Very pleased to see that I am getting some excellent reviews in the Czech press for the Czech edition of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, which was published earlier this year in Prague by Volvox Globator. Extracts below.


Update

Czech readers are at last getting a translation of the best known book by the internationally acclaimed and award-winning Bohemist, which is an adventurous tour through twentieth-century Prague in all its surreal corners, that lurk at literally every step.

Prague – “a city located at a crossroads of imagined futures that seemed boundless and imagined pasts that eternally threatened to return.” Just because of this it became an inspirational metropolis for a movement so sensitively reactive to the social changes of its time. Now, surrealist Prague is presented in a spectacular monograph, which in more than 500 pages shows the important role of this uncanny city in its interwoven connections, without which surrealism would not have achieved its celebrated forms. And what is still more remarkable – it is not a Czech but a Canadian-British Bohemist who narrates this adventure …

In his spellbinding account of the turbulent art of Prague and the lives of its creators, Sayer does not forget the finest details … (Elizaveta Getta, “Město surrealistických snů,” iLiterature.cz, 1 August 2021)


I dare not estimate the total number of pragensia, i.e. books dedicated to Prague, that have so far been published. Two of them, however, are absolutely fundamental works and rightly recognised throughout the world. These are Magic Prague by the Italian bohemist Angelo Ripellino and Prague in Black and Gold by the now ninety-eight-year-old Prague native and Yale University professor emeritus Peter Demetz. These two admirers of Prague were joined eight years ago by a generation and a half younger Canadian-British bohemist Derek Sayer, with his extraordinary cultural-historical monograph Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, subtitled A Surrealist History

I consider Derek Sayer’s book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, with the significant subtitle A Surrealist History, to be an excellent guide to the history that we assume we know. This Canadian has managed to make it special precisely by looking from elsewhere and putting into context what, seen from up close, appears like some impressionist paintings – illegible spots of colour. (Zdenko Pavelka, Meziřádky Zdenko Pavelky, Magazín OKO, 25 May 2021.)


According to the author, the modern history of Prague is “an illustrative lesson in black humor.” Where else can one get a better sense of irony and absurdity, a lasting mistrust of the sense of grand theories and of totalitarian ideologies, and a Rabelaisian delight in how all social and intellectual claims to rationality are indiscriminately subverted by the erotic? But above all, Sayer repeatedly emphasizes that we should understand “modernism” as Vítězslav Nezval prefigured it in his collection Woman in the Plural, namely as something diverse and plural. According to Sayer, it is time to acknowledge that abstract art and the gas chamber are equally authentic expressions of the modern spirit …

The author’s picture of Prague and those times … is dominated by left avantgarde artists … about whose occasional inclination toward the Stalinist Soviet Union the author writes overly generously … Despite this slight bias and minor errors, we can agree with Lenka Bydžovská, who wrote enthusiastically about the original book that Sayer amazes the reader with his “encyclopedic knowledge, his reliable orientation in specialist literature, memoirs and correspondence, in literature and art, but above all with his inventiveness, his ability to illuminate seemingly familiar events, stories and works from a different angle.” (Jan Lukavec, “Surrealistická setkávání v modernistické metropoli” [Surrealist encounters in a modernist metropolis], Deník N, 3 June 2021.)  


A substantial book on art has been published – and yet it doesn’t weigh 5 kg! It is, however, weighty in its genuine passion, content and reach. The main theme is the interwar cultural scene in Prague, with an emphasis on the local surrealist circle, which has gained an international reputation. The book is about this phenomenon, but it is is also full of enjambments, digressions and wider contexts. It is a great read – and yet it is based on a truthful, factual and clearly accurate text. Here we have writing that is extremely learned, informed as well as naturally flowing. It is strange that no one has written a book like this before. Only now has a foreigner taken it up. And that is very good …

Sayer’s book is a great achievement. It is a source of information, education and entertainment. A volume that brings Czech history to life, a text that penetrates its numerous hidden corners, a collection of (un)known stories of which we can generally be proud, for they prove the valuable place of our cultural activities and art in the first half of the 20th century. We belonged to the avant-garde, and Derek Sayer knows how to write about it. (Radan Wagner, “Vynikající kniha nejen o Praze a českém surrealismu” [An exceptional book not only on Prague and Czech Surrealism], ArtReview, 12 June 2001.)


