Thursday, 29 March 2007

Check the Czech Cubismo

Concerned about the somewhat inadequate size of our carbon footprint in comparison, say, to Prince Charles, we plant three apples trees in the back garden and fly to Prague. This costs the princely sum of £7.98 each plus taxes, round trip. We have a charming little detached house. The cliff of a sandstone quarry soars behind it, fading into a wooded hillside that forms a small park. The house is within easy walking distance of the city centre and we have it for six nights giving us five whole days to do the town. Day one is spent on the castle and St. Vitus Cathedral which features great gargoyles and stained glass. You can wander through the courtyards and in to the entrance of the church for free but the bits of the castle and the galleries cost a tenner and are not worth it to my mind, Even on a cold day in March the whole complex is a tourist machine, tourist hoards disembarking from one coach after another. The ticket gives you access to two galleries of baroque art, the paintings in which are mostly mediocre and in need of a good clean. The collection was rifled of its best pieces, though there is a Cranach and a large Reubens. His overweight, pinkly glowing women and cherubs strewn around the canvas don’t do much for me however. There is also entrance to a street of small houses that used to service the castle’s needs. These have been restored and turned into a Disneyland style shopping strip flogging tourist tat. You can also visit some castle apartments and a museum that recounts the castle’s history. The day goes a little further downhill when an irate steward shouts at me for taking a picture of an enormous tiled stove. This was part of the castle’s heating system, cunningly designed so that all the coals and ashes are serviced from another room so ‘their majesties’ would not be inconvenienced by dust and smoke.

Lunch makes things worse, tepid soup followed by scraps of meat floating in gravy, accompanied by three dumplings and served by a sullen waitress. It’s slightly redeemed by a small slice of rather nice strudel but brought down again by a bill that has been pumped up with hidden charges. I’m distinctly grumpy and starting to wonder what I am doing here.

Day two takes a distinct turn for the better though. We stroll in to town and visit the Kampa Museum of Modern Art. It’s an old converted mill set on an island on the river Vltava. As well as modern art by living Czech artists the gallery has a collection of paintings by Frantisek Kupka, 1871–1957, a pioneer of abstract art and some very nice sculptures by Otto Gutfreund, 1889-1927. He was a cubist, who took the ideas of Picasso epitomised in his bronze of ‘A head of a woman. Fernande’ (a cast of which is there) and ran with them. Sadly Otto’s life was cut short at the age of 38, when he drowned swimming in the river off nearby Shooters Island. The gallery has hardly any visitors and we can browse through the rooms virtually undisturbed.

We follow this by crossing the river and in to the old town. The Charles Bridge and the main streets, especially by the famous clock are overrun with tourist hoards but just back from them all is tranquillity. We lunch and somehow I end up with meat and four dumplings this time. But the meat is plentiful, the sauce is interesting, the soup tepid and we get a good measure of beer, the waitress is friendly and welcoming and the bill is very reasonable.

In the afternoon we manage to coincide with an odd musical experience. Only on Tuesday afternoons between 1 and 6 pm is it possible to visit the Pamatnik Jaroslav Jezeka, a branch of Prague Museum. It is one room in the flat of the composer Jaroslav Jezek, 1906-42. We ring the bell and are met by a nice lady who escorts us up the stairs to a small room half filled by a piano. She gives us a brief talk, then asks if we mind being joined by some others who have booked to come but arrived early. We are joined by a group of old ladies, fans I guess, and after they get the talk in Czech we listen to some music on a cassette player. The first tune, a ragtime number, is the best. We pay our 25p admission and leave. A real bargain.

Day three we head for pastures new, going north of the castle and the river to walk through the Letna Park where the Stalin monument, the largest in the world, used to be. It was a 30 metre high granite sculpture of the people being led to communism by a pied piper Stalin. It stood for seven years before being blown to smithereens in 1962 after Khrushchev denounced Stalin. The platform, steps and entrance to the nuclear bunker underneath it are now graffiti covered and a giant metronome now stands on the top.

