28 Jan 2011

Prague, Museum of Decorative Arts and tourism

There is so much to see in the city of Prague that it can be hard to know where to start. Prague has to be one of Europe's most splendid cities, showing levels of creativity and beauty that cover a very long time span. I happened, by chance (does chance really exist?), to start a visit to this town a couple of years back by going to the Museum of Decorative Arts, probably because it was conveniently near the hotel I was using in the old part of the town.

The outside of the building is nothing special, being of that slightly lumbering style that has been favoured for museum architecture all over the world, at least until the mid-twentieth century, and with some notable exceptions. It is impressive enough, but I can see no progress over the daunting Victorian monstrosities of the 19th century, apart from a slight reduction in scale.

No, it is what it contains that makes this museum  a revelation of the incredible richness of creativity in just about every field of craftsmanship during the 1920's and 1930's in what was then Czeckoslovakia.

Whether one looks at graphics, typography, photography, ceramics, fabric and clothing design, cabinet-making, metal work, etc., in all these fields there is a spirit of invention combined with rigour in its application that shines through the extremely rich and well-presented collection of the museum.

One of the discoveries I made there (shows my ignorance perhaps) was the photography of Frantisek Drtikol.

As I said before, most craft and design activities show huge depth in this collection, with a combination of elegant simplicity and innovative ideas. The context around Europe produced a lot of this kind of work, but the Czech school seems to have been particularly fertile

As magnificent as it may be, medieval and baroque architecture is far from all Prague has to offer. It is rare, when wandering around cities, to see whole facades of a certain era relatively unchanged by successive fashions. In Prague, even the doorknobs and other fittings often remain true. Maybe this is why it is so often used for film shootings. But the town is far from being a giant open-air museum.

A word of advice, valid for Prague as for virtually any city plagued by mass touristic influx: avoid the main streets, predestrian or otherwise, as these all contain the same stupidly boring shops of international brands that you find everywhere in the world. You just have to walk one block to either side of these crowded streets and not only will your path become miraculously free of the madding crowd, but you will also discover the feel of the city with its specific shops and restaurants rather than a sort of international shopping mall stacked with mindless brand-mania at all price levels, from Macdonald to Vuitton. 

Fly low and slowly, as an anxious mother said to her freshly qualified pilot of a son