Monday, October 19, 2015

Prague Trip Day 15 (David Cerny's Art)

     Our trip to Prague has taken us to many museums and seen lots of art. And while it is easy to focus on the Czech Cubists like Josef Gocar, or Bohumil Kubista, or the Art Nouveau master Alphons Mucha there also needs to be space for contemporary artists as well. That void has largely been filled by artist/provocateur David Cerny whose work is visible all around the city. Our walking around the city led us, often by chance, to several of his works.
     The first that we noticed, and perhaps the most striking, was in the plaza outside a shopping center where we were looking for electronics adaptors. The sculpture was of the giant head of the legendary writer from Prague, Franz Kafka. The head sculpture was divided into layers which could move independently in different directions. It made for a beautiful metaphor about the author's works.
     As we were returning home from that same shopping trip we were winding down a narrow street in Old Town when we looked up to see a sculpture of a man hanging by one hand off the top of a building. It was another Cerny work called "Hanging Out." As it turns out the man in the sculpture is Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Like most of Cerny's work, it begins with a shock to the system, in this case the surprise at seeing a sculpture in such a surprising location. The surprise then leads the viewer into the question of "what does it mean?" Cerny himself does not discuss the meaning of his art publicly, encouraging viewers to find their own meaning. I would like to think that Hanging Out is a statement about Freud's work regarding how the effect of a constant fear of death can effect the psyche. Or perhaps it is a statement about just trying to hang on in the modern world, and that decision about whether to keep struggling to hold on or to just let go. I'm not really sure, but I do think that this sculpture is the kind of hidden gem that seems so indicative of Prague.
     Another walk down an unassuming side street in Old Town let us discover another, somewhat more disturbing, Cerny piece, this one titled "Embryo." The sculpture is that of a fetus coming down through a drain pipe. I am honestly not really sure what to make of this one, but I heard one description saying that perhaps it is a statement about how an artistic idea is born, or about the creative process. While it did not connect with me specifically, it is a good example of the three elements so common in Cerny's work: creative, provocative, and public. It is a thought provoking piece that blends curiously into the landscape.
    The final Cerny sculpture that we came across was in front of the Franz Kafka Museum, and was titled "Piss." This was a humorous fountain featuring two figures urinating on a map of the Czech Republic. The sculpture is also interactive, and if you use your phone to text in a message to an SMS number than the two figures will move around and spell out the letters. This fountain's location at such a touristy spot makes me think that maybe the artist was making a statement about the tourist industry on the city itself but also the country as a whole.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Prague Trip Day 7 (Architecture)

     They say that the best way to appreciate art is through immersion. If you want to understand the different styles of painting, don't look at a single painting, go to a museum. In terms of architecture, that is what Prague is; one giant museum of architecture. I make no claim to be an expert in architecture or design, but when immersed in it, I became a quick study, as I think many visitors to Prague become.
     Fortunately, Prague did not suffer the large scale damage that many European cities did during World War II and much of its architecture is in tact and amazing. As you walk the streets of Prague you get a wide ranging cross of amazing styles.

St. Cross Rotunda
     The first style is Romanesque, which is, as the title would indicate, indicative of the styles of ancient Rome. It was common during the Middle Ages and is recognizable because of its round, thick walls, arched windows, and simple, symmetrical designs. The St. Cross Rotunda is an excellent example of a Romanesque rotunda.
     The legend surrounding the St. Cross Rotunda is that the spot where it stands used to be the center of a small pond. When a young girl defied her parents by believing in Christ, her parents crucified her and threw her in the pond, cross and all. Afterwards, during a storm, the cross rose up and it was regarded as a sign from God. Supposedly, during a restoration in the 19th Century, a rotted wooden cross was found in the foundation of the rotunda.
     Ghost stories not withstanding, the St. Cross Rotunda is a wonderful little treasure lost in the winding, ornate streets of Old Town, and finding it is typical of any walk through Prague in that you never know what will be just around the next corner.