Onwards to the Trade Fair Palace, one wing of which houses Prague’s Gallery of Modern Art. We enter the enormous atrium and take the glass lift to the fifth floor, which is empty, but the only place the lift goes to. The four floors below contain a large collection of art from the nineteenth century to the present day. We do the lot, though each floor is worth a day in itself to do the art justice.

There is plenty of Czech art here including Otto and his fellow cubist contemporaries, plus a complete who’s who of European art. Halfway through we break for hot chocolate laced with cream and cakes in the incredibly cheap restaurant and return there for lunch. Yes it is tepid soup (I’m getting the message now) and meat, spinach and five dumplings. I do justice to the meat but cannot manage much of the spinach, which has a strange porky taste and has been boiled to death, in a fashion reminiscent of school dinners. I cope with half the dumplings although I’m beginning to think that a holiday here could seriously shorten my life. We stagger out culturally and culinarily saturated to wander around looking at more beautiful buildings and in search of a cubist lamppost.

Day four we walk over the wooded hillside of Petrin and spot red squirrels as we climb to the top where there is a miniature Eiffel Tower, a hall of mirrors, an observatory and the twelve stations of the cross amongst other delights. All are closed as the funicular railway is out of action. Winding down the hillside we reach the river and follow it south past the ‘Dancing House’ a wonderful bendy building designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic. It’s an elegant demonstration of radical new design fusing with the old. We continue south and seek out some cubist houses. (Before visiting Prague I was unaware that cubist architecture existed) They are quite restrained really.

Up above is the massive fortress of Vysehrad. Massive brick and sandstone walls encase the hillside. We climb a steep path up and follow the top of the wall round. To the north are panoramic views over the city and river which winds past and heads away to the south. Within the walls are a few buildings including a church and a fantastic cemetery where the great and good of Prague were interred. Many of the graves have sculptures on them, hands, a steel spider’s web and busty women. One has a slim life-sized female spirit, only one foot still touching the grave as she ascends skyward.

We are quite chilly now and go in search of warmth. The art gallery, despite a sign outside saying open and having all its lights on, is firmly locked. We decide on a tour of the dungeons. We enter a small museum where we meet a very nice old lady who will be our guide. She locks the museum and takes us down to another door and lets us in. We are in a narrow passageway with an arched roof about two metres high that is running parallel, underground, at the base of the huge retaining wall. Our guide switches on the lights and leads us, turning a couple of corners, along 300 metres of corridor to a huge black space. “Don’t be afraid” she says “Go in.” As we step forward she switches the lights on to reveal an enormous brick built room with a collection of large statues in it. These are some of the original statues from the Charles Bridge. They are carved in soft sandstone that does not weather well and the originals on the bridge are being replaced with copies. It is a perfect place to store them as the temperature remains low but above freezing and is constant all year round. Its original purpose was as a barracks for soldiers, when the space was divided into three stories and the ledges for the floor carriers can still be seen. Prior to the statues arrival it was used to store Prague’s potato crop. The passageway goes on for another kilometre tracing the inside of the castle walls, but we are allowed no further.

We return to the light of day and descend the hill in search of food and find a pub. After some discussion I order beer and trout and chips. There is some confusion about whether it is cooked in batter or butter. It turns out to be butter and is delicious, with not a dumpling in sight

Day five we decide to roam around and do some of the bits we missed. We take more or less the same route as day three to start with, going through the Letna Park, but this time on a lower path close to the river. We have to go further than planned as the bridge we were aiming to cross is closed for repairs. This messes up the order of J’s carefully planned itinerary but we get to go past a huge slab of soviet style architecture with statues of heroic workers above the entrance portal. We enter the city via the workers bridge and the six-lane highway they hacked through Prague. Getting off this as quickly as possible we go in search of a feast of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Cubist buildings.

