The Art Nouveau movement brought a new style to visual arts and architecture in Europe and Prague.
It was developed by a brilliant and energetic generation of artists and designers, Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) being the most distinguished Czech visual artist of the Art Nouveau movement. Art Nouveau designers believed Art should work in harmony to create a total work of art in buildings, furniture, textiles, clothes, and jewellery; all should conform to the principles of Art Nouveau and Art should strive to be a part of everyday life.
Since the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1991, Prague has become one of Europe’s – and the worlds – most popular tourist destinations. As in London, Paris, and Rome, visitors flock to the gorgeous buildings and monuments that grace the streets of Prague, entranced by structures ranging from Gothic and baroque to cubist and neoclassical. And while hundreds of thousands stroll over the Charles Bridge and gaze up at the St. Vitus Cathedral each year, far fewer venture away from the crowds to seek out the countless gems of art nouveau peppered throughout Prague.
Significant Art Nouveau sites include the Municipal House, the Wilson Railway Station, the Grand Hotel Europa, and works by sculptors František Bílek, Ladislav Šaloun, and Stanislav Sucharda. There are large numbers of remarkable buildings in Art Nouveau style in Prague that remain unknown to the tourists since they pay attention mostly only to the Castle and the Charles Bridge.
The Art Nouveau style appeared in the early 1880s and vanished with the first gun-shots of the First World War. It was a brief but brilliant art movement and style of decoration and architecture characterised by intricate patterns of curving lines. In Prague at this time you had a burgeoning middle class and a unique Czech, Germanic and Jewish culture. With this prosperity there was a desire to redevelop the Josepfov, the Jewish Quarter which was overcrowded and subject to flooding. As we have seen elsewhere in Europe in Riga and Barcelona Art Nouveau was adopted as a sign not just of new prosperity but as sign of a new nationalist identity, in this case closely identified with Slav nationalism and incorporating symbolism and references from Slavic folklore and history.
Pařížská Avenue was laid out as the centrepiece of this redevelopment of Central Praque. In the first years of the 20th century Pařížská was laid out between Old Town Square and the Čech Bridge. It has always been one of the city’s most prestigious addresses, and today it is lined with upscale boutiques, coffee shops, and airline offices. It’s a sharp contrast to the gloom and despair of the Jewish ghetto that existed before. Designers used neo-Renaissance, neo-Baroque, and Secession elements. Facades are enlivened with richly decorated windows and balconies while above the eaves rise extravagant gables, attic windows, towers, and turrets. Originally named Mikulášská (St. Nicholas Street) because of the presence of St. Nicholas’ Church at the Old Town Square end. In 1926 Pařížská was given its present name, which is best translated as Boulevard de Paris, to pay tribute to France for helping to free the Czechs from Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I.
The first important principle of the Art Nouveau movement was a desire to get rid of the distinctions between high and low art or major and minor arts. For many artists the essential thing was for art to affect and unify the lives of the people, not just in expensive oil paintings on rich people’s walls or in institutional salons, but in the essential objects of their daily lives—their homes, furnishings, cups and saucers, advertisements, wall hangings—everything from door handles to lamp posts and sewer gratings and toilet seats. Even purely functional objects now largely machine made and mass produced should be shaped by the decorative powers of art. Hence we see many Art Nouveau artists, and Mucha in particular, demonstrating an astonishingly wide range of artistic interests (in his case from posters and paintings to lottery tickets, jewellery, police uniforms, designs for money, stamps, wall hangings, and so on).
This emphasis on uniting beauty and utility was at the heart of the most important social “message” of the new art (something which earned it the name Art Social in some quarters). It was inspired, in part, by a strong reaction against the ugliness of much of the manufactured material which was increasingly dominating people’s lives and making the very idea of the traditional artist-craftsmen obsolete (a response very strong in the English Arts and Crafts Movement in the 1860’s, inspired by John Ruskin and William Morris, who looked back with delight to the ideal guild craftsmen of the Middle Ages).
Art Nouveau artists were well known for their scrupulous eye for detail. Inspiration came from nature. Under Art Nouveau style even an insect was beautiful and admired. Art Nouveau means in French “New Art”. Nowadays it may sound a bid odd calling something „new“ when it stands for a style in art, architecture and design significant for the turn of the 19th and 20th century. However, for some people – including myself – it is one of the most beautiful and fascinating styles ever and in Prague you have the chance to see a lot of this unique style.
Art Nouveau was an international movement and style of art, architecture and applied art – especially the decorative arts—that peaked in popularity at the turn of the 20th century (1890–1905). The name ‘Art nouveau’ is French for ‘new art’. It is also known as Jugendstil, German for ‘youth style’, named after the magazine Jugend, which promoted it, and in Italy, Stile Liberty from the department store in London, Liberty & Co., which popularized the style. A reaction to academic art of the 19th century, it is characterized by organic, especially floral and other plant-inspired motifs, as well as highly-stylized, flowing curvilinear forms. Art Nouveau is an approach to design according to which artists should work on everything from architecture to furniture, making art part of everyday life.
The movement was strongly influenced by Czech artist Alfons Mucha, when Mucha produced a lithographed poster, which appeared on 1 January 1895 in the streets of Paris as an advertisement for the play Gismonda by Victorien Sardou, starring Sarah Bernhardt. It was an overnight sensation, and announced the new artistic style and its creator to the citizens of Paris. Initially called the Style Mucha, (Mucha Style), this soon became known as Art Nouveau.
