Paintings of a Prague Ghetto


One of the most famous attractions of Prague's Old Town is the former Jewish Ghetto, a witness to the long and rich Jewish history of the Czech capital, and also to centuries of discrimination. The gradual emancipation of Prague's Jewish population began with the Enlightenment in the 18th century. As some Prague Jews grew wealthier and more self-confident, as well as more secular, the first portraits began to appear. Some depicted the spiritual leaders of Prague's Jewish society but others showed well off members of the community and their families. Now, to mark 100 years since the foundation of the Prague Jewish Museum, a new exhibition has been opened to display some of the finest examples of Jewish art from the 18th to the early 20th century.

A scarlet sunset over Prague's Jewish cemetery or the magnificent interior of the Old New synagogue; just an taste of what visitors to the "Prague Ghetto in Images" exhibition in the City Museum can expect to see. Opened on Tuesday, the new collection contains images from a number of collections from around the country, and includes some of the most renowned works by Jewish artists from the Enlightenment onwards. At the official opening of the exhibition, its curator, Dr. Arno Parik, explained the inspiration for compiling such a unique collection.

"We planned this exhibition because of the 100th anniversary of the Jewish museum, and my inspiration was also an exhibition which was made after the war in 1947 in the Jewish museum by Hana Volavkova from other Prague museums which was a similar exhibition with slightly different paintings 60 years ago. The collection originated mostly from the Jewish Museum's collection and from the City of Prague Museum. Then we have eleven paintings and drawings from the national gallery of Prague and another seven prints and paintings from the gallery of the City of Prague."

Amongst the painters whose work is being displayed are Jaroslav Cermak, Vilem Kandler and Jan Minarik, whose images portray various aspects of life in the Jewish quarter at the time, from citizens visiting the Jewish cemetery, to the day-to-day business which took place outside the Old New Synagogue. Dr. Parik explains why the Prague Jewish community saw such artistic interest at the time:

"Prague was very unique and the Prague Jewish community was very famous and unique as it was a very long and uninterrupted Jewish settlement in one place. There were expulsions, but Jews always came back after a short time and their synagogues and their cemetery were never torn down or destroyed. So this is why Jewish Prague and of course the Prague Jewish community was the biggest in Europe for three centuries."

One of the focal points of many of the works at the exhibition, especially the atmospheric views of Jaroslav Cermak, is Prague's famous Jewish Cemetery. With many of the gravestones depicted in painstaking detail, the ambience of this awe-inspiring memorial is well reflected in the collection. Dr. Parik explains why he believes the cemetery was so significant to Jewish painters of the period:

"It was very respected by Jews and of course the appearance of the Jewish cemetery was always different from Christian ones. It was overgrown; the stones were overgrown by the trees and grass, which until now looked very romantic. So I think people were attracted by both that and the fate of the place, the stories and Jewish legends which were published in German in the mid 19th century, in the 40s, and in Czech. So it is a special place, you have to believe it."

The exhibition continues in the City of Prague Museum until the 28th of August.