`So much empty white space'
Elizabeth Clegg visits the restored Trade Fair Palace in Prague
It is ironic that the Czech National Gallery, which saw its beginnings in the activities of a Society of Friends, should be preparing to celebrate its 200th anniversary in the midst of what one might almost call a Society of Enemies.
An unmistakable lack of local affection for this institution and a fair degree of international exasperation at its penchant Picasso's Violin, glasses, pipe and anchor; 1912, in the Trade Fair Palace, Prague for managerial musical chairs (there have been four changes of director since 1990) were much in evidence at the long-awaited inauguration, two weeks ago, of a large and truly representative selection of work from the gallery's modern collection, publicly displayed in a single location for the first time — in Prague's enormous former Trade Fair Palace.
This Functionalist masterpiece, built between 1925 and 1928 to the designs of Oldrich Tyl and Josef Fuchs, was admired by Le Corbusier but accused by him of lacking the 'poetry' of true architecture. After nearly seven decades (for the last two of which it has remained unoccupied after severe fire damage), its restoration has been praised but its adaptation for use as a gallery has largely failed to please.
Whatever their predisposition to find fault, those who did so had at least one fundamental and barely answerable objec- tion: that a building specifically designed for the display of machinery and now restored to an approximation of its original condition could not possibly be suited for the display of painting and sculpture. In effect, the Trade Fair Palace is a series of exhibits in its own right, at its most impos- ing in the balconied hall that rises to the full height of the structure on its north side, topped by a glass roof.
It is, however, precisely the breathtaking sense of space and natural light in this hall that points up what is so oppressive in the wide aisles leading off it on each of three floors and housing the principal galleries. The barely interrupted views along these aisles encourage an oppressive awareness of lowness of their ceilings; and their illu- mination soon comes to feel excessively bright as it beams unrelentingly down on the uniform whiteness of floors, ceilings, walls, screens and blinds, these last denying the potential respite of occasional views out over the rooftops of Prague. At the same time, one repeatedly comes upon stretches of wall or floor that remain curi- ously unused. 'So much empty white space!' was the most frequently voiced complaint.
The collection itself is of high quality and much interest; and the scope for rotating the display is enormous: the 700 or so items in the inaugural selection are drawn from a total said, with alarming vagueness, to number between 10,000 and 15,000. The gallery assumes that its greatest attraction for the foreign visitor will continue to be its international, especially French, holdings, in particular the superb group of works by Picasso and Braque from the collection of Vincenc Kramar. These, however, have been on continuous public display in Prague in the past; and, in this respect, the real significance of the new arrangement is the inclusion of so many examples of 20th- century Czech art, rarely or never shown publicly before. While there are very few names that are internationally familiar, the few exceptions (Kupka, Toyen or Kolar) conveniently span the century and thus serve as reassuring points of reference for a host of other artists deserving of much wider recognition.
Despite the many recent international exhibitions that have demonstrated the vitality of modern Czech art, for the aver- age visitor to Prague the city remains an intoxicating muddle of gothic, baroque and art nouveau. If the installation at the Trade Fair Palace, and of course the restored building itself, can succeed in extending this perception, it will have served a very useful purpose, for all its shortcomings.