cartoonist, with its pared-down line quality, later translated to his abstractions." Karen Archey. Despite the fact that his academic education relied heavily on realistinc painting, he arrived at abstract expression through a natural, artistic evolution. He created his first pure abstrac paintings between 1910 and 1912 and remained loyal to this style until his death. A permanent exhibition of Kupka's works at the Museum Kampa offers visitors a chance to discover not only his studies but also his major works such as Cathedral, Amorpha - Warm Chromatics or the Fair (Contradance)

Karel Malich  

Discover a series of colourful wall-mounted sculptures by Karel Malich at Museum Kampa. Over the past ten years Malich has been admired for his colourful pastel works, which captured his visual imagination and expressed a personal cosmic vision. Now he has returned to the form that made him famous, namely to sculptural wire pieces and spatial drawings.

Karel Malich (1924), who this year celebrates his 92nd birthday is a great artist in Eastern Europe’s constructivist tradition. He  has been dealing with the language of materials, representation of energies and connection between figure and landscape throughout his artistic career. He recently went back to sculptural work after a break of almost ten years. In the first phase of this return he created black and white and wire sculptures, but his latest series is bursting with colour and vitality. In the world of Karel Malich the most unusual compositions mix into confusions of colour which, despite their abstractness, come to life. 

Karel Malich rediscovered
(The wall sculpture from Pilsen)

The current exhibition at Museum Kampa draws attention to Karel Malich's newly discovered large wall-mounted sculpture that was created for the Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen. The artwork marked the the process of the artist's re-definition of his approach and perception of art and artistic expression which occured in the second half of the 1970s. The relationship between man and landscape became his predominant motif. Malich worked on the wall sculpture for the Faculty of Medicine in Pilsen since 1978. It was mounted in 1980. It is one of the most important constructivist works of the artist, as well as one of the most significant public wall sculptures of the former Chechoslovakia of the 1970s and 1980s. Soon after its installation the sculpture sank into oblivion. None of the numerous administrators of the building ever realized the sculpture's artistic and cultural value. It was brought back to daylight thanks to painstaking efforts of the Pilsen Association, known as Crosses and Intruders (Ales Hejna, Pavel Cverck and Daniel Jahn) that traces works of art from the normalization period in the Pilsen region. The wall sculpture was  discovered in April 2015 following thorough search carried out by Daniel Jahn at its original location. The sculpture had been obscured from the view and hidden behind the cabintes. 

The selection of Malich's works at Kampa draw attention to the prevailing element of continuity in his art that developed over the span of decades and was foreshadowed by both the Cernobila Plastika (Black and White Relief) and the wall sculpture from Pilsen. To this day, Malich has created nearly eighty sculptures. Both wall-mounted and hanging sculptures of steel wire and plywood reflect the artist's ongoing preoccupation with the visual dialogue between shapes and space. 

Jiri Mrazek

Jiri Mrazek (1920-2008) was a Chech born painter, illustrator, textile designer and graphic designer. He was a member of 12 UB group and an important figure on the Chech art scene in the second half of the 20th century. He organized a series of solo exhibitions both home and abroad. He is deservedly considered an artist in his own right who took a path a less travelled by others and who decided to tread his own. Considering the unfavourable circumstances for the artists in the 1950s and the years that followed, it was a particularly daring and challenging thing to do. Despite his slightly pessimistic view that 'modern art will never be done again' he continued to experiment and search for alternative solutions.


A significant contribution to the originality of Mrazek's work stemmed from his job in the Institute of Housing and Clothing Culture under Antonin Kybal. Kybal noticed Mrazek's talent for drawing intricate ornamental patterns. The artist managed to achieve great ability to create planar patterns in countless variations. His artistic and personal growth reached a milestone once he joined UB 12 Group. He made acquaintences with other momebers - painters and sculptors such as Vaclav Bartovsky, Jiri John, Adriena Simotova, Vaclav Bostik, Stanislav Kolibal and Vlasta Prachaticka, Alena Kucerova, Oldrich Smutny, his future wife Daisy, Alois Vitik, Frantisek Burant and theorist Jaromir Zemina. The members of the group supported each other morally, exchanged concepts and ideas and inspired each other.


