Arts of Czechia
In general, the Czech art is known worldwide for its individually made, mouth blown and decorated art glass and cut crystal, garnet and other gems jewelry, decorative and applied art.
The very beginning of art on the territory of Czechia is marked by the finding of an approximately 30,000-year old 17-centimeters tall statue of a woman made of ash clay and bone dust, called the "Věstonice Venus" (Věstonická Venuše), after the place where the statue was found, South Moravian village Dolní Věstonice.
The development of art conjoined with the Czech state started in Romanesque period. The oldest preserved and simultaneously most artistically important work of that time are murals in St. Catherine’s rotunda in Znojmo from 1134, exceptional in Romanesque art throughout Europe by focusing on the ideology of the state.
Painting and sculpture
The decorative painting of manuscripts was very popular in both the Romanesque and the Gothic periods. The most exquisite work, which had not had an analogue in Central Europe at the time, was the Vyšehrad Codex (the Coronation Gospels of King Vratislaus).
In the Gothic Era, panel paintings was flourishing. The most important are works of Master of Vyšší Brod altar, the founder of the style, which dominated European painting around 1400. Other important personalities were Master of Třeboň altar and Master Theodoricus, the court painter of Charles IV, who filled the ruler's chapel of Holy Cross in Karlštejn castle by 130 paintings. The late gothic art with a Renaissance touch is represented by the work of Master of Litoměřice Altarpiece.
Renaissance art came to Czechia with delay because of the consequences of Hussite wars in the country and influenced much more architecture, than other art. At the turn of the 16th and the 17th century, during the reign of Emperor Rudolph II, they came to Prague Italian, Dutch and German artists like Giuseppe Arcimboldi, Hans van Aachen, Adrian de Vries et al. The ruler, fascinated by their bizarrness, was considered the influential patron of the Northern Mannerism.
The most important Czech masters of Baroque painting were Petr Brandl, the author of many large altarpieces, where all the characters are very vivid, often very emotional and always convincingly done, Jan Kupecký, who managed to perfectly capture the appearance of a person and his character traits in his portraits and Karel Škréta, excelled as a portrait painter and illustrator. An exceptional Czech artist of Baroque art was Václav Hollar, the etcher of worldwide recognition. His views of European cities, allegories and rich collection of graphic arts, depicting fauna and flora are unparalleled in the European art at that time.
Two faces of Baroque sculpture in Czechia personate two workshops with a different concept of statues - Ferdinand Maximilian Brokoff 's massive statues acting calm and with a contemplative impression, they are full of internal tensions. The works of Matyáš Bernard Braun acts dramatically and emotional extremity is expressed by theatrical gestures and rich folds of clothes.
The most important figure of classicist painting was Antonín Mánes. His work underwent a colorful evolution from composed classicist landscapes, romantically ragged scenery up with very realistic landscapes. Typical representants of the Romanticism are the mysterious Adolf Kosárek and the master of the color perfectionism Josef Navrátil.
The realistic period in fine arts comes with Antonín Chittussi. His own concept of landscapes seen in vivid terrain, in the disorderly segment of reality, and in the natural diffuse light. In particular, his smaller paintings with quick, easy brushstrokes belong to the jewels of Czech painting. The beginnings of the modern conception of landscape panting was substantially influenced by Antonín Slavíček. His works perfectly expressed visual atmospheric phenomena, but also the inner substance of the landscape. Some kind of dark realism represents the melancholic atmosphere of the works of the painter of Prague night corners and social themes Jakub Schikaneder. Virtuoso painter, portraitist, illustrator and creator of stamps and banknotes, the author of several monumental works and the founder of Czech Graphic School, Max Švabinský, with realistic groundings of his extensive work has to be mentioned.
Symbolism manifested itself in Czechia in sculptural work of mystically oriented František Bílek and in mysterious paintings of Jan Preisler, combining influences of both symbolism and impressionism.
