One of the best parts of living in the UK is that I’m only a short flight away from some incredibly beautiful European destinations. This weekend, I finally made it to Eastern Europe, and visited one of my dearest friends in a city easy for both of us to get to: Prague.
The chill in the air, coupled with the overcast skies, really drew out the city’s architecture in my mind. It was so easy to get lost in thought, wondering about the Soviet history of the Czech Republic as contrasted with the ornate medieval buildings. I think there’s something quite beautiful and atmospheric about cobblestones and rainy days. Not least because they seem to be days made for museum visits.
After a stroll through the old part of the city, we headed off to Veletržní Palace, which is one of the exhibition spaces of the National Gallery. In the gallery’s atrium is a bright and airy cafe called Cafe Jedna, which – unlike the hotel, sadly – had really nice coffee!
After sipping a few flat whites and cappuccinos (as always) we toured the Alfons Mucha exhibit to see his monumental 20-piece cycle, The Slav Epic. All that I know of Slavic history, I know from the context of pre-Revolutionary and Soviet Russia. Although I am someone interested in Russian literature and history, I have never taken the time to look at it from the Czech or definitively “Slavic” perspective.
My understanding is that Mucha intended this series to inspire and educate the Slavic people in the hopes of galvanising a common cause of independence, as well as grander visions of Pan Slavism.
I won’t pretend to be an art historian or an art critic, but the conversations I had with my friend mostly circled around the fact that we didn’t find the paintings to be too aesthetically pleasing, save for The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia – Work in Freedom is the Foundation of a State. Despite it’s grim undertones, it was a visually soothing piece to my eyes, at least.
The Slav Epic is also clearly, unapologetically patriotic – it is a celebration of the Slavic peoples which, given the history of subservience and subjugation, is really powerful. When Mucha painted these canvases, popular mandates, collective activism, and power made legitimate through democratic/republican systems were still relatively young political concepts. While Mucha does portray some important Tsars, Generals and religious leaders in the cycle, the paintings which left the most impact on me were those that honoured the anonymous Slav: the peasant, the soldier, the artisan, the merchant.
Today, I think these themes feel a bit anachronistic. In a world in which we can’t go anywhere without our mobile phones, it seems as though experiences are validated only once shared: I have to snap a selfie in order to carve out a moment for myself in history and in time. But, above all, it is the experience of me as an Individual which is elevated, not the context.
In Mucha’s Apotheosis of the Slavs – Slavs for Humanity, a sort of Slavic triumph is imagined as an exemplar for all of mankind. Words like “globalisation,” “borderless society,” “information age,” and “millennial” simply don’t fit in the scheme (or regime?) Mucha likely would have preferred. A lot of art gallery talk (hmmm-ing and nodding) ensued.
After spending a few hours at the gallery, the sun started to break through the clouds and we explored the city centre again.
We concluded our little weekend trip in the only appropriate way – by drinking beer. While I was a bit discouraged by the loud swarms of tourists I felt so grateful for the opportunity to have a nice little weekend away with one of my dearest friends.
The things I’ll remember most about this trip are: the weather and how the sunshine (or lack thereof) so dramatically impacted the vibe of the city, the medieval and baroque architecture juxtaposed with Soviet Plattenbau, and of course, the long hours of meandering conversation while walking along the river or through cobblestoned streets.