Mrazek's painting style focuses on basic visual tools - colour, line and shape. His art is a manifestation of his profound interest in geometric shapes and independent stream of colour planes intersected by lines. He let some of these lines "end in infinity to create an impression of space". Through play of colours, shapes and lines, Mrazek created a new artistic reality full of tension, vibrancy and exultant joy. Whilst commenting on his selected works of art he noted that an element of subtle eroticism could be detected in them: "Eroticism can be encrypted in the aggressiveness with which we tackle the canvas, or on the contrary, in the soft and tender  way the conavas is touched. I think that in this sense, eroticism is apparent also in my pyramids and grey paintings."

The current exhibition at Kampa Museum presents Mrazek's abstract  works from the last few years. I must admit that I found his paintings very cheerful and original. I contemplated them and jokingly said that they resemble geometric hallucinations or even subtly psychedelic imagery.  Neatly organized squared grids pulsate with deeply saturated colours. Some of his paintings reminded me of chess boards that burst into colours and others of tunnel-vision-like hallucination patterns or uncoiled spirals. His works amazed me with their intricate geometric patterns which appear to have been created with near-mathematical precision. Mrazek creates his paintings according to a specific regularity, a quality which renders his works fascinating in their own quirky, repetitive way. I do not know if it is just me who can see accuracy and robustness of a pattern equation or a simple algorithm in Mrazek's selected creations.

 David Cerny

Chech sculptor David Cerny is a master of productive disquietude and controversy. His sculptures are provocative, defiant and certainly intriguing. They are quirky, amusing and revolutionary. Born in December 15, 1967 in Prague, Cerny gained notoriety in 1991 by painting a Soviet tank pink that served as a war memorial in central Prague. As the Monument to Soviet tank crews was still a national cultural monument at that time, his act of civil disobedience was considered “hooliganism” and he was briefly arrested [1].  

 The power of Art

Cerny's parents were artists themselves. But as he recalls, he hated being dragged to official exhibition openings. He studied design and graphic design but he knew from the beginning  that he was too much of a rebel and provocator to find happiness and fullfilment in designing furniture and other utalitarian items. Initially, his works were dismissed as too brash  and garish.  All galleries kept turning his creations down. A single protest action in September 1991 catapulted him into the limelight overnight - in the literal sense of the word overnight - as the Pink Tank was created overnight. Cerny and his accomplices painted a Russian tank pink and erected a large finger suggesting an obscene gesture on its turret, signing the work "David Černý and the Neostunners". It was an extremely daring and risky thing to do in those times. The tank - an important monument commemorating liberation of Prague by the Red Army in 1945, turned into a symbol of Stalinist oppression over the next four decades. But once it was painted pink, the tank has assumed a totally different meaning - a joyous act of freedom and liberation, non-violent protest, a breath of fresh air of uninhibited, individual expression and creativity. Pink Tank became a metaphor for the Velvet Revolution - a non-violent transition of power in what was then Czechoslovakia. The period of upheaval and transition took place from November 17 to December 29, 1989. After an official protest by the Russian government, the tank was re-painted green. Interestingly, the tank was painted back to pink a second time by members of parliament in protest of Cerny's arrest. The national monument status was abolished, Cerný was released, and the tank was eventually removed after being repeatedly being painted green, then pink again, a few more times. The tank is now located at Military Museum Lešany near Týnec nad Sázavou (source: Soviet Tank Crews).

The symbiosis of art and urban architecture

Significant part of David Cerny visibility and popularity factor is that the majority of his sculptures can be found in public spaces. Cerny proves that art and urban architecture can walk hand in hand and co-exist in a relative harmony. Tucked into corners, dangerously swinging from an iron beam above cobbled streets or curiously climbing up a tower - his works make us stop and ponder. When you head right along the Vlatva's edge to Kampa Island you are bound to bump into three giant babies that guard the entrance to Museum Kampa. These massive crawling, Lynchian creatures, are part of Cerny's "Babies" Zizkov TV Tower project.

I suppose that having read the brief introduction above, you keep wondering what Cerny's "Babies" Zizkov TV Tower Project was all about and how did the shameless monster cherubs get to Kampa Island. I was equally puzzled when I stumbled upon these three black giant babies, their mouths stapled shut, nonchalantly crawling outside the entrance to the Kampa Museum. I was not only puzzled but also amused! It turns out that the three monster babies guarding the entrance to Kampa Museum are twin brothers of Miminkas - eight black babies who are permament residents of Zizkov Television Tower!

