Czech Cubism

The years around 1910 in Europe were linked with the rise of new avant-garde movements - cubist, futurist, and expressionist. Those of them that incorporated architecture and applied arts in their programme usually criticised with exaggerated rationality and utility the preceding modernist style of architecture, which, when working with buildings and objects of household furnishings, neglected to work with more emphatic shapes and ignored the needs of the human soul. In Prague, the basis for the new avant-garde movement became the Group of Artists, which was founded in 1911 by proponents of the cubism of Picasso and Braque - the painters Emil Filla, Antonín Procházka, Josef Čapek, the sculptor Otto Gutfreund, the writer Karel Čapek, and the architects Pavel Janák, Josef Gočár, Vlastislav Hofman and Josef Chochol.

The Group realised the epochal significance of Picasso's cubism and attempted to extract its ramification for their own work in all branches of artistic creativity. Their architect-members also tried to address the issue that all European architecture found itself faced with around 1910, and although they sensed an inner connection with the cubist revolution, they did not proceed to transfer the form-motives applied in cubist painting to their own projects and buildings. Cubists attempted to supplant the right-angled forms of modernism with oblique, broken, pyramidal ones; they desired to give shape to the boxlike, modernist interiors through the use of forms reminiscent of the inside of a crystal. Cubist painting perhaps helped them to purify these visions and rid them of the last remnants of the old modernist ornamentation. For cubist architects, however, an equally important role was played by the conviction that their work possessed an inner harmony with the "subjective" phases of architectural history - especially gothic and radical baroque - and that moreover the style was a sensitive complement to historical environment of Czech towns. The proof of Czech cubist architecture's capacity to sensitively blend with the preserved elements of past architecture is Gočár's House of the Black Madonna in the Old Town in Prague (1912), Chochol's houses beneath the baroque citadel in Vyšehrad in Prague (1912-1914), and Janák's reconstruction of the baroque House of Dr. Fára on the square in Pelhřimov (1913-1914).

All the cubist architects believed that their new style was meant to imbue the whole human environment with a unified character. The house and its interior were to become "a complex work of art", an integral component of which would be the cubist furniture and lights, cubist coffee and tea sets, vases, cases and ashtrays, cubist paintings on the wallpaper and cubist decorations. The architects Gočár, Chochol and Janák founded the Prague Artistic Workshop in 1912 for this purpose, and designed furniture for it, and the Artěl association began to focus on manufacturing small cubist objects. These promising developments were interrupted by the First World War. When it was over, and with an independent Czechoslovak Republic established in 1918, cubism received a "national" style: the broken and crystal-like ornamentation was replaced with colourful circles and arcs. But international purism and functionalism were knocking at the door, and during the next twenty years all the cubist artists transferred their allegiance there. Nevertheless, they left behind one of the most original forms of modern artistic expression in Europe.

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