Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History by Derek Sayer

Marta Filipová on compelling tales of a city’s artistic, intellectual and political cultures

May 30, 2013

For the average tourist, Prague represents a bit of history, a bit of Kafka, a bit of heavy food and a lot of beer. For the cultural tourist, Prague stands for historic architecture, Jewish stories and haunting realities, enigmatic smoky cafes - and a lot of beer. The world of cafes and pubs is indeed a distinguished Prague institution in which many literary, musical, artistic and political ideas were born. A visit to the Bohemian capital in 1935 by the French Surrealists, including André Breton and Paul Éluard, therefore necessarily involved exchanges with their Czech counterparts in these establishments.

This image opens Derek Sayer’s new book, Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, in which he wanders through Prague’s public and personal histories, evoking Guillaume Apollinaire’s Zone or Walter Benjamin’s writing on Paris. In an attempt to “rummage amid the rags and refuse of yesterday’s modernity”, Sayer shows us that the Prague of the interwar period “provided artists and intellectuals with fuel for modernist dreaming”. Indeed, Modernism and dreaming are central to his exploration of the historical situations, artistic trends and personal biographies that are intertwined here. And although he sets out to focus on Eric Hobsbawm’s short 20th century (1914-91), he stays firmly grounded in the dreams and nightmares of the 1930s, while making the occasional trip outside this period - as far back as the Reformation, or ahead to the more recent artistic provocations of David Černý.

Sayer is indeed knowledgeable about his subject. His broader study of the history of Bohemia with a Shakespeare-inspired title, The Coasts of Bohemia, was a useful introduction to the cultural history of the region and its myths. Myths and tales feature heavily in this book too, although it is a very different sort of story, full of darker humour and surrealist laughter on the one hand, and forgetting “people and histories” on the other. References to literary works, such as those of Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka, are plentiful and so are vivid descriptions of literary, musical and visual works of art by more and less familiar Czechs including František Drtikol, Karel Teige and Jan Werich.

As Sayer reminds us, the jocular Good Soldier Švejk-ish atmosphere of Prague’s intellectual world often had dark undertones. The political interventions of undemocratic regimes, including communism and fascism, appear frequently in personal histories to alert us to the complexities with which many had to cope. The Jewish presence in Prague, for instance, becomes more than a Golem story, and we learn about the artists who collaborated with the Communist regime too.

Being a Surrealist history, the book does not offer a straightforward historical overview. Instead, it presents a collage of stories of individuals or works of art, in which Prague becomes a metaphorical place where Modernist dreams “have time and again unravelled a location in which the masks have sooner or later always come off”. This approach can make the book challenging, especially if you are not familiar with various Czech names and circumstances. On the other hand, it offers an insight into often quite extraordinary life stories connected with Prague as well as their international context. Moreover, you need to read the whole book to put together the great puzzle of personal journeys that move from Prague to Paris or New York and back again. Sometimes these trips are longer than strictly necessary, and reflect Sayer’s enthusiasm for Surrealism in general. When, for instance, he examines the lives of the French protagonists or large Surrealist exhibitions in detail, the Czech connections can be hard to spot. However, he soon returns to his favourite places in Prague and its crossroads of Modernist dreaming and surreal histories.

When Sayer joined Prague’s inhabitants and visitors in their favourite activity of sipping beer, it was on the terrace of one of the city’s most distinguished Modernist cafes, belonging to the Mánes Association of Fine Artists. He could not have known that the building, in which Breton gave a public lecture and where the Czech Surrealists held their first exhibition in 1935, was shortly to provide artists and intellectuals with new fuel, this time for protest against the building’s commercialisation and loss of connection with the contemporary art scene. Today’s locals dream about the glory and artistic vibrancy of Mánes in the 1930s. In Prague, the past and present of places, people and art is still intertwined.

Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History

By Derek Sayer
Princeton University Press, 656pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691043807
Published 29 May 2013

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