Early morning on Sunday, 12th February. As Ubers drew up outside the Barber Institute and the sound of trundling suitcases filled the air, 30 or so 2nd Year Art Historians, accompanied by Matthew Rampley, Nora Veszprémi and Markian Prokopovych, boarded the coach and began the week-long study trip to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, as part of the module Art History in the Field. For this module, the students had to find a work of art, group or theme that particularly interested them, and undertake study in situ, all in preparation for a presentation in the summer term. As such, the lecturers organised tours of the major highlights of the city, and students were subsequently given optional extras or lots of free time to seek out their own interests. Prague has to be one of the most underrated capitals of Europe; easily on par with other major cities such as Paris, Berlin and Rome, but comparatively less well travelled. Over the course of the week the students and staff explored the great variety of fine and applied art, architecture, and design Prague had to offer, thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere, blessed by beautiful sunshine every day (and not shivering too much), in one of the finest cities in Europe.
We arrived at Václav Havel International Airport and were greeted by a guide, who took us to the hotel, and gave us a brief rundown of the city and how to act like a local, as well as some very useful maps marking out major attractions, transport lines, and most importantly, good pubs. Arriving at our Communist-era hotel at Olšanká (personally I thought it was better than I expected it would be), we checked in and grabbed a bite to eat from local restaurants.
The first day of exploration was upon us. Group A began a walking tour with Markian of the medieval Old Town and across the famous Charles Bridge to the splendid Baroque masterpiece St. Nicholas Church. Meanwhile, Group B accompanied Matthew on a tour of the New Town, highlighting buildings and works of art from the nineteenth century onwards, a period of great nationalistic revival. As a member of Group B, I did Matthew’s tour first (more on Markian’s later). Starting at Josef Myselbek’s impressive nationalistic Monument to St. Wenceslas in Wenceslas Square, we walked down the grand Parisian boulevard, passing many interesting architectural designs, ranging from neo-classical and secessionist to art nouveau, art deco and modernist. We also briefly viewed David Černý’s parody of the Wenceslas monument, to which no description of mine can do justice. We passed the grand old Carolinum theatre (site of the premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni), the cubist House of the Black Madonna, and walked on past the much-restored Powder Tower and back to the Old Town Square (again, more on that later). Heading into the Jewish Quarter, we passed the distinctly Moorish Spanish Synagogue and the ancient Old New Synagogue and Jewish cemetery, finally ending up at the nineteenth century Rudolfinum, which had served as concert hall, art gallery, and seat of the Czechoslovak parliament.
After a much needed lunch break, students were given the option of visiting the Kampa museum (the only attraction in Prague open on a Monday), which housed a fine collection of Czech modern to contemporary art, and a series of paintings by the great early Czech abstract artist František Kupka. At other parts of the afternoon small groups went to the John Lennon wall, a random wall on the west side of the river which became a site for graffiti artists and disgruntled citizens to express their disapproval of the Communist regime. Nowadays it’s a great background for candid photography and Facebook profile pictures.
The second day of exploring was made up of a large chunk of free time and a visit to the Veletržni Palác, the former Trade Fair Palace and current site of the late nineteenth and twentieth century Czech, German and French art collections of the National Gallery with Matthew and Nora. My tour was in the afternoon, so myself and John visited the Hradčany (castle complex) on the north-western side of the town, within which is a veritable treasure trove of architectural complexity. The crowning jewel of the complex is the oft-photographed protruding Gothic spires of St. Vitus Cathedral, begun by Matthias of Arras in 1344 at the order of Charles IV on the occasion of Prague’s elevation to archbishopric, continued and expanded by Petr Parléř until 1399, and then worked on in patches by various architects over 100s of years, finally being completed in 1929. Walking inside and around this masterpiece of composite architectural styles, and on through the Prague Castle Gallery, Old Royal Palace and Basilica of St. George, was a feast for the eyes and an art historical mental workout too.
Then it was time for the tour of the Veletržni Palác, which holds a fabulous collection of artworks by a great range of Czech artists such as Josef Manes, Alfons Mucha, Emil Filla, Bohumil Kubišta, Jan Zrzavý, František Kupka and Otto Gutfreund, as well as works by many foreign artists such as Delacroix, Pissarro, Renoir, Monet, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Edvard Munch (the latter two artists had a profound effect on Czech sculpture and painting respectively). Such an impressive collection makes it one of the finest (and newest) modern art galleries in Europe, and walking around the complex ably guided by Matthew was one of my personal favourite experiences of the trip, leading me to make the shocking declaration that I, a lover of all things Renaissance, Italian and Baroque, preferred Prague’s modern works in comparison to its older ones.