Church of Our Lady before Tyn
    You don't have to look very hard in Prague to find an amazing example of Gothic architecture. One glance at the skyline will reveal a multitude of spires reaching up to the heavens. The gothic cathedrals of Europe are where you can find the style expressed the most profoundly, and while Prague has several gothic cathedrals, most notably St. Vitus Cathedral which sits at the heart of Prague Castle, I find that the Church of Our Lady before Tyn is the most striking in terms of gothic style.
     Tyn Church looms over the main public square in Old Town, across from the famed Astronomical Clock. The gothic period itself was a rather long one lasting from the 12th to 16th Century, and Tyn Church was constructed in the second half of this period (construction was completed in the 15th Century) and is therefore considered "late gothic."
     The unmistakable signature buildings of the city: Tyn Church, St. Vitus Cathedral, and the mighty guard towers of Charles Bridge each constitute a gothic architectural masterpiece that will never be forgotten.


The House at the Minute
    The gothic style was eventually supplanted by the Renaissance style, which drew heavily from ancient Greek and Roman styles. The Renaissance style often included domes, columns and niches, it also is typified by the use of decorations on the façade of a building, often depicting Greek or Roman mythology. One good example of this is The House at the Minute.
     There is so much going on in the main town square in Old Town that it is easy not to dwell on this ornate building right next to the Astronomical Clock for long, but it is worth the time. Aside from the gorgeous and elaborate decorations on the outside of the building, The House at the Minute also has the historical significance of being the childhood home of famed writer Franz Kafka, whose family lived on the second floor from 1889-1896.


St. Nicolas Church (photo courtesy of Ursa Davis)
     The Renaissance was followed by the Baroque movement. And while the Renaissance style was driven especially by the Italian nobility, the Baroque movement was meant to showcase the size and triumph of the Catholic Church. The ornate embellishments were meant to be a statement of wealth and power and are noticeable because of the way they experiment with light and shadow.


Kinsky Palace
     Often referred to as "late-baroque," the Rococo movement is, for lack of a better description, Baroque on overdrive. It began as a French style, that artists began using to break away from the rigid rules that had begun to surround Baroque. The source of the term Rococo is not totally clear, but it is thought to refer to a popular style of gardening at the time which was centered around pebbles and shells, and is therefore a combination of the French rocaille (stone) and coquilles (shell).
     Rococo buildings like the Kinsky Palace feature shell like curves and asymmetrical scrollwork. They are also notable because each room is intended to be a total work of art, including painting, furnishings, and interior design.

Moorish Revival

Jubilee Synagogue
     During the middle of the 19th Century, Europe and America became very enamored with various design forms which were seen as exotic. This gave rise to the Moorish Revival movement which became popular in theaters and houses of worship of the time.
     One lovely example of this is the Jubilee Synagogue. The synagogue features the noticeable keyhole arches and layers of colorful stone which would strongly classify it as Moorish Revival, and the inside is a lovely mix of Moorish Revival and Art Nouveau.

Art Nouveau

     Because of the huge influence of the Alphons Mucha, the father of the Art Nouveau movement, Prague is awash in Nouveau buildings. The most famous example of Art Nouveau in Prague, or maybe anywhere, is the Municipal House, which features restaurants, galleries and a concert hall all immaculately crafted in Nouveau touches, many from Mucha himself.
     Like Rococo, Art Nouveau was intended to be a complete artistic experience not just a few decorative touches but the entire interior and exterior design is included. Along with its signature flowing curves and arcs, Nouveau also includes many natural elements such as grasses, insects trees and birds into its design aesthetic.
     Even though the Municipal house stands as an Art Nouveau masterpiece, one of the best places to see Nouveau architecture is the houses along the Vltava River. It is a lovely walk filled with one gorgeous building after the next on one side and the skyline featuring Prague Castle and the St. Vitus Cathedral on the other.


