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




Facebooks before Facebook

It’s the time of year when pupils are graduating from secondary schools all over Europe. You notice it particularly here in Central and Eastern Europe because each graduating class creates a kind of Facebook and places it in the window of their town’s most prestigious café, department store or bookshop.

facebook 2

It used to charm me in the late 1980s when I lived in Budapest, since we never did this when I was at school, but what’s depressing is that, although 28 years have passed, these pre-Facebook Facebooks haven’t changed at all.

Graphical styles have undergone all sorts of revolutions since 1987, and the whole of Communist Eastern Europe has revolted politically and been liberated from the straitjacket of Marxist orthodoxy, (which has always given a rather serious cast to education) but it might as well never have happened. These displays of (probably) bright young lives and their teachers are still as dull, as dreary, as empty of originality and promise, as they always were. See a particularly dire example, above, from a window (albeit of a religious bookshop) in Debrecen.

Look carefully. The only male teacher without a tie is the drama teacher (you wonder if he will ever be promoted after this sartorial dare) – and only he and his theatrical colleague permit themselves a slightly open-mouthed smile. Of course, a certain license has always been permitted to the more expressive arts. Otherwise it’s all pursed lips, at least for male teachers of mathematics, chemistry, history, and literature. And men, of course, have their greater dignity to consider, whilst women may smile a little more informally.

drama smiles

‘Kati Neni’ (‘Auntie Kate’), plum centre of the picture, and this year’s class teacher, has something rather unsurprising to say.

‘Finally, it’s over!’

kati neni

I imagine she says this every year, but whether in sadness or relief we cannot tell from her expression.

Deputy Director Katalin is a dead ringer for a 1970s Miss Moneypenny

deputy director

And her colleague, the second deputy director, looks a tiny bit mad – a good candidate for Q.

other deputy director

As for the pupils, properly relegated to the lower ranks, the only one who looks remotely like fun is Mizi Marietta, who, with a name like that must go on to a starring role in a new operetta by the dead but much-loved Franz Lehar.

mizi marietta

20 girls, 7 boys. What’s happening in Debrecen? Are boys now exposed at birth on the Puszta to be picked at by vultures?

And why do they all wear black and black ties? Is graduation a kind of funeral?

Now, I must also confess that although I have a particular love for Hungary, since, in a certain sense, I grew up there, I couldn’t help thinking, when I saw the Czechoslovak Facebooks in all the shops in Prague in the same late 1980s that they did it rather better there. They were funny, irreverent, imaginative, unconventional. Is there a deep-seated conservatism about Hungary that has resisted change over the last 28 years (and for how many decades before)? Or is it just this eastern part of Hungary that is stuck in the Puszta mud?

Anyway, boys and girls, do try harder!