A slightly incorrect and provocative guide to the cultural history of Prague, not only of the last century. It reminds Western readers how significant a role Prague played in the world’s modern culture. For those here, it can help them to perceive in a new, unhackneyed and lively way many of Prague’s realities that we too often take to be self-evident. (PLAV, iLiteratura.cz, 19 June 2021.)


Eight years after the original, a Czech translation of a monumental guide to Czech modern culture has come out, whose author is Derek Sayer … The author’s aim is not only to rehabilitate Czech surrealism before the global public, but to present Prague as the city of “another” modernity: “This is not ‘modern society’ as generations of western social theorists have habituated us to think of it, but a Kafkan world in which the exhibition may turn into a show trial, the interior mutate into a prison cell, the arcade become a shooting gallery, and the idling flaneur reveal himself to be a secret policeman …”

For him Prague is also the capital city of the twentieth century because “this is a place in which modernist dreams have again and again unraveled; a location in which the masks have sooner or later always come off to reveal the grand narratives of progress for the childish fairy tales they are.” And also a place where “the past is not easy to escape … even when, and perhaps especially when, you are making new worlds.” (Petr Zídek,”Kniha o českém surrealismu aneb monografie světové Prahy” [A book on Czech surrealism or a monograph of global Prague], Právo, 1 July 2021.)


None of these reviewers are without their criticisms, and I am grateful where they have pointed out occasional factual mistakes in the text. There are of course errors, mostly minor, in the book (and as Petr Zídek noted in his review, some more were added in the Czech edition that were not picked up by the Volvox Globator editors). Zdenko Pavelka also (justly) alerts readers that:

“Sayer’s knowledge of realities and his ability to connect them in time and space are exceptional. I have to warn, however, that sometimes maybe also with a certain exaggeration or, let us say, poetic license. Perhaps you know that the Kinský Palace on the Old Town Square was the seat of the State German Gymnasium at the end of the 19th century, which Franz Kafka attended as a student. Sayer mentions that just outside the windows of his classroom is the balcony from which Gottwald spoke on 21 February 1948. I’m not sure whether in this case Sayer is not slightly embellishing reality in the Hrabalian manner, because the rooms at the disposal of the gymnasium were supposed to be in the rear of the palace. But even if Kafka did not sit in that balcony room, the well-known story of how in a later retouched photograph of the balcony scene, only the cap of Gottwald’s faithful comrade Vladimir Clementis remains, of course on Gottwald’s head, is certainly close to Kafka, but also to the surrealists.”

Precisely. In this case the error was inadvertent, but call it hasard objectif. The Kinský Palace remains an excellent example of Prague’s surrealities. As to the comparison with Bohumil Hrabal, I take it as a compliment.

This set of texts and images was part of an exhibition titled EX SITU: (Un)making Space out of Place that led to a photobook of the same title.  The exhibition was convened and the photobook edited by Craig Campbell and Yoke-Sum Wong.  

EX SITU was part of a series of international workshops/events held over the last five years in the US, UK, Germany, and Greece involving art and media practitioners, academics, and research students from different disciplinary backgrounds. These meetings have led to an anthology of essays, Feelings of Structure: Explorations in Affect (McGill-Queens University Press) co-edited by Karen Engle and Yoke-Sum Wong.

All participants in the EX SITU exhibition/photobook were asked to couple up to six images with the same number of texts, each of no more than 100 words, on any topic of their choice.  I shot the photographs in Athens, Greece in 2016.  The original photobook layout with text and image side by side can be downloaded here.

I found the form an interesting one to work with.  My intention was to set up layers of open-ended resonance and signification within a limited group of texts and images, rather than have the images simply illustrate the texts or the texts caption the images.  I wanted to convey something of what Milan Kundera calls “the density of unexpected encounters.”

I am posting this work now in eager anticipation of the latest in this series of events, the  STRUCTURES OF ANTICIPATION research creation symposium at the University of Windsor, Ontario.


