Tour guides on the way through the city will tell you it's one of the most unusual villas in Prague, found at the cross-roads of Mickiewiczova street and Chodkovy sady, where the city's old ramparts used to stand, an ambitious structure completed in 1911. Surrounded by tall trees, evergreens, a wide garden, it was designed by the famous Czech Art Nouveau Symbolist sculptor Frantisek Bilek, whose life we look at in this edition of Czechs in History.
The villa is one of the viewer's first keys to the artist's work, a glimpse into his life, a glimpse of the ideals and dreams of a visionary artist in the late 19th, early 20th century. Brick and stone, housing a permanent exhibition, it is one of Bilek's most enduring legacies. We shall witness sculptures from wood and bronze, as well as drawings, sketches, and carvings, many religious, most mystical, all full of mystery.
Frantisek Bilek was born in the south Bohemian town of Chynov, near Tabor, in 1872. Early on he began to show a talent for painting, and was accepted to Prague's Academy for the Arts at the age of just fifteen. Though clearly talented at drawing, he showed surprising problems with painting: he was soon diagnosed by a doctor and found to suffer from partial colour-blindness, which made a future career in painting impossible. It was a fateful event that the young man would broaden his talents in sculpture instead. Art historian Marie Halirova, a foremost expert on Bilek's life and work here in the Czech Republic, explains how Bilek made his way to three-dimensional expression:
"Rector Marak helped Frantisek Bilek get a place under professor Josef Mauder at the UMPRUM Academy, which taught sculpture in Prague. Bilek attended and began to show a talent for modelling. In 1892 Marak asked him to model his portrait as well as that of his daughter. The two plaster works were displayed at the Jubilee World's Fair in Prague, bringing him recognition."
On the successful completion of his studies, Frantisek Bilek was awarded a two-year stipend to study in Paris. There he befriended Czech female graphic artist and painter Zdenka Braunerova, who was his first literary acquaintance, and who pushed his work strongly at a time when Bilek was virtually unknown. Bilek would discover his personal style in Paris, but not thanks to his professor. Instead, he consulted with his friend the painter Alfons Mucha, as well as with others, who recommended he join the Colarossi Academy. Soon, however, he came to the understanding he would not learn more in Paris than he had already learned in Prague. He left the school, moved and began to draw, as well as to work on sculptures. On his own, relatively isolated, Bilek underwent a so-called 'visionary period', in which he literally had visions that brought him closer to Christ. Religious since youth, he had always longed for a close personal connection with God:
"He had a vision at the court in Louvre, which he described in a letter to poet Julius Zejer, his good friend who supported Bilek actively in his work, a vision of the great crucifix he would later create for the St Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle. The vision was a calling, cementing the artist's conviction he was ideally suited to the task."
It is characteristic for Bilek's sculptures, that many of them take on Biblical themes, many drawing from the life of Christ. However, the artist provoked the wrath of the stipend commission with his piece titled 'Golgotha'. Though inspired by his deep religious persuasion, the piece was unorthodox in its use of real rope and real wire used to weave Christ's crown of thorns, not considered appropriate sculptor's materials at the time. This in itself was enough to cause a scandal. And, there were other details, says art historian Marie Halirova:
"The statue of Christ, representing him as starved, broken, is not in keeping with Neo Romantic ideals, was another element that scandalised not only the commission, but also his professors at the academy in Prague. Bilek was forced to return to Chynov, where his parents lived, and I think he suffered very difficult years there, because his father, for instance, wanted his son to work in the fields. He was afraid for his son's mental health. And of course it took Frantisek Bilek a long time before he found a place he was able to concentrate on his own work again."
When the artist finally began, he was inspired by, of all things, an abandoned firing range...
"He found an abandoned firing range in the forests around Chynov, and he worked there for several years. He was even visited by the poet Julius Zejer in 1896 and Bilek basically lived out his dream of nature there. From that period onwards his fascination with Christ joined with a complete commitment to nature, above all to wood. For him wood was a symbol of life, anchored in the ground with its roots, but its crown reared to the sky. He then incorporated motifs from nature in all of his work, whether in drawings graphic designs, and sculpture."
Wood is the core material in the artist's work, and one will find very many of the artist's important works when visiting the Bilek Villa in Prague, sculptures from poplar, oak, lime, though he also worked in other materials, including ceramics and bronze. Expressive, towering, imposing figures, hewn, rough, dark, half in shadow, half in light, spread about the core of the villa that was the artist's workspace as well as presentation hall. It is just about time to enter. But before we do, a few words about the villa itself. See it now, from the outside, the first house with a flat roof in Prague, tall columns rising up in the front, representing Bilek's admiration for ancient Egyptian designs, some columns unfinished, as if cut down by time.
"Frantisek Bilek's villa is based on the principle: Life as a field, full of wheat stalks for the nourishment of our brothers every day. The columns that stand outside represent wheat stalks, some are whole, some are cut, some haven't grown. From the very beginning the villa was very popular, inspiring admiration among some, and dislike among others. The half-moon shape of the building itself too represents a field, or one could say, a sickle, cutting through the field."
Designed according to Frantisek Bilek's principles the villa is on the one hand it a metaphor for nature, on the other it is not unlike a small cathedral inside, with seven metre high ceilings in the centre, the living spaces branching off, the kitchen, the study, the bedrooms. Every element, from wood doors, which here and there contain engravings, to the metal door handles which incorporates motifs from life, imitating a leaf, a bird, or some other creature, to the windows that open in everywhere onto the main space, including little windows from the children's room, to the curve of the walls which never reach a right angle, Bilek's Villa is unique, and there is always something to discover in the details. As Marie Halirova says:
"For Bilek the symbol was extremely important, as well as that which he put into his work. The material was moulded to the idea."
So, finally, the work itself. You step into the room, lined with stone, the walls curving, and the figures stand before you.
The Deadly Fall, 1922. Carved from an uprooted oak. Adam and Eve, in full knowledge of what they have done, scramble upon the ground to avoid the fury of God's wrath.
Measure, 1917. A bony figure measures Christ's broken span on the cross.
Hunted down and charged with Heresy, 1925. A balding figure, kneeling, grasps his cheek in shock, his companion, a book - most certainly the holy book - open in his lap - hand outstretched.
Grieving Angel by the Cross, 1902. Glossy, flowing ceramic. Angel's hair, the angel leaning in.
Then, there are more hopeful pieces, with Bilek's seers peering or gesturing to the future...
Life is a struggle, 1922. An elderly, cloaked and bearded figure, not unlike Christ or the wise-man of common myth, calms a young man - his view is arresting.
1900. Places of harmony and reconciliation. A charcoal drawing in which two sprouting figures look to the ceiling of a cathedral-like space, in which birds fly. Somehow it gives the impression of being an old temple, rediscovered. An abstract swirl of bodies reach to the heavens, but only the two have the ability to stop, to look, to reflect.
Future conquerors, 1934-1937.
And of course, the bronze portraits of Bilek's children when they moved in to the villa in Prague, aged six and a half and four and a half. Their smiles are optimistic, if frozen, the room now quiet. But, one can imagine a time when the room was warmed by ordinary daily life, and can see them running around the villa's corners as Bilek, say, played a flute in that highly resonant space.
Countless little details carved around the daily living quarters which show how symbol for Bilek was intertwined with normal daily life, details to discover when one visit's Bilek's villa in Prague, open to visitors to come and see, just as it was in his lifetime. To reflect on his work, but also more. Symbol, religion, nature, and ultimately the nature of things.