Portrait of the artist as a smoker: Last chance to visit a unique exhibition

‘Amidst Smoke Circles: Portrait of a Modern Artist’ shows both Czech and international artists through the lens of a beloved vice.

Suzanne Bode

Written by Suzanne Bode Published on 29.12.2022 14:06:00 (updated on 30.12.2022) Reading time: 3 minutes

If you have ever wondered what the world was like before smoking was banned in public places, Amidst Smoke Circles: Portrait of a Modern Artist is the show for you. The exhibition charts how smoking has been depicted in Czech and European art over the centuries by famous artists including French Eduard Manet, Spanish Pablo Picasso as well as Czech avant-garde artists Bohumil Kubišta and Emil Filla. Our knowledge today about the harmful effects of smoking makes the show all the more worthwhile to explore.

The exhibition's scope ranges from Old Masters to Modernism, a timeframe that includes many masterpieces including Manet’s bustling "The Café Concert," Kubišta's evocative "Kavárna," and Filla's dramatic "Self Portrait with a Cigarette." To help the visitor navigate this smoky event, the exhibition consists in a series of intimate rooms, each draped rather curiously with flowing gauze curtains echoing the light and shifting effects of smoke itself.

A highlight from the early period is Dutch painter Jan Jansz van de Velde III’s exquisite 17th century "Still Life with Smoker's Requisites," a meditation on the brevity of life made manifest through the fragile beer bubbles and glowing pipe. A 19th century painting by Václav Mánes, the brother of the famous artist Josef, captures the delights of an evening relaxing with tobacco pipes in a Czech village pub. The light glows as gently as in a religious painting while the artist's brother snoozes wearily in the corner by his knapsack. 

While the main theme is tobacco smoking, opium and its darker influence on artists such as Czech writer and painter Josef Váchal is also explored. Here smoking is more than recreation and art becomes an examination of addiction and creativity. A 1913 book called "Haschisch," with drawings by Austrian printmaker Alfred Kubin, presents the visions that ensue from cannabis. Váchal's paintings show similar ghoulish creatures of the imagination.

The early 20th century works by Kubišta and Filla reflect the new-found confidence of Czech artists. As they reject the suave and sellable Art Nouveau art created by Czech painters Jan Preisler and Alphonse Mucha, they embrace the radical idea of art as an uncompromising means of self-expression.

Inspired by the Fauves and Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, their colors clash in orange, acid green, purple, yellow and white. The artists show themselves smoking cigarettes not pipes, linking them to the modernity of the city and the ever growing consumerism. Cigarettes now deliver an instant sensation rather than slow relaxation.

A thread running through the exhibition is the bonding of artists with like-minded people. For the Cubists, the artist's workshop becomes the place where friends meet, smoke and discuss their ideas. The French poet Guillaume Apollinaire sits among Picasso's cubist paintings and muses on the unprecedented breaking up of the image.

We see Apollinaire posing in front of a female nude in cubist form, an exotic African sculpture on the floor next to him. The poet becomes an artwork as the sculpture mimics Apollinaire's confident bulk and the pipe in the poet's mouth is positioned as if the smoke coming out is the fractured nude painting behind. The exhibition reunites the art work and photo side by side. 

By the 1920s and 30s, cigarettes are ubiquitous, both in real life and in art. The great Czech photographer Josef Sudek captures bright nickel plated ashtrays for fashion magazines. No doubt these filled up rapidly through the excited and tense evening discussions that took place during the First Czechoslovak Republic. As the smoke clouds filled the rooms, surrealist painter Toyen dissolves reality behind shifting screens of pastel-colored smoke and objects.

The exhibition ends with cinema stills of a man lying on the grass smoking a cigarette. He is placed in front of a huge factory chimney, perhaps a nod to the English idiom  describing the allure and the discomfort of smoking. The image is a witty reminder of the toxicity of the practice and its highly visual nature.

The exhibition Amidst Smoke Rings: Portrait of a Modern Artist runs until Jan. 8, 2023 at the National Gallery Prague's Trade Fair Palace.

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