Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Sad Marionette

This marionette of a jester with his lute and belled cap is one of my favourites. He wears the slightly bemused expression that I associate with Dalibor, the mediaeval Czech knight who though under sentence of death played his violin so sweetly that thousands trooped to the tower where he was incarcerated to hear his sad strains. My jester has a slightly chipped plaster face (the usual material; only the really expensive puppets are completely carved from limewood).

The history of puppeteering in Prague goes back to at least 1771 when a play with marionettes was put on with indifferent results because of the actors' inability to speak Czech. Purists will tell you that true marionette plays should not really depend on spoken language - although singing, it seems, is fine: a perennially popular show these days is a puppet version of Mozart's 'Don Giovanni'.

Prague is well-known today for two specific types of theatre which have their origins in puppetry: Black Light theatre, in which props are manipulated by unlit actors, giving inanimate objects a spookily lifelike quality, and 'Magic Lantern' productions, in which live actors mime and dance in front of back-projected films. Though not technically a puppet show, 'The Wonderful Circus', one of the most popular of these Laterna Magika productions, has clowns interacting with larger-than-life dolls in a variety of surreal scenes.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Svatopluk Čech

Much has been written in these pages of the nineteenth-century Czech National Revival, so today, a few words about the origins of that important cultural and political movement.

In the mid 1500s, Bohemia (that is, the Western part of today's Czech Republic) passed to the Habsburgs, and thus became an Austrian state. Religious tolerance was practised for a time in what was largely a protestant country, but after the Thirty Years War (1618-48) the catholic Habsburgs reasserted themselves in a brutal fashion, executing protestant leaders and insisting on German as the state language. This remained the case for at least the next century, during which spoken Czech survived only fitfully and largely in rural areas.

A lifeline was thrown by sporadic literary efforts in the 18th century, but it was the publication of the first grammar in 1809 and a Czech-German dictionary in the 1830s that upped the pace of revival. From the 1840s, Europe-wide discontent with the concept of absolute monarchy was reflected in many Czech writers' anger at their continued subservience to Vienna. One of them was this man, the aptly-named Svatopluk Čech, whose statue - accompanied by the figure of Victory - stands in the Vinohrady gardens named after him. One of the major bridges crossing the Vltava also bears his name.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Richard Tipping

Australian-born Richard Tipping is an artist and poet who specializes in art works which play with and subvert the written word, such as his 'Stop Go', pictured here. He has become especially well-known for his sculptural and printed pieces which take strings of connected words like 'openotherend' and 'hearthearth' and arrange them in ways that allow various meanings to emerge - for example the words 'dope not here' can be found in the first example, while the second gives rise to combinations of  'earth', 'hearth', 'the art' and so on.

His concrete poems have been turned into sculptures, watch-faces and large-scale landscape pieces; some have been commissioned by public institutions, and still others are held in permanent collections in Australia and New York, Frankfurt and Oxford.

In Vršovice's Café Sladkovský tonight, Richard gave a brief overview of his work with examples of his poetry along with a startlingly good rendition of Waltzing Matilda on the Jew's harp. He appeared as a perfomer in the current Prague Microfestival, which takes place all this week at various locations in the city.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Prague Old Town from Riegrovy Sady

From the Rieger Gardens (Riegrovy Sady) - which lie between Žizkov and Vinohrady about fifteen minutes' walk from Vršovice - there is a commanding panoramic vista of central Prague from the National Museum all the way to Prague Castle and the hills beyond. To the north-west, the view takes in the churches of the old town, dominated by the unmistakeable silhouette of Our Lady before Týn. This great city church in the Old Town Square dates from the 14th century. Its design was influenced by the work of master architects Matthew of Arras and Peter Parler, and it's the burial place of the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Immediately to its right with the pale green onion-dome is the tower of Svatý Salvátor, one of two churches of that name dedicated to Christ the Saviour. One, built by the Jesuits, forms part of Charles University; this one, built at roughly the same time in the early 17th century, was a Lutheran foundation.

In the foreground are two buildings dedicated to St Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor. The nearer tower -  in the centre foreground of today's photo - is the church of Henry and his queen, Cunegunde. She lived an exemplary life, walking over red hot ploughshares to prove her fidelity, and devoting her life to charitable good works and the setting up of several convents. The better-known Jindřišská věž (Henry's tower) to the right of the picture, was built as a freestanding belfry for that church. Nowadays it houses a posh restaurant, cafe and exhibition galleries.

Friday, 15 October 2010

View from Riegrovy Sady

Oxford? Rome? Try again. That's right. It's Prague's National Museum, built between 1885 and 1891 and one of the architectural highlights of the Golden City. This well-known landmark has often been mistaken (by Russian soldiers as well as tourists) for a government building, owing to its grand design and prominent position at the top of Wenceslas Square.

