Wannabe city planners and real estate developers of every community on the planet should be “forced” to spend some time in Prague before they’re allowed to embark on their career. After a period of study, paid for by their parents or other crowd-funding group, they must return to a disadvantaged neighborhood to do some pro-bono work. If their first project does not make the neighborhood a more beautiful place, then they shall spend the rest of their lives sweeping metal and wood shavings off the floors of sculptors and carvers.
C’mon, are you kidding me? At some point in the past, God threw a lightning bolt down on the citizens of Bohemia and told them to make art. That’s the only thing that can explain the fact that, within the first couple of miles of Old Town Prague, there is art of all kinds everywhere. Paintings, sculpture, metal work, wood carvings, calligraphy. Hundreds of years old. Ten days old. So high on a building that only the pigeons can enjoy it, and so low to the ground that the dogs can pee on it. Every. Where.
Geni and I are continually turning our heads and pointing at beautiful pieces of art. The locals walk by and roll their eyes as if to say: “But of course there is art there. Where else would it be?”
It all started with the worship of “God” of course. St. Vitus Cathedral, in the center of Prague Castle, is magnificent art by the square inch. There isn’t anywhere that your eye can rest. If you’re into art, you could spend a day sitting in one spot and you would see something new every minute simply by moving your eyes a tiny bit. Geni and I spent almost two hours there and we felt like we rushed it. Actually, we did rush it. I’m sure we missed most of it. What were we thinking? I guess we have to go back.
In a sense, the Cathedral must have been a huge exhale of the breath of Art, because the citizens have been breathing that air ever since. That breath of air passed from the kings and other sponsors of the church to the gardeners, shopkeepers, and real estate developers of ancient Prague. And it is still swirling around today.
It probably went something like this: some guy, long ago, built a 7-story apartment building (they’re all 5- to 7-stories because that’s the limit people were willing to climb with an armload of groceries and a crying baby before the invention of the elevator) with a sculpture of muscled men and women over the front door. His neighbor said: “Oh yeah? I see your door sculpture and raise you a cherub over every window.” The guy next door said: “Bah. I see all that and raise you two steeples, hand-painted scroll work around every window, metal vines and sigils over the carriage entry, and gargoyles at the end of every gutter. Oh, and the wings of the angels that grace all corners of each steeple are gold. Take that!”
Everywhere we go there are moments of “what the hell, look at that!” Today, on the way to nowhere in particular, there was a park with a huge sculpture-building in the center of it. It had a transparent, 60 ft x 60 ft clock, 6 stories up. It had a matching transparent clock across from it on the other side of the building, so you could see through both clocks to the buildings on the other side of the street.
Then, oh look, there’s a steeple, a subtle one, smaller than the clock. And there is a tiny cross on top of the building. And you realize the clocks are above and framing, what? What the hell? Is that a church? Yes. It’s a church. No, it’s a sculpture. The clocks are above the main sanctuary? And they’re transparent except for the hands and the numerals? Who are these people?
Meanwhile, the locals are walking by like no-big-deal and I’m the only one looking for the best angle to take a picture. This place is nothing special. It’s Prague. Don’t you live in a place like this?
Uh. No. Sorry. I live in America. We spend a lot of time at the paint store looking at color chips before we paint our house. We want to be nice, but not too nice.
Oh. I see. I guess that here in Prague, nice has a different definition?
Yes, you could say that.
The walls on the sixth floor across the street from our apartment are painted with full size figures of three Kings from the medieval era. There are eight sculptures on the building two doors down. There is a driveway gate a block away that is made of metal swoops and swirls from an era that I need an art history student to tell me about. There is a park with three or four bigger-than-life-size brass sculptures a block away. There is a steeple with gold accents two blocks away.
Keep in mind, we’re in an average downtown neighborhood. We’re about two miles from Old Town. We’re in a neighborhood of locals. This goes on for square miles. No big deal.
The breathing of art never ended, though it went partly underground during the Soviet era. There are some interesting, and crazy, pieces of modern art here and there. There are new paintings and poetry painted on walls.
There is great signage and menu calligraphy that goes way beyond trying to attract tourists in the door. They’re going to get them in the door, there’s no doubt about that because we’re coming here by the millions and we’re hungry and thirsty. They know that. They don’t care. They made their signs beautiful because. Because.
They don’t need a reason. They breathe art.
None of it had to be created. The tourists would still come. The money would still be spent. The lovers would still stroll the river walks.
But the artists here can’t stop themselves. How could they? The breath of art surrounds them.
(I’m going to write several follow-up posts to this, that are primarily photo galleries: sculpture, painting, design/signage, steeples.)