Mánes reopens after major renovation but can gallery reach former heights?

Mánes gallery, photo: Filip Jandourek

One of Prague’s most distinctive art spaces is reopening after a major renovation, with the Mánes gallery hosting its first art show in more than two years from Wednesday. But will the venue be able to regain the significance it held in the past?

Mánes gallery,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The Functionalist Mánes gallery – standing on a tributary between the quayside in Prague and Slovanský island – was built as the permanent home of the Mánes Union of Fine Arts, a group named after the 19th century artist Josef Mánes.

Before it opened its doors in September 1930 it hosted the 80th birthday celebrations of Czechoslovakia’s first president T.G. Masaryk, who had been an important backer of the project.

Mánes was not just an art space but a social centre and its outdoor restaurant was a lively spot in the summer months.

It was again the centre of events in 1989, when the opposition Civic Forum used it to print posters during the Velvet Revolution.

However, it later fell into disrepair and the group that operate it launched a major and costly renovation in spring 2012.

Many notable local artists have exhibited at Mánes over the years, including Jiří Votruba, who had showed his work there in the 1990s.

“Mánes means something in the history of contemporary art in Prague. It was always the place where the most important events occurred, where the best people – like maybe Fila or Lhoták – exhibited. So for me it’s the most important exhibition I had in my career in Prague.”

Jiří Votruba,  photo: archive of Jiří Votruba
The first show at the newly refurbished venue features paintings by the caricaturist and illustrator Ivan Steiger, who in his time has produced cartoons for newspapers such as The Times and Le Figaro.

Jiří Votruba welcomes the reopening of what he calls perhaps the only kunsthalle in Prague – but wonders what the future holds.

“We will see in the very near future which way Mánes will go – I mean if the level of exhibitions will be as high as in history. Because I think the foundation that reconstructed Mánes has borrowed some money and perhaps this could mean that the exhibitions there would be maybe based on commerce. This is the danger. But we will see soon.”

For now visitors will be confined to the two levels of Mánes’s gallery. The office spaces whose rent will contribute to the running of the complex have not yet received construction approval.

Neither has a restaurant at the back of the building that promises stunning views across the Vltava. Its operators say they hope to have it up and running by the end of the summer.