But once enter its great colonnaded vestibule (star of many a Hollywood movie by the way), and there's no doubt of the building's purpose: to tell the story of the Czech and Slovak lands through its extensive natural history collections. Minerals, rocks, meteorites, fossils, zoological specimens - even the remains of a mammoth - are on show for all to marvel at.

For some time now, though, this grandiose expression of the Czech identity has been bursting at the seams. There's simply too much to display. The country's social history (particularly its recent communist past) now has a dedicated space in the next door building which was once the HQ of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly and later that of  Radio Free Europe. And from July 2011 the museum will be shut for four years for a complete overhaul. The plan is to build a museum precinct, comprising the old and new buildings, as well as the State Opera, linked by a newly-landscaped pedestrian zone; while the roaring dual carriageway which at the moment splits the museum from Wenceslas Square will be re-routed underground.

If you're visiting Prague before then and want to take a last look inside the museum, details of opening times and current exhibitions can be found here

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Corner of Krymská and Košická

Krymská is an intriguing street with an endearingly shabby appearance (today's building excepted). It runs along the hill parallel with the tramlines, then continues into a dishevelled plot that is happily being revived as a spot for traditional market fairs, before opening out onto Vršovické Náměsti.

Like the shelves of its many grocers, it's well-provisioned: at one end a couple of friendly restaurants and bars, and at the other an Irish pub and more shops selling everything from textiles and fruit and veg to car parts and pianos.

In common with nearly all the turn-of-the-century streets in this part of town, its name comes from a geographical location, in this case the Crimea. Neighbouring streets are appropriately named after Sevastopol, the Black Sea, and the river Don.

The fine residential building in today's post - also home to a well-ordered Vietnamese mini-market - has had a recent makeover, and the newly-painted facade makes it something of a striking beacon in the winter sunshine. No doubt it will mellow with time, and maybe even re-acquire some of the peeling - and appealing - grandeur of its pre-restored state.

The pictures below show the building now and as it was a century ago.

Monday, 11 October 2010

A Puppet Show

A couple of roughly turned blocks with painted faces, a rudimentary set, a knack for telling a great story, and of course a percussionist to make all the right cartoon noises at crucial moments - that's the essence of the puppeteer's art. And that was certainly more than enough to keep these children entertained for a good hour or so during Saturday's Vršovice Fair.

As readers will know who have visited Prague, the place is alive with puppetry. In the Old Town, marionettes dangle from every other shop-front - thousands of Mozarts, Pinocchios and Charlie Chaplins, supplemented these days by several differently-sized Harry Potters of course.

A few years ago Michael Frayn made the brilliant observation in a BBC documentary called 'Magic Lantern' that puppets and Prague were inextricably linked. He gave as examples the Golem, a mud-man fashioned by a 16th-century rabbi to guard the ghetto, the robots invented by the Čapek brothers for the play R.U.R., and - and this was the most telling bit - the communist leaders themselves (whose bodies, bizarrely, were preserved in all their puppet-like waxiness in the mausoleum on Žižkov Hill).

By the way, if anyone knows where I can get a copy of that film, I would seriously love to get my hands on one. I've tried the Beeb, with no success. Perhaps someone could pull a few strings?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Bass player Eva Holická

Eva Holická is a well-known Prague instrumentalist who plays bass guitar with a number of groups including jazz-funk band 'Let's Do It Tonight' and the Brazilian-influenced 'Duende' whose name perfectly captures that indefinable electricity that connects performers and audiences - especially when the playing is as brilliant and rhythmically tight as this. Listen to 'Lonely Cat' by clicking the ► button above.

She and her friends play at numerous venues at home and abroad, and can be often heard at clubs around the city, including the new Jazz Dock on the embankment.

For yesterday's festival in Vršovice she teamed up with musicians from these and other groups, including Honza Karez-Soukup on sax and vocals, Vítek Pospíšil on keyboards, Martin Kreuzberg on drums and Tomislav Zvardoň on guitar.

The specially-formed lineup of Eva and her friends played an impressively wide range of jazz-funk and groove numbers as well as pop classics throughout the afternoon.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Roll up! Roll up!

The 'Start Vršovice' Civic Assocation was founded in 2009 to breathe new life into this historic area of old Prague.  Today, in collaboration with Café Sladkovský, they presented a superb festival of local produce, arts and crafts called 'Vršovice Sobě' - 'Vršovice for itself'.

The hugely enjoyable fair took place at the junction between Kondaňská and Krymská in a square which was a traditional marketplace in the early 1900s before being relegated to use as a car park.

Today, the cars were gone, and the stage was set for performances of live poetry and music of an exceptional quality. Alternative music from The Ecstasy of St Teresa in the morning and a performance by 'action poet' and Bohemians supporter Ondřej David were two highlights of the morning, while the afternoon saw a fabulous children's show presented by Cakes and Puppets, and more live music from Eva Holická and her gang.

