Lights, camera, action! ‘Highlights from the National Gallery Prague’
The Czech Centres and National Gallery in Prague have put the finishing touches on a video project showcasing selected artworks in the gallery’s collections from the early Middle Ages to the present day.
The “Highlights from the National Gallery Prague” showcases a rich diversity of works by Czech and other artists connected with the nation’s cultural milieu, stretching back a millennium – in just shy of a dozen videos.
Presenting them all is art historian Veronika Wolf, the gallery’s external affairs direct. Although a labour of love, she says, choosing which works to highlight was not easy. So, they decided to focus on royalty.
“The National Gallery has collections from Old Masters of Mediaeval Art, the Renaissance and Baroque eras, through the 19th Century, 20th Century and 21st Century.
“It was obviously very hard to make a selection of artworks that should represent the collection as a whole. So, we had to make some tough decisions.
“But there were some key points that we decided to do. We wanted to focus on two major figures in our history.
“The first is Charles IV, who was a really important king and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the 14th Century.
“And then we focused on another emperor who lived in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Rudolf II, who was a great art collector.
“Prague was really a centre of artistic movements, and lots of artists even moved to Prague to stay at his court. So, we made the second focus on the era of Rudolf II – or, let’s say, on his taste in collecting.
“And then we moved more to modern art, the highlight is about the new republic of Czechoslovakia, which was established in 1918, and the culture and collecting strategy of this new country.
“We also wanted to introduce a few artists who are Czech, or who were born in the Czech lands, and became internationally famous.
“So that was the idea behind it. Originally, actually, the first thought was to present only Czech artists, but later we decided to include some artists like Albrecht Dürer, whose artwork has been in Prague since 1606.
“His artwork influenced many Czech artists, so we decided to also include him in the selection.”
Albrecht Dürer, Feast of the Rose Garlands
Originally, the “Highlights from the National Gallery Prague” project was conceived with Asian audiences in mind, but it grew in scope, as other Czech Centres around the world embraced the project, says Veronika Wolf.
“So, first of all we, the National Gallery, were contacted by the Czech Centres in Seoul, South Korea, and in Tokyo, Japan, in order to make some short video series for those countries.
“That’s why the original idea was for the Far East, and why we were thinking very much in detail about how to do it because the people who will watch the video series might not be so familiar with European history, and so aspects of Czech or European art.
“Later, the project developed and was accepted by many other Czech Centres around the world, so now it will be featuring in the US, UK, France, Austria but also Russia and as I mentioned Japan and South Korea.
“So, it’s good that the project was done in such a way as not to focus on one culture but to do it so it is applicable in an international way.”
Japonisme in Czech art and Emil Orlik (Model)
Art historian Veronika Wolf herself has a wealth of international experience. Prior to joining the National Gallery Prague, she worked at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice (where she also studied Italian art at Ca’ Foscari University), and studied art law at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London.
Apart from choosing artworks and collections, she said in a talk hosted by the Czech Center New York, the “Highlights from the National Gallery Prague” project in part also involved choosing buildings.
“The question is actually where is the National Gallery? Because it is not one building, as such.
“If you name the Louvre, or other museums, you exactly know the signature building. But National Gallery Prague has seven places with either collections or exhibitions.
“So, we also had to think which collections or buildings we would choose.”
Among the buildings is the exquisite Schwarzenberg Palace – where many of the video episodes where filmed – which hosts an exhibition of old masters, Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
There is also the Trade Fair Palace (Veletržní palác), built in the 1920s, which is home to most of the gallery’s modern art, and the Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia, which houses a collection of artworks dating back to the Přemyslid dynasty.
“So, this is actually our oldest building. It’s a 13th Century convent, and there is an exhibition of mediaeval art in Bohemia and Central Europe between 1200 to 1550. So, from this location is the first episode about Charles IV.
“We wanted to include some artwork from mediaeval times, and I thought a lot about what to present. For people from different countries and cultures, complicated Christian iconography or iconology it might be very difficult.
“So, we decided to focus on the personality of Charles IV. I selected a work by an anonymous artist of Jan Očko of Vlašim, because on one panel the emperor is depicted exactly as people of his time described him. He had dark hair and was not really tall.”
Charles IV and The Votive Panel of Jan Očko of Vlašim
During the reign of Charles IV, Prague became the centre of the Holy Roman Empire and a great many exceptional works of art were created here. The Votive Panel of Jan Očko of Vlašim highlighted as an outstanding example of Gothic panel painting.
The National Gallery Prague also has a huge collection of artworks collected during the reign centuries later of Rudolf II, an influential patron of the arts, though and ineffectual ruler whose missteps largely triggered the Thirty Years' War. Art historian Veronika Wolf again:
“Rudolf II was a Habsburg emperor, and he decided to move the court from Vienna to Prague, partly because he was worried about the danger from the [Ottoman] Turks. So, he moved in there in 1583.
“Some historians say Rudolf II was not so successful a politician, but from the point of view of art history, he was an extremely important figure – not just for Bohemia, but for the whole of Europe.
“He was a really avid art collector, and made Prague the centre for many artists, but also invited sculptors, astrologists, goldsmiths and precious gem-cutters. And really Prague the cultural centre of Europe.
“Not only did he invited many artists to his court, he also tried to collect the best art works that he could find.”
For the “Highlights from the National Gallery Prague” project, art historian Veronika Wolf and her colleagues chose – from Rudolf II’s vast collection – a painting by the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer, mentioned earlier.
That huge painting, called the Feast of the Rose Garlands, was created for the Church of St. Bartholomew in Venice, and in part due to Dürer’s use of bold colours, immediately became a sensation.
Apart from panel paintings from the times of emperors Charles IV and Rudolf II, the project introduces Czech artists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who left a mark on the international scene – among them Alfons Mucha, František Kupka, and Toyen.
All 11 videos, subtitled in English, are available on the Czech Centre London’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/CzechCentre).