House of the Black Madonna
     As an art style, cubism was generally short lived, and often gets associated with Spanish painters such as Pablo Picasso, but it is not as well known that Czech artists and sculptors played an important role in the movement as well, and that Prague was a cultural and artistic center before the start of the First World War.
     Well known cubist architects include Pavel Janak, Josef Gocar, Vlastislav Hofman, and Josef Chochol, and for an art movement that is so noticeably short, the body of work, and impact on the face of Prague of those men is profound.
     The finest example of the cubist's influence is Josef Gocar's signature work, The House of the Black Madonna. One of the things that makes this building so striking is the baroque style buildings that surround it, making its stark lines even more apparent. Another interesting point is the Grand Orient Café on the ground level is the finest surviving example of a cubist interior anywhere in the world.


Adria Palace
     This take on the cubist movement is not only rare, but also, almost unique to Prague. Rondocubism refers to cubism that employs the use of some rounded surfaces. Josef Zasche and Pavel Janak collaborated on the a stunning Adria Palace which is a must see for anyone interested in architecture.

Soviet Era

     Many of the Soviet Era buildings have a distinct stark gray simplicity to them which can be appealing to some in an aesthetic sense, but for most they stand out as strong emotional reminders of a contentious time. When they are adorned with sculptures or decorative elements, they are almost always of proletarian figures. And though the soviet era buildings in the heart of the city can be quite nice, as that they were built to house dignitaries, the vast majority of soviet era architecture can be found on the outskirts of the city in the form of housing projects that are little more than concrete jungles.

High Tech

     Whether it is called High Tech, Late Modernism or Structural Expressionism this style, which took favor in the mid to late 1970's is known for its glass walls, clean lines, steel frames and prefabricated components.
     While this is a functional, signature look for a lot of commercial districts at the heart of modern cities, especially in the United States; here in Prague it feels like a missed opportunity to do something more avant garde. Although, surrounding these structures with buildings of such a diverse stylistic backgrounds is a good reminder that contemporary High Tech structures are a design too, and in a generation they too will look dated, and representative of a bygone era.

Post 1989

Dancing House
     The iconic, bold, and memorable Frank Gehry building called The Dancing House proves the commitment of Prague to continuing a tradition of pushing the architectural boundaries. Dancing House is also commonly referred to as Fred & Ginger.
     The place where the Dancing House currently stands is on a prime spot along the Vltava River, and had remained open since World War II, when American and British bombers accidentally bombed Prague mistaking it for Dresden. It wasn't until 1996 that the city allowed Gehry to fill the opening.
     I have a personal fascination with the architects Frank Gehry, and as I have traveled around the world I have personally been to a number of his iconic buildings. My home town of Seattle, Washington houses the EMP at the Seattle Center, and we have visited MIT's Stata Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California. I never cease to be amazed by his work.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Prague Trip (Day 4)

     Today was the day that we got around to the activity that we were most looking forward to on our visit to Prague, The Alphons Mucha Museum. Mucha is my wife's favorite artist.
     Mucha is considered to be the father of the Art Nouveau movement, a flowing style that attempted to harmonize the subject with the natural world, and was most popular at the turn of the 20th Century, (1890-1910). Art Nouveau is often associated with applied art, or using the decorative aesthetic style on a more ordinary object, which is put to great effect by the American artist, Louis Comfort Tiffany, although Mucha was masterful at this as well. It is for this reason that Art Nouveau is considered a "total" art style, because it includes everything from graphic art to interior design, architecture, lighting, and household utensils. The idea is that art should be a way of life, which is a beautiful concept.
     While Mucha was an overall decorative artist, he is probably best known for his paintings, illustrations and advertisements. The Mucha Museum featured many of the posters that the artist designed for legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, including the final poster that he did for her production of Hamlet in which she played the title role.
     The Mucha Museum also featured a four piece series called times of the day, and another four piece series of the seasons. All of them are smoothly, flowing works that are very representative of his style.
     The city of Prague has played an important role in the art and architecture of the 20th Century, pioneering movements in Art Nouveau, Cubism, and Abstract, even today with the work of controversial artist David Cerny, but the elegant work of Alphons Mucha remains as the signature of this diverse art scene.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Prague Trip (Day 3)

