The House of the Black Madonna

34 Celetná Street
110 00 Prague 1, Old Town

Dům u Černé Matky Boží na Ovocném trhu
the House of the Black Madonna

The Czech Museum of Fine Arts opened its permanent exhibition at the House of the Black Madonna in 1994. The museum finished its exhibition activities there on January 31st 2002. The following text was devoted to the history, reconstruction and new function of the House of the Black Madonna.

Until quite recently, very few people walking from the Powder Tower to Celetná St or Ovocný trh in Prague would have looked twice at the rather shabby building standing on the corner of these streets. They would probably not even have noticed the scraps of gilding on the cage protecting the stone sculpture of a black Madonna after whom the building was named - the House of the Black Madonna. Then something changed, however. The shabbiness of the façades disappeared and the gilding of the metal cage gleamed brightly once more. Despite this striking change, the observer is still aware that although very different from its historical surroundings, the House of the Black Madonna fits in with the buildings around it without imposing itself on them.

The complete renovation of the House of the Black Madonna involved not only its technical condition but also its use and purpose. It can possibly be said that for the first time since it was built, the function of the House of the Black Madonna corresponded to the outstanding artistic quality of its architecture. On the 18th October 1994 the house was re-opened at a ceremony attended by the Czech President Václav Havel and other leading figures from Czech political, economic and cultural spheres as a new centre of Czech art and culture in the historical heart of Prague. The responsibility for running the House of the Black Madonna was entrusted to the Czech Museum of Fine Arts, which expressed its wish to present Czech art and that of other countries on the five exhibition floors available, while setting aside the fourth and fifth floors for a permanent exhibition of Czech Cubism concentrating on the period from 1911 to 1919. While the Cubist exhibition itself is permanent, the individual exhibits are changed on a regular basis. The exhibition features a wide range of artistic disciplines, giving visitors an idea of the remarkable variety and extent of this phenomenon which in Bohemia, and especially in Prague, briefly became a lifestyle in its own right.

some views of permanent exhibition of Czech Cubism

At the beginning of 1911, the wholesale merchant František Josef Herbst contacted Josef Gočár, at that time a young thirty-one-year-old architect, with a commission to design a department store on the site of three stylistically undistinguished buildings on the corner of Celetná Street and Ovocný trh. The first variation of this project had already been completed by the middle of that year, because on the 4th August 1911 the plan was approved by the Prague City Council. The ultimate version of the plan, which we see today, was prepared on the basis of a second project that was a modification of the first one. When Josef Gočár accepted the commission to design a department store for Herbst he was by no means an unknown architect, since he had already prepared a series of designs and projects, several of which had been realised. Gočár originally came to Prague from eastern Bohemia as a seventeen-year-old in 1897 in order to study at the civil engineering department of the State Technical College. He spent his preliminary year studying under architect Václav Roštlapil and from 1898 to 1902 he studied at the Technical College proper. Of much greater significance for the development of his undoubted talent, however, was his period of study from 1902 to 1905 at the Prague School of Applied Arts under Jan Kotěra. Gočár then prolonged this period, collaborating with Kotěra at his studio until 1908. The reason why Herbst entrusted the project to design a department store to Josef Gočár was the earlier successful realisation of a department store designed by Gočár that was built in Jaroměř in 1909-1911, the time immediately following his departure from Kotěra's studio when he began working as an independent architect. Josef Gočár became a great architect the moment he learned to combine the possibilities of late Art Nouveau that he adopted as a student and colleague of Jan Kotěra with the possibilities of modern engineering technology. In this sense, by the end of the first decade of the 20th century Gočár had already begun to play the role of a Czech Auguste Perret in the context of Prague architecture. In the steps below the church of St Mary in Hradec Králové (1909-1910), the water tower in Bohdaneč (1910) and the Wenke department store in Jaroměř (1910-1911) Gočár tested and confirmed the aesthetic qualities of a reinforced concrete frame. In the last of these buildings mentioned, he did so in a way that only Functionalist architecture of the 1920s, a full decade later, was capable of following." (Rostislav Švacha). If Švacha mentions the term Functionalism, then it can be said in the spirit of this word that it was evidently the highly successful functionality of Wenke's department store that led the Prague trader to select Gočár to design the project.

