Cubing the Baroque

When I first came to Prague in the spring of 1988, travelling overnight on the sleeper from Budapest, I had only one guidebook to guide me (apart from a fact-heavy, utterly impersonal, poorly translated and amusingly ideological tome published by the Czechoslovak Tourist Office). It was Richard Bassett’s A Guide to Central Europe. According to the short biography printed just inside the cover Richard Bassett is an art historian (Cambridge), a journalist (Vienna correspondent for The Times in the 1980s) and a musician (once principal horn player at the Ljubljana Opera House). I love a generalist. And I loved his very personal approach to everything he saw. It’s always more interesting to see a city through the eyes of an individual, a person, with his own particular tastes and sense of humour, than to be deluged with dozens of dull facts that are immediately forgettable and unmoving. One wants opinion, with which, on occasion, one might disagree.

I stayed , on his recommendation, in the ‘cosy shabbiness’ of the art-nouveau Hotel Europa (which, today, is finally under restoration). He laments the unavailability of any English language newspaper other than the Morning Star (Britain’s Communist Party answer to Pravda, still in print today, though with a daily circulation of only around 10,000), but how times have changed since then.

In vain, this morning, I looked for his remarks on a delightful architectural oddity which drew me to Spalena Street in 1988, and which I noticed again yesterday evening when attending a splendidly euphonious choral concert in which a colleague took part. Bridging the gap on Spalena between the baroque church of the Holy Trinity, 1713, by one of the Dientzenhofer brothers, and a cubist building,  the Diamant building of 1912-1913, and squaring the circle in stylistic terms, is a baroque figure of St John Nepomuk protected by a cubist arch. It’s a delightful, witty, confrontation of and synthesis of styles. Who says that the Cubists had no sense of humour?

See also An Architectural Wink

Baroque – 1713


Cubist – 1913


A witty hybrid




Experience – Personal Perspectives

Precocious teenage Cartesians, of a nerdy philosophical bent, often suppose they can ask:

‘It’s possible, isn’t it, that what I experience as blue, you experience as red. I could never know, because I can’t get into your head and see colours the way you do, but it’s possible, isn’t it, that if I did, the world would look completely different to me than to you?’

It’s a question that makes no sense, at least to precocious teenage Cartesians who have gone on to study philosophy. We can’t get at the idea at all using the language and concepts that we learn in the world, pointing at things together and agreeing on the application of words. Even if you’re in some mysterious sense ‘experiencing’ blue as my red, we’ll point at the same things and use the words ‘red’ and ‘blue’ in complete agreement.

It’s only in abnormal cases such as colour-blindness that we can agree that things look different, and that’s because there are ways to establish that someone sees colours unusually – normal sighted and colour-blind people disagree on the application of colour words, systematically.

Words and thought won’t stretch to the idea that ‘privately’ our experiences might be different. You might as well suggest that a square might ‘privately’ look like a circle to me, What can we usefully do with such an idea? I’ll never be able to say, ‘Oh, he’s one of those people who sees blue as red, or circles as triangles.’ How could I know, and what would we do with this ‘knowledge’?

Not that private experience of all kinds is unreachable. Private experience is reachable if we can agree on it publicly. For example, we can make sense of the idea that we can see a single image ‘as’ one thing and then another, as long as we can point and explain. ‘Private experience’ makes no sense when we can’t point at anything or explain in any way.

I can see this cartoon image either as a rabbit or a duck.


‘Look, this is it’s bill,’ you might say, or ‘Look, they could be ears instead.’

And I’ll know when you get the point. Though I’ll never be able to ‘catch’ you seeing it one way or the other. That part is private.

I was thinking these thoughts at the recently reopened Picasso Museum in Paris on Saturday, whilst looking at some of Picasso’s early Cubist works. Through Cubism Picasso and others were trying to convey how an object is ‘really’ perceived and understood by a spectator rather than simply to ‘capture’ how it looks front-on from a particular perspective. It’s obvious, of course, that we don’t perceive objects as a camera does, all at once, with a quick snap of the shutter. Our eyes travel, we shift our point of view, and our mind constructs an understanding of an object as it might be seen from multiple dimensions. Construction going wrong is what happens when you try out LSD, I suppose (though I never have!).

