This week saw the opening of a major exhibition in Prague of the work of the great 17th century Bohemian painter Karel Škréta, a show being held at two separate venues: the Wallenstein and Prague Castle Riding Schools, two of the capital’s best-known arts venues. The exhibition is result of extensive cooperation between the National Gallery, the Prague Castle administration, and the Prague Archbishopric and features work not only by the Czech painter but also Italian and German contemporaries. If you see only one show of Old Masters this season, this should be it.
Karel Škréta, the multifaceted painter, known for magnificent altar pieces but also intimate scenes and portraits, has been viewed now through several major exhibitions in Prague. The first was held exactly 100 years ago, the second in 1938, the third in 1974, and the fourth – and arguably most ambitious - now. Curator Vít Vlnas explained this week why Karel Škréta - His Work and His Era goes further than any exhibition before:
“It may appear that in the past the topic of Škréta’s work was exhausted. But this, luckily, was not the case. Cooperation with Charles University and the Academy Sciences on an extensive study of the painter’s life and work showed how important it was to look at Škréta through a different perspective than the previous shows. Not just as an Old Master in his own right, but within a broader cultural and historical context.
“For this reason, we mapped the painter’s schooling and early years and travels across the Alps and to Italy, and included for the first time work, hung side by side, by Italian contemporaries. The greatest Italian artists of the day like Guido Reni and others. And it works.”
The curator also says it is important to realize the Baroque painter was anything but provincial and that this exhibition, unlike previous ones, made a number of important distinctions about Škréta’s work. Vít Vlnas again:
“His development as a painter was not linear: he did not go through individual periods… narrative, lyrical, realistic or classicist, he proved able to apply all methods depending on the nature of a particular commission or work. That is one reason why Škréta was widely recognised and respected, why he worked so often and why his fame reached far beyond Prague or Bohemia’s borders.”
The show, divided into two parts, focuses on both early and later periods: how the painter was influenced by his predecessors from the Rudolphine period at the beginning of the 17th century and later on. In Professor Vlnas’ view, it was also important to capture something of the painter’s personal life on the one hand – showing items that would have been found in his home and personal library – and equally to explore how Škréta was viewed and interpreted in ensuing centuries, when the artist was highly revered. The curator once more:
“We wanted to show Škréta’s many sides. As a painter, an illustrator but also as an inventor of graphic methods. We also wanted to show something of his personal life. We were able to feature objects which would have been found in the Škréta home, above all the books the father and son read which reveal a rich intellectual life. On the flip-side, we also wanted to explore the cult of the painter which was built up in later centuries. He was an icon in Czech art history, but also a character in a number of plays or stories or even an opera, written by Karel Benda, based on a libretto by Eliška Krasnohorská. Details are also on view here.”
In all, viewers will be able to see more than 400 works and exhibits concerning the painter and others at the two Riding Galleries, including some of his best-known work based on mythological or religious scenes, such as the lives of saints or of Christ, and portraits of countless individuals, including the famous canvas of royal gem cutter Dionysio Miseroni and his family. The painting is even featured in an electronic interactive system prepared for the first time for visiting high schools, so that students will have a chance to learn with more immediacy about - and interact directly with - some of the painter’s masterworks.
Perhaps an even more famous painting many will be sure to notice is one of Škréta’s earlier works, The Mocking of Christ, which shows inhumane observers making faces at the Messiah before his crucifixion. The work is said to have been influenced by Albrecht Durer.
“It is especially extraordinary when you consider the painter was only around 20 years old at the time. It shows much of his early ambition.”
In all, the exhibition features works borrowed from some one hundred institutions, galleries, or private owners and an exhibition of such scope it is not likely to be again. What is fascinating, is that - in addition to more well-known pieces, the exhibition also features paintings considered lost for decades, which were only uncovered through the restoration process, such as The Annunciation, found in a church in north Bohemia. Head of the restoration team, Petr Kuthan.
Karel Škréta – His Life and His Era continues in the capital from November until April 10, 2011. Visitors should visit the Wallenstein Riding School in Prague’s Mala strana first, to view the painter’s early work and beginnings, then move to the Prague Castle Riding Gallery second, two tram stops away, to see the larger part of the exhibition, which includes altar pieces. Besides the show itself there are numerous accompanying programmes and a new monograph available in English as well as Czech.
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