 

1  athens_bank

athens1 bank

Greece’s government has said the country is “turning a page” after Eurozone member states reached an agreement on the final elements of a plan to make its massive debt pile more manageable.

The government spokesman, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, hailed “a historic decision” that meant “the Greek people can smile again.”

The government in Athens will have to stick to austerity measures and reforms, including high budget surpluses, for more than 40 years. Adherence will be monitored quarterly.

Guardian, June 22, 2018


 

2  athens_bey

athens2 beyonce

The latest video by the Carters, a.k.a. Beyoncé and Jay-Z, is a treat. Filmed in the Louvre, “Apesh-t” begins with close-ups of various old master paintings. A bell tolls atmospherically.

And then, out of nowhere, comes a moment of pure swagger.

Beyoncé and Jay-Z, sumptuously dressed, stare out diffidently, like a royal couple posing for a baroque marriage portrait. Behind them, out of focus, is the Mona Lisa. The gallery (which was once, of course, a royal palace) is otherwise empty.

Washington Post, June 19, 2018


 

3  athens_aesthetics

athens3 aesthetics

Note: the word in Greek letters in the top left of the photo reads: “AESTHETICS.”

Origin Late 18th century (in the sense ‘relating to perception by the senses’): from Greek aisthētikos, from aisthēta ‘perceptible things’, from aisthesthai ‘perceive.’ The sense ‘concerned with beauty’ was coined in German in the mid-18th century and adopted into English in the early 19th century, but its use was controversial until much later in the century.

Oxford Dictionaries


 

4  athens_caryatids

athens4 caryatids

45, Asomaton Str.

The residence with the caryatids in Kerameikos has been cherished like no other not only by the Athenians, but also by the city’s visitors … When the French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Athens in the 50s, he “captured” two spry old ladies dressed in black, walking under the shadow of the lissome and proud silhouettes of the caryatids. The contrast of the black and white figures, of motion and stillness, of decay and eternal beauty, created a powerful picture, one of Bresson’s most representative.

Tina Kontogiannopoulo, Streets of Athens blog


 

5  athens_magritte

athens5 magritte

The first version, that of 1926 I believe: a carefully drawn pipe, and underneath it (handwritten in a steady, painstaking, artificial script, a script from the convent, like that found heading the notebooks of schoolboys, or on a blackboard after an object lesson!), this note: “This is not a pipe.”

The other version—the last, I assume—can be found in Aube à l’Antipodes. The same pipe, same statement, same handwriting. But instead of being juxtaposed in a neutral, limitless, unspecified space, the text and the figure are set within a frame.

Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe


 

6  athens_museum

athens6 museum

The definition of a museum has evolved, in line with developments in society. Since its creation in 1946, ICOM updates this definition in accordance with the realities of the global museum community.

According to the ICOM Statutes, adopted by the 22nd General Assembly in Vienna, Austria on August 24th, 2007:

“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

ICOM website


 

 

 

Ivan Margolius, author of “Reflections of Prague: Journeys through the 20th Century” and “Prague: A Guide to 20th Century Architecture”
“There is no visitor to Prague who is not enchanted by this city.  Prague has everything: the ancient and the modern, the history and the culture, the music and the tranquility, the contradictions and the harmony.  Derek Sayer’s excellent book captures all of these facets of Prague to make any visit even more worthwhile.”
Jindrich Toman, University of Michigan
“Meticulous, imaginative, unconventional—all the way from old palaces to Little Hanoi.”

 


prague-22

I have long wanted to write a non-academic book on Prague that would both provide a readable short history of the city and act as a guide to visitors who might be interested in more than just the standard tourist trail.  When I was approached by Reaktion Books to write on Prague for their excellent Cityscopes series, I jumped at the opportunity.   This is the result.  Out this month.  It was fun to write, and I hope it serves its purpose.


Publisher’s description

Thirty years ago, Prague was a closed book to most travelers.  Today, it is Europe’s fifth-most-visited city, surpassed only by London, Paris, Istanbul, and Rome.  With a stunning natural setting on the Vltava river and featuring a spectacular architectural potpourri of everything from Romanesque rotundas to gothic towers, Renaissance palaces, Baroque churches, art nouveau cafés, and cubist apartment buildings, Prague may well be Europe’s most beautiful capital city.

