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Friday, 13 December 2013

A Friday in Prague...

Itinerary: Old Town Hall and City Gallery, Museum of Communism, Mucha Museum
See also A Tuesday in Prague + A Wednesday in Prague + A Thursday in Prague
The Pavements of Prague...
Just off the Old Town Square, a ‘fake’ wedding is being photographed by an array of very well equipped photographers. The bride and groom are intermittently primped and pampered and arranged in relation to a stretch limo decorated with white ribbons. The bridesmaid models are brought on and off for the shoot and the happy couple repeat their kisses… We suppose it is a publicity shoot for a car-hire company, or a wedding package company as the gallery we are here to visit shares its entrance with a visitor centre and the town hall - often used for grand weddings…

There is some irony here as the City Gallery is currently hosting the 2013 Press Photo Exhibition. Two floors of professional reportage photography from around the world, showing almost every aspect of human life (and a bit of death, too), natural and artificial disasters, extreme moments in sport, candid peeks into subcultures and cults… all very impressive and a few truly affecting. I appreciated the human visual stories, but enjoyed the land and wildlife sections more (see my personal favourite below). Any visitor who could look away from the wide variety of powerful, glossy pictures, would see some of the building’s original C14th and Renaissance features, including wooden beams, painted with twining vines.
A cute what? It is a new parrot hatchling at Zoo Praha
by Thomas Adamec (photograph, 2013, Prague)
Then an interlude for shopping and for me to help Sparky seek out his old friends, Abby and Cynthia. On our way to their last known address I manage to track down a bottle of the most potent absinthe on the market, a measurable 34 grams per kilo of 'active wormwood' (or so the label claims), and at seventy-two percent alcohol this could be classed as a fuel. Maybe there is a reason why it is in what looks like a big aftershave bottle.

The shop where Sparky’s friends used to reside has been replaced by one that exclusively sells glass souvenirs. It looks like our mission to reunite him with his little soft friends of old is destined to fail. Then we spot another shop further down the same street that specialises in traditional wooden marionettes and we decide to give it a try. Amongst the puppet cast of what must be every well-known fairy tale or nursery rhyme, who should we see, put aside on a table of reduced ‘surplus stock’? 
L - R: Abby, Sparky, Cynthia - the happy-ending hat-trick!
Abby and Cynthia! They had waited four long ears (sic) for Sparky’s return. Finally they were free and were looking forward to a special screening of Harvey on our return to the UK… Mission accomplished! (There’s a bigger back story here: on my last visit to Prague I had run out of money and failed to purchase Abby and Cynthia, settling for Sparky instead, who was an instant hit and family favourite back home… but what kind of cuddly could possibly follow the distinctive little dog? Perhaps his little magical friends from the city of magick could do the trick…)
'Tesla girls - electric chairs and dynamos...'
Prague's Museum of Communism is worth a visit regardless of your political stance. The three rooms are cluttered with a wealth of retro chic, Constructivist graphics, propaganda and works of Socialist Realism. On show you will also see chilling remnants of the cold war, chemical warfare environment suits, grainy black and white photos of research establishments that look like something from Quatermass or a Kate Bush video, gulags and prison cells. There is also a cinema showing informative and visually interesting films from, and about, the (not-so-long-gone) Czech communist era. The whole gallery strives to give 'both sides of the story' all be it from a post-communist Czech context. This museum of living history reminds visitors that a great many of the people you meet in Prague will remember this period all too well, some will have been part of the Communist Coup in 1948, and many would have played their part in the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Fittingly, we round off the art tour with the Mucha Museum. Though a small museum, this is a must for any visitor interested in the cultural heritage of Prague, or in the life and work of this important artist. The collection here is small, but well-selected with a cross section of his print work and some fantastic glimpses of sketchbook pages. The life-studies are simply amazing, and his life is inspiring. It is worth sitting through the short film biography that loops in the little viewing area - informative and ultimately very moving. 

The film briefly explains his colour theories: he stated that, “Black is the colour of bondage. Blue is the past. Yellow, the joyous present. Orange, the glorious future.” With knowledge of this code, we can re-evaluate the stained glass window in St Vitus Cathedral and the wonderful Slav Epic. Mucha is far more than an illustrator of history; he is a mediator and master story-teller… an important influence on the development of the narrative image through to modern advertising, comic books and cinema.

Prague has proved to be a most pleasing city. This 'art tour' has been full of contrast and satisfying surprises and I will now look to the glorious future and enjoy an orange on the flight home.
Homeward bound - Sparky enjoys his crisps.
...Another successful arts tour! The visit went without a hitch, thanks to the help and support of Travelbound.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

A Thursday in Prague...