The peak of Czech sculpture of the 19th century overlapping into the 20th century represents an extensive work of Josef Václav Myslbek . From many, his principal works are the statue of Music in the foyer of the National Theatre and the monument of St. Wenceslas on Wenceslas Square in Prague.
A kind of second wave of symbolism, is associated in Czechia with the Sursum society of modern Czech art, associated with mysticism, theosophy and occultism. Noteworthy are Jan Zrzavý, who later developed his art into mystically spiritual forms using unmistakeable meaning of expression and Josef Váchal, another mystical traveller into the ambivalent world with expressively - in the philosophical sense - joining visions.
When we speak about Art Nouveau, the name of Alfons Mucha, world famous and one of the best known Czech artist, echoes immediately. He is the main representative of Art Nouveau decorative painting, but his work contains also sculptures, various kinds of applied arts (jewelry and more) and photography. Awareness of this painter quickly spread beyond the borders of Czechia. In the 1890s he lived and worked in Paris. His posters became quickly well-known and his style influenced artists worldwide. He also managed to captivate the Parisian public with those dedicated to the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt and her Renaissance theater playbills and posters. Created between 1910 and 1928, Alfons Mucha’s masterpiece is the cycle of 20 monumental canvases named The Slav Epic (Slovanská epopej), depicting the history of the Slavonic peoples and civilization and portray the “joys and sorrows” of his own nation, the Czechs.
An exquisite example of Art Nouveau sculpture is the statue of František Palacký by Stanislav Sucharda. Together with Myslbek’s St. Wenceslaus completed the monumental works that have no analogy in the Czech sculpture.
Václav Hollar - Prague (c.1640)
The Late phase of romanticism is represented by Josef Mánes, who is considered the founding personality of the Czech visual arts and master of the landscape painting. He is the author of allegorical boards of Astronomical Clock in Prague from 1866. The second half of the 19th century, dominated by artists of romantic realism, with predominantly nationally oriented topics such as František Ženíšek, Vojtěch Hynais (designer of the curtain of the Prague National Theatre), Karel Purkyně, Vaclav Brožík, Julius Mařák or Luděk Marold.
Alfons Mucha - Slavic Epic / Apotheose (lower part of painting)
One of the most important Czech painters ever is František Kupka (1871-1957). He is considered a pioneer of abstract art, influencing subtantially all modern painting movements. His geometric abstraction concept is called “orphism”. He expresses a musical rhythm through the motion of a colored line or the dynamic gradation of colored areas. František Kupka started as realistic painter and his abstract art arose gradually from that base. The most inspirational are “Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours” in several versions and “Warm Chromatics”, works which were of fundamental importance for the birth of abstract art, “Amorpha” is considered the milestone of it. The painter completely abandoned the traditional world of figures and objects (in the spirit of "the role of artist is not to depict what we already see, but its invisible substance") and set out into the unexplored unknown, where the leading role is played only by colours, their strength and shapes, movement, mutual relations, harmony and composition.
Expressionism and Cuboexpressionism is associated in Czechia with Bohumil Kubišta, passionate exponent of modern art, building on his deep knowledge of optics and the physiology of vision, which he then applied and Antonín Procházka's distinctive work based on a feeling for beautiful painting material using old techniques of encaustic. Czech Cubism is represented by Emil Filla, who's work contains a strong reflection on both military conflicts and Josef Čapek, consisting of deep social feeling and humanism. Cubist sculpturist Otto Gutfreund made polychrome sculptures, which had in the former parallel in world sculpture, revealing the difficulty of man, civilization and work.
Important modern-feeling landscape painters of the interwar period included Rudolf Kremlička, Václav Špála and already mentioned Jan Zrzavý. In addition to the world-famous personalities abstract painting in this period devoted several painters, for example, Vojtěch Preissig and František Foltýn.
Czech surrealism is conjoined with painter, poet, editor, photographer, and graphic artist Jindřich Štyrský, Toyen (orig.name Marie Čermínová), who was a key figure in the surrealist avant-garde European art format plus female rebel with a great imagination and Josef Šíma. His pictures introduce us to a mysterious stillness where rocks transform into living beings, floating weightlessly, while inanimate things generally take on human form. Another important painter, who initially created a new pictorial reality in the form of Lyrical Cubism, also later involved strong surrealist elements in his work was František Muzika.
