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Czech Culture

The term "Czech" refers to the cultural characteristics of the Czech-speaking inhabitants of the Czech Republic (Česká republika), which includes Bohemia (Čechy), the larger western part, and Moravia (Morava), the eastern part. Northern Moravia includes Silesia (Slezsko), a historical region that lies mostly in southwestern Poland. The Silesians (Slezané) of the Czech Republic tend to maintain their ethnic character, but many agree that they constitute a subculture within the Czech culture.
The centuries-old cultural traditions have been preserved and developed by many artists in the areas of literature, music, architecture, theatre and cinematography; although during various periods of ruling by various empires and political alliances, Czech culture has had little chance of displaying its national identity. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent Czech “Velvet revolution” of 1989 has the world had the chance to get to know this wonderful country.

Literature

The oldest Czech literary monuments go back to the second half of the 13th century. During the 14th century Czech language was employed in legends, tracts, dramatic compositions, satires, and fables.

Modern Czech literature began to develop during the 19th century. The founder of modern Czech poetry was Karel Hynek Mácha (1810–1836) with his famous poem Máj (May). In prose, the most enduring early work was Babička (Grandmother) by Božena Němcová (1820–1862). Another popular writer, Alois Jirásek (1851–1930), produced novels and plays based on themes of Czech history. 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 worldwide 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]).
Under the communist regime, prominent writers, painters, and sculptors as well as museums, theaters, art galleries, and major orchestras were supported by the state. This generous support compelled them to conform to political and ideological dictates. Working under such strictures became unbearable for some of the most creative writers, such as Josef Škvorecký (1924–) and Milan Kundera (1929–), both of whom left the country to write and publish abroad. So did Vera Linhartova (1938–), one of the most admired prose writers of the 60’s, and poet Petr Kral (1941–).
In general, the Czechs are enthusiastic readers and often read in trains and buses and on the Prague subway. Translations of foreign books are readily available.

Architecture

Stone architecture in the Czech lands dates from the second half of the 9th century (rotundas). By the 13th century, the Romanesque style was replaced by the Gothic, which reached its peak during the reigns of Charles IV (1346–1378) and his son Wenceslas IV (1378–1419). Prague has thousands of architectural and artistic monuments of every style, attesting to its long history. Foreign visitors consider Prague one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Czech architecture is influenced by major European trends, yet it still represents Czech identity. At the end of the 19th century, the decorative and stylized Art Nouveau architecture ushered new concepts with the beautiful Municipal House in Prague and the Theatre in Prostejov as prime examples. In the early 1900s, Czech architecture saw the emergence of a unique form of Cubism, with round and crystalline derivation of geometric shapes. For the first time in the world, Cubist forms were applied to architecture, which were implemented during the pre-war years of 1913-14 in Prague to building designs, statues and furniture. Josef Gocár is one of the leading Czech architects who designed many buildings in the Cubist style, of which the most distinguished are the spa pavilion in Lazne Bohdanec and the House of the Black Madonna in Prague that nowadays hosts the Czech Cubist Museum. Other outstanding Cubists include Josef Chochol, who designed an impressive building on Neklanova Street in Prague, and Emil Kralicek, who designed the Diamant House in the centre of Prague. The next age of modern architectural construction completely broke away from monumentality and decoration, and found artistic expression in the practicality of space and simplicity. That style has been vividly represented by some of the brilliant architects including Jan Kotěra, Pavel Janák and Josef Gocár.
When talking about the history and culture of Czechia, especially its arts and architecture, one cannot disregard the significant contribution made by its national minorities, in particular its Jewish population. The Jewish Quarter of Prague is a treasury of Jewish art and architecture and is one of the most outstanding Jewish sites in Europe. Known as Josefov, the area incorporates the Jewish Cemetery, a number of synagogues including the Old New Synagogue (XIIIc.), Pinkas (XVc.), Maisel (XVIc.), Klaus (XVIIc.) Synagogues, museums and residencies, and the Old Town Hall (XVIc.).

