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Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History

by Derek Sayer
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2013
656 pp., illus. 54 b/w, 8 line drawings. Trade, $35.00 / £24.95.
ISBN: 9780691043807.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Why Prague as 'capital of the 20th Century', and not Berlin, Tokyo, Los Angles, or, of course, New York? The answer that Derek Sayer, renowned specialist of Czech Modernism, gives to this question is multiple, but most crucial is here the symmetry he elaborates with Walter Benjamin's landmark description of Paris, cultural capital of the 19th Century. Just as the Ville-Lumière could appear in Benjamin eyes‒and don't we look all through his eyes nowadays?‒as the laboratory of 20th Century's modernism, Prague may be the city that foreshadows the world in which we live today, a world that is less simply postmodern than the epitome of what Baudelaire defined as the landmark feature of all modernities ahead: "the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable" ("The Painter of Modern Life," 1863). More than any other city in the (Western) world, Prague has become the symbol of that singular mix of constancy and instability that singles out modern as well as postmodern life. Much more than a city like New Work, Prague is deeply rooted in history, and much more than a city like Paris, this history is a never-ending chain of upheavals, turmoil, changes, revolutions, and destructions, in which the only certitude that remains can only be that of uncertainty itself.

Yet there is also a second reason to choose Prague as a new case in point for a Benjaminian revisiting of cultural history, in the very broad sense of the word bringing together art, politics, ideology, business, and daily life, combining both the well-known signposts of culture and the forgotten or despised details that only illuminated rag pickers are able to value. That reason is the necessity to rewrite a dramatically important chapter of history wiped out by post-iron curtain ideas on 20th Century modernism. Until the Second World War, Prague had been, indeed, one of the cradles of Surrealism, only second to Paris and, if not in depth than certainly in width, definitely more important than Brussels. Belgium may have had more radical avant-garde writers than Czechoslovakia (in comparison with Paul Nougé, the Nobel Prize winning Jaroslav Seifert will appear to many as a rather pale figure, for instance), and it may have hosted also more famous painters (needless to remind that Magritte has had a more lasting influence than his Czech colleagues), but Surrealism has pervaded the whole of culture and society more profoundly in the old kingdom of Bohemia than the country governed by King Albert I and King Leopold III, a country where Surrealism often narrowed down into softer, more user-friendly, sometimes almost petty-bourgeois forms, while Surrealism did never cease to have revolutionary undertones in Prague. Unfortunately, however, it is the fate of small countries and small cultures to be overlooked in history, which remains written and rewritten from the viewpoint of the global culture of the day. Hence, for instance, the complete neglect of Czech Surrealism in the show that has determined for many decades the US vision of modernity: William Rubin's 1968 MOMA blockbuster retrospective "Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage".

It is this forgotten history that Derek Sayer tells in this wonderful book, a real page-turner that leads the reader through all possible facets of Modernism in Prague, starting with Breton's and Eluard visit to the city in 1935 and ending with the crashing of all modern and Surrealist legacy by the Communist regime in the 1940s and 50s. At the same time, Sayer's book pays also great attention to previous periods while putting also a strong emphasis on the many efforts, from the Prague Spring till today's resistance to Prague's Macdonalization, to recover the revolutionary power and intuitions of the past, in the field of art but as well as in that of daily life. The book features, thus, essential chapters on feminism, body politics, and sexuality, correcting for example quite some prejudices on Surrealism's alleged misogyny. Key in this story is not only the systematic relationship between Prague and Paris (a two way traffic, not a simple matter of cultural radiation of the center into the periphery) but also the exceptionally crafted narrative scope and tone of the whole book. Although strongly inspired by the Passagenwerk, Derek Sayer's work does not obey Benjamin's logic of collage-montage, but adopts an almost straightforwardly narrative stance. Moreover, the story told by Sayer takes also the time to explain very didactically what is really at stake in the numerous events, names, turning-points, losses, and achievements that it details in order to give as close a view as possible of Prague's contribution to modernity. This concern of readability encourages the author to include also quite some analyses of French and Parisian material, often with very refreshing new insights (a good example here is the comparative analysis of the Surrealist shows in pre- and post-World War II Paris and Prague, a brilliant case of reading the center as seen through peripheral eyes and vice versa).

From that point of view, Prague, which is a fabulously good read, is not at all an attempt to write history in modern or postmodern ways. It is, on the contrary, an example of good old-fashioned storytelling, often with a strong feeling of suspense and cliffhanger tactics. By doing so, Derek Sayer succeeds in doing what might have seem at the beginning an impossible task: to offer an almost exhaustive, yet also passionate and thought-provoking overview of what actually happened in and around Prague in the first half the 20th Century in particular and of the many ways in which Czech Surrealism helped shape the figure of modernism in general. The necessity to reconsider modernism by taking into account the many fragments and sections left out by the culturally dominant position of Paris and New York and their influence on our current ideas of modern art has become a ritual invocation in contemporary historiography. In this new paradigm, Derek Sayer stands already out as one of the most convincing representatives of how to rethink our cultural past today.

Last Updated 1 July 2013

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