     Today was a little rainy in the morning, but let up around noon an turned into a really lovely day. We decided to walk a little farther than we had previously and cross the Charles Bridge to head up to Prague Castle.
Our first stop however was just around the corner from our apartment to sit down and have some coffee and pastries for our morning breakfast. Coffee and pastry shops abound along the narrow streets of Old Town, and they are all worth stopping at. The one that we chose had a larger selection than most, but to be honest, we chose mostly out of convenience than the number of their offerings. I had a makový koláček, which is very similar to a danish, the biggest difference being that the dough of a koláček is breadier, and not flaky like a danish, and the pastry itself is not as sweet.
     We hid under our umbrellas all the way from breakfast to the far side of the Charles Bridge where we stopped for coffee and listened to street musicians play Pete Fountain style jazz on the clarinet, accompanied by a bass, and a wash board player. They were very good, and it reminded me of visits to New Orleans, which gave me a pavlovian response to want a beer even though it was still early in the day. Fortunately that is not at all odd here in Prague, where drinking beer is a nearly obligatory act at any time of day. The beer was the local favorite, Pilsner Urquell.
     While we were sitting there and just about all rested up, Mother Nature had decided that she had gotten all the rain out of her system and the sky started to clear up. So we folded up our umbrella and hiked on, up a winding path of narrow, shop lined streets that led to the base of the Prague Castle complex. Once there the climb got quite steep, but we were rewarded for our climb by some of the best views of the city that we could have hoped for.
     Inside the castle gates, and through the main entry we were confronted by the immensity of St. Vitus Cathedral, one of the jewels of Prague, which is an iconic building that can be seen from all over Prague because of its prominent location at the top of the hill.. The front of the cathedral is very close to the surrounding buildings, and thus, hard to photograph, but the intricacies of all the carvings and statuaries that adorn it were amazing. We found the gargoyles especially fascinating. We made our way around the sides and to the rear of the cathedral where there was a large square from which we could get some nice pictures.
     As we left Prague Castle, we found a nice café part of the way down the hill that featured amazing views out on the city. The route that we walked that day had brought us full circle back to where we were staying so we returned home and rested up for some more exploring tomorrow.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Prague Trip (Day 2)

    Today we felt rested up from our flight and got our first real taste of the city. Since the jet lag has our sleep schedule all out of sorts, we figured that we would use that to our advantage and wake up extra early (because we were going to anyway) and do some dawn photography.
That is how we found ourselves on a river walk, overlooking the Vltava river that slowly meanders through the heart of Prague. The view opens up a stunning view of Prague Castle, which is crowned by the fantastic St. Vitus Cathedral at its center.
     With a little bit of patience, the rising sun bathed the castle in warm light and made for some lovely photos. Before the sun got too high, we hurried down to the famous, Charles Bridge and got some shots from another angle. The Charles Bridge is lined with 30, baroque style sculptures, and the head of the bridge features The Old Town bridge tower which looms over everyone passing beneath it. It is one of the important monuments that made Old Town Prague a UNESCO World Heritage Sight.
     After finishing up our morning sightseeing we made our way down to one of the many cafes and eateries that line the streets of Old Town and found a light breakfast and coffee, before heading to a market to buy some much needed supplies. Chiefly we needed a voltage adapter for some of our devices. While most people know that Europe uses a different style of plug for wall sockets, and that travelers will need an adapter for that, what many do not know is that Europe also operates on a higher standard voltage than we do in the States as well. This means that for devices like computers, which can handle either voltage, many other components, rechargeable camera batteries for instance, cannot, and require an additional voltage adapter. At any rate, we easily found what we needed and began to make our way back to our apartment when we came across a fantastic statue by famous/infamous local artist David Cerny, which features the head of the genius writer, Franz Kafka, divided into individually moving layers, which periodically reconverge to reveal the face of the man. The city is filled with Kafka related art, squares, businesses, and museums; and rightly so.
    We finally returned to the apartment and awaited the arrival of my mother-in-law and her boyfriend, who would be meeting up with us for a few days. We had a lovely dinner at a nearby restaurant in the Jewish Quarter and then finished the day where we began it, by walking down to the edge of the Vltava for a look at Prague Castle at night.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Prague Trip (Day 1)

