I won’t lie, I was far from enthused by the prospect of spending hours inside The National Technical Museum in Prague, but was outvoted by the males on our festive trip to the Czech capital. The National Museum, numerous art galleries, monasteries and libraries brimming with antique books were far higher on my agenda, but was pleasantly surprised and impressed. The museum is housed in an enormous concrete and brick building adjacent to Letna Park with views over the Vlatva river, and I was immediately won over by the gruff looking but utterly charming old(er) man who sold us our tickets and took the time to share much information about the museum with us! The collection is vast; comprising transport, architecture and civil engineering, printing, mining, astronomy, horology, photography and household appliances across six floors. The stand-out gallery is dedicated to transport and takes up the entire back of the building with a triple height exhibition hall filled with bicycles, motorbikes, cars, trains, planes suspended from the ceiling, and even a hot air-balloon charting the history of developments in Czech transportation. With fourteen large permanent displays as well as the temporary exhibition and only two hours allotted for our visit, we decided to focus on printing and architecture. The printing gallery mimics an antiquated print shop with typesetting blocks, printing presses from various periods, newspaper and bookbinding machinery, and outlines the role print material played in developing the country’s national consciousness. Similarly the architecture gallery documents the most significant buildings erected across Czechoslovakia over the last century via original models, plans, sketches, photographs of their construction and replicas – and I enjoyed recognising and learning more about the civic landmarks I had already visited or walked past in the city. Despite my reservations, this museum challenged my preconceptions and highlighted how important technical innovations are in all our lives in myriad ways.
Nestled between the Old Town Square and Vlatva River you’ll discover Josehov, Prague’s Jewish quarter. Turning off a street brimming with designer shops and boutiques, the cobbles are suddenly decorated with the Star of David – and six synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall and one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe all vie for space within a few streets. My first stop was the Spanish Synagogue, a Moorish revival style building which opened in 1867 with a double height gilded main hall surrounded by balconies and stained glass windows. The exhibition inside tells the story of Jews in Czechoslovakia since the emancipation under Emperor Joseph II through to the traumatic events of the 20th century. Five minutes’ walk away is Pinkas Synagogue, devoid of any interior decoration and instead the walls are covered in 78,000 names written in black or red ink representing Czech victims of the Holocaust. This powerful memorial was designed by the painters Vaclav Bostik and Jiri John and opened in 1960 but was closed eight years later during the Soviet occupation of the country, and only reopened after the fall of Communism in 1998. Behind this synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery, an apt location to memorialise the pre-twentieth century Jewish community with graves dating from 1400’s until 1768. A path leads you around the tomb stones to the Ceremonial building which outlines daily and special Jewish rituals and practices through a basic but informative display. My final visit was to Maisel Synagogue, a neo-gothic style building which resembled a church more than a traditional synagogue. Whilst it was interesting to witness such architectural variation in close proximity, their singular usage as museums felt a little unnatural and I was sad not to see a practising community within the synagogues, and ultimately the exhibition content began to feel a little repetitive across all five sites.
First impressions of Colombo are of a noisy construction site, as the modern capital busily reclaims land from the sea and erects new skyscrapers, five-star hotels and shopping centres. It seems a far cry from the tranquillity of the beaches on the south coast, the scenic hill country and tea plantations inland, and low-rise indigenous or historic Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial buildings dotted across the rest of the island. Head inland from the Fort district and coastline, and into The Pettah (bazaar) and you will find something completely different and far more seductive… the streets narrow, the humid air thickens, and there is barley room for pedestrians to squeeze through the buses, tuk-tuks, bicycles and manually pulled carts all sharing each narrow road. Following years of civil and religious unrest, it was also reassuring to see Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Muslim mosques and Christian churches all sharing these tight spaces in much the same way as the various modes of transport do. The largest thoroughfare through the district is aptly named Main Street and houses the stunningly kitsch red and white Jami ul-Aftar mosque built in 1909. A few roads on brings you to both the New Kathiresan and Old Kathiresan kovils; Hindu temples which could easily have been taken from the set of an Indian Jones film, both dedicated to the war god Skanda and pyramid shaped adorned with innumerable colourful carved sculptures all the way to the tip. Finally you reach Sri Ponnambula Vanesvara kovil – seemingly inconspicuous from the street, but once you remove your shoes and make your way around the building to the main entrance, it again renders you speechless! Whilst it lacks the lively colours of its’ neighbouring temples, instead being constructed from stone blocks and carved columns it has a quiet, regal impact. Inside, ten shrines add hints of colour via painted wooden peacocks and mythical figures, all flickering in the light of ghee lamps and cracks of sunlight.
