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Czech cubism: why this unfairly forgotten style is finally making a comeback

Czech cubism: why this unfairly forgotten style is finally making a comeback
Czech designer Světlana Ciglerová's Cubist-inspired table-wares

As designers in Prague look back to Czech cubism for inspiration, Owen Vince considers a short-lived movement both prettier and more radical than its French cousin

6 March 2017

In June last year, Czech car manufacturer Skoda unveiled images for their upcoming SUV, named the “Kodiaq”. This seven-seater vehicle — light sliding in blue waves across its sculpted body - owes its inspiration to what seems like an unexpected source. Its sleek and glittering chassis took its cue (so its designers claim) from Bohemian crystal making and, perhaps less expectedly, from the short-lived art movement of Czech Cubism; a movement which flourished quickly between 1909 and 1914, before disappearing behind the impregnable wall of 20th century modernism.

With this subtle (and perhaps invisible?) nod to the past, Skoda aren’t the only designers looking creatively to the Czech Republic’s own visual and architectural history for their inspiration. Just before Christmas I came across a designer — Světlana Ciglerová (née Koženová) of Studio Vjemy — manufacturing Cubist-inspired table-wares in shining white porcelain which had been designed in 3D-printed moulds. The combination of the cleanliness of porcelain with the harmonious regularity of 3D printing has created something singularly beautiful; they weigh very little, with black coffee contrasting sharply against their shining bone white.

What you might notice, however, is the differentiation between Czech Cubism — clean, harmonious, and regular — from its French origins, where the style remains understood as an almost violent and fragmented representation of lopsided, overlapping and smashed cuboid forms. The emergence of Cubism “culminated”, as Irmgard Emmelhainz argues, “with the antihumanist rupture of the picture plane”, converting the visual object into a near “hallucination”. The twisting and obscure body of Picasso’s Figure dans un Fauteuil (1909-10) — half shrouded in darkness — is a world away from the formal sculpture of the Skoda, or the delicate prettiness of Studio Vjemy’s cups. Why the difference?

If Picasso saw Cubism as a fractured and dynamic array of forms, then those Czech architects who first imported and interpreted it within Czechoslovakia were more interested in the balanced relationships between those surfaces; the cube without its eruption. The Studio Vjemy cups are well-balanced, harmonious, and defiantly geometric. In the same vein, Modernista — who have a store in the centre of Prague — sell newly popular replicas and recreations of early 20th century products, ranging from ceramics to clocks each executed in the Cubist style. The store’s owner, in an interview with Radio CZ, waxed happily on their uniqueness; “nowhere else in the world was [Cubism] taken to such lengths”, where “Cubist buildings and Cubist coffee sets” emerged from among the European-facing fervour of the early 20th century.

Czech cubism asks of us to see form not as a fixed and final ‘thing’, but as a taut surface of radical and shifting possibilities

It is here that you can buy items such as Pavel Janak’s crystalline box (which looks like a special edition of a Nintendo Dreamcast) or his signature chair, its back-plate sculpted into a sharp, downward V. Such objects — for a short duration — provided accompaniment to the species of Cubist buildings which began to spring up within the city at the start of the last century; from apartment blocks on Neklanova Street to the world’s only Cubist lamppost, designed by Emil Kralicek. More recently, in 2012, EM2N architects acknowledged this legacy with their own Cubist-inspired building – the Keystone Office – in Prague’s Karlin district. Its volumetric facade presents a surface of shimmering planes arching in different directions, almost as if they were wings about to lift from the surface of a lake. It is a luxurious composition; fine Italian terrazzo interacting with its chrome and steel cladding.

At the time, the movement’s emphasis was on “frontality”, or of what has been called its “fixed visual stand” which alluded to those durations which extend beyond the building itself. Its sloped and geometric planes reference toward experiences beyond their own rigid surfaces. For architects such as Pavel Janak and his Cubist colleagues, this was about abstracting space into a “surface vision” — of using geometric form to express the drama and experience of seeing beyond the thing that was actually seen; it wasn’t about the building absorbing all of our sight, but of refracting it wildly to new horizons. It is an incredibly radical idea still, seeing as it asks of us to see form not as a fixed and final “thing”, but as a taut surface of radical and shifting possibilities.

Helpfully, they’re also madly pretty to look at. Fratisek Kupka was the architect responsible for building the House of the Black Madonna, located in the old town of the capital. Built between 1911 and 1912, it remains probably the most widely known and recognized instance of Cubist architecture in the world. After extensive and careful restoration, the building was reopened in November 2003. Within it stands the Grand Cafe Orient and the Czech Museum of Cubism. A shop sells home-wares, books, and prints. Outside, its red facade seems to bulge slightly over Celetna Street, its angular bay windows serving to define the peculiarity of its form.

Considering its uniqueness, the house itself is located close to a street of western fashion stores and a McDonalds, as well as the Museum of Communism (housed in an old casino, because irony is fantastic). Head upstairs (Cubist stairs!), and you’re confronted with the Cubist cafe itself. Its fittings, design, and features were intended to embody Cubist principles of proportion and design. Again, this is no Picasso painting: it’s incredibly refined and restrained. I’ve been there a handful of times during my stays in the city, and always enjoy that special kind of cheap but distinctly formal attitude you get in old-fashioned Czech joints. Waiters in white shirts and bow-ties. Aprons and slim china plates with delicate slices of strudel and chocolate cake. It’s okay; a strangely French feeling, very different from the cavernous halls of Czech beer and dumpling pubs.

After so many years of sterile modernism, Czech designers and customers are reaching further back into their own history

In its way, this Cubist revivalism can be understood as ideally European at heart; it invokes, simultaneously, the mass-production of German Bauhaus, Parisian art deco, and a global techno-futurism. And yet, what is surprising are how few Cubist buildings remain, or were even produced; a cafe, a block of flats, a lamppost. There are more, but the movement’s impact upon Czech culture was slight. This was because it fell quickly under the influence of post-1918 social change with its drive toward German functionalism over the decorative languor of Mucha-inspired art nouveau. The geometric and surprising gave way to the shockingly white and streamlined modernity of the late 1920s and 30s.

And yet, after so many years of sterile modernism, Czech designers and customers are reaching further back into their own history. This urge is reflected in the Cihelna Concept store in the Lesser Town district of Prague, stocking Czech glass, porcelain, jewellery, and furnishings; it has become a space in which to celebrate the country’s design both past and present, from chandeliers to champagne flutes, pointing toward nuanced high concepts and luxurious stylings.

The revival of Cubism in the Czech Republic – whether in cups, cafes, or cars – represents a new and future map for contemporary design; in looking toward the integration of modern manufacturing with historic forms, we’re offered an insight into what might transform into a new complexity. One way or another, we’re nearing what might become the saturation-point of minimalism, where the flexed planes and vibrant surfaces of a specifically Czech cubism suggest a movement toward Deyan Sudjic’s suggestion that “contemporary luxury depends on finding new things to do that are difficult”. Toward that “other reality” alluded to by Czech artist Kupka in his own cubist paintings. And what – we might argue – is more difficult than re-imagining the square itself?

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