Exhibition focuses on "decadence" in art of late 19th, early 20th centuries

Jaroslav Panuska, 'Expressive head'

"In Morbid Colours: Art and the Idea of Decadence in the Czech Lands, 1880 to 1914", is the title of a major new exhibition which has just opened at Prague's Obecni Dum (Municipal House). The show is divided into four different sections with dramatic titles like Satanic Hallucinations and Purgatory of Death. But what exactly is "decadent art"? That's a question I put to the exhibition's curator, Otto M. Urban.

"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."

Who are some of the main Czech artists here in the exhibition?

"First I would like to say artist 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."

The exhbition runs until February 18.