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Bohemian Rhapsody

A mosaic of surrealist juxtapositions haunt the capital of Bohemia over the first half of the Twentieth Century

On one of several trips to Prague in the interwar years, Le Corbusier inspected Josef Fuchs and Oldřich Tyl’s new Trade Fair Palace and made a typically Olympian pronouncement: ‘It is an extraordinarily significant building but it is not yet architecture.’ He was less picky when he went to Wenceslas Square: ‘It is splendid − its life, its tempo, its stores, its passers-by: well-heeled bourgeois as well as Average Joe types. Here there is health, strength, enthusiasm, willingness, a little brutalism, some want of classical culture, but no neurasthenia.’

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Corb was wrong about the neurasthenia, while the fate of the Trade Fair Palace is one of the many ironies in this book − if irony is a dark enough word. But we might first ask why, in its title, the book claims that Prague is the ‘capital of thetwentieth century’. Derek Sayer, professor of cultural history at Lancaster University, suggests that − with the possible exception of Berlin − there is no other city that presents ‘such a variety of ways of being modern’.

Above all, he says, what makes Prague a fitting capital of the 20th century is that it’s a place ‘where modernist dreams have time and again unravelled’. This argument becomes increasingly persuasive as the book proceeds, though you could make as strong a case for Berlin.

Sayer’s emphasis is on the first half of the 20th century − prime years for the study of modernity and its discontents − though there are forays into the brief Prague Spring of 1968, the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the Prague of today.

Instead of a strict chronological account, Sayer criss-crosses the decades, juxtaposing various episodes like a mosaicist placing some tesserae. On the premise that there are many modernities, not one, and also many reverses, he supplies ‘a multitude of petites narratives’ − not the overarching grand narrative that tends to structure history books.

The architectural narratives appear primarily in the lengthy chapter ‘Modernism in the Plural’, with Karel Teige emerging as a key figure. An innovative graphic artist and typographer, Teige was a prominent member of Prague’s avant-garde arts group Devětsil and as vocal about architecture as Le Corbusier.

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Karel Teige, better known for his typography and architectural criticism, also produced Surrealist photomontages such as this mutant zebra-striped nude

A hard-line purist, Teige criticised Adolf Loos for ‘obsolete aestheticism’ in his Villa Müller, dismissed Czech Cubist architecture as ‘a cul-de-sac dominated by priests of the romantic imagination’, and even rounded on Corb for ‘leaving the essence of the social character of dwelling untouched’.

Exploring these disparate modernities, Sayer touches on Prague’s radical urban renewal at the start of the century, considers individual buildings (for example, the Bata shoe store), and surveys ‘the hubbub of architectural vocabularies’ on Wenceslas Square. When the Surrealist movement’s founder André Breton went to Prague in 1935, he dubbed it ‘the magic capital of old Europe’ and was particularly taken with the 16th-century Star Castle on its outskirts − another building whose destiny would prove ironic.

Given their marginality in standard art histories, it’s a surprise to discover how productive Czech Surrealists were and how engaged they were with their French confrères.

Sayer immerses us in the local scene (dominated by poet Vítězslav Nezval) but gives ample space to the better-known trio of Breton, Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon, and there are detours to sites as various as Swanage and Angkor Wat − the former for Paul Nash’s ‘Seaside Surrealism’ feature in the AR (April 1936) and the latter as the source of Max Ernst’s paintings of petrified cities. With its schisms and excommunications, Surrealism was almost as turbulent as the century that spawned it.

Sayer enjoys its taste for the erotic, seen as an enemy of reason, and stresses the movement’s tendency to undermine ‘modernity’s more grandiose schemes’. This book is as much about the atmosphere of Prague as its built reality, and shadows often fall across its pages.

Prague is a place where streets and squares have changed their names and then changed them again − a place where continuity is deceptive, as in the case of the delicatessen Paukert’s whose founder’s name is back in place after years of the store being nationalised.

In the 20th century it was a place too of airbrushed photographs, show trials and executions − and the later vindication of the executed. In the 1950s the Star Castle that Breton admired became a museum to the 19th-century historical novelist Alois Jirásek, co-opted by the governing communists because ‘his work teaches us a correct view of our past and fills us with historical optimism’.

Now reconstructed to exhibit modern art, the Trade Fair Palace played an infamous role in the Second World War when it was used for processing Jews en route to concentration camps. It’s no wonder then that Sayer calls this ‘a surrealist history’, not just because it features Surrealist artists but because numerous events in 20th-century Prague have been so surreal.

No neurasthenia? If this book’s focus was exclusively architectural, you would register omissions: for instance, there’s no mention of Jože Plečnik’s highly singular interventions at Prague Castle or of Prague’s version of Stuttgart’s Weissenhofsiedlung − the now much-altered Baba Estate with its Modernist villas.

But instead this is a broad cultural history in which architecture is firmly embedded, with Sayer ranging easily across the arts. So alongside pages on Prague’s painters and writers we find Bohuslav Martinů’s opera Julietta, whose hero arrives in a small seaside town where everyone has lost their memory: what’s remembered or forgotten is fundamental to this book.

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Josef Sudek’s photograph of St Vitus’s Cathedral, completed in the 1920s, demonstrates the nonsimultaneity of the simultaneous in 20th-century Prague

And we see the photographer Josef Sudek recording the completion of St Vitus’s Cathedral in the 1920s − its belated Gothic arches pierced by sun rays dense with dust motes.

This book is continually illuminating but also rather sobering, for just as it confounds any straightforward narrative of the past so it destabilises the future. Sayer says in his introduction that he plans to ‘rummage amid the rags and refuse of yesterday’s modernity in the hope of uncovering the dreamworlds that continue to haunt what we fondly believe to be today’s waking state’ − and by the end of the book those dreamworlds are distinctly alive.

In a city where Franz Kafka has become ‘an unlikely patron saint of tourist kitsch’, Sayer contemplates a now ignored statue of Alois Jirásek and with a nod to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, premiered in Prague, observes that ‘statues have come to life here before’. In other words, don’t count on the continuity of today’s status quo. Sayer doesn’t try to predict Prague’s future but leaves us with a question mark. It pays to be sceptical in this haunting city.

Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History,
Derek Sayer, Princeton University Press, £24.95

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