Itinerary: Dvorac Sec Gallery, Riverside Walk, Veletrzni Palac, DOX Arts Centre
'Signifier' by Remy Dean (photograph, 2013, Prague)
We are sitting underground, in the C14th cellar now occupied by the AghaRTA. The tall glasses of beer are chilled and the soundtrack is way-cool. Prague is probably the most ‘happening’ city in Europe for jazz, and the jazz that is happening here is smooth and moody and just on the right side of cheesy. It is perfect to round off an intensely busy day with a crammed itinerary. If a director wanted to set a scene in an intimate jazz club – this set-up would fit the bill in every respect. The band are spot on:  the twenty-something drummer has a sense of time that glues the music together and there are intervals of pure percussion where he lays down some real solid beats, daddio… the thirty-something keyboard player is Ondrej Kabrna, and this is his trio, his style ranges from smooth to showy… and the forty-something double-bass player mediates between keys and skins with deep rhythmic flourishes and subtle interludes…

The day started with a walk through the chilled sunshine streets around the Old Town and a visit to the classy, private gallery, Dvorac Sec, showing the new Uber Ego collection from Prague’s very own ‘bad-boy’ of contemporary art, David Cerny. I think he would have had a laugh with Jake and Dinos Chapman and he had even appropriated an image of one of their skinless charred Gestapo grinners... very current! The first room of the exhibition was ‘ruled’ by a little red London bus that groaned loudly with the strain of exertion as it went through a repeated routine of press-ups and panting respites. The endless cycle of labour and effort as it strove to carry others on a daily basis…. It was funny, with a political punch-line, like much of Cerny’s post-punk-modernist oeuvre.
Sparky thinks the Cerny-bus wants to play...
The rest of the show was dominated by conglomerations of various bright objects cast in clear resin – a bit like those novelty toilet seats with starfish set into them… There was a big erection that threw colour-dappled shadows in the shape of butterfly wings to each side. On closer inspection, some of the profiles created using this technique upped the cool factor when I recognised who they were ‘portraits’ of… To set the tone, Alfred Hitchcock (no mistaking his famous profile) looks in the opposite direction to Quentin Tarantino, and across the gallery David Lynch looks at everything from a different angle… and is that Jim Jarmusch? These ‘behind-the-camera’ Pop icons look on as a chrome Titanic sinks into the floor and a larger-than-life, though emasculated, muscle-man with a military-copter-head approaches to… well, either effect a rescue, or finish the job, I suppose.
David Cerny's Hitchcock and Tarantino face-off
So, after that kick-start to our planned day of Modern and Post-Modern, we take a leisurely stroll across the river and along its elevated north bank, heading for the huge Veletrzni Palac – the Museum of Modern Art and Design, housed in the suitably Modern, trade palace building.
'Primary' play park
On the way we enjoy hazy views across the city and pass a play area populated by cheery ceramic creatures in primary colours that could easily be mistaken for Pop Art… perhaps vice versa?
Sparky charms this bronze lady
The Veletrzni Palac is great – in size and in quality. An extensive collection of ground-breaking, Czechocentric works spanning the C2Oth century and delving further back into history to put the Modern into context. It is too big to take in during a single visit. Seven or more floors of varied and stimulating stuff… industrial design, rubbing shoulders with nouveau fashion, set-designs next to theatrically expressionistic sculptures, the Minimal conversing with the Romantic, photography and video art across the hall from decorative ceramics and abstract glass… it’s all here and much of it is a refreshing surprise to anyone used to the other big galleries found in European capitals and their ‘usual suspects’. The collection showcases some world-class, highly influential creatives, whose names may well be unfamiliar to you! Perhaps, the initial reaction is to dismiss some of the works as ‘derivative’… but not after you have read the date on the label. Some of the Czech artists who appear to be, ‘a bit like the Paris Cubists,’ or, ‘similar to the Italian Futurists,’ were producing this work at the same time, or even earlier, than their more famous colleagues…
Kurt Gebauer's 'Dwarf - Dog' dwarfs Sparky... it's all relative.
In their own, semi-permanent gallery, the vast canvases of Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic are beautifully displayed. This is the highlight of the entire trip – and that is certainly not a claim made lightly, because some of the other lights of the trip have also been very high indeed. The Slav Epic was Mucha’s masterwork, a series of 20 linked paintings that tell the story of the Slav people and their heroic, noble struggle through historical trials and tribulations. These paintings, produced over the last two decades of his life, represent a spectacular achievement for any solo artist and easily matches the grandeur of Renaissance masters. Perhaps I speak in hyperbole to draw a comparison to Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel - both are fine examples of the graphic novel on  a grand scale. Well, go see the Slav Epic and judge for yourself… it is really difficult to overstate how beautiful, moving and technically accomplished Mucha’s final (and partly unfinished) masterpiece is. Mucha is a real hero of art, certainly recognised as such in the Czech Republic, and it was to those people he bequeathed this truly epic labour of love.

Semi-permanent? There are plans to tour these huge canvasses internationally, New York, London, Paris, Tokyo… so if you possibly can, see them here in Prague where they belong. No scan or print can convey their monumental power, they have to be experienced first-hand. We had the entire gallery to ourselves, which was a luxury and a lovely opportunity to really engage at a deeper level often denied in our more popular galleries… where timed entry tickets allow us to shuffle, shoulder to shoulder, from exhibit to exhibit as if on a conveyor belt… These deeply poetic and moving works deserve more respect than that. And so do you.

After this Czech C20th saturation, we pushed on, through some urban sprawl, to a newly converted building in the middle of a huge housing estate to have a look at what is happening right now. This is the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art.

Regardless of the art on show, this is a great space, with very welcoming and well-informed staff and a relaxed atmosphere. On the second floor, there is a freely accessible research library (mainly, though not exclusively in Czech) that you are encouraged to browse.

