Less is a bore* and more too

Until the end of September you‘ll have an opportunity to meet the Jagiellonian Europe of the dawn of modernity in Kutná Hora. Unfortunately, it’s not the only illuminating exhibition Václav Klaus will surely not come to see!

Right after seeing the exhibition Europa Jagellonica at GASK in Kutná Hora I felt surfeited, tired and a little disappointed but then I realized my feelings were inadequate. The surfeit was more or less appropriate: the exhibition tour along the two wings of the former Jesuit College, including the audiovisual programme in the third one, took three and a half hours and towards the end it seemed a little difficult to distinguish the wood carvings of saints from one another – except for the final sculture of a dilapidated cadaver (Death – Vanitas), which was rather refreshing. To feel tired after passing a summer day in a city, which itself seems to be a part of the exhibiton, could actually be quite understandable. Imagine the churches of St. Barbara, St. James, Virgin Mary Na Náměti, the Little Castle, Rejsek’s fountain and the whole late-medieval center. There was no reason for disappoinment, though; if one compared the exhibition with the Prague Pernštejns and their Time, one would cheer up at once. There were no confused captions or incomplete information one could find in the Salmovský Palace at the Prague Castle. In fact, what was so great about the whole exhibition gave rise to my disappointment: I realized how rarely the Jagiellonian epoch is presented in the Czech Republic. I didn’t learn much about the significance of the thaler and Jáchymov, details on the Podunajská school were lacking, while those on Dürer were excessive (this says an admirer of Dürer). I also missed some commentary of the period architecture and other things. The mistake is mine, of course – it’s called false expectation, I think.

When I’m leafing through the catalogue (finally in a paperback edition and for a reasonable price) and remember the scope of what I’ve seen, I’m obliged to pay tribute to Jiří Fajt and the other curators. Above all, the exhibition makes its visitors deal with their own preconceived notions and ideas about what Europe means in an interesting way. Our belief that what’s to the East of our borders is rather connected to Asia dates back to the times of the Golden Hord and Ottoman attacks, and it is also fostered by the anecdotes saying that the Balkans begins behind Vienna and Asia in Moravia. What’s located behind Krakow and below Budapešť seems exotic not only from the point of view of Western Europe. Perhpas due to the heritage of The Western Roman Empire, but also due to great Asian expansions the idea of the expanse of Europe widened and narrowed. But a Greek from the times of Perikles probably wouldn’t understand which area is spoken of by a Roman living after Julius Ceasar’s reign or a Frank from Karl Martel’s army, an inhabitant of Great Moravia… and we catch ourselves thinking that Moldavia, Lviv or Vilnius are somewhere over there in the East. I believe that the greatest contribution of the exhibition is the broadening of our horizons by giving account of the culture of these areas in Early Modern Times and the fact that all were granted roughly the same space and significance.

The choice of highest value exhibits is undoubtedly a tremenduous achievement and I don’t mean to belittle it by mentioning it in the second place but it’s impossible to speak about two things at once in a written text. I’ll name at least the works of Veit Stoss – had it not been for the exhibition we would have to travel to Krakow, Norimberk or Schwabach to see them – or the wood carvings of Master Pavel from Levoč. I was charmed by two altar wings with Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara in flowering shrubs. The gentility and tenderness of both young women set in the natural scenery is pictured with striking details, contrasts and harmonies of colours. A wood carver’s equivalent of being interested in the background landscape is undoubtedly captured in the relief The Visitation of Virgin Mary by the Monogramist I. P. The high relief The Mourning of Christ made of stone from Brno gives an exceptional impression. In the context of the times fond of Baroque ballooning draperies, the emotionally calm, clasically simple rendering seems monumental. The portraits by Hans Krell capture the fresh youth of Ludwig Jagellon and especially Mary Habsburg. A minute wood carving of The Madonna in Mourning by Hanse Witten or the iconographically unusual relief of St. Lucas painting Madonna are impressive. What also catches one’s attention are the illuminations by Jakub from Olomouc, coins of Kutná hora production or Jáchymov thalers as well as the memorial medal issued on the ocassion of the death of the Czech and Hungrian king Ludwig II and Štěpán Šlik (In this context I would call attention to Šlik’s story of illegal coin-making and trafficking with Zdeněk Lev from Rožmitál. Or is it considered legally all right nowadays, and I missed something?) What needs to be mentioned are also the incunabula of books with coloured wood carvings. We expect an exhibition to arrange our immediate contact with original works – a sensual experience – and Europa Jagiellonica meets this expectation indeed.

To situatate the exhibiton in Kutná hora has an advantage: one doesn’t have to register in advance – as, for example, in the case of the exhibition about Karel IV.** in Prague (also by the curator Pavel Fajt). Moreover, it calls attention to the exhibition space itself, which was open after the reconstruction in 2010, and it also creates a point of interest outside the capital, in most appropriate historical scenery. Many accompanying programmes were organized in the city itself but there were also lectures relating to the topic in Prague. Radio Leonardo is broadcasting a series dedicated to the exhibition and it provoked much response in the press as well as on the Internet. There were discussions about the political context, about which I won’t talk about and which is easily accessible on the net.

If we think about how the image of the world changed in the course of those times (symbolized by the initial statue by Veit Stosse and the final sculpture of Death) we’ll discover that while at the beginning of the Jagellonian age one could hear hardly more than a water or wind mill clattering in the countryside, at its end there was massive wood cutting in the areas with the developing mining and metallurgy industry (eventually, the first forest code had to be issued in about the middle of the 16th century). One could hear the sounds of drop hammers from the stamping mills, the humming of furnaces, the noise windlasses made, and smoke was rising over all of that, while excavations and mud appeared in the landscape. The times were changing, the law was changing (for example in Jáchymov Štěpán Šlik issued and printed a modern mining code in 1518), just as the relations between individuals, nations as well as between the adherents of different religions.

If anyone wanted to object that any of the introduced areas is covered insufficiently, he or she would surely admit in no time that individual parts of the exhibition are introduced by a lot of written text and the catalogue as well as the captions of exhibits are really extensive – it’s all almost unbearable for visitors, so there clearly wasn’t space for everything here. So much for my initial criticism of the lack of certain information. The exhibition needs to be adapted to the exhibition space, while the visitors have to deal with their memory and perception capacities. So the “extra” interesting stories rather fall flat, and not even the best photographs of architecture can compensate for the sight of real works. Attentive visitors got some stimuli they can further process and some information they can go on completing. Above all, they had a chance to see a lot with there own eyes, approach the Jagellonian epoch and, with some imagination, also participate in the exhibition.

* Robert Venturi’s paraphrase of the famouse quote by Ludwig Miese van der Rohe.

** Charles IV., Emperor by the Grace of God (New York-Prague, The Prague Castle 2005-2006)

published: 21. 10. 2012

David Bartoň

David Bartoň

Šéfredaktor Přítomnosti /