Arts Review 2002

The Czech Republic is known abroad as a highly cultural country, and Prague - as the fifth most frequently visited European city - is especially popular for its arts programmes of all genres. On Radio Prague we'll spend the Christmas Day wandering through cultural events of the past year.

And we start in the Gallery Jiri Svestka in Prague, which in January hosted an exhibition presenting one of the most popular installations by the American artist Siah Armajani. I asked the owner of the gallery, Dr. Jiri Svestka to tell me more about the artist and his work:

"Armajani is from Persia but he arrived in the United States in 1960 at the age of 21. His father was a professor of philosophy and orientalistics at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis and Siah studied at the University of Minnesota not art, but theoretical mathematics and philosophy. But you can see his origin in Persian tradition also in this exhibition - there are two drawings here, which are very close to Persian miniatures. The main artwork at the exhibition is a large sculpture, you can walk in, called Glass Front Porch for Walter Benjamin. And Armajani delivered us a list of quotations from Nietzsche to Benjamin and Paul Klee, and the sculpture is of course related to this German Jewish philosopher who was a very important part of the philosophy of the first half of the 20th century and whose philosophy was pre-existentialism and whose work was discovered in the 1960s again."

The Dance Centre Prague (TCP) has organised an International Dance Week, involving workshops, seminars, and dance performances at Prague's Laterna Magica theatre and the dance centre's grounds in the Prague 6 district. The Dance Centre is one of the biggest and oldest organizations of contemporary dance in the Czech Republic. Antonin Schneider is the TCP's deputy-director:

"The International Dance Week is one of the oldest activities of the Dance Centre Prague. The tradition started with some week-end seminars and after some time and more performances, our experts, teachers, and artists were invited by western Europe and the USA. It was a big success for our Czech dance education because in the 1950's, 60's, 70's and 80's, all choreographies and pieces and methodological influences were from Soviet classical training and classical repertoire. We wanted to break from this and give more colour and western influences to Czech dance. It wasn't dangerous but was very difficult from the political side. There were many problems with the invitation for the western experts, artists and choreographers."

And we now move on to a man who deserves much praise as he's probably one of the most popular and significant Czech dissident writers, Ivan Klima. Mr Klima has released a new book, which looks at the life and works of Czech novelist, playwright, story writer and columnist Karel Capek. Nothing new, you may say, but this book has been especially written for non-Czechs in order to give a more detailed and somewhat different explanation of the person that Ivan Klima believes Capek to have really been. Radio Prague met up with Mr Klima to find out more about his latest work:

"My book about Capek that has just come out contains completely new text, which differs from what I have already written about Capek in my thesis and several biographies, the first of which I wrote in 1963. Capek is a popular author, thanks to his tales that have been released in various publications and collections. The Tales from Two Pockets for example, were much more famous than his plays. I also think that today there are very few performances that could do his plays justice. Capek was very political and was one of the most important advocates of democracy between the wars. His articles were extremely educational and sometimes make you think they were written today, as they go hand in hand with the situation we find ourselves in now. They prove that the many bad habits and poor political culture we suffer from today was not a result of our Communist past but simply a Czech tradition."

Well, HAMU - the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague - not only produces talented dancers. It's also contributed quite successfully to the music scene, here in the Czech Republic and abroad. The Czech-Chilean cellist, Eva Bravo Simkova for example is one of the many graduates of the academy. Radio Prague met up with her at a concert in Prague's Sal Martinu in the Lesser Town:

"I was born in Chile to Czech parents and inherited much of my talent for music from my father who was a professor at the National Conservatory in Santiago. In fact, I studied music at that conservatory. In the years of 1965, 66 and 67, we lived in Prague, where I did my post-graduate studies at the Academy of Music. Those were wonderful years in which I studied with many musicians who have managed to make quite a name for themselves in the field today. In 1967, however, we returned to Chile."

In 1972, however, Eva Bravo Simkova moved to Germany. Although far from Chile, she stays faithful to Latin American composers such as Astor Piazzola and Heitor Villa Lobos, with the aim to have a repertoire that concentrates mainly on the cello - a music instrument that holds much importance in Eva Simkova's life.

In April, the Czech Jazz Section organised the 8th reading marathon from Czech and Slovak literature, which was the biggest presentation of Czech and Slovak literature in the world. It lasted a total of 200 hours and involved some 800 readers. In foreign cities - which included London, New York, Moscow, Berlin, Paris and Brussels - the excerpts were read in the language of the respective country. In Prague, I spoke with one of the readers:

"My name is Barbora Svobodova and I'm a student here in Prague I study at the Czech-Italian grammar school. I like poetry, I like literature and I write some poetry, too."

And what book have you chosen for today's reading?