Whilst googling, flipping through various guidebooks, websites and tourist information portals ahead of my festive trip to Budapest, the Museum of Applied Arts (and more specifically its stunning glass-roofed main hall) constantly stood out. Constructed in the 1890’s as a masterpiece of Hungarian art nouveau the building was purpose built to display and promote the country’s crafts and skills in an optimum setting; mixing eastern oriental influences with western vernacular architecture, alongside traditional Hungarian green and yellow ornamental tiling, and a huge exterior dome. Having walked along the river Danube, I approached the museum from the rear and was initially fearful that all my preparatory reading had been in vain and it had closed down! From the exterior the museum looked forlorn and almost derelict, and although its’ appearance improved a little at the main entrance it was far from the show-piece I was expecting. Once inside, the double-floor oriental arcade and glass-roofed hall charm, and the permanent collection of gold and silverware, aristocratic clothing, costume jewellery, furniture, ceramics, artworks and weapons are pleasant but not especially memorable. The two temporary exhibitions ‘Breuer – at Home Again’ and ‘In the Mood for Colours’ feel very modern, fresh and almost out of place in an otherwise tired and dated museum. The Breuer comprising strong examples of the Hungarian architect and furniture designers’ creations, and the Colour exhibition cleverly playing with perception by arranging the collection by dominant colour rather than historic period or style. The show is also accompanied by the ColourMirror project, an interactive installation which digitally reflects visitors’ clothes matching them to an object within the museum collection – which certainly engaged me on a search to find my ‘match’ within the collection! Despite a saddening lack of investment, it was heartening to see plans for refurbishment and redevelopment and I hope it is reformed into the grand building it once was.
The Round Tower has loomed over Copenhagen since 1642 when it opened to the public as a hybrid structure combining an astronomical observatory, student church and university library. Erected by King Christian IV, the listed building is 34.8 metres high and continues to soar above modern buildings in the city, offering a stunning panorama from a viewing platform at its apex. Upon entering, visitors are greeted by bright white walls setting off the stone brickwork spiral that steadily inclines all the way to the top of the tower – a sublimely unique and leg friendly alternative to stairs! Half way up the tower you reach the Library Hall which functioned as a book lenders until 1861, and now houses temporary exhibitions (currently an archival photographic display entitled ‘Visions and Beliefs’ offering insights into a century of Danish missionaries’ global projects between 1980 -1970). A few steps on from the Hall is a more practical feature within the building; an original toilet complete with nicotine stained arched ceilings following centuries of students’ pipe smoking whilst visiting the privy! As you continue to climb the tower, you reach the Bell Loft which not only houses the bells, but has been utilised widely by Copenhagen’s residents for everything from drying laundry to store tanned hides, dry herbs, paint theatre sets as well as dress-making and millinery. In 1880 the loft was even rented by Leiutenant Bernhard Olsen who created a peasant museum in the space! A final ascent directs you to a reconstruction of the 1700’s Planetarium inspired by Bayer, depicting a three dimensional model of the solar system with the sun in the centre orbited by six planets. A few more steps lead you onto a 360 degree outdoor viewing platform, offering scenic views across the city despite it being cloudy the day of my visit.
Lamentably June’s weather may not be yielding any indication of summer, however The Royal Academy’s annual ‘Summer Exhibition’ which opened on 13th June has denoted the beginning of the season in the art world. Now in its 248th year, the exhibition is something of a London institution and is certainly worth a visit. As you turn off Piccadilly and enter the gallery’s courtyard, you are greeted by Ron Arad’s monumental sculpture ‘Spyre’, an 18 metre tall moving cone with a camera at its apex constantly filming the surrounding area from different angles which is then projected onto Burlington House. This impact is echoed in the stairwell featuring photographic images by Jane and Louise Wilson, and again in the opening gallery (The Central Hall) which includes a huge yellow neon sign ‘Forever’ by Tim Noble and Sue Webster, a hand painted photograph on canvas of Marie Antoinette by Pierre et Gilles, and a stone Petrified Petrol Pump by Allora and Calzadilla amongst others. This years’ show is co-ordinated by Richard Wilson RA, and with a staggering 1,240 works on display it is as vast, densely hung, varied and subjective as ever. The open submission nature of the show ensures that all mediums are represented from watercolour, to etching, engraving, printing, sculpture, installation, photography and digital, from both established artists and emerging talent. The standout piece for me is Katlug Ataman’s digital installation ‘The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci’ created from 10,000 LCD panels which hang above head height, each containing a portrait photograph of someone the Turkish philanthropist knew prior to his death fifteen years ago. Anything controversial is collated in Gallery IX including Michael Stokes explicit clay sculptures, Rachel Maclean’s digital orgy prints, and The Kipper Kids provocative photographic images. I liked the fact that Wilson does not seem to want to provoke or generate conversation by being deliberately shocking, instead he consciously explores the theme of artistic duos in this years’ show. So if London’s skies are going to remain grey I’d suggest heading to the RA for a burst of colour, lightness and humour to fake summer at their aptly titled exhibition!