The majority of the ground floor gallery space was given over to the exhibition titled, ‘Where is my Home?’, including a good variety of photography and graphic works. A video installation about the life of a ‘tramp’ was the one that captivated me the most - oddly moving and filled with sound philosophical propositions. After watching the short film, there was a second chamber with some portraits of those he met ‘on the road’. There was great humour and humanity.
Volker Marz figurines (L - R: Donkey, Che, Marilyn, Joseph)
Volker Marz had populated the upstairs gallery with hundreds of tiny, painted clay figures. The overall effect was disturbing in the same way as grotesque illustrations for children can be disturbing. There was some overt ugliness, some restrained weirdness, some Freudian-pseudo-psycho-sexual-innuendo, and some other attempts at humour. Sparky quite liked the red-eared donkey, but was not sure at all about the rest… and I was feeling a little illified too, until the Joseph Beuys figurines cheered me up a bit, particularly the set of three where he slept next to Che Guevara and Marilyn Monroe… So, then I needed a good coffee in the old-meets-modern cafeteria, with its seductive cakes, angle lamp ‘chandeliers’, mismatched tables and chairs. The doors opened onto a roof terrace with patio furniture and views of some large scale sculptures, including a Christ made from lost trainers and a huge crimson skull in orbit around the ‘little tower’.

The night breeze was refreshingly cool and the tram took us on a ‘fairground ride’ of blurred suburban streetlamps back to the golden lights of the Old Town centre… Before 'all that jazz' gets under way, there is just enough time for a meal of rustic cabbage soup followed by slow-roasted pork knuckle - served on a wooden 'sled-plate' with freshly made coleslaw, pickled vegetables, green-beans, mustard, horseradish... probably the best meal of the trip, thoroughly enjoyed in the relaxed and tasteful (literally) U Dvou Sester (Two Sisters) restaurant - when in Prague...

Then a short walk to the inconspicuous AghaRTA club …that’s jazz!

Ondrej Kabrna Trio - same venue, different bass-player.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A Wednesday in Prague...

Itinterary: Old Jewish Cemetary, Rudolfinum, St Agnes Convent, House of the Stone Bell
'Good Morning, Mr Plasty!'
In the museum of the Old Jewish Cemetery, there is the Pinkas Synagogue where the pure white walls have been covered, floor to ceiling with lovingly hand-rendered text in black and red. Listed here are the 80,000 names of Jews from the Bohemian and Moravian regions (in and around Prague) who were murdered in the Nazi death camps and so denied any marked grave. Upstairs, there is a small gallery with an exhibition that I pray will be permanent. On display are drawings by some of those interred in the Terezin murder camp before final deportation to Auschwitz. Alongside each drawing are three dates: date of birth, date of arrival in the camp, date of death. Any parent will be deeply touched when looking at obviously naive, children’s drawings that show carts piled with corpses, long buildings with tall chimneys… or a picture with a title that translates as, ‘Mummy in the showers’…and then you do the maths and work out that many of these are by eight-to-twelve-year-olds, who were dead within the space of two years after being imprisoned. The drawing styles are chillingly similar to what our own children may produce, but the subject matter is very different. Engaging with the work and artifacts in these vitrines can move any right-minded human to tears, parent or not. Not a pleasurable experience, but a deeply profound one - and the children's art here is, by far, the most important treasure you will find in Prague... or anywhere else. 
Composition and its opposite...
The Old Jewish Cemetery is a moving experience of a different kind. The higgledy-piggledy ancient headstones just exude history and reflect the importance of the Jewish community in the history of Prague. Their surfaces are cracked and pitted and some are now blank, the names and dates weathered away by the centuries. I recall Maximilian Schell walking amongst these stones in the opening of the 1991 Czech film, Labyrinth, in which he plays a film director trying to piece together a biopic of Franz Kafka’s time in Prague, whilst charting his own personal responses to the Jewish experience and heritage. The Old Jewish Cemetery is unique, being so ancient in origin and surviving the Third Reich, which levelled all other similar sites.

On this crisp autumn morning, I seek out the big grave marker of the famous Rabbi Loew ben Bezalel - a very respected and learned man who was thought to be so holy that he could mimic the godly act of breathing life into clay, thereby creating the Golem. In the legend of the Golem, Rabbi Loew fashioned a life-size clay man and animated it through high magick. The Golem, given the name of Joseph, lived with the rabbi’s family and defended the Jewish quarter against any attack. The golem was inhumanly strong, completely faithful, followed orders without question, never tired at a task, could not be killed and had no fear in battle. In one version of the legend, Joseph was secretly laid to rest in the attic of a synagogue, wrapped in holy prayer shawls… and eventually forgotten about after the rabbi's death in 1609. According to this story, he lies there still, concealed by spells and magical seals waiting… waiting for a rabbi of similar ability to Loew to reanimate him, should the Jewish quarter need such protection again… This legend was the inspiration for 'The Golem' (1915 & 20), a very influential early gothick 'horror' film. It was thought to be lost, the last known full print destroyed by fire... but, all too briefly, a 'restored' print of the 1920 'extended' version has been seen on YouTube, swiftly withdrawn due to copyright infringement... well, whomsoever had their rights thus infringed, please, release the material as it is of both historic importance and artistic merit.
Film still from The Golem - if it still exists, release it!
Continuing the Nazi-Death theme, the Rudolfinum had the Chapman Bros Show, where Regenerate Art laughed at the Degenerate Gestapo. Life-size mannequins of flayed gay black Nazis point and laugh at plywood dinosaurs while taxidermed crows decorate them with droppings... There was an informative video interview with the artists that shed some light on their methodology and ideology - some of the sense spoken was perfect, some less so, but I came away respecting them more as critics and art commentators, and less as artists. They appear to embrace the image of 'cultural charlatans' and use it as an all-encompassing excuse for any art that may fall short of the mark. To youngsters who have not yet sought out the original 'degenerate' and truly challenging art of the early C20th, this may appear fresh and original. I enjoy the punk humour, and when aligned with Pop Art, their perversion of cultural icons and stereotypes makes a little more sense - but is it supposed to? The Chapman hearts are in the right place and who knows, perhaps it was not meant for me - after all if I 'liked' it, was I missing the point? It was heartening to see the work of contemporary British artists in this prestigious venue that celebrates controversy. Jake and Dinos Chapman: The Blind Leading the Blind runs until 5 January 2014.

