Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Café Life

Prague cafés are of interest both in their present-day incarnations and for historical reasons. Today, there are a fair number of decent cafés and tea-rooms where one can meet friends, read, draw, write, listen to music, and in general spend many happy hours comfortably drinking warm liquids away from home.
This has not always been the case. While cafés did exist in Prague under communism, they were much harder to find. Generally what one found instead was establishments with high tables and metal footrests, intended to encourage the customer to eat, drink, and depart as quickly as possible. The notion of sitting down while eating and drinking seemed to be regarded as a bourgeois luxury fit only for actual restaurants. Thus, the only café I recall ever finding in those days was in the basement of the Národní muzeum. It was not very cozy, but a person could sit there and write while drinking Videnská kava. The existence of this café encouraged me to become very familiar with the museum’s holdings, such as the Naši netopýři (our bats) exhibit, the separate display of foreign bats, and the impressive reconstruction of the extinct moa. I am pleased to say that the museum has not yet disposed of these items.
Historically, Prague cafés have played an important cultural role. One quickly learns that the Slavia (a place one can visit even today) has welcomed many writers over the years. It is less immediately obvious that the Slavia was not always the queen of cafés, but merely one of the many frequented by the arts community during the first half of the twentieth century. Those who know their German-Jewish Prague writers, for example, have heard of the Arco, where they and others (such as Milena Jesenská) liked to gather.
A present-day Czech series about the various sections of Prague (see Milena Vojtková, “Slavné Kavárny,” in Kniha o Praze 1, ed. Pavel Augusta [Prague: Milpo, 1998]) notes that various opulent Art Nouveau cafés (that at the Hotel Paříž, that at the Hotel Evropa, and that at the Obecní Dům) were built, but it says nothing of who went to these, leading me to suspect that while these are enchanting places to have an expensive snack, they have never attracted a consistent clientele. (Speaking of elegant places to snack, the Museum of Czech Cubism has reopened the building’s café, which was closed decades ago. It is most delightful.)
From what I can ascertain, the most influential café of the first two decades of the twentieth century was the Union, which attracted avant-gardists and anarcho-communists. The Czech cubists all seem to have been very much attached to the Union. While there was a turn away from the Union by some avant-gardists in the twenties, I would not say it lost any of its importance. It was a hangout for Jaroslav Hašek, the Čapek brothers, and Bohumil Kubišta, to name just a few of its devotees. Unfortunately it was demolished in 1950, after which Adolf Hoffmeister wrote an entire book about it (Kavárna Union, 1958).
The nearby Národní, on Národní třída, became a favorite place for members of the Devětsil group in the 1920s, and thus when Toyen and Štyrský were about to return to Prague on a visit in 1928 (they had been sojourning in Paris), they indicated that they could be found nearly every evening at the Slavia or the Národní. This café is now the site of a bookstore, apparently in the Topič building (which was once a site of art exhibitions, including some of Toyen’s).
The Národní’s neighbor the Metro, as well as the aforementioned Slavia, down the street, and the Louvre (across the street and still functioning as a café) were also popular with Devětsil members, even after the group fell apart at the end of the twenties. Nezval seems to have pretty much lived at the Metro during 1933 and 1934; almost every day his diaries note that he went to the Metro, saw various people there, perhaps went somewhere else, perhaps returned to the Metro, and went home late at night. Much of the formative discussion leading to the founding of the Czech surrealist group appears to have taken place at the Metro, but also at the Juliš on Václavské náměstí (seemingly a place frequented by Toyen and Makovský) and at the Axa, which I think must have been Ježek’s choice as I get the impression he took Nezval there.
The Juliš building, a 1926 structure by Pavel Janak, still exists but I have not yet explored it for a café. I am not sure about the Axa, but I have a suspicion that it was the hotel my family stayed at in 1977, which I believe was sort of between nám. Republiky and where the tram starts to head into Žižkov on Seifertova. We did not think much of the hotel or its environs, but if it is the same place as the Axa café, then it appears that I breakfasted in a surrealist haunt at a tender age. (An antireligious opinion poll was held at the Axa in April 1934, which is perhaps not as interesting as the automatic drawings done at the Metro a week or so earlier, but still.)
In 1933-4, J.E. Koula wrote about new Prague cafés for Magazin DP (vol. 1, no. 9, 267-9), but focusing on their architectural attributes rather than their clientele. Koula noted the fashion was no longer for historicized, decorative spaces (Art Nouveau cafes or anything with gilt, marble, plush, stucco, or chandeliers). Modern cafés featured glass, chrome, nickel, and sleek light fixtures (hladká svitidla). The Slavia fell in the category of a luxurious space with great snob-appeal, as apparently it had been redecorated and lost its previous charm. The Juliš did not strike him as quite such a perfect example of a white-walled modern café, but was nonetheless of considerable interest.
(Online investigation shows that the Hotel Axa was built 1930-2 and is now a 3-star establishment with two restaurants. I have no idea if one of these was once the café. I also find that NYU describes Josef Vachal as a surrealist, which he was not… more of a symbolist if anything)

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Blogger clearbrook said...

You should post a pic of George! Thanks for your comment! We adopted Samwise from the HRS after buying Frodo at a pet store (we didn't know then). We of course changed her name (it used to be Ellie) and she doesn't seem to mind as long as we give her treats and love. Some of my friends spent a year in Prague and it seems like an interesting place to live!
a bunny lover

November 10, 2005 7:59 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

You can find a photo of George and his beloved at Halloween in Black and White. George is a HRS adoptee who was once very lively and is now, as the result of a pasteurella infection several years ago, a lie-around kind of guy who loves attention and baths. I don't know what Calypso Spots' original name was, but I found her at the Humane Society in Pittsburgh.

November 10, 2005 9:21 PM  

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