Global vision of destruction was encoded into the program of surrealistic group Ra. Its work was the most imaginative line of the Czech pre-war art, conjoined with names Václav Tikal, Bohdan Lacina and Josef Istler. World War II affected the nature of Czech art and caused a tendency toward experimentation in the new humanist subjects. Artists had to encrypt symbols because they were addressing a state of existential distress. After the Communist coup in 1948 the role and position of art became similar.
The effort of Group 42 (František Gross, Kamil Lhoták, Jan Kotik) to depict the role of man in modern civilization, which changes into a mere machine and steals his uniqueness. This group was mainly influenced by civilism, cubism, futurism, constructivism, and a bit by surrealism. There is typical an obvious and characteristic enchantment by technology, evident in frequent focus on cities, factories, industry, and machines with human characters of common townspeople. The group was established during war in 1942 and its activity ceased in 1948, but its influence on the Czech literature and the Czech art was still evident in further years.
In post-war art, however during 1950's hidden because of strong pressure of communist regime on artists to produce so called socialistic realism, they appeared several artists in Czechia, whose work was unique, but they became more known only in sixtees, when political situation in the country allowed some kind of artistic freedom. Key figures of the Czech post-war art are Vladimír Boudník, a representative of the "explosionism" movement. He is best known for his active and structural graphic art, spiritually oriented sculptor and painter of philosophical visions Jan Koblasa, master of irony and grotesque, commenting contemporary human Karel Nepraš and Mikuláš Medek, the most important Czech painter, starting with surrealistic influence, but gradually creating original symbolism of abstract sign systems with special shapes and colour language as metaphors for human existence in its tragic, pitoresque and painful reality, but intensely thirsting for meaningful dimensions. Intense mystical expression, internal consistence, authenticity of the message, powerful spiritual energy radiating from his paintings, represent one of the most important and most original personalities of not only Czech, but also 20th Century painters. His artistic independence and spiritual dimensions were finely expressed, even during the Communist regime in this country, at a time of implacable hostility towards modern art and free thinking.
To the most interesting works of contemporary artists belong drawings and paintings of Vladimír Kokolia, predominatly from eithees and beginning of ninetees, some kind of caricature of contemporary human, but it is not only mockery or parody of the dark sides of humanity, is a genuine existential distress, featured by masterful shortcut into a categorical imperative.
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In 1840, Ignác Florus Stašek took Czech oldest surviving photograph (daguerreotype) of post office in Litomyšl, but probably already in 1839 was made earliest portrait photograph - it was the image of count Karel Chotek and his family. At the turn of the 1850s a new generation of photographers started working in Czechia, focused on photo-portraits during then carte-devisite boom,above all two former painters Jan Adolf Brandejs and Hynek Fiedler. The most important figures of the 19th century in Czech photography were František Fridrich, who became one of the most outstanding publishers of topographic views in 1870s and Jindřich Eckert.
From 1870 a rapid development of documentary, scientific, industrial and commerical photography has begun. From the 1880s photographs started to became part of extensive publication projects. These projects reflected the fact that the Czech society was completing its emancipation process at the end of the nineteenth century, becoming a selfconfident nation, very successful in economic terms. Containing 500 images from 96 photographers, the work entitled "Czech World in Brief", published in instalments by Josef Richard Vilímek in 1896-98, can be perceived as the peak of employment of photography in contemporary society.
Art Nouveau Pictorialism brings into photography new dimensions of artistic approach. Photographers began to take interest in new techniques, able to express another artistic view of the subject and started to be concentrated on artistic depiction of female beauty. No wonder, that Alfons Mucha was also involved in photographic art, using it also as a sketchbook.
