If you were wondering why I was a bit quiet last week it is because I was having a marvellous time in Prague, capital city of the Czech Republic. As Mr Walker turned 40 this year, he got to choose the destination, and inspired by the Russell-Cotes' glorious Mucha exhibition, he picked Prague and a damn fine choice it was too. This post is a flimsy excuse to show you a bit of what we saw...
|The Mucha Museum, Prague|
While our primary reason for going to Prague was Mucha, the fact that so much of the architecture is Art Nouveau was pretty special too. However, I think we both underestimated just how special it was going to be. The massive redevelopment of the Jewish Quarter and New Town (where we were based) in the 19th century meant that slum housing was replaced by new and often decorated housing which miraculously escaped destruction in the 20th century, leaving miles and miles of the most amazing buildings. The National Revival made it a matter of national pride that everything should reflect the glory of the Czechs.
|Detail of railings in Wenceslas Square|
So, on Tuesday the Walker family started exploring Prague, camera in one hand, map in the other. We were in search of semi-naked ladies and it wasn't long before we found them...
|The Darling Cabaret Limo...|
Okay, those weren't the naked ladies I was looking for, but there is quite a bit of that there too. We particularly respected the fact that the Darling Cabaret and its lovely ladies would send a stretch limo to your hotel in order to transport you (and your wallet) to their club. Classy. Moving on...
|Grand Hotel Europa, Wenceslas Square|
|Ladies on the top of the Grand Hotel Europa|
Ah now, that's much better. These ladies topped the Hotel Europa which dates from 1906. Art Nouveau made its debut in Prague at the 1891 Jubilee exhibition. It concentrated on ornamentation, in paint and sculpture on otherwise plain buildings. As Prague excelled in glass and wrought iron, this style was quickly and expertly adopted, making beautiful buildings that lasted. Much of the ornamentation involved ladies with Gibson Girl hair and coy expressions.
|Heraldic Shield on a building in New Town|
Although much of the sculpture is recognisably Art Nouveau, styles range between monumental and Art Deco making every surface have the potential for an artistic masterpiece...
|...and Grumpy Chaps, in Wenceslas Square|
I have the vague memory that the lions and grumpy chaps were on the Marks and Spencers' building in the Square, opposite Debenhams. Mmm, multi-cultural. Anyway, having the camera was often a bonus as some architectural details were so high up and quite small that being able to zoom in on them was essential.
|Perfectly Adequate King Wenceslas|
St Wenceslas (of the hymn and legendary 'good'-ness) and his monument is a wonderful example of national sculpture. Erected in 1912, the bronze was the work of Josef Myslbek, a leading Czech sculptor of the 19th century. Wenceslas on his massive horse rides above other patron saints, all cast in perfect detail. Whilst in Prague we found out quite a bit about Wenceslas which I'll come to later...
Anyway, back to exploring. Hotel Meran, finished in 1904, has the most beautiful painted finish on its slender frontage. Even our hotel, which redefined cheap and cheerful, had a Art Nouveau seal over the door. Wonderful.
|Detail of decoration|
Wiehl House (1896), an imposing building on Vaclavske Namesti, is named after its architect Antonin Wiehl. A massive five-storey building covered in colourful paintwork with Art Nouveau figures designed by the artist Mikoláš Aleš.
|Detail of building|
|Detail of building|
In the same row of houses were these decorations, far more modern in design but dating from the same period. This fascinating array of styles reflects the different ways that the Czech painters and architects found to express their national pride. There is both a sense of belonging to the old world through the Neo-Renaissance style of painting, as seen on the Wiehl House and the very modern, future-facing decoration subtly showing strength to the viewer.
|Bridge between two buildings over a road|
|Detail of bridge|
Everything is decorated, no building is safe! This beautiful medium relief sculpture spans a building-bridge across a road in New Town.
