For the art lover, Prague should rank among the top of the world’s must-visit destinations. This city of about 1.3 million people punches far above its weight class when it comes to modern and contemporary art. Tourists in Prague crowd themselves into three places: the castle, Charles Bridge and Old Town Square. But I found no fewer than 10 museums and galleries rich with world-class art, all of which were deliciously quiet. They ranged from converted palaces to vast and airy industrial buildings.
The first exhibition of contemporary Czech art I ever saw was at the House at the Golden Ring, now the City of Prague Museum. But then, it belonged to the Prague City Gallery, and it put on an engrossing show amid the vaults of its cellar. Some of the works had an ironic edge, and many of them were downright creepy, a feeling only enhanced by the setting.
More than 20 years later, a great deal of contemporary Czech art still has an eerie sensibility, a quality I quite enjoy. Czech artists also have a great affinity for glass. Numerous artists there, both modern and contemporary, work wonders with it. Bohemia is famous for its crystal, and local glass blowers and sculptors have deeply explored the medium, creating a panoply of stunning objects.
Few casual visitors to Prague will have the time or inclination to visit all of the venues below. Of these, my favorites were the Museum Portheimka, the National Gallery – Trade Fair Palace, the Museum Kampa and the Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace.
Now managed by the Prague City Gallery, this 18th-century baroque palace stands a stone’s throw from the Charles Bridge in one of the most touristy locations in Prague. But for some reason I can’t fathom, it draws few visitors. The palace’s piano nobile has been preserved (more or less), rather than restored, giving it an aura of melancholic faded grandeur. Torn and faded crimson brocade decorates many of its walls, and gilt chandeliers dangle at drunken angles, missing an arm or two. The oval dance hall is the climax of the visit, with its swirling ceiling frescoes and elaborate faux-marble walls (the hall appeared in the film “Amadeus”). Upstairs, the gallery operates a space for contemporary art exhibitions, which may or may not be of interest. But the views down Křižovnická make venturing up worthwhile in any case. Closed Monday.
Karlova 2. Tel. (420) 222-232-053
This large kunsthalle-style gallery opened in 2008 in a renovated factory in the Holešovice neighborhood, north of Old Town. But its most striking architectural innovation was unveiled in late 2016: the “Gulliver Airship,” a zeppelin of mostly wood that appears to have crash-landed on the roof of the building. Venturing inside was a highlight of our visit. The rest of DOX has five floors of galleries, which host rotating temporary exhibitions. I was especially taken with Peter Sís: On Flying and Other Dreams, displaying lively and deceptively simple works from five children’s books illustrated by Sís, with a running theme on the importance of individual freedom. Also fascinating was the Galegion exhibition, showing architectural models with (often utopian) redesigns of abandoned industrial spaces. Be sure to stop in the colorful bookstore and shop before departing. Nearby, the Eatery is an excellent choice for lunch before or after a visit of the museum. Closed Tuesday.
DOX Centre for Contemporary Art
Poupětova 1. Tel. (420) 295-568-123
A short walk from Old Town Square, this is my favorite commercial art gallery in Prague. Its ground floor hosts rotating temporary exhibitions. When we visited, we happened upon one called Send Nudes! The show presented arresting works by Jiří Georg Dokoupil, Jakub Špaňhel, Martin Krajc and Andrej Dúbravský, including, yes, some paintings of nude figures, as well as more abstract pieces. We asked a personable employee to show us the colorful cellar galleries as well, where DSC keeps works from a stable of blue-chip artists such as David Černý, Milan Houser and Jiří Černický. It has memorable works in glass, as well as a variety of other media. Even if the main show isn’t necessarily of interest, it’s worth visiting this gallery to tour its cellar of treasures. Closed Sunday.
Dlouhá 5. Tel. (420) 607-262-617
Off the beaten track in Smíchov (south of Malá Strana), this nonprofit gallery hides behind a relatively unremarkable 19th-century apartment building. Ring the bell to be buzzed in, pass through the entry hall, still paved with wood blocks, and walk to the incongruous white building in the rear. Futura also displays ever-changing temporary exhibitions, and they tend to be as contemporary as can be. Some of the artworks were just a month or two old! But the art also tended to be accessible. In the Lilies of the Field exhibition, for example, luminous and ghostly photographs by Dor Guez depict electric-blue flower specimens, gorgeous in their own right, and given weight when we learned that they derive from Guez’s research in the American Colony’s archives in Jerusalem. I also enjoyed several works on film, as well as an immersive minimalist room installation, glowing orange and pulsing with sound. And don’t miss the cheeky David Černý sculptural ensemble in the garden, which I dare not describe in a family publication. It requires a bit of effort to reach Futura, but the quality of the art is uniformly high. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Holečkova 49. Tel. (420) 608-955-150
This 1912 former department store in Staré Město near the Powder Tower is the most famous example of Czech cubist architecture. This unique style employs crystalline forms, and buildings often have façades with prismatic reliefs and unexpected oblique planes. I love it, and so it was a great pleasure to visit the museum on the third, fourth and fifth floors of the House at the Black Madonna (a restaurant and a Viennese-style café occupy the first two floors). This branch of the Museum of Decorative Arts (displays masterpieces of Czech cubist furniture and décor, including those by top designers such as Alois Kubíček, Pavel Janák and Josef Gočár, the architect of the building. The sofas, chairs and desks cut striking profiles; they wouldn’t look out of place in Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis” or perhaps Marlene Dietrich’s apartment. No fan of design should miss this museum, one of the only places I know of that displays Czech cubist works. I recommend following the advice of the friendly museum guard who greeted us: “Visit the two floors of cubism, and then perhaps the [temporary] exhibition upstairs. And then you must have some cake in the café.” Closed Monday.
