A collection of French art, acquired at the birth of the new state of Czechoslovakia for its national gallery, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Leading politicians, including the former president of the Czechoslovak Republic Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, participated in the acquisition of works by Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso.
The collection, which includes 44 paintings, 25 statues, 22 drawings, and around 170 works of graphic art, is “the jewel of our National Gallery,” says curator and historian Anna Pravdova. To mark the anniversary, the National Gallery has prepared conferences, guided tours, an audio guide and a documentary on the purchase.
Ties between Prague and Paris were weakened when France withdrew from a trade treaty with Czechoslovakia in 1923, five years after the country's independence, following the First World War. The same year, the visit to Prague of French war hero Ferdinand Foch was disrupted by radical students protesting against his visit.
Seeking to reestablish good relations with Paris, Prague had decided to invest massively in French art and to satisfy local artists who had been waiting for this acquisition for a long time. Fearing the reaction of public opinion to its grandiose plan, the government tried to ignore the disbursement of five million Czech crowns, a colossal sum, equivalent at the time to the price of 64 luxury cars or nearly twenty combat aircraft.
A committee led by art collector Vincenc Kramar first chose from 400 French works temporarily exhibited in Prague, then went to Paris to complete this choice.
“The famous purchase by the Czechoslovak state is quite exceptional in terms of its quality, all the pieces are extraordinary, real museum pieces,” confirms Brigitte Léal, deputy director of the modern art museum at the Center Pompidou. “Artists had been looking for a long time to buy exceptional works for national collections and they had important contacts within French galleries,” Ms. Pravdova told AFP.
Prague thus acquired The Green Wheat Field with Cypresses by Van Gogh, House and Farm of Jas de Bouffan by Cézanne and Two Women Among the Flowers by Claude Monet. The sum was increased by one million crowns to also obtain The Lovers by Auguste Renoir.
The current value of the collection is estimated at 40 billion crowns (or 1.63 billion euros). Ms. Pravdova recalls that at the time, French artists were models for their Czech counterparts. “They thought it was important to have French art from the 19th century to the present to illustrate its development and serve educational purposes,” Ms. Pravdova said.
In full frenzy, Kramar himself had also spent the money initially intended for the purchase of Czech works, to acquire three paintings: two paintings by Picasso and the famous self-portrait by Henri Rousseau Myself, landscape portrait by 1890. “It got him into trouble, the authorities weren't really happy,” recalls art historian Nikolaj Savicky in the documentary.
“But this is how Czechoslovakia obtained one of the most famous paintings of all time, for a very reasonable price,” he emphasizes. The works acquired in 1923 are now part of the permanent exhibition at the National Gallery in Prague. They are rarely loaned because they are too fragile to travel, confides Ms. Pravdova.