Zizkov Television Tower is  216 meters (709 feet) high, and it is the highest tower in the Czech Republic. In the year 2000 Prague was the Cultural Capital of Europe and at the time Cerny was living here. He was commissioned to create a temporary project to honur the occasion. Cerny came up with the original idea of installing eight monster fiberglass babies on the Zizkov Television Twoer. His “Tower Babies” became his most prominent work in Prague.  Due to the public’s appreciation of the babies, it was decided that they would remain permanently on the Tower. To see them up close, go to Kampa Museum where they crawl in a corner next to the entrance (source: David Cerny: Art in Public Spaces).

It is important to note however, that Cerny's Babies  were first presented in 1994 at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art, followed by appearances in various other cities including London. The tower project came about in 2000 – the year Prague was a Cultural Capital of Europe. (source: David Cerny: Art in Public Spaces)

Brownnosing is another provocative and outrageous work by Cerny. Located in the garden of the Futura Centre for Contemporary Art in Smíchov, two headless, five metre high rear ends lean nonchalantly against a white wall. 

Image credit: (
Shocking, entertaining, provoking, funny and brave. His sculptures make us thinking.

You can climb a ladder and stick your head in the sculpture’s fiberglass anus to see a video of two Czech politicians feeding each other slop to a soundtrack of “We are the Champions." Crude, unsubtle, comical, it is yet another example of Cerny's displeasure with post-revolution democracy; the fates of the Czech people, he feels, rest uneasily in the dictatorial, money-grabbing hands of inept politicians [3].

Year: 2003 | material : mixed media | height 5.2 m (17.06 ft) | address: Hole kova 49, Prague 5, Czech Republic.

Man Hanging out (1996)

Image credits: (Civic Arts Project)

"This unique sculpture in Old Town Prague depicts psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hanging by a hand and pondering whether to hold on or let go. It is an unexpected and eye-catching-if not disturbing-image in an otherwise sublime urban area.

Sigmund Freud was born in Frieburg which is now part of the Czech Republic.  Even during the most prolific times of his career, Frued suffered from a number of phobias including the fear of his own death.  Suffering from mouth cancer when he was 83, Freud had his close friend and doctor help him to commit suicide through administering morphine.

Artist David Cerny depicts Freud in this way to signify his constant struggle with fear of death.  Other interpretations suggest that the artist was personally challenging the status quo.

The sculpture became so popular that it was exhibited in other cities including London, Berlin, Rotterdam, Chicago, and Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Often mistaken as a suicide attempt, the sculpture has initiated calls to fire and police. Man Hanging Out is in the ‘Stare Mesto’, or Old Town, section of Prague and is surrounded by richly detailed buildings, narrow streets, and cobbled plazas.  The sculpture is close to Old Town Square and other popular areas in Old Town" (5).

(Source: Civic Arts Project)

Piss (2004)

Located just outside Kafka Museum, Cerny's "Piss" features two bronze figures shamelessly urinating on a map of the Chech Republic. "Text a personal message to the number next to the exhibit and these chaps will happily waggle their bronze penises around to spell it out for you"(6).

The sculptures I presented in my blog consist only small fraction of the total number of fantabulous creations by Cerny in Prague. If you are in the capital of  Bohemia, make it a point to see some of his public work! It makes for an excellent slightly off-beat city tour and gives you a real insight into Czech sense of humor!

2) Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939)

The Czech Art Nouveau painter and decorative artist, Alphonse Mucha first worked as an artist in Vienna, then he studied in Munich and since 1886 in Paris, where produced magazine and advertising illustrations.  He first became famous for his commercial posters and advertisements for the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Mucha designed interiors, jewellery, arts-and-crafts items and book illustrations. He had an important impact on Art Nouveau movement. 

Alfred Mucha's popular designs featuring his distinc style. On the rigt, famous Zodiac. On the left  his litograph for F. Champenois Imprimeur-Éditeur calendar, 1987.