|Municipal House in Old Town|
The Municipal House stands on the site of a fourteenth century palace which was demolished (what was left of it) in 1900 and replaced by this cultural centre built between 1905 and 1911. The massive mosaic above the entrance is Homage to Prague by Karel Spillar and it is topped by a glass dome and allegorical figures...
|Nude-y Eagle Lady...|
|Snooze-y Angel with great big sword...|
What we loved was that the figures were all so different and had characters of their own, for example this one who we called Unimpressed Lady...
|Maybe her massive hair is giving her a headache?|
|Noble Working Lady gets sore feet while chopping something...|
|Noble Working Man has a think while reading book|
There is much in the way of more 'Soviet' style sculpture, honouring the working people. I loved the lady looking at her feet with her sickle on her lap as she looked so natural as opposed to the normal stance of bravely facing the future, sickle raised.
|Ministry of Local Development Building in Old Town|
Talking of bravery, possibly my favourite bit of sculpture (and that is saying something) has to be the firefighter on the Local Development Ministry building in the Old Town Square. The building dates from 1898 and on the upper façade there are sculptures of a couple in distress, a brave fireman and a gilded 'coat of arms' in the centre...
|Helmet, axe, ladder, hose...|
|Look at his moustache! Heroic!|
From the carved curls of smoke and golden flames, to the collapsed woman with her golden bodice, this has drama and peril in heaps. Luckily there is a fabulous hero with his enormous hose to save her. It doesn't get any better than this.
|The V J Rott building, Little Square|
|Detail of building|
Possibly the most bonkers level of decoration was achieved on the V J Rott Company building in Little Square. Vincenc Josef Rott (1813-1890) was the founder of one of the foremost companies in Prague, supplying tools and machinery. The bottom floor of the building is a Hard Rock Café, but above it is a riot of colour and figures in a tumble of leaves, flowers and decorative touches. Each of the figures is carrying a tool, presumably something manufactured by the company, painted by Mikoláš Aleš again on the 1890 building.
|St Vitus' Cathedral, Prague|
So finally to Mucha. We made our way up to St Vitus' Cathedral inside the Castle walls and went in search of the tomb of St Wenceslas. A short version of his history is that he was raised Christian by his Grandma, but his Pagan mum and brother, Boleslav the Cruel, weren't convinced of this. Mum had her mother-in-law strangled (no comment) and Boleslav had his brother done in. Boleslav the Cruel regretted what he had done (or was keen to legitimise his rule with holy blessing, depends on how cynical you are) and got his brother sainted and many biographies were written about how wonderful Wenceslas was. The hymn we sing is from 1853ish by John Mason Neale, about how lovely Wenceslas was on Boxing Day. I think the moral of the story is not to call your son 'the Cruel' because really you are asking for trouble.
|The Mucha window (detail) Ludmila and Wenceslas|
|The Mucha window in St Vitus' Cathedral|
Coinciding with the Millennium Jubilee of St Wenceslas, restoration to St Vitus cathedral was carried out in the 1920s and 30s. Alfons Mucha designed this wonderful window in 1931, showing Grandma Ludmila in the centre, surrounded by other saints who spread Christianity amongst the Slavs, with Jesus at the top. Excuse our photography, it's really hard to do justice to the window, but a google search will show other images that are better than ours. It really is the most wonderful window and brings new life to Mucha's familiar style of art.
|Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall|
The golden calendar plate is a 1880 replacement of the original
So to conclude, Prague is a magical city, essential for lovers of Art Nouveau. What seemed disconcerting to me was that all of this was available to see for free, in every street, on every building. Prague is the perfect holiday location for the financially-challenged (like what we are) as it is cheap to get to, cheap to stay in and so much beauty is all around you for free. We are already planning our return because there was so much we didn't see. Much renovation work is taking place and the National Museum and Museum of Decorative Arts were shut. However, give it a couple of years and the Walkers shall return. Fear not, semi-naked ladies, we'll be back...