     We had a long, rough day of traveling today. One of the highlights happened early, as we were flying over Greenland on our way to Europe, and the Aurora Borealis came out and put on a beautiful show for us! Sadly, however, that is where the highlights ended.
     After a 10 hour flight from Seattle to Paris, we had a miserable time trying to switch flights at Charles De Gaulle Airport. The interior of Charles De Gaulle is actually rather nice, but it is the equivalent of 5 separate, rather nice airports connected by a third world shuttle bus system, and operated by an overly officious and paranoid military state.
     After getting off our plane from the States, we had to pass through a security gate, and then customs, before being ushered onto a hot, lurchy bus that was filled to capacity, and driven through a maze of airport staging areas, construction areas, and vehicle storage depots, interspersed with the occasional jetway. Finally we arrived at a back, service entrance of our terminal (which, strangely, had a cheap, painted sculpture of a cow between the door and an out of service baggage cart). Upstairs in the terminal we followed the signs around only to find out that they made us go out through security and then back in through a different security screening, where the security agents were extremely rude. Thinking that we had made it past the final obstacle and could finally get to our boarding gate we followed the directions to another customs checkpoint and had to wait in line again! Exhausted and angry we finally made it to our flight to Prague.
     Things were much more simple once we landed in Prague, there was only the matter of dealing with a cab ride to the apartment that we had rented for the next few weeks. The cab drivers in Prague have a rather infamous reputation for overcharging tourists, and it is advised that travelers negotiate the price up front. Our cabbie was ok, although he was an extremely aggressive driver. He was an older guy in his late 50's early 60's who was rocking out to some pretty legit techno music.
     Finally we reached our apartment and got checked in. It is in a fantastic location in the Jewish Quarter of Oldtown, right in the middle of everything. We are a short walk to all of the major tourist attractions and most of the good restaurants and nightlife as well! Unfortunately we had forgotten to pack our plug adaptors to go from US to European wall outlets, so I had to walk down to a store and purchase some. Fortunately they were not expensive and it was nice to get out and take a walk after travelling all day.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Europe Trip Day 11 (Oslo, Norway)

It was a dingy, rainy day in Oslo, and the city was quiet... too quiet. I know that sounds campy but it's the truth. The city was emptied out, devoid of people, completely unlike the bustling metropolis that it should have been. Most every shop was locked up tight, only a few bars remained open to service the scant few people who roamed the streets in small bands. It was a deeply creepy scene, like the zombie apocalypse had taken place. Though as it turned out it was only one zombie that was keeping everyone off of the streets. It was Easter, or at least the beginning of four days worth of observance of the holiday.
The good news however was that traffic was a non-issue, and we didn't have to deal with crowds to see the major attractions.
It was also a little early in the spring for Norway, and the flowers had not yet begun to pop. It made our first stop at the Royal Palace a little anticlimactic. The Palace itself was architecturally not much more than a box with windows, and the grounds still had the malaise of winter upon them.
We didn't spend long there before moving walking down the hill toward a really lovely domed building surrounded by statues. We had no idea what it was but knew that we had to check it out. It turned out to be the National Theatre, and at the front of it was the most notable statue of them all, that of Henrik Ibsen. It is interesting that I should come upon a statue of Ibsen so soon after reading one of his plays. I recently finished "An Enemy of the People" the tale of a community turning its back on scientific evidence when it learns a politically inconvenient truth. Making Ibsen as relevant now as he was in 1882.
From there we made our way down to the waterfront where we got some great views of the city and of the immense and imposing Akershus Fortress, which loomed over Oslo's harbor like an ancient gargoyle. Akershus looks altogether different from other fortifications that we've seen, mostly because it is so much older, dating back to the 1290's.
Near the fortress we were fortunate enough to find a place to eat that was still open on Easter weekend, and had a stellar meal at Café Skansen. Then it was back up the hill, in the rain to the hotel, with a quick stop at the Norwegian Parliament for some nighttime pictures.