Dark side of psyche, society seen in "Dekadence" exhibition at Obecni Dum

Jaroslav Panuska, 'Expressive head'

Prague's Obecni Dum (Municipal House) is one of the Czech Republic's greatest Art Nouveau jewels. Now, however, it is home to an exhibition of a different but related art movement - decadent art. The extensive show's full title is "In Morbid Colours: Art and the Idea of Decadence in the Czech Lands 1880 - 1914".

Otto M Urban is the curator of the new exhibition.

"In my view decadent art is art which deals with topics hidden in the depths of the human soul, art works which deal with the dark side of the human mind. But not only that - it also reflects the social, spiritual, religious situation of society, it's like a mirror which is built to show the real face of society.

"That's why very often those decadent art works were rejected by society. Of course a hundred years ago issues were discussed about censorship and things like that...But I think that decadent art is art which is present in European culture since Goya, and his work which depicted the horror of life.

"You can then create a whole line of artists who were directly influenced by decadence. In the Czech context the Belgian artist Felicien Rops was important, as was Aubrey Beardsley, who was a close friend of Oscar Wilde."

Mr Urban says decandence in art stretches back centuries - and is still seen in the present day. So why then does the new exhibition focus on the period from 1880 to 1914?

"It was necessary just to open the topic. Discussion about decadence in visual art is something which is not very common. Actually art history doesn't use the term so often.

"So I decided to start with this period because we could call it something like authentic decadence, which everybody associates with late 19th century French poets and French artists. That chapter was also very important in the Czech Lands.

"That's why I decided to start with this period. For the future exhibitions and projects which will deal with the idea of decadence and contemporary art are already planned."

The exhibition is on here at Obecni Dum, which is of course famous for being an Art Nouveau building. Is there any connection between Art Nouveau and decadent art?

"There is a direct connection. The art which is presented here was created actually during the Art Nouveau period. And Art Nouveau in its extreme form...the obsession with new materials, with the colours of an insect, of flowers, plants...did get sometimes too far away - again it was like an extreme, but in decoration.

"So of course it's quite significant that many artists who created the art works which are around us were surrounded by Art Nouveau interiors."

The exhibition is divided into distinct sections, with rather striking titles such as "The Purgatory of Death" and "Satanic Hallucinations". The curator talks us through the four sections.

"They are based on some kind of imaginary journey or trip of a decadent individual through life. It starts with self-portrait, with self-presentation, self-reflection.

"The second chapter is dedicated to relations with another person, mainly love issues, love relations, which of course in decadence is not fulfilled. It's vain, it's tragic in its end, and it leads the individual to find something higher, a more spiritual dimension.

"The third chapter is Satanic Hallucinations, which deals with longings for spiritual release. But it doesn't come, because even in that section instead of positive things there appear different monsters and ghouls and so on, which start to torture and destroy the body, and that's like a natural continuity to the last, fourth section, The Purgatory of Death.

"There the main issue is the phenomenon of dying, the kind of super-sensitivity of dying, of being ill or being mad, which leads to the final destruction, which is death. And that's at the end of the section."

The exhibition includes a wide range of artists, with some names that one might not expect. And, Otto M Urban is keen to point out, it does not just feature the work of Czech artists.

"First I would like to say artists from the Czech Lands, because this show is based on the fact that at that time the turn of the 19th and 20th century a group of German artists was very important.

"In literature it's well known, like Rilke, Kafka, Brod and others. But there was a similar generation among painters and visual artists as well. So it was our intention to present that whole art scene in Prague and the Czech Lands at that time, including those German artists.

"Besides well-known artists like Frantisek Kupka, who was a pioneer of Abstraction, there is of course Josef Vachal, Karel Hlavacek...but also Max Svabinsky or Jan Preisler, whose work is not so clearly connected with decadence."

"Among the German artists, Alfred Kubin is very important - he's a very well known artist internationally. And there are of course a few...discoveries for the wider audience, like Richard Teschner for example, who later on was a very close friend of Gustav Klimt. Or Hugo Steiner Prag, who did the illustrations for Meyrink's famous novel The Golem. And we could go on."

The exhibition runs until February 18.