Not just another elegant European building, Prague’s striking national theatre symbolises the close ties between the arts and politics in this quirky magnificent city. It’s also a spirit that continues through Czech sculptor David Cerny, made famous after painting a Soviet tank pink after the velvet revolution.
In 1881, unlike other national theatres in Europe, this structure was paid for and designed by the everyday citizens to show their Austrian rulers that Czechs too had culture and artistic expression.
The Narodni Divadlo took 12 years to build but three months after opening the theatre burned down, after it was apparently struck by lightning. Despite the setback, enough money was raised again in two weeks, with part of the funds coming from whole villages where men tee-totalled for the cause.
From the country that currently boasts the highest levels of beer drinking per capita in the world this was probably not an easy feat, but within two years it was built and Bedrich Smetana’s opera Libuse was played on a stage with the inscription above of ‘Narod Sobe’ – a nation to itself.
Today, tickets to quality productions of opera, the ballet and plays in plush surroundings are surprisingly affordable – sometimes costing around $10 – and are a must-see for any visitor, in a country
that elected playwright Vaclav Havel as its first president after the fall of communism.
In Prague, artists are not just respected but at times are seen to be given free rein in what they produce, as can be seen in the works of controversial sculptor David Cerny, who last year received a lot of flak for taking the Mickey out of everyone in an official European Union-commissioned art project in Brussels.
He was first made famous after the fall of communism when he painted the memorial Soviet Tank on Kinsky Square bright pink and while it’s no longer there, a number of Cerny’s works throughout the city are still on display – subtly placed however, so you need to know where to find them.
Walking north towards the Bethlehem Church where Jan Hus’ sermons ignited the protestant revolution, I was shocked to see what looked like a man hanging from a building, but upon closer inspection it was actually a statue of Sigmund Freud hanging by one arm on a pole that extends from the roof of Jilska Street.
Some people live in Prague many years and don’t notice Cerny’s ‘hanging man’, but it is this sort of obscurity and strange symbolism that makes finding such sculptures feel like a real discovery.
One of the most notable in Prague is of St Wenceslas sitting proud on a horse at the end of Wenceslas Square in front of the National Museum – the patron saint with a Christmas carol named after him, who actually was assassinated by his own brother on the way to church.
But Cerny takes on Good King Wenceslas in a different way, sitting on the belly of an upside down horse in the Lucerna Passage, on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Vodickova Street.
Cerny is also famed for his sculptures of large babies climbing on the Zizkov Television Tower, as well as a fountain outside the Kafka Museum of two men relieving themselves.
Any art lover in Prague cannot go past the works of Alfons Mucha either, whose unique style was to become what we now know as art nouveau, first making a name for himself through advertisement, a la Andy Warhol. Mucha designed the murals for the Prague Municipal House and a stained glass window in St Vitus Cathedral, while many paintings feature in the Mucha Museum on Panska Street.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg in a city that is not just about the postcard buildings and Gothic spires, but people who revere the arts and continue to express themselves in unique and changing ways.
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