After enjoying a good coffee in the Rudolfinum’s very elegant Art Deco café, we enjoy the fresh air of a riverside walk to our next venue…
St Agnus Convent - icons, alpha to omega
In complete contrast (on so many levels), the St Agnes Convent is an oasis of calm, with icons effectively displayed under low light. I gravitated to the ones that clearly showed the ravages of age, the 'incorruptible' now oxidised, or worm-eaten, displayed next to a few choice golden artifacts as pristine as they ever were. Then again, the more I consider it, the more similarities I find between these old icons and the Chapman's modern ones... I half expect to see 'Mother Mary' holding a 'Trade-Mark Big Burger' instead...

The House of the Stone Bell is right on the Old Town Square, and is another example where the gallery building has the potential to outshine the work housed under its original Renaissance ceilings. Works by Stanislav Podhrázský were on show in a series of rooms set around a grand atrium courtyard, through which drifted the sounds of quality opera from the concert hall below. Podhrázský is an odd one - part of the post-war Czech surrealist movement - and I never quite made up my mind whilst in the exhibition. There were a few lovely life drawings, but there were many more appallingly ‘bad’ ones… so that implies that they were ‘bad’ on purpose (and well before the Chapman Bros). I found myself hugely impressed and seduced by sections of a few canvasses – beautiful water birds amongst illustrative riverbank foliage, sensitively rendered with delicate, controlled brushwork… yet sharing the same canvas was some depressingly ‘dodgy’ figure work in a more clumsy ‘outsider art’ style. His obsession with young breasts was clearly demonstrated here, though when compared to Klimt’s similar obsession with feminine curves, this looked more than a little ‘unhealthy’. The work was varied / inconsistent, but as I have said before, even ‘bad’ Czech art is interesting and this exhibition was no exception. Dodgy, perhaps, but not dull (…and I did warm to the green watch-pig). Stanislav Podhrázský: Restless Beauty is on show here until 23 February 2014.

Next: A Thursday in Prague

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Tuesday in Prague...

Itinerary: Old Town Square, Astronomical Clock, Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace, Charles Bridge, Prague Castle Complex, Golden Lane, St Vitus Cathedral, Museum Kampa…
'Post-Praha' by Remy Dean (photograph, 2013, Prague)
Arriving at the Old Town Square just minutes before ten we get to see the famous, historically important Astronomical Clock strike the hour. First the reaper, whose name is death, rings a little bell (ask not), then two hatches above the gorgeous giant’s pocket-watch clock face open and a procession of the apostles trundle past, briefly pausing to bestow rickety blessings upon the modest crowd assembled below. How must that gathering have changed under their dull wooden gaze? An hour-by-hour time-lapse of five centuries… mediaeval penitents gradually transmorphing through their generations into today’s tourists with their faces hidden behind long lenses and camera-phones. Then the big bells sound across the city, meting out the time. That’s it for now… At other, more important hours, trumpeters appear at the very top of the tower and lay out a fanfare across the gothic rooftops of old Prague.

Then, just a short walk to our first destination. The ArtBanka Museum of Young Art announced its temporary closure earlier in the year, so we were not sure what to expect. The gallery has now re-opened under the grand name of Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace. The visit provided an experience far beyond any expectations – which is strange considering that most of the gallery was empty… the exhibition was the gallery itself. Not as ‘challenging’ and Post-Modern as it may sound when you realise that the gallery occupies a slightly dilapidated, yet spectacularly cinematic, Baroque Palace. The exterior had not really given any indication of the crumbling splendour within. The ascent up broad flights of creaking stairs takes you past little, lovely compositions created by the removal of paint and layers of thin plaster to reveal squares of original paintwork from various historic periods. They fascinated me before I realised this was the exhibition. The fantastic, filmic interiors are in the process of being restored by a team of painter-decorator archaeologists. The grandeur of the main hall with its two-storey mantelpiece and car-sized chandelier is beautifully counterpointed by the areas of floor marked out as not load-bearing, so you really have to watch your step whilst gazing up at the ceiling fresco… It felt a bit like we had stumbled across an abandoned mansion that just screamed out for a period play to be written for it, or perhaps to be a location for a some stylish, high gothic horror…
ArtBanka - the gallery is the exhibition...
So add to this delight the surprise of ascending to the top floors and finding an exhibition of ‘bang-up-to-date’ projected video art. Daniel Hanzlik's Sources of Signals is video art that actually makes use of its medium, not just performance art repeated on a video loop, but the way that video projectors flicker, split colours and cast shadows being used as formal elements within the installations. Even if that sort of thing is not your 'cup of tea', the situation and contrast with the lower floors is an inspiring experience in itself. This dramatic contrast set the tone for the entire visit.
Right outside the doors, the road leads across the famous ancient Charles Bridge, lined with statues of saints and imposing figures pointing the way along the slumping cobbles. The bridge presents ‘postcard’ views of the river Vltava, infested with swans and fronted by a romantic hotchpotch of gothic, baroque, rococo facades interrupted here and there with more modern buildings and bridges. Clearly visible, commanding the crest of the opposite bank, is the fairy-tale castle complex – our next destination.