"I've chosen Filip Topol, 'Narod psich vojaku' - that's 'Nation of Dog Soldiers', because it is also a group that Filip Topol has and I really like this group but also his poetry is very nice, for me it's very important, so I wanted that everybody could hear it."

Tell us about your relation to literature. What books do you read, do you read poetry or fiction?

"I read mainly poetry, and I like Jacques Prevert, Filip Topol as I said and I like poetry of my friends, because I have some friends-poets, and it depends which mood I have."

Tell us something about your poetry.

"I used to write a lot of haiku, that's a Japanese form, but now I decided I would write longer poems, and I really enjoy it."

And do you publish your poems somewhere?

"Yes, I published some of my poems but not too many, I had a Czech-Italian book, the Italian institute published me there, it was my poetry and poetry of students at our school, it was published in Czech and Italian, and then I published in poetry competitions."

Do you know about the idea to read Czech and Slovak literature in the world, what do you think about it?

"I think that's great, I really like this idea because I think the Czech Republic has a lot of writers, good writers, and maybe for somebody it's a long distance or it's very difficult to find them, and if it's on the internet, it's good that everybody can hear it and everybody can watch it and maybe for some emigrants it's a kind of memory."

The "Centre of Europe around the year 1000 AD" was one of the most unique exhibitions on show at the Old Royal Palace, located on the Prague Castle grounds. It was organised by the National Museum and the Czech Academy of Sciences under the auspices of the German, Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian Presidents and gave visitors the rare chance to view close to three thousand national treasures from the five Central European countries. Dr Milena Bravermanova is from Prague Castle's art collections department and told us a little more about the exhibition:

"The main idea is to introduce the history of the year 1000. At this time, Roman emperor Otto III was in power. He accepted the idea not to continue fighting but rather unite Central Europe on common ideas, continuing with the antique and Christian tradition. He wanted to unite all nations on this basis."

Each May since 1946, Prague becomes the venue of a big international classical music festival, the Prague Spring. It always starts on May 12th, marking the anniversary of the death of great Czech composer Bedrich Smetana in 1884 and it's his music - the cycle of symphonic poems My Country - that is played on that day. I spoke with the director of the festival, Roman Belor.

"This year it's a bit extraordinary, because we've decided that we would target the festival on one leading theme and that is the anniversary of Igor Stravinski, we are celebrating the 120th anniversary of his birth. Stravinski was undoubtedly one of the most important composers of the 20th century and there are some extremely important historical links between him and Czech musical scene. Stravinski visited several times Prague and other places in the former Czechoslovakia, and he is very interesting for us also because of the fact that he is a personality closely connected with the historical development of the world in the 20th century. Nevertheless, Stravinski is not a limiting theme of the festival, the Prague Spring according to its tradition is keeping a large scale of programming, we have concerts of early music, we have recitals, we have an important series of singers who will give their recitals, we are welcoming here in Prague a beautiful scale of symphony and chamber orchestras, so this is a big international festival."

Could you tell us just a few names?

"I would like to mention the Oslo Philharmonic with their former music director Maris Janssons, the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington with Leonard Slatkin, we will have a special concert of London Symphonietta, an important ensemble presenting contemporary music with their artistic director Oliver Knussen, to the soloists - I'd like to mention Maxim Vengerov, among singers Michael Schade, Matthias Gerne, June Anderson and Magdalena Kozena. Of course, I have to mention Czech artists and orchestras, the festival is largely cooperating with all residential symphony orchestras of Prague - the Prague Symphony Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra - so just exempli gratia."

From May 9th until May 12th, publishers, book sellers and book lovers gathered at the Industrial Palace at Prague's Vystaviste exhibition grounds to explore but also present the latest publications from 28 countries. Close to 500 exhibitors took part in the fair called Book World Prague 2002. But besides exploring various publications, visitors could also take part in the 143 events - such as seminars and book signings - that accompanied the exhibition. Prizes were also given out, with the most renowned being the Premia Bohemica prize, which was awarded to Eero Balk for his outstanding translations of Czech literature into Finnish.

During the ceremonial opening, I spoke to one of the main organisers, Dr. Dana Kalinova, to find out exactly what the 8th International Book Fair had to offer:

"This year, we have almost 500 exhibitors from twenty-eight countries. The number of countries is higher in comparison to last year because we co-operate with the international organisation Literature Across Frontiers and they take offers and books supported by the literature information centres in Europe."

June saw an exhibition at the Old Town Hall in Prague, called 'Prague - the Heart of Europe'. It showed a 1000 year-old history of the Czech capital, and as Architect Ladislav Honeiser from the Department of Prague's Regional Development explained, there was a lot to see:

"Historical Prague during its 1000 year old history has all historical architectural styles. It means from the Romanesque style we have all styles here to the modern architecture. Many architects from abroad lived in Prague - from Italy, Germany, Austria, France - and during this time Prague was a melting pot of many cultural influences from the whole Europe. And the architecture here - and that's my personal opinion - has its charm because it's not only French or German architecture, but here you can see the influence of all different schools of European architecture."