To the most important personalities of first decades of 20th century and early phases of Czech modern photography belong František Drtikol, author of many portraits and nudes which show development from pictorialism and symbolism to modern composite pictures with geometric decorations and thrown shadows in the spirit of avant-garde works of the periodof the futurism aesthetic, Jaromír Funke, a leading figure in Czech photography in the 1920s and 30s, recognized or his play of “photographic games” with mirrors, lights, and objects to create unique expressive abstract works with a typical feature of “dynamic diagonal" and Jaroslav Rössler, avant-garde photographer, utilizing and combining the techniques of photogram, photomontage, collage and drawing, influenced in the beginning by Cubism and Futurism, later creator of abstract photographs. From pre-war and war generation cannot be forgotten surrealistic collages of Jindřich Štyrský and innerly rich works of Miroslav Hák, associated with the Prague-based Group 42 of painters and photographers.
Quite original personality of Czech photographic art is a Neo-romantic photographer Josef Sudek, called "a poet of Prague", widely reknown for his moody still-lifes, abandoned gardens and melancholical corners, which rich collection of works can be considered the document of true atmosphere of Czechia during 50 years long period (1920-1970), including gravity and melancholy, torn by war and oppression.
From the post-war generations of Czech photographers stand out Václav Chochola, described as a "classic" of Czech art and portrait photography, Jan Svoboda, which attempted to redefine the language of photography in relation to painting and sculpture, its composition, tonality and physical substance, culminating in philosophically self-reflective images, which ranks it among the world's pioneers of photographic appropriation, Karel Ludwig's depicting of peculiarity of shapes in his acts, post-surrealist Vilém Reichmann, Antonín Gribovský, imaginative observer of everyday things, or Miroslav Tichý, giving the banality a feeling of exceptionality and rarity. World renowned Czech photographers of recent decades are photojournalist Antonín Kratochvíl and Jan Saudek, creator of colored photographs with main issue of provocative eroticism. From conemporaries should be mentioned the work of Jan Vávra, a representant of Neo-Pictorialism, using various new techniques, including digital in quite natural way, who marvelously breathes life into inanimate things.
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The tradition of Czech cinematography started in the second half of the 1890s. Peaks of the production in the era of silent movies represent historical drama "The Builder of the Temple", social and erotic (very controversial and innovative at that time ) drama "Erotikon" directed by Gustav Machatý. Early sound film era of Czech film was very productive, above all in mainstream genres with the special role of comedies by Martin Frič or Karel Lamač, however more internationally successful were dramatic movies, above all famous romantic drama film "Ecstasy" by Gustav Machatý, and romantic "The River" by Josef Rovenský.
After the repressive period of Nazi occupation of the country and early communist official dramaturgy of socialist realism in movies at the turn of 1940s and 1950s with a few exceptions such a "Krakatit" by Otakar Vávra or "Men without wings" by František Čáp (awarded by Palme d'Or of the Cannes Film Festival in 1946).
New era of the Czech film begun by outstanding animated films by important filmmakers such as Karel Zeman, a pioneer with special effects (culminating in successful films such as artistically exceptional "Vynález zkázy" (A Deadly Invention), performed in anglophone countries under the name "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne" from 1958, which combined acted drama with animation, and Jiří Trnka, the founder of the modern puppet film. Czech animation has been a tradition for almost 100 years. Czech animators are considered pioneers in film animation. It began in 1920s and its "Golden Era" dates between 1950s and 1980s. Czech animators (speaking only about films for kids) include Jiří Trnka, Karel Zeman, Břetislav Pojar. Stanislav Látal, Jan Švankmajer, Jiří Bárta etc. Czech animators have employed Cutout animation, Puppet animation and Clay animation. Czech animated film highlighted itself internationally when film “Zvířátka a Petrovští” by Jiří Trnka won Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1946. Animated films were produced in Studio of Painted Films “Brothers in Trick (Bratři v triku). Jiří Trnka 3 full-length and some short animated films in the end of 1940s and was one of the most productive animators in the world. His films in the 1950s such as a fairly tale “Prince Bayaya”, “Old Czech Legends” or “A Midsummer Night's Dream” earned him nickname "the Walt Disney of Eastern Europe". His final film The Hand was declared the 5th best animated picture in history. Another successful animator was Břetislav Pojar. His debut film One Glass Too Much was successful worldwide. Important figures of Brothers in Trick studio include Zdeněk Miler who created cartoon character Mole. Second animation studio was based in Zlín. Karel Zeman and Hermína Týrlová are considered the main figures of Zlín animators. Týrlová earned fame for her children's films. Her most famous film is “The Revolt of Toys”. Zeman's films mixed animation with live-action actors. His films drew inspiration from novels Jules Verne. His The Fabulous World of Jules Verne is considered the most successful Czech film ever made. They are a lot of series of short footage films for children, usually TV series which have made since 1950s until now as “Večerníček” (the tradition is 65 years old),
an every day aired evening broadcast for children.