The changing of the guards starts as we arrive at the main gates of the Prague castle. Smartly dressed soldiers parade through the ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ catalogue, only they do it with impressive severity and focus, marching ceremonially to rousing bursts of brass and drumming that evoke expectations of ‘Thunderbirds’.  Their precision is admirable and at the exact moment that they eventually hand over their banner, a resonant bell strikes the hour.

Inside the Castle complex is vast and, as you might expect - complex, but you will find a helpful little map on the back of your ticket. Points of interest include the imposing St Vitus Cathedral (you don’t need any map to find that), the jousting hall, the gallery of paintings, the toy museum… and after getting some lunch in one of the castle cafes, which was a fantastic mushroom risotto, I head for Golden Lane – where once great alchemy was wrought.

Last time I had visited Prague, going on four years ago, this section of the Castle had been closed for restoration work and I had only glimpsed it from a small window in the back of the Toy Museum. That was the trip when I had befriended Sparky, my erstwhile guide for this tour – he had wanted to return to his home city for nostalgic reasons and to seek out Abby and Cynthia, two of his little friends that had shared some good times but since lost touch. So he knew his way about, and his point of view was always from a refreshingly different perspective to my own. Although he is a dog of very few words, his constant state of surprise and wonderment at the world is a lesson in itself.
L - R: tiny houses in Golden Lane, Sparky, Apothecary
The houses in Golden Lane are definitively quaint, tiny, pastel coloured, some with knee-high fenced enclosures, window boxes and small ornate windows set in the slopes of their low roofs. Some of the houses are craft shops and some are restored to a period in the castle’s history. I gravitated to a small courtyard at the one end and found the Apothecary, set up as it would have been around the Renaissance times, with bunches of aromatic drying herbs and tiny bottles of tinctures. A little further on was an un-marked, low-lintelled and unassuming doorway… Narrow, worn, red-brick stairways led steeply up and down. A few steps up and I was in the Alchemist’s chamber.

I was overcome with awe, excitement, perhaps longing. This was once the epicentre of the occult world. Back then, the Great Work stood in proud place of Medicine and Science. The corporeal and spiritual overlapped and interacted. Philosophy and Magick guided the search for Knowledge and Wisdom. There was apparatus set up on the table, a book open on the reading stand near to the small window, a grand canopied bed and an age-darkened chair pulled close to the small fireplace. I could picture Prague’s Alchemist Royal sitting there, in deep, world-changing discussion with Doctor John Dee, the visiting envoy of Elizabeth I, Queen of the far away British Empire… but in the chamber below, down the crooked stairs, greater wonder awaited…
Golden Lane - as above, so below - the Alchemist's chambres
The Alchemy Workshop. This could be the place. Not here and now, but here… and long ago! Where John Dee, after much preparation and procedure, was reported to have to have produced the Philosophers’ Stone before the eyes of Royal witnesses. The only time ever, in the lore of occult history, when such claims have been substantiated by independent witnesses… I have no doubt that something astonishing did happen, indeed great alchemy was wrought. A ‘transmutation of the stone’ was performed before the Royal Court of the ruling Habsburgs, and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II was so impressed that he made Dee a Marshal of Bohemia. John Dee, however, was never again able to replicate those results, for it required rare powders that he could not get hold of… Yes, even ‘serious’ historians agree that something profound happened that impressed the wise and educated of the day, and whatever that something was, may well have happened here in Golden Lane… But more of that in my up-coming ‘historical’ novel, VITRIOL

