Bringing Back the Baroque: Actual Infinity

“Actual Infinity”, The Prague City Gallery – Municipal Library, 2nd floor. Marianske Square 1, Prague 1 110 00, Czech Republic.

The baroque period in Bohemia was a time of universal education and cultural practice, and it showed a tendency toward individuality, sensuality, freedom, and imagination. Both art and architecture reflected these changes, and due to the dramatic developments in science and mathematics, The Prague Museum Mathematicum was established in 1722. This Prague version of the Roman Museum Kircheranium included natural objects and scientific instruments in its vast collection. A recent exhibition at the Prague City Gallery unveiled the conflicts and communities between the baroqueries from the Mathematicum collection and modern to contemporary art, in an attempt to shape the modern reception of Czech art.

As it covers several centuries of art works, the exhibition in some areas delineates the differences between the works, while it draws direct connections in other areas. One of the fundamental features of baroque culture was its dialogue between the sciences and the arts. In the first room of the exhibition, the delicately carved and engraved seashells and drinking vessels dating back to the 17th century appear in an elegant glass-cabinet. Most of the walls and panels throughout the halls have been altered from their original square shape into an asymmetrical and/or undulating format, which enhances rather than disturbs the art works. Another room presents contemporaryworks by Karel Malich, Vaclav Bostik, Zdenek Sykora, and Federico Diaz, all of which are complimented by Frank Kupka’s modern paintings and Vojtech Preissig’s monographs, the latter two revealing the importance of line, form and formlessness in Czech art from the baroque until today. In the last part of the exhibition, new works by Frantisek Scala, Veronika Bromova, Jiri Cernicky, and Jiri Prihoda dominate the corridors. These works, in their expression of ideas about the forces of nature, sensuality, and physicality, all act to establish an enduring connection between the past and the future.

In other areas of the exhibition, the associations between the past and the present are looser. A few of Magdalena Jetelovas’ photos from her 1992 Iceland series are installed next to mineral and rock samples from the Mathematicum Museum. While Jetelova’s work sees the land as a symbolic space divided by borders, the rocks document a purely scientific fascination with the wonders of the Earth. Any connection that could be established between the two exhibits seems to be more artificial and far-fetched than displaying a real proximity. Likewise, the baroque theater etchings from the 17th century that are placed alongside Stanislav Kolibal’s geometric objects and sculptures from the 1970’s-1990’s push way beyond the limit of any clear comparisons.

One evident aspect persisting throughout the exhibition is that philosophy, mathematics, spirituality, and theology still significantly resurface in contemporary Czech art. Whether or not this exhibition will have a profound impact on the way modern and contemporary Czech art is viewed remains to be seen. However, the extended exhibition date suggests that the consideration of modern art’s historical context was appreciated by most visitors.
Still, the exhibition’s odd title, Actual Infinity which in mathematics and philosophy means something static and complete, does not make sense. Potential Infinity would seem much more applicable in its referral to space and time, as well as in its refusal of boundaries, limits, quantities, etc. These are concepts that contemporary Czech artists have only recently been able to publicly express again.

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