Confession: I always thought I hated cubism.
I realise now that I hadn’t given it a fair shake. I was familiar enough with Picasso’s muted palettes and almost-recognisable jumbles of shapes, which had never quite done it for me, but I preferred…um, just about everything else out there. Apparently I hated fun. Sorry about that.
I was still clinging to this snobbery a year ago when I visited Prague’s Veletrzni Palace, the sprawling modern art branch of the Czech National Gallery. It’s not especially central, but if you find yourself in Prague on a rainy day, please please please visit this gallery. It’s honestly one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Wandering through the early-20th c. European stuff, I at first saw little to challenge my established opinions about cubism. They have quite a collection of Picassos there and some Georges Braque (a sampling of which are pictured above), all of which continued to not-quite do it for me. But then I got to the Czech artists (also pictured above; the top painting is by Josef Čapek, who coined the term ‘robot’, of all things), with their brighter colours, their inventive shapes – their playfulness. The Czechs, I learned, were masters of cubism, and they delighted in pushing its limits. The movement arrived here around 1911, and Czech artists put their backs into it and kept innovating away well into the 1920s.
The result was loads of excellent stuff. I found myself slowing down, paying closer attention, actually enjoying what I was looking at. I LOVED it, in fact. In half an hour, I went from hating cubism to being ravenously curious about it. I needed more.
And that’s how I learned about the Museum of Decorative Arts’ Czech Cubism exhibit, housed in the cubist House of the Black Madonna. Obviously, I had to go.
That’s right, cubist architecture is a thing that exists in Prague. Every feature in this building has a cubist touch, including the stairs. It even houses a cubist café. There are some paintings and sculptures displayed here, but the focus is really on the decorative arts.
You can see how cubist design draws a lot of inspiration from crystalline forms (“a natural form par excellence,” according to the museum’s informative plaques), and how they love to play with the oblique plane (‘diagonal stuff’ to you & me). And they had to work that into tables and chairs?!
You’ll notice in some of these photos how the designers shunned right angles even at the expense of functionality; half these objects look like the gentlest use would send them toppling over. Others look like poorly-disguised torture devices. Yet they’re spectacular. Gorgeous. I want one of each.
I passed a couple of contented hours at this museum, snapping far too many pictures of near-identical chairs. I’d assumed that this would be the end of my cubist awakening, until I wandered into a little activity corner and found this:
It’s a MAP OF CUBIST ARCHITECTURE IN PRAGUE. The Czechs even had brilliant architects exploring what they could do with this movement all over the city. I still had an hour or two of daylight left, and was right in the middle of a big cluster of them. Gogogogogogogo!
See how creatively they worked cubism into their designs, while still making, you know, usable buildings? The Diamant building bulges out so that it’s not straight up-and-down, while the later Adria Palace shows how the style evolved to incorporate rounded features and busier decoration.
This was a GREAT way to explore the city, by the way. I passed through multiple Christmas markets, and soon felt a warming buzz from all the hot wine I inevitably bought. Because these buildings are newer, I didn’t have to spend any time in the jam-packed Old Town. I found all kinds of excellent Art Deco buildings on this walk, as well. It was wonderful.
I also stopped in briefly at the most incredible Soviet-era department store, apparently unchanged in several decades, which brought me nearly as much delight as the entire cubist experience.
I just barely managed to finish off the most central buildings on the map as I lost my light.
But that wasn’t the end of it! There was a small cluster of cubist homes perhaps a 45-minute walk from my apartment. Well, I had to see that. So my journey stretched into its THIRD day.
I didn’t quite hit all the cubist buildings in the city – some were scattered pretty far & wide – but I made it to about two-thirds of them, which is a reasonable sample size. It was fascinating to see the many ways these artists translated cubist principles into architectural design. I mean, before you saw these things, could you have pictured a cubist lamp post? Fence? Window frame?
I decided to end my scavenger hunt back at the House of the Black Madonna, possibly my favourite building in this style. I wandered into the Grand Café Orient, which claims to be the only cubist café in the world, and found a seat.
Yeah, sure enough, everything here is just a little bit oblique, a touch crystalline. It’s cubist alright.
Quick story. I’d read that the staff here are pretty rude if you only speak English, so I’d carefully memorised all the Czech things I would need to say in order to obtain a coffee and cake. Everything went great, and the server was perfectly civil, until I forgot how to ask for my bill. I had to ask (apologetically) in English, and the server went through the most extraordinary transformation. He started to contort himself into bizarre exaggerated postures, and proclaimed, “Oh, THE BILL! Madam would like HER BILL, PLEASE…HERE IS YOUR BILL, MADAM.” So that was weird. Good cappuccino, though.
But anyway! What fun this all was! I got to explore an aspect of Czech history & culture that I’d never even realised existed. I got to see Prague with new eyes, the home of artistic achievements I’d never known how to appreciate. And to my everlasting surprise, I like cubism now.