Feeling suitably transmutated, we strolled down the length of Golden Lane, absorbing the sense of history stretching back from now to then, popping in to the more interesting houses… The Vitalis Bookshop occupies number 22, the house once owned by the sister of Franz Kafka where he often stayed and wrote, and where I purchased a beautiful little book about the Prague Golem and other Stories from the Jewish Ghetto.
Matylda Prusova's kitchen cabinet and Madame de Thebes' writing desk
Number 14 Golden Lane has been restored to the early C20th, between the Wars, when the famous psychic, Madame de Thebes, lived there and received her clients. Matylda Prusova was known internationally and unfortunately attracted the attention of the Nazis, who were obsessed with many things epitomised by Prague – High Magick, Jewish Culture, Alechemy, Clairvoyance, Precognition… all things Occult. At a time when the ‘mighty’ Third Reich looked set to conquer all of Europe, she bravely predicted that they would fail and then fall. So, they tortured her, and because she would not change her predictions to please the elite, they murdered her.
Wonderfully cluttered with film regalia, the home of Joseph Kasda
Joseph Kasda, a very influential art historian, lived at Number 12 after the fall of the Third Reich. A film-maker himself, he was particularly interested in cinema and almost solely responsible for the preservation of early Czech films from before this period. He was the nucleus of the Arts Society immediately after the War and used to host daily talks and screenings, with soup provided by his wife.
The impressive Prague Castle Armoury 
In the battlements above Golden Lane you will find a huge collection of Renaissance armour and weaponry, with some earlier examples dating back to C6th. The workmanship is impressive, ingenious mechanisms of death crafted with the eye of a jeweller. Precision firing mechanisms mounted on the hilts of swords, crossbow-axe-muskets, engraved demons, steel feathers and suits of armour for children… There is a terrible beauty here, if you can divorce the objects from their function, but imagining yourself as one of the wearers and wielders is chilling, rather than thrilling.
St Vitus Cathedral and the Mucha window
This time, I cannot fit in a visit to the Toy Museum, which has a diverse collection bound to evoke nostalgia in most. It is well worth a look, but I still have strong memories from my previous visit - and some pictures...
In the Toy Museum, Prague Castle... those were the days...
So instead, as daylight fades, I enjoy the ambience of the castle streets and then a quick visit to Mucha’s stained glass window in the vast interior of St Vitas Cathedral. The colours and figures are beautiful, vibrant yet sensitive. The deep blues seem to dominate, but are cleverly countered by yellows and oranges, making it seem brighter than the light should allow. (Later, after a visit to the Mucha Museum, I will better understand the visual language and colour theories of this Master.) The rest of the Cathedral is as hugely impressive and gothic as I recall, with many chapel chambers and monstrances of darkened glass. There is an impressive pipe organ and tall columns rising to the hazy heights of the vaulted ceiling.

The castle complex is at our highest point and commands great panoramas of the city as we leave and head back downhill towards the river, where we visit the Museum Kampa. Situated near the Charles Bridge, you cannot miss it - it’s the one with the glowing yellow penguins filing along the jetty outside and David Cerny’s giant bronze babies in place of garden gnomes...
Sparky engages with some Czech art at the Kampa
The Kampa collections are a cleverly curated cross-section of Modern Czech art - a wide range of materials and styles concentrated in a modest sized arts centre. It is one of my favourite galleries, not because every piece of art is awe-inspiring, original and satisfying – they are not. I have problems engaging with some, whilst others ‘knock my socks off’. Something that stands out about modern and contemporary Czech art is that even if it is not ‘good art’, it is usually interesting and rewarding in some way. Perhaps there is a clever use of materials, an unusual treatment of form, an unexpected aesthetic fusion, something that appears derivative… until you check the date it was made (no pun intended here). There is no better place to observe and appreciate this, than the Kampa.
Don't worry, Sparky...
After the walking, you may want to ‘sit-a-spell’ in the courtyard and enjoy the fresh, cool autumnal air coming off the river, spend a moment considering the metal and stone sculptures and statuary, before entering the spacious and calming reception. Then up to the permanent collection galleries where a good range of responses are ensured. On the walls the work ranges from collages of wood, meticulously folded surfaces of paper, rusting metal reliefs, single-colour compositions and lively-lined studies of the human form. The sculptures are varied in every aspect. There are pure cubes of milky white light, clear discs and lenses of glass, mutant, faceless figures screaming out their red existential angst, a tall man walking into a canvas carrying his own coffin, pink bombs, headless beige figures lurking in a corner, awaiting some sort of purpose or direction – Sparky eyes them suspiciously and needs to be moved on before he starts barking…

Almost as an afterthought, we pop in to see the temporary exhibition of work by Zdena Fibichova, a Czech artist whose sculptures elevate the everyday into totemic forms, ephemera into ‘archaeological’ artefacts. The lines in her drawings crackle with bright, colourful energy. Powerfully simple abstracts, in cement and ceramic are pushed to the point where they may be about to become recognisable animal forms. A ripped out page from a spiral-bound notebook is immortalised in bronze-patina clay… and nearby has been remodelled in concrete. You get a few glimpses of the exhibition in the curator's intro video above.

Night had now fallen and the open air roof terraces of the Kampa afford views of the Charles Bridge and along the river where the reflected golden lights shimmer across the water. If you are feeling brave, then the top of the stairwell has a load-bearing glass floor as its roof where you can look directly down at the ‘mobile’ that hangs through several floors of the atrium. I only managed to set foot on it in order to rescue poor Sparky, who could neither move nor bring himself to look down…

