The Stone Bell House: Gothic architecture fused with modern art

An art gallery housing temporary exhibitions, the 13th century Stone Bell House is one of the most impressive buildings on Prague’s Old Town Square with its Gothic façade punctuated by stone decoration, lancet windows, pinnacles and gables. The exterior of the Stone Bell House has always mesmerized me. Indeed, it looks as if it has jumped right out of the Middle Ages. 

The medieval masterpiece fits right in with the other remarkable architecture on the square, such as the sgraffito-clad Renaissance House of the Minute; the Astronomical Clock with its moving 12 Apostles and figures of Death, Greed, Vanity and Passion; and the neo-Renaissance Štork House, adorned with painted landscape of south Bohemia and Czech patron saint Wenceslas on horseback. The moment I first stepped onto Old Town Square in 1991, I knew that Prague was my true home, even though I knew very little about my Czech and Slovak ancestry and had never planned on living out of the USA.

The interior of the Stone Bell House features Gothic elements
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tracy A. Burns

The interior of the Stone Bell House, which was once a Gothic palace with a tower and two chapels, doesn’t disappoint, either. This is my favorite space for temporary art exhibitions because the two floors, accessible by a superb spiral staircase, are divided into small areas, intimate enough to allow the art to communicate with the viewers and for the viewers to communicate with the art. On the two floors where exhibitions are held, the Gothic features make the space a sort of art show in itself, as if the gallery is an exhibition-within-an-exhibition. The first floor includes an oratory with ribbed vaulting, lancet windows and a Gothic archway. The second floor also has lancet windows and may have once housed the throne room for Elizabeth of Bohemia. On the ground floor are the remains of a Gothic chapel. Indeed, walking through the spaces is like walking through medieval history.

With a M.A. focusing on Czech literature in historical context, I am fascinated by places with a Czech historical theme. To be sure, this house is historically significant. It may have once been a residence of the 10th Czech King John the Blind and Queen Elizabeth Premyslovna of Bohemia after a fire had ravaged their living quarters at Prague Castle in 1303. It is even possible that, in 1316, this was the birthplace of Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor who was one of the greatest figures in Czech history. Charles IV lived here in 1333, when he returned to Bohemia.

King John the Blind had developed a passion for traveling and had explored Poland, Tyrol and north Italy, for instance. He brought peace to the kingdom and had a knack for foreign policy. John the Blind died fighting in a battle against the English at the age of 50. At that time, he had been blind for 10 years.

I have a soft spot for Elizabeth of Bohemia, the last of the legendary Bohemian Premyslid dynasty. She seemed to get all the bad luck. Her brother was murdered, and her parents died when she was a child. Her marriage to John the Blind was no picnic, either. It took her six years to give birth to a son. It didn’t help matters that she often didn’t share the same political opinions as her husband. She found herself more and more isolated. John the Blind even took their older children away from her so she would not have any influence on them. Finally, she sought refuge in Bavaria. When she returned to Bohemia, she had financial worries and wound up dying of tuberculosis in 1330 at the age of 38. While walking through what may have been her former throne room, I always muse how lucky I was to have a middle class childhood in America with parents in a happy marriage.

The Stone Bell House dates from the end of the 13th century. It hadn’t always had a Gothic appearance. During reconstruction from the 15th to 19th century, most of the Gothic elements were destroyed, and the façade was transformed into Baroque style. It wasn’t until 1975 that renovations to redo the original Gothic features were put into effect. Reconstruction continued through 1987. The Prague City Gallery has utilized the space since 1988. Now it also includes a bookstore and café.

What I like best about this space are the temporary modern art exhibitions here. While the artifacts provide stark contrast with the Gothic architecture, the space always remains harmonious and unified.

Until March 29, 2020, the building houses an exhibition of the avant-garde Devetsil artistic group that only existed from 1920 to 1931, but, during this short time, made a significant mark on Czech modern art.

Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor sees and hears an excerpt from Nobel Prize recipient Jaroslav Seifert’s All the Beauties of the World, written in 1922: “For our poetry we’ve found completely new beauties, so Moon – you island of vain, extinguished dreams – turn out your light. Violins, you die silent, let the car horns ring out. Here at the heart of the crossroads, let man suddenly dream.”

Czechoslovakia, born in 1918, was at that time a new country. There were new advancements in science, architecture, technology and industry, and Devetsil wanted to celebrate the new as well as see everyday objects in a poetic way.