The third day was Group B’s walking tour of the Old Town with Markian (while Group A went off with Matthew round the New Town). Beginning in the Old Town Square next to Ladislav Šaloun’s extraordinary Monument to Jan Hus, an Art Nouveau masterpiece reminiscent of Rodin’s finest works, we analysed the layout of the square, and viewed the impressive Old Town Hall’s famous astrological clock bell-ringing at the striking of the hour. We journeyed into the first baroque St. Nicholas Church in Prague (there are two), and also into the contrastingly bare Hussite Church of Our Lady of Tyn, and explored the old town’s narrow streets, passing the Bethlehem Chapel (where Jan Hus first preached his sermons), and stopping off at a delicious hot chocolate café. From there we headed across the Charles Bridge, swarming with tourists of course but nonetheless very picturesque, and into the Malá Strana (Little Quarter), to visit the second, larger, St. Nicholas Church. Inside we witnessed a masterpiece of Baroque architectural design and trompe l’oeil ceiling painting that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Rome, magnificently decorated and theatrically grandiose.
That afternoon a group of students accompanied Nora around the National Gallery collections of Old Master paintings in the Šternberk Palace, which holds works from the fourteenth through to the seventeenth century by foreign artists such as Lorenzo di Monaco, Benozzo Gozzoli, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Bronzino, Jan Gossaert, Peter Breughel the Elder, Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, and Rembrandt – a fine collection of names if ever you saw one. To finish off the day we popped into the Schwarzenberg Palace across the square to view some works of Baroque and nineteenth century Bohemian artists.
The fourth and final full day of exploring started with a walk up to the National Memorial on Vitkov Hill, with the huge but relatively conventional twentieth century equestrian sculpture of Jan Zizka by Bohumil Kafka. Within the memorial were housed the Military Museum’s post-1914 collections, including exhibitions on Czech resistance during the 2 world wars, a tomb of an unknown soldier, and a rather creepy underground exhibit featuring the tomb and re-created mummification lab of Klement Gottwald, the first president of the independent nation of Czechoslovakia. However, for most of us the highlight was the café on the roof, which offered great views of the surrounding city and plenty of opportunities for photographs.
For the afternoon students were given two options: a walk with Markian around the Vinohrady district, or a visit to a Czech contemporary art museum with Matthew. I chose the former of these options, and was rewarded with a chance to see the less touristy side of Prague, which nonetheless had within its area a number of architecturally interesting buildings. The largest and most important of these was Jože Plečnik’s Church of the Sacred Heart, built between 1929-33, which looms over the gardens of the square in which it is situated. Inspired by a combination of early Christian basilicas and Egyptian temples, yet uncompromisingly modern, the church features a clock tower as wide as the building itself, with a glass clock resembling a rose window, measuring 7.5m in diameter. Inside one can gawp at the wide single-aisled interior with unfaced brick walls, marble floors, and a marble altar featuring statuary of Bohemia’s patron saints. Our walking tour also featured a Hussite church with concrete bell tower, a market pavilion and a few nationalist and neo-classical buildings.
Each and every evening the students took full advantage of Prague’s vibrant night life and enjoyed the local delicacies of the restaurants, bars and pubs. Amongst the locations frequented by students were smoky underground wine cellars (the Czech Republic has not yet banned indoor smoking in pubs and bars) filled with friendly locals, and thriving jazz bars which featured expert musicians performing all night long, some of whom undoubtedly had done so since the days of the Communist regime, when jazz was the musical language of rebellion. A plethora of pubs served hearty Czech food such as beef goulash, roast Moravian pork, and chicken schnitzel, all served with potato/bread dumplings and washed down with copious amounts of cheap (and exquisite) Czech beer and wine. And for those desiring more familiar tastes, one could find Italian, Chinese, Indian, American, Vegetarian and Vegan restaurants serving equally fine food and drink.
All in all, this trip was incredibly enjoyable. Surrounded as we were by culture at every turn, every single student found something to enjoy in Prague, whether it be paintings by Old Masters, Czech nationalists or inspired modernists, great monumental sculptures and small scale portraits in bronze, buildings exquisitely crafted in every Western style under the sun, or simply the city’s ambience and novelty. Undoubtedly this trip was a highlight of this year for every student, and our thanks go to Matthew, Markian and Nora for organising and leading a trip from which we all have lasting memories.