From Mánes to modernity: Prague Castle unveils 200 years of Czech Portraits

Photo: ČTK/Kateřina Šulová

An exhibition marking 200 years of portraiture in the Czech lands gets underway at Prague Castle today. The curators have brought together exquisite works by the nation’s most celebrated painters, covering all major genres and movements up to the present day. I went along for a special tour ahead of the official opening.

Božena Němcová by Josef Vojtěch Hellich,  photo: ČTK/Kateřina Šulová
The last portraits to be hung for the new exhibition “Czech Portraits Over Two Centuries”, in pride of place and under the glare of television lights and sound of camera shutters, are also the very first that visitors to the Imperial Stables of Prague Castle will see.

One is by a Cubist whose fame endures to this day – Josef Čapek, who invented the word “robot” and lent it to his playwright brother, Karel; the other by a prominent founding member of the rebellious Vienna Secession movement a generation earlier, less remembered today – Vojtěch Hynais.

Their styles and modern-day prominence could hardly be more different, which is precisely the point. The exhibition presents an eclectic selection of 200 works “with an emphasis on famous works in the context of the remarkable achievement of lesser-known artists”.

Exhibition co-author and curator Ivan Exner of the Mánes Group:

“I must say that this is our personal overview of portraiture in the Czech lands, which of course could have taken many different forms. Over the past 200 years, Czech artists have made thousands of exceptional portraits. So, to assemble a cross-section comprising even just 200 works is a rather complicated matter.”

The work of Josef Mánes, which opens the exhibition, is followed by his ideological followers, such as Mikoláš Aleš, and the generation of the National Theatre artists, such as František Ženíšek.

Among of the most striking and immediately recognisable pieces on display is a portrait of writer Božena Němcová, the mother of Czech prose, whose novella Babička (“The Grandmother”) is among the national literary canon.

The Němcová portrait is a jewel in the greater Castle Collections, says exhibition co-author and curator Michael Zachař, who led a tour for journalists ahead of the opening:

“This portrait here of Božena Němcová by Josef Vojtěch Hellich you undoubtedly recognise – it’s among the most famous by a Czech artist. It was commissioned by the family of writer František Čelakovský, a contemporary, when she was forty. Hellich portrayed her as the archetype of a beautiful Czech woman.”

Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But this is the third exhibition for Prague Castle staged by co-curators Ivan Exner and Michael Zachař, who have proven adept at capturing the public’s attention.

Czech Portraits Over Two Centuries opened on 18 December 2019 at the Imperial Stables gallery at Prague Castle. It runs through 22 March 2020.

Among the roughly 200 works is something for every taste, from neoclassical, romantic portraits by Josef Mánes or Max Švabinský, who started out as an Impressionist, to the Art Nouveau of Alfons Maria Mucha, the Cubism of Josef Čapek and Emil Filla, the Surrealism of Toyen, the Expressionism of Bohumil Kubišta, the Abstractionism of František Kupka, or the playful mix-media collages of Jiří Kolář, to name but a few of the best known artists.