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  • Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History by Derek Sayer
  • Jan Baetens
Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History by Derek Sayer. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, U.S.A., 2013. 656 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 978-0-6910-4380-7.

Why Prague as “capital of the 20th Century,” and not Berlin, Tokyo, Los Angeles, 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 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 all look through his eyes nowadays?—as the laboratory of 20th-Century modernism, Prague may be the city that foreshadowed 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 York, 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 then 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 also hosted 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 never ceased 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 U.S. 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 and Eluard’s visit to the city in 1935 and ending with the crushing of all modern and Surrealist legacies by the Communist regime in the 1940s and 1950s. Sayer’s book also pays great attention to previous periods while putting a strong emphasis on the many efforts—from the Prague Spring, to today’s resistance, to Prague’s McDonaldization—to recover the revolutionary power and intuitions of the past, not only in the field of art but also in daily life. Thus the book features essential chapters on feminism, body politics...


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