Prague Castle exhibition puts spotlight on Czech Impressionism

Photo: CTK

What claims to be the biggest ever exhibition of Czech Impressionism has just started at Prague Castle. It puts on show 520 works by 78 artists with the aim of revealing the trends and influences that shaped the movement and track how it evolved.

Photo: CTK
The exhibition at Prague Castle’s Riding School draws on works from more than 50 state and private institutions. There are also sculptures, showing how Impressionism and its influence was reflected in other art forms.

What clearly began with the idea of showing off some of the little seen works in the Prague Castle collection quickly blossomed into a much more ambitious project. Václav Beránek, the director of the cultural section at Prague Castle, explained:

"Originally, we just wanted to deal with the paintings that we have in our collection and which are shown in our offices and representative spaces. Almost no-one in the wider public has the opportunity to see them. We wanted to put them into the context of their time and artistic era and allow the public to see them."

The visitor will find the works not grouped under the names of individual painters but on thematic lines, for example, covering Gardens and Parks, Winter, Still Life, and rural scenes.

"We wanted to put them into the context of their time and artistic era and allow the public to see them."

Ivan Exner, is chairman of the artistic grouping Mánes, which played a major role in shaping the concept and eventual content of the final exhibition. Exner explained the role of the Mánes grouping and the reasons it was called on to help:

"When Prague Castle administration asked us to take part in the organisation of this exhibition that stemmed from two reasons. The first is that two years earlier we jointly prepared the My Country exhibition. As a result, I think around 40,000 members of the public came to see a retrospective of Czech landscape painting. From an objective point of view, the exhibition turned out very well. The second reason, I think is, that the administration of Prague Caste realised that it would have been impossible to interpret Czech Impressionism without the Mánes Group would have been impossible. That’s because almost everything that falls under the Czech Impressionist category also falls under that of Mánes."

Antonín Slavíček - 'Silnice / krajina z Kameniček', photo: CTK
Indeed the Mánes Group was at the forefront of the launch of an Impressionist movement in the Czech Lands. Ivan Exner again:

"Impressionism in Bohemia grew, or let’s say took root around three decades later than in France. It started in the year 1895 when, in what at that time was known as Prague’s Ferdinand Avenue, the so-called Topičův Salon opened. The organisers of the exhibition started to show paintings which could be described as new or modern art. And above all there was the first exhibition of the Mánes grouping in 1898 in which there many landscape and impressionist artists taking part."

The Mánes group was created by young artists in 1897, partly as a reaction to what they regarded as the rather conservative environment of the Prague Academy. It was named after Josef Mánes, one of the foremost names in the Czech Romantic Movement. However, some of the leading lights of the new movement were unmistakeably Impressionists, such as Antonín Slavíček and Joža Uprka, who also dabbled in Realism and Art Deco Decorativism.

"Impressionism in Bohemia grew, or let’s say took root around three decades later than in France."

The Mánes group were keen to plug into the latest trends in European and world arts. For example, in 1902 there was an exhibition of the French sculptor August Rodin and of leading Russian artists two years later. In 1905 it was the turn of Norway’s Edvard Munch, best known today for his painting ‘The Scream’ and other works reflecting the psychological state of their subjects. The foreign members of the grouping included the likes of Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali and the big names of the architectural revolution of the turn of the century and into the 20th century, such as Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier.

Max Švabinský - 'Chudý kraj', photo: CTK
Michael Zachař is the curator of the exhibition. He stressed that many of the works on show in the exhibition have not been seen in public for decades. Part of the problem here, he says, is the trend of many regional galleries to put on exhibitions of contemporary art and often draw on material from at most two or three decades ago. The search has also been widened with the aim of showing the various often very personal expressions given to Czech Impressionism as part of the wider movement:

"In the Czech lands and in Prague around 1900, the doctrine of Czech Impressionism – and impression was in its fashion a doctrine – was in its way enriched and marked by a wide range of personal viewpoints and interpretations, for example by Joža Uprka, Ludvík Kuba and others. "

Kuba, for example, studied at the well known Academie Julian in Paris but also made numerous trips abroad to Rome and Florence, Munich, Ukraine, and Bosnia. He was also heavily influenced by his ethnological studies and had a number of falling outs with the Mánes Group before WWI.

If you were asked to list some of the major figures of Czech Impressionism, the names of Antonín Slavíček, who tragically committed suicide in 1910 after an accident cut short his painting career would probably crop up. Another could be Václav Radimský, who went to France in 1889 and belonged at one stage later to the group of artists surrounding French impressionist painter Claude Monet and later knew Camille Pissarro He was the youngest painter at some of the salon exhibitions in Paris in 1894 and won prizes in the following years in France. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries he was a major force in making Impressionism known in his homeland. Other major names that could be conjured with could include Max Švabinský.

"Remembering these more minor painters is also very important because they helped to shape the times."

But curator Zachař says the exhibition also seeks to give space to some of the lesser known painters and even mention some whose works have apparently disappeared for good.

"It would have been possible of course to choose for the exhibition around 80 to 100 paintings based on the well known lines going from Antonín Slavíček’s Cernovy den [A Day in June ] adding other paintings by [Josef] Ullmann, Radimský, and [Oldřich] Blažíček. But I think it would be valuable to present the foundations and wider possibilities of impressionist painting and of course the other artistic currents which followed, both near and distant, in the 1920s and 1930s and later."

The exhibition, entitled The Light Within a Picture, lasts until January 7, 2018, with daily opening hours between 10 am and 6 pm. Full priced tickets cost 150 crowns.

While some of the lesser names might claim only one painting in the collection, Zachař says they are crucial for a broad brush description of the times and artistic currents.

"In the framework of these major personalities, there were also excellent works by lesser known talents. Remembering these more minor painters is also very important because they helped to shape the times. That’s why we pay tribute to some of the lesser known names such as Stanislav Lolek and Václav Březina. One painting also represents the work of Augustin Mervart, Václav Rytíř. Often it’s just one painting that perfectly represents the style and the times."