Friday, July 14, 2006

The Museum of Communism (July 14)

It is really surprising to me, how much my feelings towards Prague have been affected by the weather.

The last three days have been miserable: very hot, very muggy, with occasional warm, muggy showers. Then, last night, I had a hint of what Prague might be like when things are nicer.

I had a rather good dinner at a restaurant called Grill U Seminaristy (it's on U Luzickeho seminaire 13, just half a block to the north of the Malostranska end of the Charles Bridge. In fact, it was the first memorable meal (in a good way) since my very expensive duck in Rzeszow over a week and a half ago.

I ordered one of the menus: an apertif of Becherovka, an appetizer of lox, a nicely-cooked medium rare steak with green peppercorn and garlic sauce, and an three fruit-flavored ice cream scoops for dessert. All for a grand total of 480 kronen (including tip) or $21.65. Not bad at all.

When I left the restaurant I noticed that it had become noticeably cooler and dryer. Not cool and dry, mind you, but still, cooler and dryer. I decided to amble home through the Staromestka, where I found they're having a summer jazz festival (though the band on the stage sounded much more hard rock to me).

The only damper on the night were the crowds of drunks wandering the streets with large cups of beer or cocktails, but at least they were better than the ones passed out on the benches in Wenceslas Square.

My hotel has central air and thermostats in all the rooms, but I think they're for decorative purposes only. No matter how cold I set mine, it still cuts out in the early morning and this morning when the humidity spike to 88% (according to CNN's weather website), I woke up at 6 am in a tepid sweat.

Since it was supposed to rain for much of today, I decided it was a good day for going to museums. I started with the Museum of the City of Prague. The centerpiece of its collection is a handmade paper model of the city, created in the first half of the 19th century by a minor government official with a lot of time on his hands. There were two other exhibits: one on the history of the Prague Boroughs up until the 19th century, the other on the Jewish ghetto.

The history of the Prague Boroughs was fine and interesting, but it bothered me that the presentation completely ignored the presence of Jews in the city (one etching depicts a progrom in the 18th century, explaining why the ghetto was attacked, but since no mention was made previously of the existence of a ghetto, the casual viewer might wonder, where did this come from).

The fact that they have an entire exhibit devoted to the Prague ghetto doesn't change the fact that, as in Poland, Jewish history is segregated from the general history of the city. There's the story of the Czech city, and oh, in case you're wondering, there were some Jews here too, so here's a separate exhibit on them.

The exhibit on the Jewish ghetto was not so much a history of the ghetto, but rather a collection of artistic depictions of the ghetto and its residents done by artists in the 19th century. There were some very interesting paintings and portraits, particularly for me, the portrait of Rabbi Shlomo Rappoport, but about half of them were of the old Jewish cemetery. They have two of the cycle of paintings done for the Jewish burial society depicting Jewish burial practices in the late 18th century, but of course, none are available as postcards, and no photos are permitted.

After that I headed off to the National Gallery, which turned out to be a rather nice museum. The top floor is 19th-century Czech and German art. Mostly neo-classical and romantic pieces. On the same floor, howver, was a wonderful exhibit on art nouveau designs for buildings and building decorations in Prague.

The next floor down is where things really got interesting. The third floor is devoted to Czech art from 1900 to 1930, along with their collection of 19th and 20th-centuries French art. The Czech pieces included a whole set of pieces by Kupka, allowing one to trace his artistic development, along with several other important Czech cubist painters. Cubism had a huge impact in the Czech lands, and they had an amazing collection of cubist-inspired furniture! There's a cubist building that's an art gallery in Prague, and I hope to visit it tomorrow afternoon.

The French collection is small, but they have a nice selection of pieces by the most important French artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, works which were influential on Czech artists.

The main exhibit on the first floor, to Czech art post 1930, is closed for restoration work right now, but they had an amazing exhibit on the work of Pavel Brazda, a post-war painter suppressed and persecuted by the communist authorities. His work sort of resembles the work of the American artist Robert Crumb.

In the afternoon, I decided to visit a rather different sort of museum: the Museum of Communism. Unlike the Museum of Terror in Budapest, which also sought to document the oppression of people under Soviet domination, this museum is much more accessible. I think that's because it's a private museum, partly run by an expat American bar owner, whereas the museum in Budapest was built by the conservative-led government who hoped that its anti-communist message would aid it in the subsequent elections against its leftist opponents.

The museum is opposite a McDonald's and shares the floor with a casino, and the tone for the museum is set by the numerous posters featuring actual communist-era progaganda posters, with new snarky texts. Also unlike the Hungarian museum, this one is mulit-lingual, with displays in Czech, German, English, Italian, and French.

While the summaries of Marx and Lenin's theories were more than a little tendentious and superficial, they're not meant to be more than stage dressing. The high light of the museum are all the vintage artifacts from the communist period: food, posters, statues, class room displays, etc. But in some ways, the light touch at the beginning gives greater impact to the punch that comes from the documentary film on the suppression of freedoms in Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1989. You come into the museum mildly amused but you leave genuinely moved.

By dinner time, the heat and the humidity had passed and Prague felt liveable. It was delightful to be on the street, though I could still do without the bands of mostly British stag partiers. I had dinner at the Franz Kafka Cafe (not particulary memorable as far as the food went) and a group of about 8-10 Brits came in, all wearing matching shirts, each one bearing a particular nickname. It was some sort of bachelor party, as one of the shirts had the words "best man" scrawled across it in marker. They kept trying to get the girls at one of the outside tables to sign the shirts. I left before they were past their first half liter of beer each.

My guide book mentioned a walk through a series of passages that cut through many of the buildings on either side of Wenceslas Square. There's an incredible art deco lobby for one cinema that has a life-size statue of a horse hanging upside down, with the rider seated on its stomach.

The most amazing thing about these passage ways, however, is that they were almost entirely free of tourists (after all I was there, so there was at least one tourist). It was a real treat to get to see what Prague is like without all the hordes on every street and corner.

So today, at long lost, I got to experience Prague free from heat, free from humidity, and free from tourist crowds, and found it magical and lovely.

Tomorrow I'm off to synagogue in the morning and then a few more museums in the afternoon.

No comments: