French exhibition of Czech art winds up, heads for Prague

Un objet créé pour l'exposition 'Orbis Pictus' par Petr Nikl

In the shadow of the church of the St. Germain de Pres on the Rue Bonaparte, the staff of the Czech Cultural Center waved visitors in to the closing celebration of a unique exhibition of the work of 10 contemporary Czech artists. The hands-on experience of Orbis Pictus comprised three floors of fantastical, whimsical instruments and machines, all of which could be touched and many of which could be used to create sounds and music.

More than 6,000 visitors attended the exhibit during the languorous summer months when many Parisiennes leave the city. The next stop for the exhibit - which recently drew to a close in Paris - is Prague's Czech Museum of Music.

Orbis Pictus was conceived by Petr Nikl and features the work of artists like Petr Lorenc and Lubos Fidler. Nikl said the exhibit was conceptualized as a space for communication, imagination and play.

"This is not a real exhibition," he said. "It is a space for games."

According to Nikl this concept is a new frontier for contemporary Czech art—something of a departure from tradition. The cultural center's program director Jitka de Preval elaborated on Nikl's thoughts, saying the collection is a medium for personal enrichment and communication with others.

"The potential for imagination—this exhibition helps to develop this potential," De Preval said.

She also said the exhibit is presented as an alternative to electronic games and other modern diversions that don't inspire individual creativity or development. The pieces are constructed with materials like metal and wood.

"At the moment everybody is invited to use electronic games and everywhere you have the possibility to play, but this kind of play doesn't develop your imagination, doesn't develop your personality," she said. "The games of Petr Nikl are very simple. They ask people to touch, to play something."

On closing day, visitors of all ages were present, trying out the keyboard, the strings, xylophones and drums attached to the art pieces. The gallery filled with sound, sometimes melodious, sometimes cacophonous.

Photo: CTK
On the top floor a giant inflatable igloo housed a large table with instruments, a flowing stream of water, moving cogs and wheels, and various displays of fanciful objects—insects, seashells, leaves and old gardening tools.

"We've got two books in which the people are writing some sentiments and so on and, yes, we can say that everybody is fascinated by this exhibition because it is something new," said Bara Proskova, a student at the French High School in Prague, who came to Paris to help out with the exhibition.

"They are shocked because they can touch all the things," she said. "The parents are very happy because the children can move all the objects and so on. The children are very happy because they can move things in the exhibition and they can try everything."

One of the pleased parents at the closing celebration for Orbis Pictus was the Czech ambassador to France, M. Pavel Fischer, who was in attendance with his family. When asked if his three children enjoyed the exhibit, he replied: "Absolutely."

Fischer visited the exhibit numerous times over the summer with local politicians as well.

He said that the exhibit was a "very nice way to put the message of Comenius in today's light."

Orbis Pictus was inspired by the work of Comenius, the 17th century Czech philosopher and educator who is considered the father of modern education. According to Sorbonne professor Xavier Galmiche this connection with the past is part of what makes this exhibition one of the most important to be shown at Paris' Czech Cultural Center.

"It is a huge great idea to approach this philosophy of the end of the 16th century, beginning of the 17th century, where the question of astronomy, alchemy, and cosmonogy was the actuality of the philosophy. That's why this exhibition is related to these very famous texts of Comenius," he said.

But while the exhibit draws inspiration from the past, Galmiche says it also demonstrates an important thread in modern Czech thought.

"In the Czech context, there is always from the '60s maybe this attempt to associate philosophy and game, the connection between the practical world and the sensible world, what I can touch and what I can feel and the intellectual one," he said. "In the context of European cultures, it is one of the specificities of Czech culture, that they have this feeling for the concretization of thought, of meaning."

More than 6,000 people saw the show in Paris, including 465 visitors on the last day.

In the days following the exhibition's closing, the pieces were dismantled, packed up and prepared for transport by trucks to the Czech Republic. The Prague exhibit will include more local and international artists to fill the larger space at the Czech Museum of Music. It will debut there in mid-March of 2007.