An Art Nouveau Spring

Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Travel Writer

Prague spring blossoms with the curlicued flowers and vines of Art Nouveau.

Born in Paris to a Czech designer and popularized by a Belgian, the aesthetic movement defined fin-de-siècle aesthetic movement modern Europe — from Paris’ flowery Metro stops to the undulating facades of Gaudí’s Barcelona. In Israel, Brussels-trained Ze’ev Raban promulgated a biblically influenced variant of Nouveau, known as Bezalel.

A century later, Prague is returning its focus to the style that was invented by a native son, the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. Beginning this spring, a series of exhibitions celebrates the romantic impulse and far-reaching impact of Mucha’s work.

And though better known for its medieval and Renaissance core, Prague itself — from its lavish cafés to its Jewish historical sites — is a living museum of Art Nouveau. In fact, to hunt for the movement’s landmarks is to uncover a more modern side of the city than the one most tourists see.

Art Nouveau is not a Jewish movement in any sense, but its heyday — the dawn of the 20th century — coincides with a great flourishing of Jewish cultural and intellectual activity. It was the era of Franz Kafka, perhaps Prague’s most famous Jewish resident, whose statue adorns a prominent square in the city’s Jewish quarter.

Kafka himself worshipped at the Pinkas Synagogue, one of two mid-millennium temples — the other is the Klausen Synagogue — that abut the city’s venerable Jewish Cemetery. Unlike many European Jewish quarters, the Prague ghetto is strikingly well preserved: more than a half-dozen synagogues and Jewish institutions are testament to a community that thrived from the late Middle Ages through the early 20th century.

With so many landmarks, it’s easy to overlook Prague’s prime example of Jewish Art Nouveau, the so-called Jerusalem Synagogue. Once it’s in your line of vision, though, it’s hard to miss. The massive edifice is built in the Moorish Revival style, but its busy façade is a Semitic take on Art Nouveau: pink and cream stripes alternate with bold swoops of turquoise and cerulean.

The interior is similarly lavish, painted in rich flourishes of red, blue and gold. Once accessible only to worshippers, the Jerusalem Synagogue recently opened to the public for tours.

The gilded Vinohrady Synagogue — built in 1896 by a Viennese architect, with a 2,000-seat capacity — is another example of Jewish interiors from that era. Occupied and then destroyed by the Nazis, the temple lives on in the photographs of Jindrich Eckert, who documented the large and prosperous Jewish community of that era. They are on view through August in “Symbols of Emancipation: Nineteenth-Century Synagogues in the Czech Lands” at the Robert Guttmann Gallery at the city’s new Jewish Museum complex.

Around town, three new shows give context to your explorations of Czech Art Nouveau. Start at the Municipal House, a fin-de-siècle Prague landmark that is a house in the way Versailles is a house.

From the stained-glass windows to the murals within, the Municipal is a repository of Art Nouveau masterworks by Mucha and others. Through July, it is also host to “Ivan Lendl: Alphonse Mucha Posters,” the first-ever exhibition from the tennis player’s collections, which the museum boasts is the largest and most comprehensive collection of Mucha posters in the world. The flowing-tressed women and sensual vines of the artworks launched a worldwide movement. If Mucha’s posters give you an appetite, the Municipal House has a half-dozen distinctive restaurants, each one a jewel of Art Nouveau décor.

Next week, the National Gallery will unveil “The Slav Epic,” 20 monumental Mucha paintings that depict the history of the Slavic nations. Mucha dedicated the series to his native city, where it is on view until December. And for a contrast in medium, head over to the City Gallery of Prague at the Troja Castle to see how Czech sculptors handled Art Nouveau; the exhibit runs all year.

You can find Art Nouveau on the streets of Prague, too, of course. Entire neighborhoods — like Parizska Street — feature building after ornate building in the style, as do landmarks like the Central Rail Station and the Goethe Institute. Even the vintage Coca-Cola signs hanging outside Old Town bars have the period’s modernist look.

For one soundtrack of the era, you might head over to Prague’s Spanish Synagogue, now part of the Jewish Museum complex. It hosts frequent concerts like the one this week that features a Polish klezmer band playing melodies from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The temple itself dates to the 1860s, and its Iberian label is due not to a Sephardic heritage but more likely to its Moorish aesthetic: it’s a building you might expect to see in Seville, with graceful yellow arches, domed green turrets and lacey white trim. You can’t really call it Art Nouveau — but with those colors and curves, Alphonse Mucha would approve.

editor@jewishweek.org

The Art Nouveau façade of the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague. Photo courtesy Praguewelcome.com

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