Museum of Decorative Arts – House at the Black Madonna
Ovocný Trh 19. Tel. (420) 776-623-016
This grand museum on the edge of the Jewish Quarter was in the midst of completing a major renovation at the time of our visit, and its full reopening may be delayed by world events. The neo-Renaissance edifice has a richly decorated interior, and the colors of its restored murals, frescoes and stained glass look vibrant and bright. As of this writing, only a fraction of the museum’s exhibition space is open to the public. Even so, the Pleiad of Glass exhibition, displaying Czech glass sculptures from 1946-2019, alone justifies a visit. The first room contains jewel-like small-scale sculptures, ranging from a pastel-hued bundt cake to an abstract work of cobalt-blue cylinders. The second room is devoted to large-scale works in glass, and the collection is spectacular. One chandelier assembled clear-glass bone and balloon shapes; another sculpture resembled giant drops of mercury spilled on the wall. As the restoration of this museum continues, it’s sure to become one of the premier attractions in Prague (whether tourists know it or not). Closed Monday.
Museum of Decorative Arts – Main Building
Ulice 17. Listopadu 2. Tel. (420) 778-543-900
Occupying a former mill along the river, this wonderful private museum opened on Kampa Island in 2003. It displays part of the collection of Jan and Meda Mládek, who supported dissident and otherwise nonconforming Czech and Slovak artists during the communist period. We saw an engaging temporary exhibition, but the real jewel of the museum is its collection of paintings by František Kupka, one of Czechoslovakia’s most important 20th-century artists. His earlier realistic works have a wonderful quality of color and light, as well as a delightful sense of humor. I especially loved “The Bookworm,” a sun-dappled painting depicting three ladies pining after a handsome young gentleman absorbed in his book. His later works became more abstract. My favorites, “The Cathedral” and “The Fair,” make it seem as if one were looking at a garden through a pane of shattered glass. In the 1930s, some of his paintings took on a more menacing mechanistic quality, with names like “Drinking Steel.” Museum Kampa also has a beautiful courtyard sculpture garden, and sculptural ensembles, including David Černý’s amusing and distressing “Babies,” are scattered around the complex’s exterior.
U Sovových Mlýnů 2. Tel. (420) 257-286-132
This nonprofit gallery in Malá Strana has a rambling layout of small rooms on two floors, showcasing the edgiest contemporary art we saw during our stay in Prague. Some of the works, such as the explicit etching-like pieces in the Legenda in MeMoriam exhibition were obviously provocative. But even some of the wholly abstract sculptures inspired feelings of discomfort or dread. For example, Belle Shafir’s “Knitting Bodies” used a medium with a wholesome connotation — knitted fabric — to create a sculpture evoking an alien spider in its nest. Those who enjoy thought-provoking art will like this compact and atmospheric gallery, but those who prefer the conventionally beautiful should consider some of the other venues on this list. Closed Monday.
Nerudova 13. Tel. (420) 257-531-220
Like the Museum Kampa, this new institution was founded by the Jan and Meda Mládek Foundation, in collaboration with Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts. The first venue in the Czech Republic to focus solely on art made from glass, the Museum Portheimka opened in the Smíchov neighborhood in 2018 in a renovated baroque palace. The venue takes full advantage of its splendid architecture. For example, beneath the elaborate wooden ceiling of the “Banquet Hall” hangs a René Roubíček chandelier that looks like it’s about to drip onto a dining table laden with brightly colored glass cakes, fruits, flowers, candies and even escargot (“Banquet” by Miluše Roubíčková). On the wall is the Murano-style “Mirror from the Vanitas Cycle,” by Milan Houser, but a closer inspection reveals camouflage panels, etchings of gas masks and an ornamental mushroom cloud at its top. The ornate Marble Hall is the most spectacular space, with its immense Maria Theresa chandelier reflected in a circle of black mirror on the floor. The small-scale sculptures in the following hall also merit attention. We had the museum entirely to ourselves, and a delightful museum guard decided to give us an impromptu tour. She knew the title and artist of seemingly every work and was clearly proud to show them off to us. This jewel box of a museum also hosts rotating special exhibitions, and the charming café on the ground floor, popular with locals, is an ideal spot for a break. Closed Monday.
Štefánikova 12. Tel. (420) 776-036-111
This branch of the National Gallery in Holešovice, housed in a functionalist building designed to host trade fairs, displays a large world-class collection of modern and contemporary art. Its permanent exhibitions are divided among three floors: 1796-1918: Art of the Long Century, 1918-1938: First Czechoslovak Republic and 1930-Present: Czech Modern Art. Each of these floors could easily merit an hour, which means it’s necessary to move quickly or focus on certain sections. If you have time for just one floor, make it the first. The collection of late 18th- to early 20th-century paintings includes masterpieces by Czech artists little known to Americans, as well as major works by famous artists such as Rodin, Picasso, Munch and Klimt. After encountering the dynamic paintings of Bohumil Kubišta, to name just one incredible Czech artist, I wondered at how it was possible that such towering talents were essentially unknown to the wider world. Near the floor’s exit, we found ourselves confronted with “The Virgin,” one of Klimt’s finest paintings, “Saint John the Baptist,” an expressive life-size bronze by Rodin, and “Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colors,”a vibrant abstract masterpiece by František Kupka. What a joy to stand before these three star artworks alone, with no other museumgoers to disturb our contemplation. As wonderful as this floor of the National Gallery is, I do recommend leaving some time to explore the others, which also overflow with treasures. This museum is Prague’s Musée d’Orsay. And though it deserves a place in everyone’s itinerary to the city, few visitors seem to make time for it, making the experience that much more pleasurable for those who do. Closed Monday.
National Gallery – Trade Fair Palace
Dukelských Hrdinů 47. Tel. (420) 224-301-122