Our extraordinary usher to the Prague arts, Monika Doležalová, flexing rebellious disregard at Museum Kampa (photo by Petr Pawlowski)
Franz Kafka. A medieval core. Haggardly elegant cobblestone streets under fairy tale castles and architecture galore. But, I’m not recounting a pleasant dream that I had. I’m telling you about Prague. A city with a romantic mystique and cheap brews.
A really tremendous city that knows that a decent celebration should last at least twenty-four hours on a public street. And BATM is all for that. But, for the love of F. Kafka, what about Art? Where’s the art scene under these gothic spires, adorable bridges, infinite breweries, and romantic views?
That’s where Monika comes in. A living, bona fide art babe professional from the Czech Republic who somehow finds the time to work at the Museum Kampa, City Gallery and still has the time to lead art programs for young artists.
Here’s our full interview with Monika, the superhuman GPS and our portal into Prague’s art scene.
Monika, you are a curator of the City Gallery where you direct, for example, a program for young artists and somehow still have the time to work at the Museum Kampa and another projects. How do you do it all? Have you ever considered teleportation?
Yes, it’s a shame that I was not born at the time when teleportation would be automatic. So far, I deal with it in another way – I’m well-known for my spontaneous behavior and ultrafast speech. My good friend, an anarchist, performer and writer Milan Kozelka, who actively participated in several art festivals in the EU and in the USA, asks me at each of our meetings to get some sedatives.
How did you get involved with all these art institutions?
After enrolling at Charles University to study art history, I wanted to combine theory and practice as soon as possible. I must experience things in person. At the time I was interested in Czech art from the late 1950s until 1989 and, in particular, the period of “Normalization” (1968–1989), the unofficial culture which was later more accurately designated as the “grey zone” (i.e., the space between the official and underground culture) – generally speaking artists and, by extension, the art was excommunicated by the Communist regime from official exhibition halls.
Outside the Museum Kampa
Therefore, the Museum Kampa with its collections had become a clear favorite. I spent four wonderful years working there, but after a while, I felt limited by my position in the Museum; I enthusiastically accepted the offer of a job of a curator at the City Gallery Prague. Currently I am a curator of the City Gallery Prague and work on a number of external projects. In the future I would like to collaborate with the Museum Kampa again. It is a matter of the heart, my parent institution.
How does the art at the City Gallery differ from the Museum Kampa?
The difference between these institutions is considerable, both in terms of the concept of their exhibition plans, dimensions and historical background.
The story of the Museum Kampa has been written by one person – art collector Meda Mládek and partially her husband Jan Mládek – who was one of the first governors of the International Monetary Fund, who, however, did not live to see the establishment of the Museum. Meda, today at 93 years, has still an incredible energy and thanks to her specific personality, the Museum Kampa represents a unique home environment. The atmosphere of the Museum Kampa is very special; similar to that of New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
The focus of the Museum Kampa’s collection consists of the body of work of two icons of 20th century art: František Kupka and Otto Gutfreund, as well as an extensive exhibition of modern Central European art, which reflects the socio-political situation at the time of the Eastern Bloc. In comparison to the “small” Kampa, the City Gallery Prague is quite colossal. After the National Gallery, it’s the second most important art institution in the Czech Republic. It was founded in 1963 with the purpose to collect and scientifically process Czech art of the 19th, 20th and 21stcenturies. The collection contains nearly 15,000 artifacts, but it has a disparate character with predominantly traditional works.
Monika (photo by Petr Pawlowski)
Fortunately, temporary exhibitions of mostly contemporary art prevail over long-term shows. Since its founding, the City Gallery Prague has held more than 670 exhibitions. I would say that the exhibition schedule of the City Gallery Prague in recent years has been more progressive and in terms of the number of exhibitions the City Gallery Prague is more active than the National Gallery.
Overall, however, the current state of galleries and art institutions in the Czech Republic is awful; the enthusiasm of the 1990s has been replaced by laziness and hatred which has spread even among young people. One easily gets the feeling that he or she is a victim of petty disputes.
Any favorite pieces at the Museum Kampa?
– Chair, 1978-1980, by Aleš Veselý, in my opinion the most interesting contemporary sculptor in the Czech Republic
– Landscape of Eternity, 1980-1983, by Karel Malich
– Tightrope Walker, 1984-1986, by Otakar Slavík
– Black and White Structure, 1965, by Zdeněk Sýkora
– Meditation, 2004-2005, by Jiří Kornatovský
– Family Portrait, 1976, by Theodor Pištěk
+ works by Adriena Šimotová, Věra Janoušková and Karel Nepraš. We can be proud of these artists abroad.
Jiří Kornatovský “Meditation” 2004-2005
Want to talk to us about any standout exhibits at the City Gallery?
In 1988, a year before the political coup d’etat (Velvet Revolution), Hana Rousová organized an exhibition in the City Gallery Prague titled “Line, Color, Shape” featuring Czech abstract art of the 1930s. At that time abstract art was still out of favor with the ruling regime. Yet the desire for culture attracted an enormous number of visitors to the exhibition – 57,000 in two months.
The most successful exhibition last year in terms of the rate of the number of viewers per day was the exhibition by Krištof Kintera with the visiting rate of nearly 22,000 people in three months.
So you can see how it works today.
Krištof Kintera “Throne” 2011, electromotor, microchip contoller, feathers, metal structure, epoxy, office chair (from the exhibition at City Gallery Prague)
What’s unique to the Prague art scene?
I think that except for a few artists there is unfortunately nothing special. We are an artistically tame outskirts.
What influences Czech artists today?
For capturing the current state of Czech art, I would use a quote by Milan Kozelka: “There is no Czech art, only art in the Czech lands.”
