'A Hidden Face of Baroque’ offers viewers a unique opportunity to contemplate rare 17th century prints

Photo: CTK

A new exhibition entitled ‘A Hidden Face of Baroque’ opened on Thursday at the National Gallery’s Kinský Palace in Prague. The show allows visitors a chance to view rare 17th century prints historically tied to the lands of to Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. Many are faithful renderings of works by early Baroque painters such as Karel Škréta, expertly reproduced by engravers both in Bohemia and neighbouring Germany, especially Augsburg, renowned for printmaking at that time. The exhibition highlights all of the dramatic grandeur, symbolism and allegory typical of the Baroque style.

Photo: CTK
Petra Zelenková is a specialist in the Baroque period, as well as the show’s author, who told me more about the exhibition this week:

“The basic aim of the show was to present the main topics, personalities, and fields of 17th century printmaking in the Bohemian lands. That includes not only engravers settled here, but also engravers in neighbouring Germany, especially Augsburg. The prints themselves were based on works by designers and painters settled in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. One was the painter Karel Škréta, who was well-known throughout Central Europe.”

Who were some of the other names?

“In Moravia it was Antonín Lublinský who is not really that known today but was a central personality in Early Baroque art, painting and drawing in Moravia, especially in Olomouc, who designed many thesis prints we’ll discuss. Another was Michael Willmann. But there were also many others well-skilled designers, especially in Prague, whose work was lost over the centuries and whose work we wouldn’t know if it wasn’t for surviving prints.”

In the Baroque period elements of grandeur, drama, opulence, were all important: are examples of this on view in the show?

“It was one of our aims, I would say, to show the most typical faces of Baroque prints from the 17th century, so you can see many examples of this: opulence and drama and rich iconographic scenes which intended to impress.”

And historically these elements of the Baroque were strongly encouraged by the Catholic Church?

“Yes. The thing to understand is that graphic art or prints were the main medium of information, and these elements were important to make a greater impact: to impress, to show.”

What are some of the more significant or dramatic images included in this show?

“The most remarkable are so-called ‘theses prints’- a very specific kind of Baroque print – that were large-scale announcements of university disputations connected to getting university degrees. These theses were huge glorifications of patrons who had paid for students’ studies: they were partly paid for by the patrons themselves.”

So it was important to for the patrons to be shown or to be properly recognised...

“These theses prints were hung on walls or on church doors or were invitations. It was part of very festive celebrations where there were all kinds of activities and music. It was really almost kind of advertisement.”

Were there examples were the student or family might commission a well-known artist themselves?

“If the student was rich or from a noble family the cost of the prints might be covered by him or his family. So if you had a dedication to the Emperor that might be the case, to try and improve the family’s social standing. That said, the topic of theses prints is not an area that has been deeply or widely researched so there is a lot we don’t know. We do know that with poorer students the case was different and sometimes they’d pool their funds for a joint thesis print, but the graphic representation there was more universal as a result, say, the depiction of a saint.”

Photo: CTK
To come back to elements that are typical of Baroque, I’ve read that there are accompanying notes to this exhibition to help viewers understand details such as symbols or allegorical elements many won’t be familiar with. Is that correct?

“That’s right: there are still many hidden symbols and allegorical elements that are very sophisticated: you could write a paper about one of the images alone. We wanted to give visitors the main idea, but it wasn’t possible to explain everything.”

Could you give me an example where the viewer should take special notice of a symbol or detail?

“An easier one will be items taken from noble families’ coat-of-arms. The Šternberk family had the symbol of the eight-pointed star and these figures were set in different compositions and can be in a print in more meanings and details The Kolowrat family had the symbol of the wheel. So those are just two: basically, there were more meanings and there are all kinds of messages that have to be ‘read’. Often when researching the topic you have to use contemporary sources as well as original manuscripts.”

Which were some of the institutions that provided prints for this exhibition?

“First I would mention the Strahov Monastery Library, the National Library of course, private collectors who have very interesting work, the National Archive, the Chateau Mikulov library and the National Gallery in Prague.”

What do you hope viewers will most get out of this exhibition?

Kinský Palace
“I hope that they gain a better understanding or insight of this very wide but also specific field, one that is usually otherwise hidden in depositories and libraries. That they learn about the richness of Baroque prints. One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is the simple fact that many of these prints on paper are very sensitive to temperature and to moisture and can only be presented for a limited time. Once shown they have to ‘rest’ again for three years. This is another reason this ‘world’ often remains hidden.”

You can find more information about opening hours at www.ngprague.cz/en. The exhibition continues until mid-October 2011.