Prague Part I: The Kampa Museum

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On a sunny April morning I walked down from Vinohrady, through Charles Square and across the river to Kampa Park.  The Kampa Museum is the vision of Meda Mladek, a Czech-American art collector and historian, the building a transformation of the historical Sova’s Mills.  The project almost came to grief as the Vltava flooded shortly after the museum’s initial opening, as Mladek recalls in an interview…

‘The really important art was upstairs with the exception of three very beautifully carved big columns. Because the windows were broken, everything that was wood floated out. The glass paintings you see on the wall – the whole wall was full of them – but they were mainly destroyed’ (Radio Praha interview, 12 September 2003)

However, like many other buildings in Prague, it survived and reopened in autumn 2003, extending its ebullient ethos out into the Vltava itself – in the form of a small army of yellow penguins.  These are the work of a collective known as the Cracking Art Group, who aim to ‘change art history through a strong social and environmental commitment and the innovative use of different recycled plastic materials.’  The penguins are made from recycled water bottles rescued from landfill sites.  The statement in this case is made more complex by the proximity of the mighty river that left such devastation in its wake.  As so often, recycling has a questionable impact when considered alongside nature’s vastness and power.

One half of the L-shaped building is dedicated to a permanent exhibition of Central European art from the Communist era.  Mladek describes it as

‘…art from the period when the Communists took over power, especially when the Russians occupied the country. This was the traumatic time for everybody – when the artists could not sell and nobody had the right to write about them so that they were totally forgotten.’ (Radio Praha interview, 12 September 2003)

This is what has stimulated her collection and her desire to turn the former mills into somewhere that this art can be seen and celebrated. Mladek started collecting modern and contemporary Czech art in 1968, filling a house in Washington; but only recently have these pieces returned to their homeland, allowing these works of silent protest to finally be seen by those they were intended to speak for.

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In one of the sun-filled rooms stands a melancholy assembly of emaciated figures who have disappeared leaving just their clothes, petrified.  This is Josef Lukomski’s ‘Cum Tacent Clamant’ (Their silence is more expressive than words…) 1978-84.

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Magdalena Abakanowicz’s ‘Figures’ (late 1980s?) follows this theme with crowds of  anonymous, headless forms.  The idea of ‘the countless’ is a recurrent preoccupation in her work; she sees crowds as ‘a mysterious assemblage of variants of a certain prototype, a riddle of nature abhorrent to exact repetition or inability to produce it, just as a human hand can not repeat its own gesture’.  So each form is unique in its physical detail, but en masse the individual is transformed into a cog;  Abakanowicz likens being in a crowd to ‘fading among the anonymity of glances, movements, smells, in the common absorption of air, in the common pulsation of juices under the skin…’  In the context of Soviet-era Poland, where she worked, such figures ‘constitute a warning, a lasting anxiety.’

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In contrast is the pop art style of Zdenek Sykova’s ‘Black-White Structure’ (1964) which both abstracts form and objectifies the means of expression, denying the emotional and political sub-narrative that imbues so many of the other works displayed.

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The other half of the museum focuses on perhaps the most famous Czech modernist, Frantisek Kupka, and the sculptor Otto Gutfreund.  The collection is revelatory in documenting the evolution of Kupka’s style, from the early influence of Mucha and Klimt (as in the study for the Song of Songs, c.1905-7) to the well-known abstract works that draw on Orphic Cubism, Futurism and Russian Constructivism.  ‘Lo, La Vache’ (above, 1910), a woman’s profile adeptly sketched in oil that falls somewhere between Toulouse-Lautrec and Cocteau, hangs beyond the bronze ‘Lovers’ by Gutfreund, little Henry Moore-esque studies who have come alive and met at last.

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‘Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours’ (1912) illustrates the pared-down abstraction that led to Kupka’s affiliation with Orphism – indeed, the term itself was coined by Apollinaire in reference to Kupka’s work at the Salon de la Section d’Or in 1912.  In Apollinaire’s terms, ‘an Orphic painter’s works should convey an untroubled aesthetic pleasure, but at the same time a meaningful structure and sublime significance.’  The use of musical terminology in the title was typical of Orphists – for instance, Kandinsky’s ‘Compositions’ – as were the colour theories outlined by Delaunay in which brilliant colour could function as both form and expression.

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But a pastel like ‘Study for the Planes by Colours’ (1909) shows that, far from rejecting the figurative, these works evolved out of life studies of the human form. And rather than working to eliminate artistic identity, Kupka always remains painterly, his brushstroke visible even in the most abstract compositions.

After admiring the view from the terrace, the majestic sight of the castle framed within a geometric structure, I descended to the courtyard – a veritable asylum of crazy contemporary sculpture – and out into the sunny streets of Prague again…

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