Derek Sayer’s Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, is warmly received by Jan Baetens of Leonardo Reviews:
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”.
Read the complete review at Leonardo Reviews: http://leonardo.info/reviews/july2013/sayer-baetens.php
Setting out to recover the roots of modernity in the boulevards, interiors, and arcades of the “city of light,” Walter Benjamin dubbed Paris “the capital of the nineteenth century.” In this eagerly anticipated sequel to his acclaimed Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, Derek Sayer argues that Prague could well be seen as the capital of the much darker twentieth century. Ranging across twentieth-century Prague’s astonishingly vibrant and always surprising human landscape, this richly illustrated cultural history describes how the city has experienced (and suffered) more ways of being modern than perhaps any other metropolis.
“[A] captivating portrait of 20th-century Prague. . . . The breadth of Sayer’s knowledge is encyclopedic, and those willing to stay the course will be rewarded.”–Publishers Weekly
“Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century is an erudite, comprehensive, well-illustrated and witty account of Czech art, design, architecture, literature and music in an era–stretching roughly from Czechoslovakia’s creation in 1918 to the end of the second world war–when few in Paris, Berlin, London or even New York would have thought of the Czechs as not being part of western civilisation. . . . [I]n this book [Sayer] has succeeded in bringing back to life a golden avant-garde era that not long ago was in danger of being written out of history altogether.”–Tony Barber, Financial Times