The night crossing of the Charles Bridge was moody and Romantic and soon we were back in the Old Town Square, where I remembered a fine restaurant near the astronomical clock. It had been a long day of intense stimulation and we had been on our feet for most of it. Time for some hearty Prague food! At U Zlaté Konvice, down several flights of stairs, we dined in a vaulted cellar surrounded by stuffed bears, boars and badgers. A starter of carp fingers and smoked mackerel was followed by a big plate of smoked ham with Prague style potato pancakes, pickled cabbage and a chilli, all washed down by a hefty glass of local beer. It was a rich and satisfying meal, the ham was glossy and very smoky, the pancakes were dense and herby, the beer was strong, dark and handsome, the lively live music was a ‘cheesy’ accompaniment… the price very agreeable. Just what we needed to round off the day!
Mmm... Sparky hams it up!
Walking back to the hotel through the night streets of Old Prague, looking up at its spired and slumped roofline, sipping warm, red, spiced wine from a plastic cup, I thought that if I were an ancient vampire, this city would certainly suit me…
Olde Prague at night... Romantic, with a capital 'R'
Next: A Wednesday in Prague

Sunday, 4 August 2013

'Processed Memory' - Photographs by Remy Dean

The exhibition is on show this summer, until 7 September 2013, at Oriel Maenofferen Gallery, Llyfrgell Blaenau Ffestiniog Library, Canolfan Maenofferen, Blaenau Ffestiniog, LL41 3DL. Telephone: 01766 830415.

Alongside the photographs, there is also a small exhibition of 3D work by the potter, Jane Williams.

The following is an artist's statement from Remy Dean that accompanies the current exhibition:

'Processed Memory' Exhibition Poster
I am…
…a writer, teacher and visual artist…
…son, brother, husband, father and friend…
…”a dream to some, a nightmare to others”…
…the sum of my memories.

The exhibition you are currently adding to your own memories grew from an accident. An album of family photographs I had taken in the 1980s was forgotten about and left in the bottom of a box in a damp cellar. Over time the action of the elements ate into the surface of some of the photographs and ‘destroyed’ the image. Amongst these pictures was the last portrait I had taken of my grandfather, and also a photograph I had won my first competition with.

Particularly today, the photograph has become synonymous with memory. This connection is overtly used in advertising campaigns. Both the photograph and the memory are parts of a process, and these processes are always ongoing. They both involve the act of seeing: utilising photochemical reactions (on film, photo-sensor, or retina) and an attempt to ‘remember’ using chemicals (print, screen or cortex).
'View from Pompidou', photograph by Remy Dean (C) 2013
I liked how the ‘destroyed’ pictures had not remained passive, they had become organic and recorded the effects of their environment. The patterns were quite beautiful. Likewise, our memories are not passive, they are affected by time, age, emotion and environments. So I experimented with ‘destroying’ other pictures using similar organic, analogue processes. These traditional prints became ‘chemographs’, which, in many ways, is what our memories are.

You will also see a few ‘traditional’ landscape photos, some of the Moelwyn mountains that so majestically define our skyline, and have done so for millennia - well beyond the scope of human memory. I see these old friends nearly every day (though sometimes they are entirely shrouded in clouds), and they always look different. They remain the same, yet continually change. They never get old.
'Moelwyn: Midwinter', photograph by Remy Dean (C) 2013
I am fascinated by these two time scales – the instant of the photograph and the eternal that surrounds us. The moment of an experience, the lasting effects of memory. Memory and identity have been a recurring theme in my fiction stories and my recent non-fiction book, Evolution of Western Art (2012) is my take on some examples of great art, representing moments captured, and now remembered, from a period of more than 40,000 years… One of the photographs you may have seen in my last exhibition here at Oriel Maenofferen appears on its cover and was taken from my series of ‘drawings with light', Ghosts of 1513, a small selection of which are exhibited here (and will not be publicly shown after 2013).

I hope you enjoy seeing and remembering and thanks for sharing.

A selection of photographs shown in this exhibition are now featured in an on-line gallery (Pinterest)

Friday, 5 July 2013

Summer Exhibitions at Oriel Maenofferen Gallery

Exhibition of Work by Creative Arts Students from
Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, now on, until 3 August...

Followed by:

'Processed Memory': Photographs by Remy Dean
from 7 August - 7 September
Alongside the photographs, there will also be 
a small exhibition of 3D work by the potter 
Jane Williams

Opening hours and gallery info here...

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Two Fine Painters at the Royal Cambrian Academy

...well worth a look...

The current exhibition at Conwy's Royal Cambrian Gallery is a 'two-header' of very different and very accomplished painters who are using painted pigments to emulate the transient beauty of light and life. 

In the ground floor gallery space you have an opportunity to see stunning landscapes by Harry Robertson, including one of the best paintings of a moody Welsh waterfall I have seen. Robertson certainly manages to capture the movement of light across the land and the way the pattern of sunshine and cloud-shadow alters the texture and detail. 'Detail' is a word that comes to mind again and again when looking at his meticulously executed work - his selection of what details to include and which to leave out lends a photographic realism that also manages to hint at a much deeper poetic response.  If you like landscape painting, you would be 'hard-pushed' to find better than these... (Though fellow Royal Cambrian Academy artist Gerald Dewsbury could be a contender.)

John Baum's large colourful canvasses can be viewed in the upstairs gallery - another painter that loves the play of light - and loves to play with light... mainly naturalistic portraits against an artificial setting, these works are then built up with daubs of bright sunny colours that push the photo/graphic representation towards abstract composition, whilst remaining realist and keenly observed. The clean lines and use of spaces in these scenes brings to mind the work of a happy Edward Hopper. It appears that Baum has found a style of work that suits his artist's eye - a departure from much of his earlier portrait works that were simply fiercely lit figures against flattened photo-real backgrounds - and I find the paintings currently on show much more engaging and uplifting (not only because there are also a few nicely observed dogs).