Here’s how Picasso captures the reality of a man with a guitar.


Construction is perceptual, emotional, and intellectual, all at the same time. Good painters add attitude, anger, lust or love to the line and colour mix.


So, Cubism supposedly shows us how we really perceive an object, perspectives all mixed up, a consciousness of two eyes, face-on and in profile simultaneously. Perhaps the fragmented, multi-dimensional prose of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake aims to capture the ‘real’ world in the same kind of way, its prose assaulting the reader from multiple angles and levels of consciousness, all at once, as the world does. We get paintings that are hard to look at, some might say, and prose that’s impossible to read. Perhaps they both leave us with too little to do ourselves, or, when they become, impenetrable, too much.

But for those still of a philosophical bent there’s a logical problem with Cubism. The painter supposedly shows us how we really perceive an object, through the medium of a painting. But a painting is an object too, which we also perceive and know in complex ways (perhaps we imagine the blank hessian at the back even while we’re gazing in rapt attention at the front). So, it’s a complicated experience. A painter conveys the experience of an object through the experience of a painting. His, and our, experience isn’t of a flat and neutral object hanging on a wall. It’s more complicated. Ultimately another’s experience is elusive, and perhaps Cubism, the more it strives, takes things too far. It can’t ever really succeed.

But, there’s truth in the idea, too, and success. Look at Picasso’s evocation of the real Cannes, the whole Cannes.


David Hockney does something similar, conveying everything, all at once, about a regular car journey he made from home to studio, combining knowledge and image into a single complete and personal experience, and finding a way to share it.


We’re condemned, as individuals, to see things from a single point of view, and must use whatever means we find to share our personal perspective. Paint, music, words, and the rest, they work up to a point.

An Architectural Wink

I bicycled through Pelhrimov in the Czech Republic more than ten years ago, and when I lunched there last Sunday I remembered how amused I’d been a decade earlier by Pavel Janak’s architectural joke in the corner of the magnificent central square.

It’s a witty case of Czech Cubism, as far as I can see – an architectural movement that’s usually a bastion of high seriousness. I see it as witty, but it’s quite possible that I am at odds with its author. I know too little about Pavel Janak and Czech Cubism to know what his intentions were.

The main square in Pelhrimov, though less consistently of one period than the wonderful square in Telc, and much smaller, is a catalogue of the many architectural styles that have flowed through the Czech Republic or originated there, from the Renaissance, through Baroque, Art Deco, and Cubism to the modernism of the First Republic that followed the First World War.

Architecture isn’t an obvious medium for humour but this Cubist reworking/renovation of a typical high-gabled Baroque façade must surely be intentionally witty, especially the inversion of the gable’s highest point. It’s a raised eyebrow, or a wink.

Cubist Wink




I don’t know what choices Janak had, but demolition and rebuild must have been one of them. After all, across the square there’s a modernist building, built, perhaps, only fifteen years later, that owes nothing to the prevailing style of the square. Janak chose to preserve both gable and arcade, adding his own particular Cubist signature.

Czech Cubism flourished in the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and perhaps the perspective then was more nostalgic than forward looking. In the newly created Czechoslovakia of the First Republic it was not only more permissible but perhaps even more fashionable to demolish and start again.

1920s Optimism


And there’s an Art Deco hotel that must have preceded Janak’s renovations by less than a decade. This must also have been preceded by demolition.


For lovers of Czech Cubism, which was a short-lived architectural movement, best represented in Prague, it must be consoling to see the same ideas living on in the design of stealth aircraft. (Actually, this is a little more than just a joke, since in both cases the idea is to break up corners and add contouring to flat planes. In the one case, of course, to avoid detection, and in the other, for very serious reasons that I lack the expertise to explain.)

Czech Cubist Stealth Fighter