Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century:  A Surrealist History

Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History

By Lenka Bydžovská

The sociologist and cultural historian Derek Sayer’s books on Czech history and art are characterized by their wittingly provocative titles, which refer to classic works. Sayer borrows the title The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (1998) from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in order to ironically hint at the prevailing Western ignorance towards this “peripheral” country, which the author himself perceives as a model for understanding the changes of modern Europe. Although the reference to Walter Benjamin´s Paris, Capital of the 19th Century, in the title of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History may sound absurd at first, Sayer delivers on the promise of his Benjaminian inspiration. He aims to contribute to uncovering the prehistory of post-modernity and to the unmasking of modernist illusions about the epoch called the short 20th century. Sayer considers Prague to be a laboratory, where modernity – defined by Baudelaire as the transient, the fleeting, and the contingent – can be studied better than anywhere else in the world. The Prague experience leads to mistrust of grand narratives about progress and to the break with the homogenous, universal and teleological understanding of modernity, which is finally shown in its incompleteness.

Sayer’s book title surprises the reader in two ways: firstly, by appointing Prague as the world´s capital and secondly, by making it the capital of the 20th century. The latter violates the literary tradition of treating Prague as “the capital of old Europe”, which Anja Tippner also notes: “…Iconography of Prague was focused on the city centre and its history already in the 19th century…This tradition has continued until the mid-20th century. In the end, the recapitulation of literary images depicting Prague led Peter Demetz to label Prague as ‘the capital of old Europe’ not as the capital of the 19th century (such as Paris for Walter Benjamin) or the capital of the 20th century such as New York or Los Angeles”. However, Prague, with its history, which unfolds unexpectedly, is much more inspiring for Sayer´s approach towards modernity than more obvious global cities or centres of economic power.

Incorporating different timelines into his text, Sayer follows the footsteps of Walter Benjamin, who perceives the relationship between history and present as a dialectical image that suddenly appears and creates new constellations. Nezval in The Prague Stroller touches upon similar experiences of blending of the past and present that are treasured by surrealists. In this book he argues that: “There is no doubt that the magic of the city stems from a strange connection of its archaic charms with the modern spirit.” Even for Breton Prague was the “magical metropolis of Europe”. This view was later appropriated by Angelo Maria Ripellino in his Magic Prague. Although in academia Ripellino is treated with vigilance for his views that question the difference between reality and imagination, Sayer defends him and proposes that a city is always an imagined world composed of signs and symbols, memories and wishes. At the same time, Sayer shares Demetz´s disgust towards the myth of “Magic Prague”, which shatters the city’s “true“ history.

However, inspired by surrealist thought and experience, Sayer seeks to study Prague’s modernity rather than the Rudolfine history of the city. Sayer again follows Benjamin, who made the unconscious a subject of history. He treated surrealism as one of the examples of a much broader revolution in the 20th century that brings the concepts such as memory, subject or unconsciousness to the centre of attention. Sayer´s approach is characteristic of one of the basic principles of surrealism – the principle of objective chance, which Breton defined based on Engels’ and Freud’s teaching as “a form of manifestation of external necessity that makes its way into the human unconscious.”

Sayer primarily focuses on Prague´s interwar culture (highlighting its surrealistic nature), which he situates into an incredibly wide temporal and geographic context. The author easily flows through different artistic fields ranging from literature and fine arts to architecture, photography, film and music. Such an interdisciplinary approach and a wide temporal reach that runs into both past and future are also characteristic of Sayer´s earlier The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, which highlights issues connected to the Czech quest for national revival in the 19th and 20th century. The new book goes beyond the national and includes an international dimension. Sayer does not only stick to portrayal of the direct links between international personas and the alleys of Prague (Apollinaire, Breton, Éluard, Le Corbusier, Kokoschka, Heartfield) or to descriptions of Czech experiences abroad (Sutnar, Martinů, Kaprálová). He also follows the life trajectories of other protagonists of European avant-garde, such as Max Ernst, and closely examines the artistic and political significance of big international exhibitions in Paris or in New York.

This time, the author has opted for a more radical structure as the book does not obey a strict scheme. Sayer surprises the reader with his extraordinary erudition, encyclopedic knowledge, bulletproof orientation in academic literature, memoires and correspondence as well as in fiction and art. However, he primarily amazes them through his invention and ability to offer a new perspective on seemingly well known events, tales or pieces of work. Sayer’s assemblage of styles again reminds one of Benjamin, who elevated one of the great discoveries of avant-garde – a photomontage – to a method and a form of knowledge and transferred and applied its principles to the study of history. Sayer too works with a great quantity of details, which are not as much used for embracing a chronological narrative or for author´s illustrations of theoretical arguments. The details and pieces of information are rather used to spark imagination. Sayer realizes that change in perspective – in history as well as in art – is impossible without the participation of the audience and successfully deals with the fragmentation of the visual field, thus contributing to enhanced understanding of the intensity of unexpected encounters in this surrealist account.

Sayer challenges readers who are not Czech or Bohemists – he is fond of Czech terminology and consistently uses Czech names, titles and expressions (the book therefore includes a dictionary). According to Benjamin, an article must contain as many names and titles as possible as this endorses reader´s imagination and creates a solid background for the book´s narrative. In Prague’s semiotic landscape, it is precisely the name changes of streets, waterfronts, bridges or stations, parallel to changes of regimes, which help the author to portray the elusiveness of modernity. The book is supplemented by very well chosen black and white illustrations: documentaries, snapshots, photos, collages, erotic drawings, paintings, architecture, envelopes or posters. A quarter of the book (almost 150 pages) is dedicated to author´s notes, the bibliography and index.

Sayer´s book has won numerous awards in the Czech Republic and abroad and the author plans to embark on the final part of a loose trilogy stemming from his extensive research on and in Czech culture. The third book, with the working title Postcards from Absurdistan: the End of History?, will be dedicated to the period from 1938 to the present. However, as most of us know, Sayer will certainly make references to other places and other times.

Lenka Bydžovská is the head of the Department of 19th to 21st Centuries Art at the Institute of Art History of Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

Derek Sayer is Professor of History at Lancaster University (UK) and is the author of Prague, Capital of the 20th Century: A Surrealist History (2013) and The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (1998) both published by Princeton University Press. He is a Senior Editor at New Perspectives: Interdisciplinary Journal of Central & East European Politics and International Relations