Ferlinghetti exhibition in Prague / A new future for the Vitkov Memorial


In this week's Arts: a new exhibition of drawings and paintings by American "Beat generation" poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti opens in Prague. Also: the National Museum announces plans for the renovation of the city's Vitkov Memorial.

Welcome to the Arts. In today's show, in just a few minutes we'll be talking to the director of the National Museum, Michal Lukes, about plans to renovate Prague's Vitkov Memorial - a famous structure overlooking the city which at one point was misused as a mausoleum for communist leaders. But first, on a very different note: a new exhibition has opened in Prague featuring drawings, paintings and poetry by legendary Beat Generation poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. We attended the opening and can say among the many items featured is a video installation of the poet reading "Rivers of Light" - his poem written during a now famous visit to Prague in 1998. The work has been described both as an "homage" to the city as well as a "journey of the heart".

Curator Jitka Hlavackova says the exhibition at the City Gallery Prague (organised with the help of a San Francisco gallery) is something of a commemoration. In 1998 Mr Ferlinghetti was greeted here with great enthusiasm, with the newspapers profiling his stay and publishing Rivers of Light in Czech. Now, visitors will have a chance to see different areas of the poet's work with which they will probably not be familiar. According to Jitka Hlavackova, though well-known as a publisher, bookstore owner, and poet since the 1950s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was not nearly as well-known for his painting until later in his career. The poet began painting inspired by the Abstract Expressionists.

"Ferlinghetti's career as a visual artist most certainly began with early drawings he did to complement his poems, but in the 1950s he began to paint seriously. At the time he was strongly inspired by painters like Kitaj, Larry Rivers, deKooning, as well as Robert Motherwell. But later he entirely abandoned this approach. His visual style, together with his written work, became more radical and he eventually went from the 'abstract' to the far more concrete. More and more we begin to see his texts and paintings include commentary on the state of the world, whether ecological issues, American foreign policy, war, or women's rights. As an artist he is nothing if not engaged."

The show includes a number of Mr Ferlinghetti's strongest paintings, which Ms Hlavackova says display a daring and freshness most often associated with street art. Words in one piece, titled "World War III", are, for example, scrawled across the work like graffiti on a wall. Jitka Hlavackova again:

"Mr Ferlinghetti's work is always developing, even if he never had formal training as a painter. Since 1953, when he co-founded the City Lights bookstore, he has tried to publish daring and to a degree controversial work. Then, one of the first pieces he published was Allen Ginsberg's "Howl". And he's still always on the lookout for new and original ideas.

"This sensibility I think carries over into his painting: he is not afraid of taking risks. He also works in many different techniques: oil on canvas, or acrylic, or paint-stick on paper. His style is very close to street art and the public space and his approach is expressive and spontaneous. He himself doesn't like to talk about the process: what's more important is the result."

Among the most interesting pieces on view are Mr Ferlinghetti's figurative drawings which have less to do with a realistic or objective depiction of the subject, but focus on what Ferlinghetti has dubbed "life story". He himself has been quoted as saying he has always been more interested in that, than actual physical appearance. He has said such work is an attempt to "at least scratch the surface of the human façade". The exhibition titled Lawrence Ferlinghetti - Paintings & Poems" continues in Prague until May 13th.

Vitkov Memorial to house new museum

Vitkov Memorial
In our second story in this edition of the Arts we turn to the future of Prague's Vitkov Memorial, a monumental building originally built on Vitkov Hill to commemorate the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918 as well as to remember Czech legionnaires who fought in the Great War. Among other elements, the site features the largest equestrian statue in the world: a nine-metre high bronze sculpture designed by Bohumil Kafka depicting Jan Zizka, the great Hussite general. The statue and memorial building, were acquired by the National Museum in 2000, and now the museum has outlined a tender for its full renovation, set to begin later this year. This week I spoke to the National Museum's director Michal Lukes about the site's history as well as the renovation plans.

"The memorial site, completed after the First World War, is not in great shape. It only saw minor renovation in the 1950s, when it was transformed into a mausoleum for Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia's first communist president. Still, the building has held up relatively well thanks to its cathedral-like structure. It truly is a monumental site. I call it a kind of a 'temple of the republic': materials that were used in building the site included tonnes of marble and stone. The question is what do you do with it next?"

Throughout the 90s and into the 21st century the site was often rented for film shoots. Commercials were shot there as well as scenes from adrenalin-packed films like the recent Hellboy or Doom. In 1999, the memorial was also the site for several sold-out performances by the Australian artist Stelarc, whose work fuses man and machine. At Vitkov, he performed within a large crab-line exoskeleton. The renovation of the site has brought an end to such possibilities, and now the National Museum will transform the site into a new museum on modern Czech history, complete with a café boasting a panoramic view. But, there will still be a place for the arts. Michal Lukes again:

"We want it to be a very attractive and welcoming space for visitors. Part of the building will house an exhibition titled "Crossroads" examining modern Czech history. But it will still be available for the performing arts: live concerts theatre, and so on, we want visitors to come for those too. Of course, the original symbolic meaning of the memorial will not change: the Zizka statue overlooks the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the only such memorial in the Czech Republic. That meaning will continue to be respected as well."

Renovation of the site is expected to cost several hundred million crowns, and with a little luck, says Michal Lukes, the Vitkov site will form part of a kind of "museum mile" in Prague encompassing the nearby military museum, one or two other sites, and the National Museum itself.