They even arranged for the sun to shine all day, allowing hundreds of people to enjoy a pint and a sausage (or some of the excellent organic fare on offer) in an atmosphere which really did capture the spirit of the century-old market.  Today's picture shows Ondřej Kobza, proprietor of the new Café v Lese, playing the role of master of ceremonies.  More from the market tomorrow.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Elektra tram on Moskevská

The Elektra 14T from Škoda, with bodywork by Porsche, was introduced between 2006 and 2009, representing the most innovative re-design in public transport for many years. The main change from the old-style trams was the bendy section in the middle, which theoretically meant more room for passengers.

Sadly, the designers blew it by arranging the seating in such a way as to make the whole experience less convenient and mildly uncomfortable.

Something about the gearing makes these trams emit a high-pitched whine as they accelerate, and last but not least in this catalogue of woes, the old passenger access by the driver's door has gone, isolating the driver in a futuristic cab and causing mass-migration towards the rear doors every time a new-style tram approaches the stop. My friend Jim runs a facebook page dedicated to this chimaera of the transport system.

Fortunately, after the delivery of only sixty trams, they are to be replaced with 250 of the much better-looking 'ForCity' model, which will also premiere in the Latvian capital Riga in the coming year, and which feature, I am assured, pivoting bogies. To see pictures of this pendolino of the tram world, please see this article from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Better late than never...

Legend has it that when, at some future date, Bohemia is in real trouble - as if the Nazis and the Communists weren't enough - Saint Wenceslas (a.k.a. 'Good King') will emerge from his resting place under the hill of Blaník, thirty miles south-east of Prague, and ride to the defence of the realm.

You could have been forgiven for thinking the prophecy had been fulfilled this week when a twelve-foot-high statue of the saint was craned into position on the facade of the Vršovice church that bears his name. The statue was placed there on 29 September and blessed at a special service on 3 October.

Designed in 1929, this functionalist temple was constructed minus its patron, and the townsfolk of Vršovice have had to wait 80 years to see him take his rightful place on the empty plinth half way up the slender concrete tower. The half-ton bronze was created by sculptor Jan Roich, based on the one-tenth-scale maquette which had been preserved by the nephew of its original designer, Bedřich Stefan.

Wenceslas (Václav, in Czech) is often shown in this pose, striding (or riding) resolutely forth with his pennant or spear and his distinctive cap. The new statue is the latest in a long line of images of the saint to be found throughout the Czech lands.

You can read more about last week's occasion in this article from the Czech press, easily translatable using Google Translate.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Former Girls' School, Heroldovy Sady

The first village schoolmaster was appointed in Vršovice in the 17th century, and we know that in 1797 Matouš Holub was running a small school from his family cottage near the Botič. But the parish had to wait until the 1890s for its first purpose-built institutions, constructed alongside the gardens of Heroldovy Sady. Two of the buildings still function as business and management colleges, but the adjacent girls' establishment dating from 1898 is no longer in use as a school.

Even so, the improving sentiment of Victorian-era educational values remains in the imposing inscriptions. The one at the top reads 'School is the Foundation of Life' and below it are the names of the two women most associated with the Bohemian cultural scene in the second half of the nineteenth century, the writers Božena Němcová and Karolina Světla.

Between the two names appears an abbreviated version of the coat of arms of Vršovice: the Bohemian lion and the fishing basket called a vrš (from which folk etymologists like to derive the neighbourhood's name).

N.B. Apologies for the fact that the names are cut off. This photographer's error will be corrected in the next few days when I can get a replacement image.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Turf Wars

When I first visited Prague in 1991 the only graffiti I spotted was a stick man hanging from a hammer and sickle, sprayed thinly onto a wall beneath a bridge in Branik. Pretty daring stuff.  These days, it's everywhere, usually thoughtlessly and unartistically daubed on facades and doorways, even in the historic centre.
There's a wide range of equally unappealing stuff - largely 'tags' drawn in the usual spiky style to define some gang or other's territory.  Having said that, there is something visually striking about the overlaying of rival signatures in this collection from a wall running alongside the Botič stream on the Vršovice/Michle border.

What you don't get much of (apart from the traditional Satanic beard and horns applied to politicians' faces on election posters) is political sentiment of the sort that the commies clamped down on so successfully. The nearest I have found locally is the slogan in today's smaller picture: 'our streets, our towns' (scrawled on the hoardings of the building site behind the Rangherka). Just round the corner is another, in the same hand, reading 'today the pavements, tomorrow the whole park'. Quite witty.

But what I really want to know about all this graffiti is why you never see the little devils actually doing it...

Click here to view thumbnails for all participants in today's City Daily Photo theme day