Prague: Mucha and So Much More

There is an energy and charm in Prague that does not exist in all Central European cities. I love walking through Old Town with its shops, restaurants and 15th century astronomical clock showing the Earth at the center of the universe. I enjoy the outdoor café at the foot of Charles Bridge—the statue-lined pedestrian walkway spanning the Vltava River —watching hordes of people laughing, talking, and experiencing life as they amble through this city full of both history and potential. In many ways, the Czech Republic is like other countries that have experienced Austro-Hungarian and Soviet rule. However, Prague manages to reflect a unique personality, embracing the past while encouraging the future.
One distinctively Czech experience is the Black Light Theater, where giant puppets, mimes, dancers and actors create the illusion of floating people and magical places, all with little dialogue making the performances accessible in any language. Shows range from Alice in Wonderland to Faust.

            When I last visited Prague, there were Art Nouveau posters throughout the city publicizing the Mucha Museum, housed in the Baroque Kaunick Palace in New Town near Wenceslas Square. If you visit only one museum in Prague, this is the one you must see. Perhaps no other artist more perfectly captures the spirit of the city than Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939.) Whether you recognize his name or not, you would surely recognize his graceful art motifs. His posters for actress Sarah Bernhardt, in particular, with organic borders and elegant figures brought Mucha international celebrity. But he did more than create a new wave of swirling designs; he was also a patriot, concentrating on the politics and images of his homeland. This museum provides an informative video, in English, illustrated with archival photographs and film that tells of Mucha’s efforts to produce a cycle of paintings about the history of the Slavic peoples. After18 years, he ultimately presented his Slav Epic (20 large canvases) as a gift to his home country. While these paintings retain the grace and elegance of his Art Nouveau posters, they go beyond superficial prettiness to show the struggles and history of his people.  Mucha’s technique of allowing figures to make eye contact with the viewers is what brings them so directly into our hearts. After WWI, when the newly formed Czechoslovakia was created in 1918, Mucha designed its bank notes and postage stamps.  His work is also found in such places as the stained glass windows at Saint Vitus’ Cathedral at the Prague Castle complex (the inspiration of Kafka’s novel The Castle.)

In this city of curved streets and central squares, Art Nouveau buildings blend with the Gothic, Cubist, Medieval, and Modern giving us an architectural panorama that constantly captures our attention. The Powder Gate, one of the original city entrances, dates back to the 11th century, and the Old-New Synagogue built around 1270 is the oldest in Europe. The Church of Our Lady Before Tyn is one of many Gothic churches, while St. Nicholas Church offers beautiful Baroque details. One intriguing post- modern edifice (officially the Rasin Building,) by famed architect Frank O. Gehry is known as the “Fred and Ginger” building because one side leans into the other as if partners are dancing. With the grace of a Mucha poster, Prague has successfully moved into the present without loosing its connection with the past.

All photos by Bruce A Mellin


The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin