The villa that belonged to František Bílek is one of the best kept secrets of Prague’s art scene. Enthusiasts of the Art Nouveau style will find its collection of mostly sculpture and furniture fascinating. The exhibitions also include drawings and sketches as well as books the artist wrote and those that he illustrated. Bílek’s creations on display date from the 1890s to the late 1930s. Religious and mystical motifs abound in his works. Wood is the material of preference as Bílek masterfully carved figures that penetrate the soul.
Born in south Bohemia’s Chýnov on November 6, 1872, Bílek had a strong connection to his hometown and constructed an Art Nouveau villa there. It is now a museum of his works, also worth visiting. Bílek studied painting before switching to sculpture because he was colorblind. He spent time studying in Paris and also travelled to Germany and Italy. During his lifetime, his works were not only exhibited in Prague but also abroad.
He made a name for himself not only as a sculptor but also as a printmaker, author, graphic artist, architect and book illustrator. Bílek was also skilled at making ceramics and designing cemeteries, for instance. His work was inspired by Catholic Modernists, though he opted out of the Catholic Church in 1921 to join the Czechoslovak Hussite Church. He moved back to Chýnov in 1939, after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and the Nazi Occupation began. He died in Chýnov two years later. He is buried in his hometown, a colossal sculpture he designed marking his grave.
Located in the Hradčany quarter not far from Prague Castle, the villa itself is a work of art, constructed in Art Nouveau symbolist style during 1910 and 1911. The irregularly shaped structure with a flat roof is composed of brickwork and limestone, for instance. Its thick, colossal columns dominate, bringing to mind an Egyptian temple. The charming garden contains several sculptures, including a grouping dedicated to Jan Amos Comenius, a Czech national hero who had to flee the Czech lands due to persecution. The façade of the villa features symbolic reliefs and inscriptions as well as other adornment.
Upon entering the first room of the ground floor, visitors are confronted with Bílek’s vibrant and dynamic sculpture that gushes with individuality and passion. Whenever I visit, my response to his work is always one of unbridled emotion. I feel a sense of awe perusing his wooden sculpture “Astonishment” (1907) in which the figure gazes up at the heavens, full of wonder. I feel the anguish and agony of the female figure in “Grief” (1908-09). Emotion seeps through my body, and I am unprepared for the sheer power of emotion that his works evoke.
Another national hero depicted in Bílek’s sculpture is the 15th century religious martyr, Jan Hus, who is depicted by a tree with stone foundation in the 1901 creation “A Tree Struck by Lightning, which Burned for the Ages.” Hus, who was burned at the stake for his religious beliefs, is portrayed as a mystical and moral figure who was victorious in his fight for truth and achieved martyrdom. The details of the disheveled locks of hair in “Head of the Crucified” (1898) are remarkable. “Moses” (1905) and “Life is a Struggle” (1922) are two other creations that are sure to amaze. In the terracotta “Dancing Around a Golden Calf” (1923) on an upper floor, the figures grip each other’s hands in a dynamic, athletic movement, capturing a feverish moment.
Dotting the rooms is Bílek’s furniture, which the artist imbued with spiritual decorations. I found his combination of light and dark shades of wood to be especially pleasing. A horseshoe-shaped desk appears to be a sort of richly adorned altar. A cabinet focuses on religion as representations of the spiritual senses, the phases of the moon and stars all make appearances. The dining room table and chairs also exhibit masterful carving.
Of his impressive drawings, the one that stood out most for me was “The Blind,” (1921) a charcoal rendition showing two blind figures – a man and a woman. The man holds out one hand in an anguished gesture, frustrated at his inability to see. Yet the two figures exude a sort of internal vision that guides them on what is sure to be a tumultuous journey made easier by the power of the heart and soul.
Family portraits and small-scale works are sprinkled throughout the rooms, making the exhibition space intimate and personal as well as reminding the visitor that this was a home where lives were lived, days of joy and days of sadness playing out in the various spaces.
Bílek wanted the villa to be transformed into a museum after his death. Since the early 1960s, the Prague City Gallery has been responsible for the uptake of the villa. There is an archive in the basement and an upper floor space for temporary exhibitions. The names of the works are labelled in English as well as in Czech. The villa is located one tram stop from the Malostranská Metro.
Mickiewiczova 233/1, Prague 6 – Hradčany
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday – 10 am to 6 pm
Cash desk: 420 233 323 631
* * *
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.