Due to a lack of our own invention we have always oriented ourselves in the direction of Western art. Recently, this is happening dangerously often; contemporary Czech art has become uniform by its eclectic character.
That’s harsh realization to comes to terms with. So then which Czech artists are you bemused by and that the rest of the world must know of?
Aleš Veselý, Adriena Šimotová, Karel Malich, Jiří Kornatovský, Josef Žáček; from younger artist it is Krištof Kintera and Tamara Moyzes (of Slovak origin); from among students, for example, Jakub Petr.
I also like Theodor Pištěk, the winner of Oscar for costumes for the film Amadeus, and Magdalena Jetelová, who since 1983 has lived in Germany. Thanks to public discussions with artists which I organized in the Museum Kampa since 2009 I have met with prominent artists who entered the art scene in the 1960s – 1980s.
Follow my blog Doors of Doors where I exhibit sceneries, stuff and people that catch my eyes.
Theodor Pištěk “Family Portrait” 1976
As a curator, is there anything about your job that you want to bring to our attention that most people don’t know about?
Art historian/curator has an equal partner with the artist and, by extension, the art, not their servant. Some time ago I was encouraged by these words by art historian Hana Rousová.
Tell me a little about your Start Up program for young artists.
So far, the program has presented solo exhibitions of individuals of all artistic disciplines. In the third year, which was already under my leadership, I extended it for young musicians who played at the openings. I have managed to create a uniform visual style, and with each artist we shot a brief profile in their studio or in the environment where they created their works presented in the Start Up program.
In the fourth year, I would like to extend this program for the presentation of not only promising young artists who would continue to play the major role in the program, but also young graphic designers, art history students (future theorists and curators of the Czech art scene) and young musicians in order to open this institution more to young people and revitalize the premises of Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace, where this year’s Start Up program will be moved.
Jakub Petr “Toroid”(exhibited at Start Up program)
How do you plan to expand the Start Up program?
I think that the most appropriate way this can be achieved seems to be to extend this program is with the involvement of the City Gallery Prague with the city’s young people.
Monika in front of Zdeněk Sýkora’s “Black and White Structure” 1965 (photo by Petr Pawlowski)
Art historically, Josef Čapek, Toyen, and František Kupka usually end up in Western Art Textbooks. This artistic zeitgeist ended with the German occupation of 1939. Would you say that these well-known artists influence artists of today?
If we are talking about the youngest generation of Czech artists, the above-mentioned artists are to them an authority rather than a source of inspiration. I feel that in general the young people are not too interested in the previous generations of Czech artists
Čapek, for instance, died in a concentration camp. Do the atrocities of War World II ever show up in Czech contemporary art?
In 1991, Černý painted a Soviet tank pink for a war memorial in central Prague. This was considered ‘hooliganism’ and consequently Černý was briefly arrested. Since 1991, do artists today have to be concerned about arrest? What do you think of Černý’s work?
During “Normalization” exhibitions were often terminated before they even started. Artists were perceived as enemies of the Communist regime and they were monitored for a long time by the State Police. After the Velvet Revolution, the majority of clashes with the police are intended as a means to attract attention.
Of the work by David Černý, I most highly regard the operation of the Meetfactory, an international center for contemporary art.
David Černý, ”Pink Tank” 1991
Continuing our focus on the enfant terrible of Czech art, in 2005, Černý created Shark, an image of Saddam Hussein in a tank of formaldehyde. The work is a direct parody of a 1991 work by Damien Hirst, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” Do you find artists parodying/conversing/alluding to art heavy hitters such as Hirst?
An inherent quality of David Černý is superficial provocation, which does not appeal to me personally very much. It is the same with me in relation to other artists who work in a similar way.
How relevant are politics in Czech art?
Quite relevant. Many workers in the public galleries are appointed or directly affected in their positions by politicians or the political situation. Some artists also occasionally work for political parties. No one has addressed me yet.
Meda Mladkova, founder of Museum Kampa
The Museum Kampa has a website in English, but unfortunately it does not update it. The City Gallery Prague does not, although it has an English domain. I consider this a major shortcoming and ignorance, typical for public institutions.
As a curator, what do you look for in a new, emerging artist?
Curiosity, courage, desire to experiment and absolute passion for the matter.
our guide to the Czech arts, Monika (photo by Petr Pawlowski)
I’ve heard that Prague has some really super-fantastic puppets. Do you know any artists working with or creating modern puppets? Where’s a good place to check these out at?
For example, Tereza Damcová, with whom I started my Start Up program.
Milan Knížák, an artist, appointed by George Maciunas to be the director of Fluxus East, a former director of the National Gallery and Rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, has devoted himself to puppetry for a long time. His extensive collection of historical puppets is presented at Lednice Chateau and in the Museum of Theater Puppets in Štramberk.
Tereza Damcová and her puppets
After a long day of museum-hoping and arts digesting, what are some recommended places to refuel and unwind around Prague?
For food and drink: U Tygra, Černej vůl, Café Louvre, Café Slavia, Café Sladkovský, Dish, Peperoncino, Bar Bukowski, Café Mlýnská, Café Baron Prášil, Boudoir, garden restaurants at Letná
For shopping: Flea Market Kolbenova, studio Qubus, MONA, OKOLO,
For partying: art openings throughout Prague (we must be masters in the number of art openings per day), Café v Lese, Friends, Meetfactory.
And let us not forget the city of Brno, which is on the way from Vienna to Prague
Where do the local art professionals like to relax at?
Anywhere at Letná and in Krymská Street in Vršovice.
Do you see a future direction for the Prague art scene?
I do not dare to think about it.
Fashion: Klára Vystrčilová
Styling: Petra Krčmářová
Photo: by Petr Pawlowski