...Harry Robertson and John Baum exhibition until 6 July...

After that, your best bet for top-notch landscape painting (and other work) would be the Rob Piercy Gallery in Porthmadog. The cosy, friendly gallery hosts a permanent exhibition of oils and watercolours by Piercy and a selection of work by other local artists who connect with the land, such as Bill Swann, who works mainly with glass...

Friday, 10 May 2013

A Pair of Beautiful Blogs

Silent Beauties – just fantastic, I don’t know how they manage to find so many rare, lost and abandoned little films, let alone how they then find time to upload them! Though the focus is on the more obscure films that are not represented elsewhere, this is one of the most active blogs on my blogroll, there’s always something new, well actually it’s usually something old, of course…

It is astonishing that this is a privately administrated site run by enthusiasts, it appears more like a ‘National Archive’ of some specialist museum or university, except that the content is of international interest and value. The majority of the content is, as the name suggests, silent movies and early documentary films and being without sound these easily bridge the language barriers. This is a huge resource and one of the most valuable media blogs on the www – really useful for teachers and cultural historians and just really interesting for personal perusal… check it out for some ‘quiet time’.

If you prefer your media with sound, why not try:

Cathode RayTube – another site that fills me with awe and admiration at the sheer volume and quality of the content that regularly uploads. This is the blog of the erudite Frank Collins, a long established ‘critic’ and general fount of knowledge for cult TV and genre cinema, particularly British SF and Horror, but he also casts his roving eye over comedy and classics.

This blog will evoke nostalgic pangs in many readers, of a certain age, but can snap them out of it with content that brings them bang up to date with what is happening in cult media today. The writing is intelligent and perceptive and will approach popular programmes, and overlooked classics, with the same sort of critical respect usually reserved for those high-brow ‘arty’ films… if you are studying media make sure you have a read of this before you tackle any of your essays. The main thing that makes this a most rewarding read is not its clear and flowing style (which is abundant), but that it enhances enjoyment – for example, try watching an episode of Doctor Who, then read the review and watch it again. You will see what I mean…

Thursday, 21 March 2013

David Bowie Is (was and always will be) who was Ziggy?

(the following entry is an extract from the book Evolution of Western Art by Remy Dean)
Oscar Wilde said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” The character of Ziggy Stardust was created and played by David Bowie – a parallel personality that is both fictional and biographical. With the 1973 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Bowie examines the outsider role (roll) of rock stars, and other such artists: characters that exist in extremis for the vicarious enjoyment of the mass audience, an audience who may fantasise about living such a lifestyle, yet welcome the ultimate ‘morality-tale’ (self) destruction of such characters.

Ziggy has clear parallels with Thomas Jerome Newton, a character created by Walter Tevis in his 1963 novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth. This strong connection landed Bowie the starring role in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film adaptation of the book, and music originally composed by Bowie with the film’s soundtrack in mind later appeared on his album, Low (1977).

"Mr Newton has had enough..." David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth
In this way the concept of Ziggy Stardust can be seen as a result of creative collaboration and as part of a cycle that ‘feeds-back’ into complementing one of its influences. This is a fine example of Post-Modern cross-referencing and could also be seen as a near definitive work of Pop Art. The concept spans across different mass media – literature, popular music, theatre, cinema – and spills into the secondary cultural network of criticism, reportage and hype. Ziggy Stardust became established as a character of modern mythology.

In Bowie, the characters of Stardust and Newton instantly became fused and can be seen as facets of the same archaetype. Both characters become seduced by the excesses of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and are ultimately ‘loners’. It is ambiguous whether Ziggy Stardust is an alien from outer space or if he is, temporarily, the conduit for an extraterrestrial consciousness. Whichever he is, he is privy to the fact that the world will end in just five years time and chooses to communicate to the human race through the medium of pop, broadcasting a message of peace and harmony. There is hope that, even if the planet is doomed, its inhabitants could be redeemed before their demise.

Thomas Jerome Newton is definitely an alien who has been sent to Earth in a last-ditch attempt to save his own parched planet of Anthea. His mission is either to prepare the earth to receive his planet’s refugees, or construct space vessels capable of transporting much needed water back to his homeworld. He quickly builds an impressive business portfolio of cutting-edge technology companies and products, though also begins to realise that he will be unable to complete his mission. Poignantly, he writes songs and records groundbreaking electronic rock music that he hopes will carry his lyrics out into space where his distant family will, perhaps, hear his voice once more…

With Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie created the template for the Modern rock star. He was image-conscious in his public projection, utilising theatrical make up and costume design. His definitive manifestation of Glam Rock played with gender ambiguity and contrasted this with ‘cock-rock’ posturing. He changed the face of rock’n’roll, elevating it to an art form and setting a benchmark for those who were to follow, also foreshadowing important transmedia genres such as Cyberpunk and Futuregoth. Ziggy Stardust remains a pertinent multi-media ‘essay’ about ‘The Other’ and otherness.

More Bowie stuff here...