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Crèchemania Blog

In Prague, at Kubašta's door

Rating: 8 votes, 4.88 average.
Vojtech Kubasta's Prazský Betlém (Prague Nativity, Orbis 1968 & 1969) features Prague landmarks, including the Charles Bridge (left, above).

Praha 5, Smichov, No. 2. 
Map in hand, I turn right from Andel (Angel) Metro Station, walk two blocks, and find myself on Vojtech Kubasta's street in Prague's Smichov.

Elegant apartment buildings line Vltavska Street that leads to Prague's watery highway, the Vltava River. Almost at the water's edge, facing the river, I find No. 2 — the home of Vojtech Kubasta.

It's a six-story apartment building decorated with intertwined Art Nouveau flower motifs. They are found, in relief, in the corner bay windows and those on the second and fourth floors, and are draped over the front door. Even though the door glass panels are spray-painted with graffiti, the plaster at ground level is crumbling, and two large, plastic garbage bins seem out of place, No. 2 Vltavska place exudes elegance. This seems like the right place an artist like Kubasta would live, but is it, really?

I look through the dusty window panes and feel transported decades back in time: the arched foyer, in pure white, is in almost pristine condition.

Deep green square tiles give way to dark brown ones that frame the terazzo steps that lead to a landing whose door is wedged open.

High above on the foyer's walls, I see a beautiful frieze of flower and petal motifs. I try to shoot it through the dirty glass, and realize that, somehow, I'll have to find a way in.

That's when a woman shows up and opens the front door with her key. (The door handle is decorative, not functional.)

"Excuse me," I say, "May I come in to take a photo?"

My question is met with an unfriendly stare. "Photo? Photografía?" How do you say photo in Czech? "Kubasta! Kubasta, here!" I'm madly motioning with my hands, showing her the pop-up nativity I'm holding, trying to explain that Kubasta once lived here. But she slams the door and goes inside.

Art Nouveau flowers decorate Kubasta's second story studio windows. 
But for the few moments that the front door is open I can see how beautiful that foyer frieze really is. Not only would I love to shoot it, but I would love to try and find Kubasta's apartment.

There's nothing to do but start moving the two garbage cans away from the front door, about fifty yards, to the building next door. Garbage cans in my photo in front of Kubasta's house? It wouldn't do.

I'm across the street shooting when the door opens, and a man comes out with a plastic garbage bag in his hand. He turns right, raises his other hand to open the garbage can, and is startled not to find it there. He looks around, see the cans down the street, shakes his head, and walks down to wheel them back.

I dash across the street, and wheel back the other one. "Kubasta?" I ask, "Kubasta? Here?"

He smiles, and shrugs his shoulders. Obviously, he has no idea what I'm saying to him. I sure could use a translator right now. If only Dagmar Kubastovà Vrlkjan, Kubasta's daughter (who had given me this address before I left home) were here.

"Kubasta?" I repeat, pointing at the apartment building. "Photo?" I hold up my camera. "Photo?" And pointing to the foyer, "Go inside?" He seems to understand "photo," and he lets me in.

I'm in Kubasta's building, and he's gone!

The foyer door is arched, with its top glass half-circle etched with more Art Nouveau motifs, and held open by wooden wedges. I remove them, closing the door so I can take a photo, and from the top of the landing, the flower frieze seems even more beautiful. (See photo, below.)

An Art Nouveau frieze of flowers and petals decorates Kubasta's foyer. 

A wrought-iron railing winds up to Kubasta's apartment. 
I prop open the foyer door open and walk toward the stairs I see to the left. The stairs wrap around an elevator shaft encased in crystal, and features delicate wrought iron leaf motifs. A swatch of green follows the staircase as it rises to the second floor, and I walk in the semi-darkness hoping to find a sign that Kubasta lived here.

To the right of the stairs, on the second-floor level, there's another window decorated in sinuous wrought iron stems, flowers, and leaves and I've got a gut feeling that it just might be Kubasta's. The sort of beautiful thing the artist who created so much beauty might choose.

There's a door to the left of the ornate window, but the hall lights are off, the door is painted a dark brown, and it's hard to see much. I begin to walk on, but something makes me linger. I take my iPod out of my pocket, turn it on, and under its dim light, I see an old, rusty, nameplate engraved in an Italic script: Ing. arch. Vojtech Kubasta.

My heart starts pounding, and I almost drop my iPod. Thank God my camera is secured by a strap around my neck, otherwise I might have dropped it, too.

My knees almost give out, and I sit down on the terrazzo landing.

I don't quite know how long I sit there in the darkness. All I know is that I am outside Kubasta's home, where all those wonderful books, beautiful pop-up and cut-out nativities loved by children and adults all over the world were created.

