The Czech contribution to painting and the visual arts has not been as profound as in other areas, like literature, film, and architecture. Czech painters, in general, didn't break out in a big way until the 19th century and the coming of the Czech National Revival movement, with painters like Mikulás Ales and Antonín and Josef Manes. The best of these mainly realist and landscape paintings can be found in the Museum of Czech 19th-Century Art at St. George's Convent in the Prague Castle complex. The Art Nouveau style of the early 20th century saw the emergence of the country's first (and possibly only) household name in painting, Alfons Mucha. Mucha's work can be viewed in the stained-glass windows at St. Vitus Cathedral, as well as at the Obecní Dum and at the Alfons Mucha Museum in Nové Mesto (New Town).

The first decades of the 20th century, the early Modern period, saw an explosion of Czech talent working in styles like Cubism, Constructivism, and Surrealism. Check out painters such as Bohumil Kubista, Josef Sima, and the female Surrealist Toyen at the National Gallery's Museum of 20th and 21st Century art in Holesovice.

World War II and the Communist takeover put an end to much of this output and for several years, Czech painters were constrained to working in the "Socialist-Realist" style (essentially mimicking Soviet art and extolling the virtues of workers, peasants and the Communist Party).


Against this relatively modest backdrop, it may come as a surprise that one of the biggest names in contemporary art these days is a Czech, David Cerný, whose irreverent, tongue-in-cheek murals, statues, and installations have been exhibited around the world. Cerný first came to fame in the early 1990s, when he painted a Russian tank -- an official monument to commemorate the country's liberation after World War II by the Soviet Union -- the very unmilitary color pink. Since then, he's gone on to do several more public installations around Prague that mostly mock the powers that be or are meant to question modern assumptions. The best of these include an installation of giant babies crawling up the Zizkov TV tower (possibly meant to suggest our dependence on the media for sustenance); a hanging statue of St. Wenceslas astride an upside-down horse (perhaps mocking Czechs' uncritical worship of their own history) inside the Lucerna shopping arcade; and a statue of two men urinating together into a basin shaped like the Czech Republic (possibly a comment on the self-deprecating nature of Czechs or perhaps their propensity to urinate outside whenever or wherever the urge strikes) just near the entrance to the Hergetova Cihelna restaurant.

Cerný's most notorious and best-known installation is doubtless "Entropa," mounted in Brussels in 2009 to coincide with the Czech Republic's holding of the rotating European Union presidency. In an obvious breach of E.U. decorum, the installation viciously lampooned each of the E.U.'s 27 member states, depicting Germany, for example, covered in highways zigzagging vaguely in the shape of a swastika, or Romania as a Dracula theme park. Depending on your point of view, it was either deeply insulting or a brilliant send-up of European stereotypes. Neither the Czech government nor the bureaucrats in Brussels were amused and Bulgaria, portrayed by Cerný as a squat toilet, even demanded that the installation be taken down. It was removed at the end of the Czech presidency in mid-2009 and has yet to find a permanent home.

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