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travel, stories, and other flights of fancy

The Slav Epic


Is a pretty dramatic title, and entirely inappropriate for my rather unadventurous two day stint in Prague.

It’s actually the name of a monumental collection of 20 masterpieces by Alfons Mucha, which pays tribute to the history and mythology of the Slavic peoples. For me, seeing the remarkable Slav Epic was the saving grace of a visit to a city which I should have loved, but somehow left me feeling cold.

Don’t get me wrong, Prague is magnificent. It has everything; spectacular monuments, excellent public transport, beautiful parks, slick bars and trendy modern stores. Above all, it has a dynamic history that shows no sign of slowing down.

Unfortunately, there are just too many tourists.

The hordes of sightseers don’t usually bother me, as after all, I’m one of them. But this time round they caught me off guard, and were an unexpected imposition on what I felt should be a special, personal trip. I’ve always wanted to visit Prague, not because it’s a touristic ‘must do’, but because it’s where my Great Uncle Charles was born, long ago when the country was known as Czechoslovakia (and the Nazis hadn’t yet screwed up the map of Europe and lives of millions). To me, Uncle Charles is possibly the closest figure I have to Gandalf in my life.  He’s wise, funny, and full of stories and knowledge from times and places that I will never know. As kids, we used to visit him and my Aunty Joan about once a year, usually at Easter. It was a ten hour drive to their little farm in Southern New South Wales. The visits were characterised by daily fresh baked bread, home-made jams with home-grown fruit, Czech dumplings and hearty stews, classical music by dramatic Slavic composers, games of chess (I’ve never won in my life, which somehow adds to the allure and mystery of it), an infinite library of fantasy novels, a 5 acre property to run wild in, geese to chase, lizard-tails to collect, and several beaches within walking distance. For us city kids, it was paradise.

I guess it’s unfair for me to associate all this magic with Prague, seeing as most of it’s unrelated. But I liked the idea of going there at Easter, as though seeing the gingerbread and painted eggs would be like spending time with my Aunt and Uncle on the other side of the world. When planning the timing of the trip, I’d also envisaged a European Spring, replete with baying lambs, yellow chickens, singing birds and fields of poppies and butterflies.

Unfortunately the world has gone topsy turvy and ideas such as ‘seasons’ can no longer be counted on. After two European winters I still haven’t seen a white Christmas, but somehow I’ve scored an unexpected ‘white’ Spring. Last weekend, Prague was gloomy, wet, bitterly cold, and covered by mounds of muddy half-melted snow. To make matters worse, I didn’t get to meet my long distant relatives (Charles’ family was out of town for Easter), the dumplings weren’t as delicious as I had hoped, and I couldn’t get any nice photos of anything… it was too cold to work my camera, there were too many tourists blocking my path, and I didn’t feel like anything was sufficiently picturesque. In fact, many parts of Prague just seemed tacky and grimy. When I crossed the famous Charles Bridge, I almost didn’t recognise it for all the pop-up stalls and swarms of people. I didn’t get into the massive castle, because the queue for information was so long, I couldn’t even find out how or where to buy a ticket. I guess I wasn’t the only one on school holidays.

But the unexpected had some positive aspects too. In an effort to sidestep the castle’s hordes (and find a loo that I didn’t have to queue for), I ducked into a temporary exhibition being held in what were once the Imperial Stables. It was a retrospective of Vladimír Suchánek, a leading Czech graphic designer from the 1950s, that until then I had never heard of. His work was mostly lithography, blended with collage and some water colour. The broody colours, fluid draughtsmanship and surrealist nature of his work was perfect escapism.

The only other two exhibitions I saw were Mucha and Mucha.

Alfons MuchaIn first year uni I bought a giant Mucha poster of a naked lady advertising absinthe. It was a little exotic, a little erotic, and I felt quite the rebel having it on my wall.  I loved the fantastical art nouveau style (though I had no idea that’s what it was at the time), and it was the start of a lifelong infatuation with Mucha’s designs. It took me a while to find out he was Czech, as for some reason I’d always assumed the posters were French. This is probably because during the first half of his artistic career, Mucha lived in Paris, where he made a name for himself designing advertising posters (for theatre, booze or cigarette papers), magazine covers, children’s book illustrations, jewellery and even stage sets. He also designed the Bosnia-Herzegovina pavilion at the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris. Projects just kept on coming. After Paris, he moved to New York. Then, when Czechoslovakia won independence after World War I, the artist returned to his homeland to design banknotes, postage stamps, and army medals for the new country.

The Mucha Museum in Prague focuses mostly on the decorative work from this early period. There’s a lot there. My first impression was ‘wow, this guy was prolific’. Then at the rear of the museum they were screening a short film about the artist’s life. The video mentioned that the reason he moved to New York was strategic rather than artistic… his plan was to earn enough money and/or score financial backing for his lifelong dream; to produce a monumental cycle of works depicting the glory and the suffering of the Slavic race. So it turns out that Paris and New York were just the preliminary. Those projects were trivial in comparison to his ‘real mission’ as an artist.

After years abroad gaining sponsorship and funding, Mucha returned to Czechoslovakia in 1912 to begin The Slav Epic, which he successfully completed in 1926. Ten of the paintings focus on Czech history, and the other ten depict scenes from other Slavic and pan-Slavic stories. The result, for want of a better word, can only be described as epic. Each painting is at least 4m², and bursting with detail, symbology, and multiple portraits. To have finished the lot in 14 years, Mucha must have been working very fast indeed. I guess his experience as a commercial graphic designer was excellent training.

Although the artist stipulated that the collection be held in Moravia (Southern Czechoslovakia), these days it’s being exhibited at the National Gallery’s Veletržní Palace in Prague. It’s cheap and there’s practically no queue. If you visit Prague, just go see it.

What else can I recommend? Well, to get a good view of the city, on Uncle Charles’ advice I took a funicular from Mala Strana to the mini-Eiffel tower monument… from there you can see just about everything, and the steps to the top of the tower are probably a good idea if you’re planning to get stuck into trdelník, which are hot, sugar coated, tunnel shaped dough treats, on sale at all the markets. Another highlight was definitely the Astronomical Clock, for its 15th century gadgety awesomeness, although I wouldn’t recommend paying and queuing to climb the tower. As Prague is nestled between hills, there are plenty of good views from other vantage points all around the city. The only other advice I can offer is, if you can’t find any Czechs to hang out with (you might struggle), then make friends with some nice Russians (or people from any other country that’s significantly different from your own). Remember to eat before getting into the heavy Eastern European beers, and try not to get freaked out by the giant baby statues climbing the Zizkov TV Tower. Prague is a modern city now, just remember that.

2 thoughts on “The Slav Epic

  1. I went to Prague some years ago… It was an incredible experience… so sorry that too many tourist are not good to enjoy the experience. I come from Barcelona, believe me, I know what you feel ;-). Maybe next time…

  2. Oh Jean, so sorry you didn’t enjoy Prague quite as much as you’d hoped! I really liked it last year, although I know what you mean about tourists everywhere. I guess I was prepared for it in summer, but you wouldn’t expect them to be out in droves in such freezing weather. But I went to the castle on a public holiday and it was crazy. The rest of the time I tried to avoid the most popular spots and instead went to nerdy music places like the Dvorak and Smetana museums, where I pretty much had the place to myself. I do want to go back though – didn’t get to any of the art museums or most of the places in the Jewish quarter. Better luck on your next destination! xo

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