Interpret the language of Art Nouveau…
Some of us love cities with a past. For their narrow, wobbly cobbled roads and oil-lamp pedestals. For their charming places of worship, old wooden bridges, royal retreats and dark dungeons. For their imperfect half-timbered houses, impeccable tasteful mansions, vibrant tiled courtyards and rough red-brick tiled roofs. Because there’s more to brick, mortar and stone than mere eye candy. If you let them, buildings will whisper sweet-nothings in your ear. The wavelength needs a little more adjusting in a buzzing city like Prague, but you can still tune in to the fascinating narratives. As you trace the evolution of the ‘Mother of Cities’ from 9th-century Romanesque to 14th-century Gothic to 19th-century Art Nouveau and Cubist eras, you may find one of these styles particularly intriguing, as I did.
Down with the ugly
But first, flashback to late 1880s to early 1890s. Rapid industrialization and mass production of cheap goods. Depressing times for artists, designers, and architects. But the creative spirit always manages to break free. Revolution of the ‘We-Hate-Uglies’. And rise of Art Nouveau (French for ‘new art’). Craftsmanship and art push back with a sweet vengeance. This time, wiping out the boundaries between elite and public consumption. Whipping up a new fervour for all things beautiful and refined. Art seeps into everyday life, for the first time.
Taking huge inspiration from nature, Art Nouveau unfolds as the first real modern style ever. With themes revolving around elements like leaves, vines, flowers, birds, animals and insects. Asymmetrical shapes, elegant arches, graceful curves, colourful mosaics, dainty stained glass and Japanese motifs become central to design. Decorative and functional emerge as the twin mantras. Curiosity piqued yet? Wait for it…
Much ado about Mucha
Brilliant designer and prominent Czech artist Alphonse Mucha rises to fame, turning Prague into a centre for Art Nouveau. He adorns some of Prague’s finest buildings, including a painted ceiling in the Art Nouveau masterpiece, the Municipal House and the stained glass window of the majestic St. Vitus Cathedral. Mucha’s work is fresh, sinuous and elegant…each composition overflowing with delicate tendrils, swirling lines and gorgeous, bejewelled, flower-decked women in luxuriant gowns. Pale pastels and vibrant accents. Unrestricted celebration of femininity in a overtly masculine world. From textile, paintings, jewellery, clothing and promotional posters to architectural elements like grills, stairways, doors, tiles, window glass, wallpaper and furniture…everything acquires a new status. Anything can evolve into art! The demand for Art Nouveau mushrooms. And Prague neighbourhoods refine. Into eye candy. Go seek. And you shall find!
On the treasure hunt
The streets of Prague are a visual delight. Identifying Art Nouveau Baroque from among the plethora of Gothic, Neo-Classical, Neo-Renaissance, Cubist or Art Deco structures is a strain for the amateur eye, but the clues are fairly simple. The first and most obvious one is the trio of colours that define Art Nouveau…usually yellow, green and gold. Next look for the delicate, floral motifs and vine trails inspired by nature. Or the extravagant painted frescoes. Then train your eyes to spot the elements that are functional plus aesthetic. Like the iron statuettes supporting a balcony. But the real proof lies in the camouflaged ‘branding’. A snake motif on the doors of a chemist store, an ancient symbol of healing and medicine. Or a ship logo on the roof of a merchant trading house. Or a literary inscription on the front of a book store. Getting the drift?
Kickstart your Art Nouveau course with the inimitable Prague ‘Pasaz’ experience. Wander through the woven network of ornamental, arcaded passageways belonging to the 20th-century. The epitome of the unconventional, indulgent, prosperous trading city that Prague once was. These temperature-resistant sheltered spaces or welcoming walkways are lined with snazzy shops, cute cafes and often house a Diavolo (theatre) and a fine restaurant or two. Treat yourself…discover a new route, stumble upon a delightful courtyard hideaway, take a break from the bustle of the rushed street outside in these hidden spaces. Or just admire the ornate glass ceilings, unusual sculptures and exquisite floor designs.
Enrol in the ultimate ‘tutorial’ at the Municipal House, the most spectacular icon of Art Nouveau in the city of a hundred spires. Setting the stage for a grand entry is an imposing green-copper dome, filigree metalwork and flamboyant reliefs representing history, literature, painting, music and architecture. Certainly, nothing less majestic would have fit the bill for its former avatar as the Royal Court from 1383 to 1483. Inside is abundant proof of a fabulous 20th-century revival…vivid coloured glasswork, stylised light scone fittings, gilded decorations, gorgeous ceramics and super-sized murals. The Mucha stamp too…but of course! Leave supremely educated. Come back for a sumptuous evening…a classical concert at Smetana Hall, Prague’s biggest concert hall beneath an exquisite glass dome or a fine meal at one of the formal restaurants, maybe.
Craving more? Challenge yourself with a refresher module, hunting for the endless jewels scattered all over the Old Town and Wenceslas Square. Venture into Vinohrady, a posh residential neighbourhood with an artsy, hip vibe where leafy tree-lined streets, lined with graceful villas embody the essence of Art Nouveau. No less impressive is the 13-century old Jewish Quarter, where a crumbling cemetery crowded with 10,000 tombs and six stunning synagogues fight for attention with hundreds of splendid specimens of Art Nouveau.
Once you get a hang of it, you’ll be hooked, so stop keeping count. A giant flower medallion studded on a wall, pillars wrapped up with leafy creepers, elaborately framed windows, gold painted frescoes, curvy iron grill balconies and a plethora of symbolic emblems. You know you’ve reached breaking point when you start hallucinating…no, those are not vine trails, its your sauerkraut!
We explored Prague’s modern architectural wonders on a fabulous ‘Art Nouveau and Modernism’ tour with Riccardo Cacciotti of Context Travel. They deliver what they promise: ‘Tours for the intellectually curious’. All opinions are my own.
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