Another exhibition, installed at the Imperial Stables at Prague Castle, was called Exile and Flight in Art. As its name suggests, it was organised by the Prague branch of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. On the principle post here in Prague is Jean Claude Concolato, who comes in daily contact with this phenomenon and says the theme often appears in classical literature as well:

"I have worked for 22 years in the service of refugees, and I was always struck by the fact that we have not, it seems, really perceived how important this theme of flight and exile was in our imagination, and have been in the whole history of human beings, and how importantly it was reflected in various arts. Whether literature - Homer, Ulysses, or Virgil - the Aeneid, the flight of Aeneid from Troy in flames etc. These poems of few centuries before our time. So the theme was there, dispersed even in the Medieval literature - Dante, the Hell, inferno - so it's a little bit everywhere and it's strongly present in painting or visual arts. And these ideas I wished to communicate to everybody, and this exhibition was certainly an opportunity to do it."

June 10th, this year marks the 60th anniversary of a horrific massacres that was carried out by the Nazis in revenge of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the German Reich's protector in the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The entire village of Lidice was wiped off the map - the men were shot, the women sent to concentration camps and the children - some were adopted by German families, others were probably killed. It was a dreadful act that many could not understand, including Czech writer and poet, Viktor Fischl, who worked for the Czechoslovak government that was in exile in London at the time. Thanks to his inspiration and proposal, a 35 minute film was made just months after the massacre to recreate the story of Lidice. Although released in 1943, it was not until May 29th 2002, that the "Silent Village" - as the film was called - was screened in the Czech Republic, and that, thanks to Radio Prague's very own David Vaughan:

"Well, I came across the silent village completely by chance. I had bought a book in a Prague second-hand bookshop about Lidice. It had been released just after the war by the Czechoslovak Interior Ministry which was basically with various documents and information about the Lidice massacre. In that book, I chanced upon a reference to a film that had been made in Britain during the war. I had never heard of this film and thought it was very interesting. The book just said it was a recreation of the Lidice story in Britain. I thought it was fascinating and by making various phone calls and doing various bits of research I discovered that this film really existed and was made in 1942 by the very famous British film maker, best known for his documentaries, Humphrey Jennings."

The Czech Press Photo is a competition for the best photographs of the year taken by Czech and Slovak photographers. In October, an 8-member international jury announced the results of this year's event at Prague City Hall, where journalists were shown the winning photos. I spoke with Thomas Hoepker, a member of the jury from the prestigious Magnum Photos in the United States, and began by asking him if this was his first time at Czech press photo:

"Yes, it was the first time that I've been invited here."

And how would you assess the level of the competition?

"I think it's a high and professional level, it's probably not as good as the World Press Photo, but that's no wonder, this is a small country, and at World Press in Holland you get all the world, but in general I think the professional level was very high."

And was it difficult to choose the winning photo, was it a hard work?

"The winning photo I think was the easiest. Especially for me. I walked into the room on the first day and I saw the picture of the drowning elephant and it became immediately clear that this was a very unusual picture and that it will probably make the first prize."

Can you describe the picture to our listeners?

"It's a photo taken from above and you see a lot of water, and in the water you see parts of the elephant, who is already submerged. You see the trunk coming out of the water, you see the ears, and the rest is already under water. And when you understand that the animal did not survive and had to be shot, because he could not survive the situation, then it's a very sad picture, but also it's quite a symbolic image of the floods. It's the essence of the flood, because it's condensed and you only see a few elements but you immediately know what's going on."

November 16th marked 'Poetry Day' in the Czech Republic, held on the anniversary of the birth in 1810 of the great Czech Romantic poet, Karel Hynek Macha. This year, it was the 4th time the 'Poetry Day' was held, and its organiser, Bernie Higgins told me more about the event:

"This year's theme in Czech is 'Mista poezie - poezie mista', it does not translate exactly into English but really it's about poetry and place, and places used as an inspiration for poetry. And this year we've got a lot of interesting places, not just in Prague and other cities and towns like Pilsen, Teplice, but a number of Czech poets are actually doing their readings in other countries - somebody's reading in a wood in Athens, and somebody's reading their poetry in a seashore in Nice and another Czech artist is exhibiting his work in Berlin, so that's quite good fun this year, I think."

And that is all from us here at Radio Prague for today. We hope you enjoyed our review of some of the cultural events that took place here in the Czech Republic in 2002 and hope you will continue to tune in for our future coverage of the arts.

My name is Dita Asiedu

...and my name is Alena Skodova.