Permanent exhibition ART, LIFE. Art for Life

The new exhibition of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague presents, in six thematic halls, a vibrant, multi-dimensional image of European applied arts from Antiquity to the 21st century. Over 1,300 exhibits showcase the more than half a million items in the museum’s care. The exhibition shows how all things around us enter into human life and transform it both functionally and symbolically. Applied art and design co-influence lifestyles as well as the models of human behaviour. The essential meaning of items, their purpose, the who, how, and why of their creation are all the more important than in other areas of art. However, these circumstances cannot eclipse the excellence of unique works of art and their creators, or the poetics and mysteries of everyday objects in the exhibition. The Museum of Decorative Arts has systematically examined these aspects of applied art and its societal benefits since its founding in 1885, thanks to generations of curators, experts, benefactors, and collectors.

“We deliberately chose 7 February as the opening day for the exhibition,” says Helena Koenigsmarková, Director of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. “On this day in 1885, the museum’s first-ever exhibition opened in the newly built Rudolfinum, alongside our institution’s formal establishment that same year, following decades of effort. This concludes our multiple-year investment programme for the reconstruction and revitalisation of the museum, approved in 2008, which also included constructing the Central Depository and the overall modernisation of our historical building in 2014–2017.”

The permanent exhibition begins with Rituals and Celebrations, where hundreds of exhibited objects, used in the rituals and celebrations of our ancestors throughout the centuries, usher visitors into the fantastical world of symbols and immersive performances both sacred and secular. The rich array of artefacts include liturgical items and vestments, the various paraphernalia of great banquets, as well as smaller objects, such as pilgrimage badges that served as protective talismans. Hall B, Microcosms: Royal Kunstkammers, introduces cabinets of curiosities, those fascinating treasuries of diverse valuable objects and natural materials, which functioned as a kind of physical encyclopaedia from the early modern age. These royal collections provided endless labyrinths of miscellany, in which everything is interconnected.  The inexhaustible wealth of nature and knowledge are an ever-present inspiration for many styles of art and life. Such is also the theme of Hall C, Life of Forms. It shows how Rococo admired the asymmetry of living forms, Biedermeier appreciated the natural structure of materials, Art Nouveau evoked the dreamy vitality of nature with its ornamental styles, while the geometry of crystals inspired the principles of Cubism.

Moving on to the second half of the exhibition with Hall D, Clothes: Physique and Physicality, visitors can explore the world of fashion and jewellery with a focus on body shapes. The installation of 18 outfits with examples of underwear and accessories presents fashionable silhouettes from the beginning of the 19th to the end of the 20th century. The development of jewellery is presented in the same context, from the Middle Ages to artistic output of the early 21st century. Hall E, Design and the Phenomena of Modernity, brings us straight into the 20th century, when design became an integral component of modern and postmodern culture. Here also, light plays a major role in modern life and design, as exemplified by jewels, glass art, and photographs. Cosmic inspirations and utopian visions are another remarkable chapter in the history of Czech art and design, which is presented in the final hall of the permanent exhibition, titled Utopia – Cosmos – Play. The are closely related to the current conception of design as fiction and play, which supports free creativity and releases human existence from the limitations of strict utility.

The exhibition is complemented with projections and impressive lightbox displays that encourage dialogue between artworks of the past and the present. “The exhibition does not aim to provide a textbook overview of the history of applied arts and design but to show art in its organic motion, in various social roles and functions,” explains the main author of the exhibition, Radim Vondráček, Collections and Research Manager at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. “We also wanted to highlight how timeless and ever-present these thematic categories of art are, how they connect bygone epochs with our own times.”

Daylight also offers visitors of the exhibition a view of the architecture and monuments in the museum’s vicinity, including a unique perspective of the Jewish cemetery. “The architecture of the exhibition, which respects the visual grandeur of the museum’s halls, also emphasises the genius loci of its surroundings, such as Jan Palach Square, which was built in the last quarter of the 19th century and provided a focal point for the budding social and cultural concept of national awareness,” says Helena Koenigsmarková.

For the exhibition’s opening, the museum’s educational department has prepared a series of guided tours for the public with the curators and a series of educational programmes for schools called Hidden Life and the Language of Things, which aim to go beyond the exhibits’ aesthetic and functional value and explore further aspects of time, shape, appearance, material, as well as broader functional and aesthetic contexts that will stimulate curiosity about their history, meaning, and the roles they play in our lives.

The exhibition will be opened under the auspices of Mgr. Martin Baxa, Minister of Culture of the Czech Republic.

Architecture and graphic design: Tomáš Varga; 20YY Designers, Petr Bosák, Robert Jansa, Adam Macháček; Jakub Jansa
Photography: Gabriel Urbánek, Ondřej Kocourek

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