This was a period of intense activity on the Czech art scene, a time when Gočár's artistic generation was beginning to make a strong impact, but also a time of great misunderstanding about new artistic ideas. The radical artistic viewpoints of the young artists and architects led in February 1911 to their departure from the SVU Mánes artists' association and the establishing of the Group of Fine Artists. This new group brought together a number of figures who subsequently became classics of modern Czech culture: Josef Gočár, Otto Gutfreund, Pavel Janák, Vlastislav Hofman, Václav Špála, Josef Čapek, Karel Čapek, Vincenc Beneš and Emil Filla. According to the catalogue of the first exhibition by the Group of Fine Artists which was opened at the Municipal House in Prague in January 1912, the first chairman of this group was Gočár himself. Interestingly for us, Josef Gočár participated in the exhibition with a model based on the second, reworked project of the House of the Black Madonna, while Otto Gutfreund exhibited not only his Girl at Her Toilet of 1911 but more importantly the monumental sculpture Anxiety, a work that represented a kind of programmatic sculptural manifestation of Cubism which the milieu of Prague imbued with quite unique features. There can be no doubt about the fact that Gutfreund's highly individual form of expression, which developed the principles of the Cubist aesthetic that had until then been applied only in the two dimensions of the canvas, also provided great inspiration for the creativity of the architect members of the group. The unique phenomenon of Czech Cubism thus created a series of outstanding works of art within a relatively short space of time.

some views of permanent exhibition of Czech Cubism

The model of the House of the Black Madonna exhibited from January 1912 at the Municipal House was already based on the version of the project that was subsequently approved by the Prague City Council at its meeting on the 30th January 1912. It is little short of remarkable for us today that at the second exhibition of the Group of Fine Artists, staged once more at the Municipal House from September to November 1912, Josef Gočár exhibited photographs of the building that had already been erected. Although not quite complete - the building inspector's approval was issued on the 9th October 1912 - there remained only details to be added. This successful outcome was preceded by certain problems, however. "In his project, Gočár had to take into account the strict regulations of the Prague municipal authorities which did not seek to limit him in terms of his stylistic conception but required of him perfect harmony between the building and its historical surroundings. However much Gočár tried to meet these requirements, his first project ultimately met with objections from the regional conservator of architectural monuments, Luboš Jeřábek. In Jeřábek's opinion, the windows of the projected house were too large, the cornice jutted out too far, the columns of the third floor were too angular and the roof was not slanted enough. Gočár reacted to this criticism in his new version of the project dating from January 1912 by strengthening the Cubist character of his house. The earlier version of 1911 already had a broken façade, a step-like attic roof and pointed covers over the attic windows. In January 1912 he added a Cubist-shaped entrance, Cubist balcony railings, Cubist capitals to the columns between the windows and broken bay windows which replaced the original flat-paned windows. Cubist forms were also acquired by the spiral staircase inside the building, the buffet and the chandeliers of the café on the first floor." (Rostislav Švácha). The café was called the Grand Café Orient, and unfortunately has only survived in the form of several period photographs since it was discontinued during the 1920s.

Josef Gočár did not devote himself solely to this particular project at that time; he also belonged to the Group of Fine Artists, of which he was chairman during the first two years of its existence. Above all, he designed and projected several other buildings. In contrast to his architect contemporaries, he did little work as a theoretician; instead, he was responsible for the first realized Cubist buildings. Dating from the same time as the House of the Black Madonna are two other buildings designed by Josef Gočár: the spa pavilion at Bohdaneč and the semi-detached villa for Jan Stach and Karel Hofman in Tychonova Street, in the Hradčany district of Prague. It is a pity, however, that Gočár's impressive design for a theatre in Jindřichův Hradec, also dating from the period 1911-1912, was not realised. Alongside his architectural projects, Gočár also designed individual pieces of furniture, furniture suites and various interior fittings.

The subsequent fate of the House of the Black Madonna was a chequered one, and for the most part the developments it underwent were not in keeping with the building's importance and quality. It only remained in its original state until 1914, when the first small changes were made. The café disappeared in the mid-1920s and was replaced by the bank offices of Rudolf Moss. The shops on the second floor were then also replaced by bank offices, those of the firm of Eduard Bellak. In 1941 the wooden framework of the ground-floor display windows was replaced by steel, after a late Functionalist design by V.Kubík. In the post-war decades the whole house was gradually divided up into offices and became the main building of the state exhibition agency Výstavnictví.

Ivan Neumann