"100 Works from the National Gallery" published to mark 210th anniversary

Master of Trebon altar, Madonna of Roudnice

This week saw the launch of a book entitled "100 Works from the National Gallery in Prague", which was published to coincide with the 210th anniversary of the institution's foundation. The man behind the publication is Milan Knizak, director of the Czech National Gallery; he says selecting 100 pieces from the many thousands owned by the state body was no easy task.

"It was very, very difficult. Because we have many pieces we could have had another hundred, or another two hundred. We tried to choose pieces that are in some way important for the gallery, for the history of the gallery, for our state, for the human history.

"And they are also important for the gallery because they are part of important collections. For instance between the wars the Czech government bought two major collections in Paris; we were trying to choose pieces important for the history of National Gallery and for the history of the state."

Of the 100 pieces, how many are Czech, roughly?

"Just about half."

Do you have any personal favourites?

"I have at least 50 favourites, because they are such beautiful pieces. The Gothic pieces which are in this building [the Convent of St Agnes] are beautiful, like the altar by the Master of Trebon altar.

"And it ends in the middle of the twentieth century, because we didn't want to go further. There are some pieces which haven't settled down yet, so we said OK, now we finish in the middle of the century and for the future, for the other half, we'll make another book."

The book just published is very handsomely crafted, coming in an unusual and rather striking oak frame. Mr Knizak is clearly pleased with the design.

"We made a competition, and a younger designer won with this project. We wanted to have something special. It's a special book, a special occasion - therefore we have chosen this special cover."

This Sunday, February 5, is the 210th anniversary of the foundation of the National Gallery. But the Czech National Revival was in its infancy in 1796 and the institution did not begin under that name.

"It was a private collection at the beginning, and later on there was an old collection and on the other hand a modern collection. And they came together to become the National Gallery. It's a history like any other - always in the beginning there was a private collection, from noble people and the like."

To be more exact, it was founded by a group of aristocrats and intellectuals who called themselves the Patriotic Friends of the Arts. Their aim: "to elevate the deteriorated tastes of the local public".

They established two institutions, the Academy of Fine Arts and the publicly accessible Picture Gallery of Patriotic Friends of the Arts. The latter - combined with the Modern Gallery of the Kingdom of Bohemia, founded in 1902 - was the director predecessor of today's Czech National Gallery.

Harking back somewhat to the original founders, the gallery's internet site says its mission is to "elevate the nation's spirit through works of art". Is that something director Milan Knizak thinks it is achieving?

"There is a law - the plan should always be more ambitious than the reality. And we would like to offer people a different reality than the average day, something more festive."

Convent of St Agnes
Rather unusually, the National Gallery is housed at seven different locations around Prague. The Sternberg Palace is home to European Art from the Classical Era to the Close of the Baroque, the Convent of St Agnes houses medieval art, St George's Convent Mannerism and Baroque in Bohemia, the Kinsky Palace Czech landscape painting, Zbraslav Chateau Asian Art, the House at the Black Madonna Cubism, and finally the Veletrzni [Trade Fair] Palace houses modern art.

Does any one of these seven locations dominate, or feel like the main home of the National Gallery?

"In the beginning it was the Sternberg Palace but now it has moved more to the Trade Fair Palace which collects modern art from the 19th century until today. But it's difficult to say that, because some people are interested in Gothic, then they visit this place here [Convent of St Agnes], or they like European art.

"I think it's very good to have more locations because people can rest. If you go to the Louvre then you are lost. It's nice to wander between the galleries and you can split it, and visit one day one place, the other day the other one."

Right now the National Gallery is celebrating its 210th birthday? But what does the future hold for the institution, and how secure is it financially?

"We belong to the state and most of the money we have comes from the state. But it's sometimes very difficult to develop more sponsors, because Czech people aren't used to it. We would like to go in that direction, and we would like to be more and more active.

"We just got new palaces close to [Prague] Castle and we are moving part of the gallery there. We would like to make a heavy triangle close to the Castle, because we also have some parts of the Castle.

"And we would like to make the gallery more open to people, we would like to make more education programmes - we have many already but we would like to make more. We'd like to publish more and more books which cover all the differences...

"What we would like to do - and we are doing it - is to discover people and art pieces which are not yet known. Because the main stream which now leads the history of art for us is, in my opinion, the way we explain the history of art is wrong. I think we have to look for a variety of ways, because the one way is always dangerous. We are trying to discover corners and caves which are still hidden."

For more information go to www.ngprague.cz