Another Czech cultural phenomenon came into being at the end of the 1950s. This project called Laterna magika (The Magic Lantern), resulting in productions that combined theater, dance and film in a poetic manner, considered the first multimedia art project in the international context (mentioned also in "Theatre section" above).
In the 1960s, so called Czech New Wave (also Czechoslovak New Wave) received international acclaim. It is linked with names of Miloš Forman (later become world-renowned by movies as "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest" or "Amadeus"), Věra Chytilová, Jiří Menzel, Ján Kadár, Elmar Klos, Evald Schorm, Vojtěch Jasný, Ivan Passer, Jan Schmidt, Juraj Herz, Jaroslav Papoušek, etc. The hallmark of the films of this movement were long, often improvised dialogues, black and absurd humor and the occupation of non-actors. Directors were trying to preserve the natural atmosphere without refinement and artificial arrangement of scenes. One of the unique personalities of the 1960s and the beginning of 1970s that were capable of combining the original manuscript and the deep psychological impact with the extraordinary high-quality art was the director František Vláčil. His films Marketa Lazarová, Údolí včel ("The Valley of The Bees") or Adelheid belong to the artistic peaks of Czech cinema production. The film "Marketa Lazarová" was voted the all-time best Czech movie in a prestigious 1998 poll of Czech film critics and publicists. Another internationally known author is Jan Švankmajer who conjoined with the above-mentioned project "Laterna Magika" in the beginning of the career. A filmmaker and a versatile artist, he is a self-labeled surrealist known for his animations and features, which greatly influenced artists worldwide.
As a special category should be mentioned Czech film comedies, notably parodies. To the best films of that kind belong "Lemonade Joe or Horse Opera" from 1964 and "Four Murders Are Enough, Darling" by director Oldřich Lipský or crazy comedy "Sir, you are a widow" from 1970 by Václav Vorlíček.
Films The Shop on Main Street (1965), Closely Watched Trains (1967) and Kolya (1996) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film while six others earned a nomination: Loves of a Blonde (1966), The Fireman's Ball (1968), My Sweet Little Village (1986), The Elementary School (1991), Divided We Fall (2000) and Želary (2003). The Czech Lion is the highest award for Czech film achievement.
The Barrandov Studios in Prague are the largest film studios in Czechia and one of the largest in Europe with many popular film locations in the country. Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is one of the oldest in the world and has become Central and Eastern Europe's leading film event. It is also one of few film festivals has been given competitive status by thee International Federation of Film Producers Associations. Other film festivals held in the country include Febiofest, Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, One World Film Festival, Zlín Film Festival and Fresh Film Festival.
The roots of theatre in Czechia can be found in the Middle Ages, especially in the cultural life of the Gothic period. In the 19th century, the theatre played an important role in the national awakening movement and later, in the 20th century it became a part of the modern European theatre art. Original Czech cultural phenomenon came into being at the end of the 1950s. This project called Laterna magika (The Magic Lantern) was the brainchild of renowned film and theater director Alfred Radok, resulting in productions that combined theater, dance and film in a poetic manner, considered the first multimedia art project in international context.
(originally written for Wikipedia)
František Kupka: Detail of "Le disque blanc II"
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