In France it’s called Art Nouveau, in England it’s Modern Style or Yellow Book Style, in Germany it goes by the name of Jugendstil or Secession. Whatever you choose to call it, the style has left an impressive impact on Prague. First of all, Prague is the home of the famous Alphonse Mucha (1860 – 1939) – Art Nouveau artist who is most widely known for the posters he created for Sarah Bernhardt, one of the greatest actresses of that time. But even if his name says nothing to you, you should visit the Mucha Museum. It is in Panska 7, Prague 1, which is close to Wenceslas Square or Powder Tower. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. In museum shop you can buy gifts with Alphonse Mucha motifs. His work included, apart from sculptures and paintings, costumes and stage decorations, designs for magazines and book covers, wonderful jewellery and furniture and numerous posters.
The influence of Alfons Mucha was felt in Prague and Moravia (part of the modern Czech Republic), whose style of Art Nouveau became associated with the Czech National Revival. Fin de siecle sections of Prague reveal modest buildings encrusted with leaves and ladies that curve and swirl across the facades. Examples of Art Nouveau in the city, along with the exteriors of any number of private apartment and commercial buildings, are the Hotel Pariz, Smíchov Market Hall, Hotel Central, the windows in the St. Wenceslas Chapel at St. Vitus Cathedral, the main railway station, Grand Hotel and the Jubilee Synagogue. The Olsany Cemetery and the New Jewish Cemetery are also important examples of Art Nouveau.
Obecní Dum, Prague’s Municipal House, is more romantically known as the Palace of the People, and this is a fitting title for a building that abounds in architectural diversity providing a cultural experience for all tastes. The sumptuously decorated, pale ochre facade and glazed copper dome of Prague’s Municipal House contrast with the sombre stonework of surrounding buildings. Architects Antonín Balšánek (1865-1921) and Osvald Polívka (1859-1931) were responsible for Municipal House’s design and so many of Prague’s foremost art nouveau artists and sculptors collaborated on its embellishment. The portal gives a foretaste of the delights to come, with filigree metalwork, jewel-like encrustations, allegorical figures, and a mosaic, the Apotheosis of Prague, by Karel Špillar (1871-1939). The gilt inscription around it is from ‘Hail to Thee, Prague!’ a poem by Svatopluk Cech (1846-1908).
Even the most hurried visitor should sit for a while in the sumptuous surroundings of Municipal House’s cafe and absorb the atmosphere of the classic Prague coffee house of long ago. A meal in the refined Francouska Restaurace is one of Prague’s best gastronomic experiences, while music lovers can attend a concert in the Smetana Hall, the home of the Prague Symphony Orchestra. It is here that the Prague Spring music festival is launched, with a rousing performance of Smetana’s Má Vlast (My Home). The designers of Prague’s Municipal House have paid great attention to its functional spaces and fittings, and it’s worth admiring such features as stairways, elevators and even the cloakroom.
Prague Art Nouveau architecture adopts all of its foreign morphology. You will find bright colour which was brought by the Spanish Art Nouveau, dynamic curves of the French and Belgian Art Nouveau, the floral and animal designs as well as selected materials which were promoted by the Arts and Crafts movement. Undoubtedly, the Municipal House by the architect Osvald Polívka makes a prominent representative of the Prague Art Nouveau architecture. Numerous artists of both the older and the younger generation participated in its ornamentation – Alfons Mucha as well as Jan Preisler.
An equally prominent piece of architecture is the building of the Prague Main Railway Station by the architect Jozef Fanta. Numerous reliefs are to be found in here, above all of girlish and female figures. A set of female mascarons (grotesque masks) is unique, with each of them original. There are several Art Nouveau buildings and structures worth mentioning, such as the villas by the outstanding architect Jan Kotěra – the Trmal Villa, for instance, Kotěra’s own villa in Vinohrady, a Prague district, or the villa with a studio built for Stanislav Sucharda.
The Bílek Villa is a unique construction built in the Symbolist style, with a range of extra-ordinary symbols and allusions to be found such as stylized ears of corn. Three constructions stand out from the typical housebuilding: The Topič House and Hotel Prague in Národní třída and the House “U Nováků“in Vodičkova Street, whose mosaic was designed by Jan Preisler.
Prague has always been the centre of Mittel Europa, the crossroads like Krakow between North and South, East and West, the centre of the Holy Roman Empire, the font of Slavic Nationalism in opposition to the Hapsburg’s Austro-Hungarian Empire and from 1918 to 1938 the only democracy in Eastern Europe until the world acquiesced to its betrayal and destruction in the Munich Agreement. As mentioned it was the birthplace of a unique Czech, Germanic and Jewish culture and the naturalism and craftsmanship of Art Nouveau allowed all traditions to embrace this style from gravestones in the New Jewish Cemetery to the stylish apartment blocks along Pařížská Avenue to the stylish villas overlooking the Vltava it helped to unify and renew this unique city. Despite all that has happened since, today 20 years after the Velvet Revolution, it is still celebrated by the inhabitants of this unique place, the Golden City of Prague.