From 1896 onwards Mucha integrated traditional elements from his homeland into his designs, which manifested themselves as Slavic dresses worn by the subjects, floral and botanical motifs inspired by Moravian folk arts and crafts, prominent halos evoking Byzantine icons, and also the curves and geometric patterns familiar in Chech Baroque churches. Concurrently with Mucha's stylistic development, a wave of Slavophilism was sweeping across Paris.

On the right - Zodiac - it was Mucha's most popular design and was originally produced as a company calendar for Champenois for the year 1897. The design features the striking profile of a majestic woman, whose regal bearing is emphasized by elaborate jewellery. The twelve signs of the zodiac are incorportated in the circular motif in the background.

After several visits to the U.S Mucha returned to Bohemia and settled in Prague where he decorated the Theater of Fine Arts, contributed his time and talent to create the murals in the Mayor's Office at the Municipal House, and other landmarks around the city. Mucha was buried in Vysehrad. A museum devoted to his life and work is located close to Weneceslas Square.

3) Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

The museum was an interesting and very revealing experience to me. Kafka Museum is  postmodern and interactive. It is different and unsettling. Through its labirynthine structure (dark narrow corridors, spiraling staircases) and the use of interesting visual and sound effects the museum creates truly Kafkaesque atmosphere: eerie, tense, complex, surreal. It perfectly recreates the sense of entrapment and enclosure so prevalent in Kafka's writing. The museum gives one a very good insight into Franz Kafka - the man and the writer, the things that influenced him: his childhood, his historical and cultural background, his friends, his relationships, his family. As the story of Kafka slowly unravels to us in the form of his letters, photographs, manuscripst we get to know him as an aliented writer, aspiring and ambitious artist (yes, I was surprised to discover that Kafka took up drawing as well, and produced many touching works) a sensitive loner and a genius. Selected museum exhibitions draw attention to Kafka's uneasy and complex relationship with the city of his birth: "Prague won't let you go, the little mother has claws," Franz Kafka once wrote. 

Kafka Museum is situated a stone's throw away from Charles Bridge, alongside Vlatva River in the Lesser Quarter. It was open in 2005 and boasts a vast collection of historical photographs and film recordings, manuscripts, diaries, drawings, sketches, newspaper cuttings, original letters, documents and publications relating to Franz Kafka's literary works, life, and cultural surroundings. 

The exhibition comprises of two sections: Existential Space and Imaginary Topography. The first part examines the impact Prague had on Kafka's literary imagination and writing. "Prague contributes myth, obscure magic and provides a magnificent backdrop" as the exhibition informs us. The second part of the exhibition, seeks to establish connections between Prague and its literary represantions in writer's novels. For example, there is a possibility that the anonymous cathedral which appears in the key chapter of The Trial, could have its origin in St Vitus Cathedral or that the mysterious river which flows in The Judgement narrative could have corresponded to Vlatva River. Kafka was rather enigmatic about the locations he incorporated in his creative discourse. He was not interested in producing an accurate portrayal of Prague. As the museum suggests, he sought to transform Prague into an "Imaginary Topography". He wanted to transform it beyond its physical self. Enigmatic descriptions of the urban architecture in Kafka's novels render the locations anonymous. His characters are not encircled or confined to a particular region, location or a city. They are confined to stifling emotional states, oppressive processes and inescapable situations. They are the states and processes everyone experiences and can identify with at a certain stage of one's life.

As mentioned before, the museum is arranged around Kafka's literary themes. Diverse items as photographs, audiovisual installations, letters, and music allow the exhibition space to simulate Kafka's or K.'s existential space. "Key passages from Kafka's diaries, novels, and short stories written in white block letters on dark, "muddy" walls, wooden pallets, or an ascending staircase leading nowhere interrupt the eye as one passes from exhibit to the next"(source: a review of "The City of K.: Franz Kafka and Prague," The Jewish Museum, New York, August 11, 2002 to January 5, 2003,Victor E. Taylor, York College of Pennsylvania, click on here to read the whole article). 

Writer's Biography

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a Czech-born German-language writer whose surreal fiction vividly expressed the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the individual in the 20th century. Kafka's work is characterized by nightmarish settings in which characters are crushed by nonsensical, blind authority. Thus, the word Kafkaesque is often applied to bizarre and impersonal administrative situations where the individual feels powerless to understand or control what is happening. The first recorded appearance of "Kafkaesque" in English was in 1946 (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

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