Cubism remixed at a European crossroads

by Jeff Hammond and Jeff Michael Hammond

Cubism, as it emerged from the experiments of the painters Pablo Picasso and George Braque, was for some a necessary but limited artistic investigation in the 20th century. For others, though, it offered a blueprint for a new language, as in that part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that became Czechoslovakia, where it influenced sculpture, painting and architecture.

This last field, supported by interior and furniture design, is the focus of “Czech Cubist Architecture and Design 1911-1925 — Chochol, Gocar, Janak,” an exhibition at the INAX gallery in Kyobashi near Ginza. The show focuses mainly on works from Prague of those three Czech Cubist proponents — Pavel Janak, Josef Gocar and Josef Chochol — through original items, such as a wooden chair and a ceramic coffee set, and 70-odd photographs. All the images were taken by Yutaka Suzuki, who has documented Czech Cubism over the last 10 years.

The Cubist influence is expressed in everything from solid, boxlike forms of varying depths to experiments with angular designs and jagged lines. Chochol’s exterior of the offices of the Kovarovic architectural firm is divided into squares, the walls of which recede into windows set back in the facade, forming a pattern of protruding and receding angles. A similar angular theme can be seen in many other designs, from diagonal window bars to the chiseled planes of columns and door frames.

A landmark Prague building included in the exhibition is The House of the Black Madonna, a department store that takes its name from a sculpture on its roof. The architect Gocar had studied in Vienna under the architect Otto Wagner and originally designed the store as a Modernist building in 1911. With Cubism gaining ground, though, he adapted the building to include Cubist elements, in particular the popular cafe, the Grand Cafe Orient, on the second floor. The design doesn’t wear its Cubist credentials on its sleeve, though, and thus looks the least of its time. Nevertheless, prized as prime example of the style, it now houses the Museum of Czech Cubism.

With diverse influences coming in to Prague at the time, including Art Deco, Modernism and Art Noveau, it is difficult to say how strictly Cubist the designs really are. Teru Kakehi of INAX doesn’t necessarily support the Cubist tag.

“The architects and designers didn’t call their work Cubist,” she says. “They were given this name afterward. (Terunobu) Fujimori, a professor of architecture at Tokyo University, has said that this kind of architecture sits in a space between Cubism and the birth of Modernism, when all kinds of new ideas were being tried out.”

Fujimori’s insight explains the nature of the works much more than the Cubist tag. With its zigzags motifs, Janak’s black and white coffee set, for example, would look at home in any Art Deco exhibition, as would much else in the exhibition.

“Janak, as well as being influenced by Picasso, had his own ideas,” says Kakehi. “He was inspired by the shapes and patterns of crystals, and wanted to use this as the starting point to make beautiful designs.”

Tradition and change at home were also major incitements to developments. The colors red and white often appear in the exhibition: The traditional Czech colors, they were used with fervor when Czechoslovakia declared independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. In addition, a circle motif has symbolic meaning for the Slavic people of the area and was used extensively in the late Cubist period in an attempt to create a modern national style, which came to be known as Rondo Cubism.

A comparison between two Rondo Cubism structures, built over the same period of 1921-1923, illustrates the different applications of the style. Janak’s design for a house with ornate columns and arches in the town of Pardubice, 80 km from Prague, utilizes a highly decorative square-and-circle stucco pattern in white against earth red. Leaning heavily on the region’s folk heritage, the appearance of the building is close to something out of a fairy tale.

On the facade of Gocar’s Bank of the Czech Legion in Prague, the white angled windows stand out against circle-and- arch motifs of a darker shade of red, for a more austere appearance. Inside, the circular pattern is developed through designs in sumptuous glass, wood and tile, revealing an Art Deco influence.

While such buildings have left the Czech Republic with a legacy of the world’s only concentration of examples of Cubist architecture, on the whole their architects took care not to overpower regional styles, whether they be Gothic, neo-Classical, Baroque or Renaissance.

“The architects loved Prague and wanted their work to harmonize with it,” says Kakehi. “The architecture doesn’t stand out in a bad way.”

“Czech Cubist Architecture and Design 1911-1925 — Chochol, Gocar, Janak” is showing at INAX till May 23; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (closed Sun.). For more information, call (03) 5250-6530 or visit www.inax.co.jp/gallery/