Turtle Bunbury

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Michael Treštík's - Cubist Ceramics, Prague

Photographs by James Fennell.

NB: If you are seeking a place to stay in Prague, I cannot recommend No 46 Prague highly enough. The appartment has been furnished to the highest standards by my good friends James and Joanna Fennell.

Over the past 15 years since the fall of communism, Prague-based architect Mikhail Treštík has amassed one of the largest private collections of Cubist Ceramics in existence. This extraordinary collection, dating to the early 20th century, is set to become of exceptional value with the concepts of European Cubism once more returning to vogue in the 21st century.

One of the more unusual discoveries for those who came to gaze at Prague's sublime architectural skylines in the wake of the Communist era was that former Czechoslovakia was the only place in the world where Cubist ideas were extended from the canvas and applied to the three-dimensional forms of architecture, furniture and decorative arts. Prague has been called the second great school of Cubism after Paris but many might argue that it was here in the heart of Bohemia that the legacy of European Cubism reached its apex.

Amidst all the Baroque and Gothic masterpieces in the Old Town are modernist gems such as the House of the Black Madonna where the world's first Museum of Cubism is scheduled to open in July 2003. In the last ten years, names such as Josef Gocár, the museum's original architect, have become common currency again, as they were in the 1920s throughout Europe.

Architect, novelist and art critic Michael Treštík has been passionate about Cubism since an early age and has been quietly buying pieces since 1989. He now has the second largest private collection of pre-war Cubist ceramics after Ronald Lauder, son of the cosmetics queen and ex-Ambassador to Vienna. Lauder's collection recently went on display at the Neue Galerie Museum in New York; in a city where Art Nouveau and Art Deco have never gone out of fashion, Czech Cubism looks set to become the next big thing.

Treštík's apartment is located in an elegant leafy suburb on the Left Bank of the River Vltava, a traditional haunt for intellectuals and dissidents close to the looming hulk of Prague Castle. The building, on a cobblestone street, surrounded by villas and parks, was built in 1907, making it contemporary to the Cubist age. The apartment, where he has been living since 1982, consists of two bedrooms, a kitchen, a hall and a large white-walled office. Treštík's collection is installed in a series of glass cabinets in the latter room. It features many outstanding pieces, including a tea set by Pavel Janák and a pair of expressive masterpieces by Havlicek. He also owns inventive furniture by Chochol, Gocár and Janák.

Conceived by Picasso and Braque in Paris in the early 20th century, Cubism in Czechoslovakia coincided with the emergence of a new international literati (such as Kafka, Werfel and Rilke) and the breakthrough scientific discoveries of Albert Einstein. That the French school should wield such an influence over Czech art was at least in part inspired by a reaction against the nationalist inspired folk art then emanating from Slavice artists such as Alfons Mocha. In Czechoslovakia a new Cubist vision of the world truly evolved as a group of young avant garde designers sought to overcome the forces of traditionalism and nationalism by cultivating both an internationalist social milieu and an elemental visual vocabulary they hoped could transcend national boundaries. By 1912 this group had amassed sufficient clout to host a series of exhibitions in Prague's Municipal House organized by Gocár. Some of the pieces on display in Treštík's apartment are originals from the 1912 Exhibition.

Foremost among those in Prague's avant-garde were Gocár, perhaps the most dynamic of the Cubists; architect and designer, Rudolf Stockar and Pavel Janák, architect, designer and bridge builder. It was only in Czechoslovakia that the Cubists brought their ideas as far as ceramics and furniture and this is what make's Treštík 's collection so rare. The cups were not designed to drink from. The hollow back chairs may not have been designed to sit upon. But that is not strictly the point. The essence of Cubism is neither comfort nor function, but aesthetics, something that embodies Cubism's fragmentary perception of the world.

Treštík himself has lived a varied life. An architect of considerable renown in his native Prague, he turned his hand to writing fiction in the 1980s. His debut novel "Your Walls", a conceptual romance, was a best-seller and enabled him to concentrate on his passion for collecting. As a young man he had indulged in collections of coins, stamps, graphics and drawings. After the success of his novel he turned his attention to modern art, and began buying works of artists of his own generation. In 1989 he became an art critic, and his art collection now features work by Jaroslav Róna, the Válovy sisters and Stanislav Kolíbal, one of the Czech Republic's major modern abstract artists.

Only after the fall of communism was Treštík able to further his interest in Cubist ceramics, taking a seat at numerous auctions across the Czech Republic. He did not attend these auctions blindly. His book cases are filled with weighty tomes detailing the birth and evolution of the Cubist movement throughout Europe. Aided by a monumental collection of art reference books, histories and biographies, he is fully acquainted with the life and times of Gocár, Stockar and their contemporaries.

Such a keen understanding must have made the unexpected success of his collecting extremely exciting. In one instance he found two small cups designed by Pavel Janák (1911) in the back of a shop selling for 100 Kc. The rest of the set showed up at an auction six months later with an asking price of 60,000 Kc. Eventually he sold half his art collection to fund further ceramic purchases. Treštík is an irrepressible collector. In 1975, before the art collection started, he had been given an early 20th century Slavicek drawing as a wedding present, but as his taste changed he decided to sell it. While on his hunt for ceramics in 1999, he came across the very same Slavicek lying on the floor of an auction house so he bought it back - 25 years later.

In terms of ceramics, Treštík has not stopped with the Cubists but includes two ambiguous vases, expressive masterpieces by Havlicek from 1918. The apartment is definitely eclectic. A pointed granite missile by sculptor friend Zdenek Hula stands adjacent to an Armenian rock covered in Celtic motifs dating back to the 13th century. Family heirlooms adorn a magnificent 1840 Biedermayer piece, skilfully married to a Baroque chest from the early 18th century. Modern bookcases jut out from walls and doors, laden with anything from dusty old volumes of Zivot Zvirat (Life of Animals) to the current Who's Who of Czech Society, which Trestik himself compiles.

Walking the streets of Prague one wonders what magnificent treasures might lie behind those stunning facades. In the case of Michael Treštík it is a collection of tremendous historical and artistic importance.

This story featured in Identity in 2003.