Artists and Prophets

@ The Trade Fair Palace (Veletržní palác) until 18.10.2015

If history is told by the victors then the story of art is told by its famous movements and artists. But like all history there are figures and groups that flourish and fade, artists that grab hold of public attention but just as quickly disappear into obscurity. Artists and Prophets at the National Gallery focusses on a forgotten group of artists from German-speaking countries at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries who saw themselves as modern-day messiahs.

At the core of the exhibition is a loose collection of artists who achieved cult status with dedicated followers in the Germanic lands. Outsiders in an increasingly mechanised Europe they preached that mankind should return to old-fashioned religious and pastoral ways. In many cases they rejected the modern world completely and gave themselves up, barefoot and clad in robes, into the wilderness.

German art of the 20th Century is unavoidably linked to one of the darkest periods of European history. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this movement is that even though it mostly precedes the First World War it still contains a sinister undercurrent. It’s easy with hindsight of course to burden German pre-war culture with what we know now, but the artists’ cult-like desire for veneration provides a chilling precedent for what’s coming

One of the most influential of these prophets is Karl Diefenbach. His work at the start of the exhibition sets the tone for what becomes an increasingly warped narrative of pseudo-religious self-promotion. One of his closest disciples, Hugo Höppener, was a successful illustrator with a penchant for the occult. His temple designs could have been used in Raiders of the Lost Ark - you can almost hear the screams of sacrificial victims. Another prophet, Gustav Nagel, decided to baptise his child in the freezing water of the Arendsee, inadvertently killing it. Johannes Baader claimed to have direct communication with Christ and signed his letters to the journal Jugend ‘with highest regards, God’. And so it continues. But the purpose of the exhibition isn’t solely to bring attention to these artists. Its aim is to show how they influenced those that followed such as Egon Schiele, Joseph Beuys, and Frantisek Kupka, and that’s where it becomes a little tenuous.

The cynic in me would say that name dropping Schiele and Kupka is simply a way to get punters through the door. I understand that exhibitions need to be commercial but the links to these better-known artists are perhaps a bit exaggerated. There are links there – Schiele’s close friend and promoter, Arthur Roessler, had strong association with the prophets. František Kupka spent some time at Diefenbach’s commune. But when you look at their respective output it’s hard to discern more than fleeting influence. Arguably there’s a stronger connection with Beuys but it seems to be a step too far to think that he wouldn’t have produced his work without these prophets.

Overall though, whether the links to later artists are definitive or not isn’t really a problem. If you’re into 20th Century art then it’s a real eye-opener. Artists and Prophets shows the legacy of forgotten artists and a chapter of European art that was obliterated by unimaginable horrors and buried ever since – until now. 

Dukelských hrdinů 47, Prague 7 

Tram stop "Veletržní palác" - lines No. 12, 17, 24.
Alternatively "Strossmayerovo náměstí" tram stop of the lines No. 1, 8, 25, 26 or "Vltavská" metro station (line C).

The Trade Fair Palace (Veletržní palác)

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