Painting and Sculpture

Mucha Window in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague

Painting and sculpture have a long history, ranging from the works of Theodorik (14th c.), 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 folk life; and Alfons Mucha (1860–1939), an internationally known representative of Art Nouveau, one of the founders of modern poster art and author of one of the stained glass windows in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. 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 nonfigurative representations.
Among Czech sculptors are Josef Václav Myslbek (1848–1922), a representative of monumental realism exemplified by the statue of Saint Wenceslas in Prague's main square, and Jan Štursa (1880–1925), whose female figures are admired for their sensuously shaped forms.

Music

In the Czech Republic, music is the most popular art, and Czech music is well known in the rest of the world. The old saying "Co Čech, to muzikant " ("Every Czech is a musician") is a succinct characterization of the Czech disposition. Renaissance vocal polyphonic music was composed and performed during the 16th century; in the 18th century Italian operas were wildly popular not only in Prague but in smaller towns likewise. At the time when the Baroque was giving way to Classicism, numerous musicians from the Czech lands were active in many European countries. Among Czech composers, four are heard in the concert halls and opera houses around the world. Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884) composed the six symphonic poems My Country (Má vlast) and the folk opera The Bartered Bride (Prodaná nevěsta ). Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) is known especially for his 16 Slavonic Dances (Slovanskétance) and Symphony No. 9 “New World”; he was also the founder and the first director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) was a Moravian composer known for strongly rhythmic and dramatic operas, such as Jenufa (Její pastorkyňa); and Bohuslav Martinů (1890–1959) who composed operas, symphonies, and chamber music leaving behind a substantial legacy of 384 opuses published within 35 years.
Every May since 1946, music lovers from many countries arrive in Prague to attend and participate in the concerts, recitals, and other musical events offered every day. Not only the best Czech musicians but also foreign orchestras and soloists take part in this festival of music known as Prague Spring (Pražské jaro).  

Cinema

Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Milos Forman's Oscar-winning AMADEUS

The new generation of Czech filmmakers, screenwriters and actors have had great success worldwide. Czech films have been awarded prestigious prizes at international film festivals, including the Oscar several times, with the films The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze) by Elmar Klos and Jan Kadar, Closely Observed Trains (Ostre sledovane vlaky) by Jiri Menzel and Kolya by Jan Sverak. Probably the best-known Czech director is Miloš Forman (1932–), who left the country in 1968 because of its lack of artistic freedom. Two of his films made in the US, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, are among the most celebrated in the history of film, both garnering him the Academy Award for Best Director.

Performance Arts

The Czech theatrical tradition of the 21st century is very colorful, including opera, ballet and drama, as well as pantomime, puppet theatre, black-light theatre and popular musicals. Drama and ballet are well represented not only in Prague but also in several Bohemian and Moravian cities. However, the most widespread theatrical form in the country is drama. Some 54 percent of all performances made by theatre companies in 2004 were drama presentations.
The most important Czech opera ensembles include the National Theater in Prague (Ostrovní 1, Prague 1), the State Opera in Prague (Legerova 75, Prague 1), the National Theater in Brno (Dvořákova 11, Brno) and the National Moravian-Silesian Theater in Ostrava (Čs. legii 14, Ostrava). Contemporary singers with worldwide recognition include the mezzo-sopranos Dagmar Peckova and Magdalena Kozena, as well as the soprano Eva Urbanova. The most important Czech operetta theater is the Musical Theater Karlín (Křižíkova 10, Prague 8).
There is a long tradition of puppetry, ranging from well-known nomadic puppeteers in the 18th century to a professional network of puppet theaters today. The most famous puppeteers in modern theatre are Milos Kirschner and Josef Skupa, with their puppets ‘Hurvinek’ and ‘Spejbl’ The most popular puppet theatre is the National Marionette Theatre in Prague delighting audiences with its famous version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Prague is also known for a unique theater called Laterna magika (Magic Lantern), founded in 1958, a mixed-media spectacle that combines live performance with light and video effects, slides, and music. For the first time Laterna magika was shown at world's fairs in Brussels in 1958 and Montreal in 1967. During nearly 50 years of Laterna Magika's existence, over 30 performances have been created and the company toured with numerous experimental projects all around the world.