Dulwich isn’t always the easiest part of London to travel to… however their current exhibition on enigmatic Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelius Escher is certainly worth the effort. It features nearly 100 pieces from the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag collection, starting with his early works of 1920’s through to his last print ‘Snakes’ from 1969. For an artist with so many iconic pieces, Escher remains an obscure figure, but this exhibition sheds light on his original intentions to study architecture, his travels through Europe, marriage to Jetta and their children, and politics of the time – which place the works in much better context. There are too many standout pieces to mention, but ‘Eight Heads’ a 1992 woodcut, ‘Metamorphosis II’ a monumental woodcut (unusually featuring colour) created in 1939-‘40, and ‘Eye’ a mezzotint from 1946 deserve special attention. ‘Eight Heads’ is Escher’s first tessellation and gives the impression of a never ending story by repeating the same pattern of eight heads as its’ central motif. ‘Metamorphosis II’ spans an entire wall of one gallery and was extended to a 42 metre version in 1967 for the Post Office in The Hague; it begins and ends with the word metamorphose against a mono background and includes a chequered pattern which morphs into tessellations of reptiles, honeycomb, insects, fish, birds, and three dimensional blocs with red tops merging into an Italian coastal town and on into a chess set, all in stunning detail, ‘Eye’ features his own eye magnified by a convex shaving mirror with a skull occupying the centre of his pupil, and is displayed alongside the sketch and metal etching plate that the dry-point image was printed from, explaining the artistic process. Having now seen these pieces close up, I can only lament that Escher died in 1972 and I will never have the opportunity to hear him talk and gain insight into the inspiration behind his surreal yet methodical and mathematically perfect images.
The Berlinische Gallerie (or Museum of Modern Art in Berlin) is housed in a former 1950’s glass factory and opened as a museum in 2004. Whilst the upstairs galleries showcase German art from the late 19th century Wilhelmine era through to the post war art of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, it was the ground floor exhibition ‘Radically Modern’ examining Berlin’s architecture that really grabbed my attention. The show comprises 300 architectural drawings, photographs, models, collages and aerial shots thoughtfully displayed flat on the floor allowing visitors to experience the sensation of seeing the city from above. Beginning in 1950 and taking a loosely chronological approach, it discusses the post-war boom in construction and architectures’ heavy links with politics; most poignant in the construction of the Berlin wall in 1961. Initiated by a deliberate move away from “the megalomaniac planning under the Nazi dictatorship” it looks at subsequent differences between the Easts’ neo-classical style to try and emphasise the confidence of the new state, versus the Wests’ re-appropriation of 1920’s avant-garde styles. Particular points of interest for me were the desire to destroy rather than preserve older buildings, though two key exceptions can be seen in The Reichstag and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial chapel. I also enjoyed viewing the construction of the Television Tower which continues to dominate the skyline, as well as city planners’ visions for reunification including a 1960’s Berlin as a “city on electronically operated conveyor belts” and a collage of the “Socialist City Model” seeing city dwellers relaxing by a pool in front of their uniform blocks of flats. In many ways it is a relief that architecture is no longer as explicit a political tool, however this exhibition did highlight modern architects’ reluctance for self-expression and to push boundaries creating their own utopian visions, but today seem more driven by economics instead.
MUDE Museum – The Museum of Design and Fashion in Lisbon – is well worth exploring. I have to admit I knew nothing about it prior to visiting and was enthusiastic to discover that it is housed in the old BNU headquarters. The museum has done an admirable job of preserving the original banks’ features, most visible in the basement where the vast vaults, chunky Chubb locks, safety deposit boxes and maximum security measures remain in situ and showcase temporary exhibitions to great effect. The ground floor is dedicated to their permanent collection (Francisco Capelo’s collection) which draws out design highlights from each decade of the 20th century. This display is accompanied by recognisable music from each era and an information board comprising bullet-point history and politics of the decade, helping add context to each design. The first floor again encourages investigation and looks at design from an unusual perspective; displaying portrait photographs of architects alongside architectural drawings, quotations about, or images of their buildings and somewhat provocatively questions the culture of “design celebrity” as the majority of architects had instantly recognisable names yet the majority of their faces alluded me (and other visitors). The top floor contained an exhibition dedicated to local design produced over the last sixty years – pertinent given the fact that Portugal did not have a museum dedicated to design where designers could develop a collective awareness until this century. The exhibition is entitled ‘How do you pronounce design in Portuguese?’ and again explores topics from an unusual angle, discussing the idea of a collective national design and how the country’s geography, heritage, traditions and culture have shaped and influenced this. The whole building has an unfinished, ramshackle charm to it which encourages exploration, and in conjunction with its inspiring exhibitions made for a very satisfying visit.