But behind this beauty lies a turbulent and often violent history, and in this book, Derek Sayer explores both.  Located at the uneasy center of the continent, Prague has been a crossroads of cultures for more than a millennium.  From the religious wars of the middle ages and the nationalist struggles of the nineteenth century to the modern conflicts of fascism, communism, and democracy, Prague’s history is the history of the forces that have shaped Europe.

Sayer also goes beyond the complexities of Prague’s colorful past: his expert, very readable, and exquisitely illustrated guide helps us to see what Prague is today.  He not only provides listings of what to see, hear, and do and where to eat, drink, and shop, but also offers deep personal reflection on the sides of Prague tourists seldom see, from a model interwar modernist villa colony to Europe’s biggest Vietnamese market.

Hardback, 280 pages, 105 illustrations, 71 in color.


Availability
Published by Reaktion Books (UK) and Chicago University Press (in North America).
Available from amazon.co.uk (£12.45) and amazon.com ($22.00).
Preview (including Table of Contents and Prologue) here.


Featured Image -- 1594

I was recently invited by the excellent Prague-based magazine Alienist (motto: ALL SUBJECTIVITY IS APPROPRIATION) to participate in this questionnaire.  The entire issue of the magazine can be downloaded here.  I have also posted my own brief contribution, which interrogates the notion of alienation, separately on academia.edu.

ALIENIST MANIFESTO

We live, we die. In a world beset by alienation, it seems we exist in a recurring dream of disillusionment. The history of reason – history as reason – poses itself at the beginning of the 21st century as a congenital madness. And if reason is the symptom of an irrational problem, what part does the mind play in this? Bloodless revolutions have stained the pages of psychiatry, literature, art history, philosophy – if emancipation is an idea that first belongs to those who forge chains, it is not a facetious question we pose: IS SCHIZOPHRENIA A SOLUTION?

View original post

I have known Clay Ellis for years.  Clay and his wife Michelle are what I miss most about living in Alberta.  Their hospitality, their generosity, their grace.  His work, somewhere in a zone of his own between painting, sculpture, and video, abstract and concrete, conceptual and figurative art, conjures up a sense of time and a spirit of place like little else I know.  We have had many drunken conversations about Picasso, country music and the meaning of it all over the years, and I look forward to many more.  He is one of Canada’s greatest living artists.  These are some shots from his most recent exhibition at the stunning new Art Gallery of Grande Prairie.  

The text is from the gallery website.  The photographs were taken by Rob Ganzeveld.

DSC_0107

Clay Ellis: Weaners, Culls and Divvies

January 17, 2014 – April 6, 2014

Art Gallery of Grande Prairie (Alberta, Canada)

DSC_0174

Born and raised on a ranch in Southern Alberta, Clay Ellis explores his connection with the landscape, referring to images, the temperament and gestures of his past.

“I think that the focus behind this exhibition is equal parts of reflecting on the experiences of growing up on the ranch, considering the reality of no longer being a part of it, and pondering what the land means to the individuals that currently live on the property.”

DSC_0117

The transformation of the ranch itself, from homestead to ranching company, marked by the restructuring of out-buildings, the parceling of land, and the move towards automation, has happened in only a few generations.

For most operations, it is no longer necessary or practical to house a workforce, a shift that replaced hired hands and displaced extraneous family members. Usable tack turned to relic, and family members became guests to a property that had once been their home.

DSC_0054

It is from the perspective of guest that Ellis makes his observations. While the works are informed by the changing perspectives of land use and ranching practices from one generation to the next, it has been his yearly visits over a 45 year period that have allowed him to see changes to the landscape that may escape those embedded in the rigors of the day to day.

Ellis neither condones nor prescribes ideology but rather suggests that to assess change we must first see it.

DSC_0069

DSC_0171DSC_0128DSC_0166

DSC_0072

“Art has much more important things to do than change the world”–Clay Ellis, in one of those aforementioned conversations.