Highlights include Obecni Dum (Municipal House) an extraordinary Art Nouveau confection with stained glass in the portico and extravagant decoration inside and out. Although some of the details have elegant simplicity, such as the lighting in the basement foyer, which has rows of pearl light bulbs in plain brass fittings, suspended in lines by thin wires. We sample hot chocolate with raspberry and cream cheesecake, having been cheated out of sitting under the fantastic tiled ceiling in the Café Imperial, as it is being renovated. Opposite the café is the Banka Legii, a fabulous Cubist bank with a frieze by Otto Gutfreund depicting the Czech legions crossing of Siberia during the Russian Revolution. Close by is the Jubilejni Synagoga with a lurid Alhambra meets Art Nouveau façade.

More Cubist architecture at the Dum U Cerne Matky Bozi (The House at the Black Madonna), which was a department store, built by Josef Gocar. Aptly it now houses a gallery of Cubist art, design and furniture on three floors where we find our old friend Otto Gutfreund’s work again. On the ground floor a shop sells cubist ceramics and furniture at prices well beyond our pockets.

Not far away is the Mucha Museum where we sit and watch a film of the artist’s life. He seems to have been a very nice man who evolved a very distinctive Art Nouveau style. His posters are instantly recognisable but also, unfortunately, very similar. His work suffers that common curse of the graphic artist; it is very much about surface. The women are beautiful, yet have no depth. They are pleasing but unreal.

We check out a few more buildings, Prague has a superabundance of beautiful ones, then the rain arrives and we take refuge in a pub for glasses of Gambrinus beer and food. I have a pork steak garnished with slices of cheese together with chips and salad. Then it is time to turn in the direction of home.

Some odds and sods.

The best places to eat seem to be pubs just off the tourist route. The food is good, plentiful and cheap and the beer is excellent.

There are a few beggars around some of whom I found quite disturbing. They kneel down with their foreheads touching the ground and their arms stretched forward, holding a cup, in supplication. One was even doing this in the rain.

The architecture in the city is astonishing with fine examples of many styles from the last eight hundred years or so.

The city is interspersed with parks and very pleasant to walk around if you stay just off the tourist tracks. We walked about 115 kilometres in the five days we spent there

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Chill out Time


So here I am on a mild summers evening, taking a break from the family, in my studio. Young garlic and freshly picked courgettes sizzle away in a frying pan on the stove and I'm looking forward to relaxing with a choice bottle of wine and a good book. I wander across the small living room to the bedroom and as I do the floor creaks in a way I've never heard before. I do a little experimental jump to see if the joists are flexing a bit and there is a horrendous crack and I'm falling. My brain goes into overdrive and time slows down. The whole corner of the room is going downward and as bookshelves, tables and chairs slide towards me, the wall turns into a blur. The with a loud bang everything stops and I find myself lying on top of a workmate in the downstairs workshop. Moments later my oak desk lands face down next to me. I look around and find the entire living room around me. I am surrounded and partly covered by a great smashed pile of it. Above, the kitchen is still where it should be, as is the bedroom, though its chipboard floor now describes an alarming arc as the joists have come down with the floor carrier. Only the tongue and groove joints are holding it together. In the quiet aftermath I hear the food frying away. I turn my attention to myself. I don't seem to have broken anything and I try to haul myself up, only to find my left foot is trapped under some bookshelves. I push a small table and a beam to one side, but I'm still stuck. Despite the fact that my arms and right leg are free I can get very little leverage on the pile of debris surrounding me. I begin to worry a little now, as if I'm unable to get out and turn the cooker off, the food will eventually catch fire and possibly burn the place down and me with it. I give another wriggle and the mobile phone in my shorts makes a complaining beep. Some hope there then, though with the doors locked, help will have to smash its way in. I push ineffectually at the shelves, then twist and wriggle again. Suddenly, miraculously I'm free. I rush upstairs and turn the cooker off. Then sweaty and trembling, I strip off and examine my dusty battered body. Just bruises, cuts and grazes thank God, though some of them are going to be bloody painful when the adrenalin wears off. With shaking fingers I find the phone and key in J's number for rescue.

Sunday, 4 March 2007