Full Steam Ahead! Boats and Navigation in Czech Art 1850–1950

27/10/2023 to 04/02/2024
exhibition hall "13"
Nikolaj Savický
Eva Skořepová

Inland navigation in Bohemia is a rewarding and still not very well explored topic. In three thematic units, the exhibition presents often well-known paintings whose themes are identified for the first time in a credible way. The legendary steamship Primátor Dittrich, as captured by Josef Šíma, is also included. The origins of sailing on the Moldau and Elbe rivers, shipbuilding in Bohemia, the development of steam navigation on the Moldau and its transformation from public transport to a tourist attraction are the main themes of the exhibition. The collection, supplemented by contextual material (drawings, cartoons, photographs), shows the development of the Moldau navigation from the 1870s to the works of Skupina 42 (Group 42) and its contemporaries. In newly identified artefacts, the exhibition includes photographic documentation that led to their identification. The focus of the exhibition is on works by Jakub Schikaneder, Josef Šíma, Karel Holan, Otakar Mrkvička, Kamil Lhoták and Václav Bartovský. However, Bedřich Havránek, František Chalupa, Antonín Chittussi, Čeněk Choděra and Vilém Ströminger are also represented. The exhibition is complemented by three-dimensional exhibits illustrating the development of navigation on the Moldau River in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.

“The Prague Goldmann’s ‘salon’ steamers and their steersmen have been notorious for their unmistakable instinct to detect any obstacle under the water and crash right into it – and so it happened this time, too. Already the harbour pier was at hand, already the little steamer was wagging its fore and aft, groping as if in sleep, where it would hit the shore, but suddenly it was shaken by a violent bump, something crunched under the water, the front of the little steamer swung up, the propeller came to a halt, and the little steamer stood still at about twenty paces from the shore. And immediately after this ominous crash and stoppage, someone’s voice rang out: ‘Blimey, we’ve got a leak somewhere!’” There are only few Czech readers who do not know ‘Otec Kondelík a ženich Vejvara’ (Father Kondelík and Groom Vejvara), the most popular Czech humorous novel of the turn of the twentieth century? Goldmann’s steamboats, or ‘tipsy herrings’, as they were nicknamed by the Praguers, played a much more important role in the life of Bohemia than the book’s author Ignát Herrmann would give them credit for.

He was not alone in his scorn. “The three or four ridiculous tin pots and the two or three larger paddle steamers, and you have all that’s to it: nothing has changed over the past fifteen years,” wrote Karel Čapek in his 1923 literary sketch Vltava (The Moldau). His words illustrated the widespread attitude of the Prague townsfolk towards shipping on the Moldau River, without realizing that in that very year, Prague steamers carried more than 1,340,000 passengers and that the number of their passengers never fell below one million a year between 1911 and 1925 (and even exceeded two million a year in 1920 and 1921).

The Czechs, being inhabitants of a landlocked country, have always regarded shipping with distrust mixed with scorn. However, the inland waterways played a much more important role than literary evidence would suggest, and was also a frequent subject of artwork. The bizarre result of this dichotomy is that many paintings whose subject is river and lake navigation in Bohemia have remained unidentified, or have even been described as something quite different. The famous Goldmann steamboats were painted not only by Jakub Schikaneder, but also, for example, by Josef Šíma. It is significant that Šíma’s painting of the steamboat Závist of the Prague Steam Navigation Company was kept under the title Na Seině (On the Seine) for more than three quarters of a century. Another Prague paddle steamer painted by Šíma was until recently known in another public collection as Z Marseille (From Marseille).

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication of the same name.