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Culture & People

Under the communist regime, prominent writers, painters, and sculptors as well as museums, theatres, art galleries, and major orchestras were supported by the state. This generous support of theatres and orchestras meant that tickets to artistic events, from play readings to costly productions such as operas in Prague's National Theatre, were affordable by all. Those in the arts who received state money had to conform to political and ideological dictates, or at least make certain that they did not offend the Soviet Union, those in power in their own country, and the Communist Party. Working under such strictures became unbearable for some of the most creative writers, such as Josef Škvorecký and Milan Kundera, both of whom left the country to write and publish abroad.

Since the velvet revolution of 1989, artists have enjoyed freedom of expression and most support themselves. However, prestigious artistic institutions and ensembles such as the National Theatre, the National Gallery and the Czech Philharmonic continue to receive state support.


Czech literature is divided into several main time periods: the Middle Ages; the Hussite period; the years of re-Catholicisation and the baroque; the Enlightenment and Czech reawakening in the 19th century; the avant garde of the inter-war period; the years under Communism and the Prague Spring; and the literature of the post-Communist Czech Republic. Czech literature and culture played a major role on at least two occasions, when Czech society lived under oppression and no political activity was possible. On both of these occasions, in the early 19th century and then again in the 1960s, the Czechs used their cultural and literary effort to create political freedom, establishing a confident, politically aware nation.

The first literary language in the area of the present-day Czech Republic was Old Church Slavic, which was used by the missionaries Constantine and Methodius. Although Latin predominated from the 11th through the 14th centuries, Czech began to be used during the 13th century, and during the 14th was employed in a great variety of genres: legends, tracts, dramatic compositions, satires, and fables. The activities of the United Brethren, especially a translation of the Bible toward the end of the 16th century, contributed greatly to the stabilisation of the Czech literary language.

Modern Czech literature began to develop during the 19th century. The founder of modern Czech poetry was Karel Hynek Mácha (1810-1836), whose long poem Máj (May) was published in 1836. Celebrating the beauty of the spring countryside and romantic love, Mácha's work made masterful use of the sound qualities of the Czech language in dealing with death and faith, the execution of a young man who killed his father for having seduced the girl the son loved, and the girl's suicide; those themes were quite daring for their time. In prose, the most enduring early work was Babička (Grandmother) by Božena Němcová (1820-1862). The author depicted rural life during the first half of the 19th century, including the folk customs that took place in the different seasons. By 1998, more than 350 editions of this work had appeared.

Another popular writer, Alois Jirásek (1851-1930), produced both novels and plays based on themes of Czech history ranging from the Hussite movement to the national revival. The poet Otokar Březina (1868-1929) had a great influence on lyrical poetry in the 20th century; his five collections of poems reflected a profound knowledge of world literature, philosophy, and theology. Karel Čapek (1890-1938) is known the world over in translation. His literary production includes plays, children's books, informal essays about his travels in Europe, utopian novels, and novels in which he explores the nature and foundations of knowledge. The English word "robot" comes from Čapek's play RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots, 1920).

In general, Czech lyric poetry has surpassed in quality both prose and dramatic writing. The Czechs are enthusiastic readers and often read in trains and buses and on the Prague subway. Translations of foreign books are readily available.

Visual Arts

Stone architecture in the Czech lands dates from the second half of the 9th century (rotundas). By the 13th century, the Romanesque style had been replaced by the Gothic, which reached its peak during the reigns of Charles IV (1346-1378) and his son Václav IV (1378-1419). Prague has thousands of architectural and artistic monuments of every style, attesting to its long history (the fortified settlement around which Prague developed was founded toward the end of the 9th century). The palaces and mansions of Prague are small, but what they lack in size is compensated for by their intimacy and their setting in old Prague's narrow, curving streets. Foreign visitors consider Prague one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Painting and sculpture have a long history, ranging from the works of Theodorik, court painter of Charles IV, to the newest post-modernist styles. Among the most revered painters are Josef Mánes (1820-1871), a landscape and portrait painter and the author of ethnographic sketches and illustrations; Mikoláš Aleš (1852-1913), who depicted Czech historical events and scenes from folklife; and Alfons Mucha (1860-1939), an internationally known representative of Art Nouveau. Mucha was one of the founders of modern poster art, and reproductions of his posters remain popular. Among modern painters is František Kupka (1871-1957), who lived in France after 1906. He was a pioneer of abstract art and is best known for non-figurative representations.

Among Czech sculptors are Josef Václav Myslbek (1848-1922), a representative of monumental realism exemplified by the statue of St Wenceslas in Prague's main square, and Jan Štursa (1880-1925), whose female figures are admired for their sensuously shaped forms.

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