The Devetsil Art Union was founded in Prague’s Café Union during October of 1920, and its members included artists, writers, architects, theatre directors, theorists and musicians – people with left-leaning political tendencies. The group wanted to make art for the working class. The Prague branch published the influential leftist magazine Revue Devetsil (ReD).

One of my favorite painters represented in the exhibition is Jindrich Štyrský. His painting Factories from 1921 shows off coarse building exteriors, severe and impersonal like industrialization. His portrayal of a train shows a white blur moving at high speed, highlighting technological advancements in travel. His abstract Flower Promenade in Cannes (Monaco) from 1925 includes light pastels of greens, pinks, whites and blues. Štyrský’s Woman with a Guitar involves Cubist-like shapes and fragmentation.

Jindrich Štyrský's Train was influenced by technological advancements of the era.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tracy A. Burns

The 1923 Bazaar of Modern Art, Devetsil’s second show in Prague, emphasized modern technology in a mechanical century and was inspired by Dadaists who rebelled against all rules of art. Some of the items were not art-related, such as a hairdresser’s dummy and life preserver, as evidenced in the current exhibition. A mirror also hangs in the space, representing the mirror that had the inscription “Your Portrait, viewers” in the Bazaar of Modern Art. It was a sort of protest against painting portraits in an age dominated by photography.

Karel Teige created Greetings from a Journey in 1923, highlighting the group's passion for discovering beauty in places.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tracy A. Burns

I was struck by the collages by Karel Teige, one of the creators of Devetsil. He designed Charlie Chaplin around 1923, and it included the names Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin plus the word Bio. A fragmented figure denoted Chaplin. His Greetings from a Journey, created in 1923, showed outer space with a map that includes Florence, Venice and the Adriatic Sea, binoculars and a letter addressed to Seifert. I understood the passion for discovering the unknown and I loved Italy, a country to which I had traveled 11 times. Finding new places of interest and beauty has given me fresh perspectives on the world around me as well as on my own life and has helped me find my own personal identity.

The artistic group was very active in theatre, too. Devetsil founded The Liberated Theatre in 1926, and its beginnings were punctuated by Dadaism and Futurism. Modern scene design showed off lighting effects. In 1927, the soon-to-be-legendary comedians Jirí Voskovec and Jan Werich created the Vest Pocket Revue, a performance of Dadaist and intellectual humor sprinkled with jazz music.

The exhibition also explores the avant-garde developments in set design, especially that of architect Bedrich Feuerstein, who was influenced by Purism, a variation of the Cubist movement. I loved his design for a production of Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) from 1921. The laboratory where the robots were made, filled with bright colors and a lot of white as well, showed simplified forms without great detail, though I did see books piled on a table, charts on a wall, beakers and microscopes.

The Four Purists, Czech architects active in the 1920s, included Vít Obrtel, a survivor of the Terezín concentration camp during the Second World War. Pictures of Obrtel’s designs of a family house and of a villa from 1921 portray the lack of ornamentation in this movement. A short film showed first Czechoslovak President and founder of Czechoslovakia Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk welcoming Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to Czechoslovakia. There is a large model of the façade of the Olympic Department Store by functionalist and Purist architect Jaromír Krejcar.

The art of the Devetsil group also emphasized the connection between art and technology as portrayed by Miroslav Ponc and Zdenek Pešánek. Electric light dominated Pešánek’s light – kinetic sculptures. His works touted new developments in electrical engineering. Ponc’s paintings connected music and the visual arts.

Zdenek Pešánek made light-kinetic sculptures as Devetsil stressed the connection between art and technology.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tracy A. Burns

Also not to be missed in this exhibition are Toyen’s paintings that fuse the surrealist with the erotic in works that confronted gender and sexuality and Man Ray’s photographs.

Dum U Kamenného zvonu (The Stone Bell House)

Staromestské námestí 605/13 (Old Town Square)

Praha 1, Staré mesto (Old Town)

Exhibition through March 29, 2020

Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10 am to 8 pm

Admission Full: 120 K?, Discount: 60 K?

Contact: Box Office: +420 224 828 245

Porter’s Office: +420 222 327 851

Email: ghmp@ghmp.cz

*    *    *

Tracy A. Burns

Tracy A. Burns is a writer who has lived in Prague for more than 25 years. She has written about travel for her blog Tracy’s Travels at www.taburns25.com, Private Prague Guide Prague Blog and The Washington Post, among others. She has also published theatre, film and art reviews on Czechoutyourancestors.com. Her book reviews and essays on Czech and Slovak literature have appeared in Kosmas, a Czechoslovak academic journal. Her articles in Czech and Slovak have appeared in numerous publications, such as Listy, Literární noviny and Reflex.