I can almost imagine being in the apartment from a photo that Dagmar had shown me with her father and her friend Andula. I visited Dagmar in Canada (see our Kubasta pages), and she had opened her door — and her heart:

Kubasta's ornate wrought iron window. 
"As the years pass," Dagmar Dagmar Kubastovà Vrlkjan says, "I have become convinced that we do have the capability to recall our past along with all of the emotions that are stored away. Based on my own personal experience, I have found that simply looking at a picture that was painted by my father Vojtech Kubasta many years ago, I can immediately remember his voice, his smile, the look of his hands, and his kindness. I remember his love."

"When I was asked by Alexis to share memories of my father, I wondered whether I would be able to put all of these feelings and emotions onto paper. It seemed a very daunting task. However, with Alexis’ encouragement and nudging, I will proceed. I will reflect on times gone by and as I look at the pages on the web site, I am swept with emotions. I have a great feeling of joy and pride when I look at the images of dad’s art on the screen. Every picture and every illustration represents the love that he had not only for his craft but also for his family, children, people, animals, and for life itself."

Kubasta helped young Dagmar assemble the nativities that he created. "I remember cutting out the houses and dad telling me to be “very careful around the edges.” I enjoyed looking at the Holy Family. I admired the look on St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s faces.

"I especially liked to look at the little angel who was writing with his finger in the snow: “Peace to All People of Good Will.” I would ask my dad, “Isn’t he cold?” He always answered patiently: “ He is an angel — he has wings — he is special.”

"I thought it must be wonderful to be an angel and to be able fly in the sky and write on people’s roofs. I remember that every time there was a freshly fallen snow, our dad would take my sister and me for a walk. Whenever there was snow that had not yet been disturbed, he would “paint” with his gloved finger images from fairy tales right on it. My favorite was a dragon with a long tail and blazing flames going out of his enormous mouth.

"Christmas memories are the most special memories. For me, remembering Christmas is the most favorite of my memories with dad. I often wonder if it was because he was an artist that he was able with his vivid imagination to create an atmosphere that was truly magical. Of course, we always had a beautiful Christmas tree, as did most of people. However, my family possessed a very special decoration that was taken out of storage by dad on Christmas Eve Day. It was a crèche. Dad would carefully unwrap it and put it on top of the gramophone console. He would tell me that this crèche was over hundred years old and it was very precious. It was a glassed-in nativity scene — a mountainous landscape with magi and all the worshippers going down the hill to pay homage to Jesus in a small cave.

"Every picture and every illustration represents the love that he had not only for his craft but also for his family, children, people, animals, and for life itself"— Family life at No. 2 Vltavska: Vojtech Kubasta with daughter Dagmar and friend Andula. 
"I would also learn from my father that all of these figures were made out of breadcrumbs. “How could that be?” I asked every Christmas as I tried to peer through the glass. I was always trying to see if the “bread” had grown mould during the year it had been stored. Yet, the figures remained the same. I could not see any mould under the layer of colorful paint! When I arrived to Canada as an adult, I always wondered if Christmas would be the same without this wondrous crèche, which was back home in Prague.

"Missing this crèche, I decided to start a new tradition – every Christmas, my husband and our children would carefully unwrap Deda’s (Grandpa’s) crèches and put them under the Christmas tree and around the living room. When I returned to Czechoslovakia in 1970 for Christmas holidays, I enjoyed seeing the Crèche on the side table in the dining room. Seeing that Crèche again made me feel that my Christmas was complete. That trip turned out as my last Christmas in Prague. I do not know what happened to the treasured piece nor do I have a photo of it.

"However it is stored in my mind forever…"

I start walking down the stairs and in the foyer can't resist again shooting the frieze. That same woman who wouldn't let me in now comes out of her apartment, and seeing me starts shouting, "Ne Muzeum!" (No Museum!). Just one more shot…

"Ne Muzeum!" She seems adamant. "Kubasta!" I yell, pointing upstairs. "Vojtech Kubasta!"

But those words mean nothing to her. "Ne Muzeum!" she repeats, her voice rising as she opens the front door and motions me to get out. "Ne Muzeum!"

As I walk along the Vltava towards the Charles Bridge — Kubasta's Prague all about me — I keep looking back at No. 2 Vltavaska, as the woman's voice echoes in my mind.

"Ne Muzeum!"

If she only knew…

More about Kubasta from Berlin, where I'll be visiting Sebastian Koepcke who, with Thomas Gubig, has mounted a Kubasta exhibition at the Faber Museum, Esslingen, that will be open until September 13, 2010…

The Ing. arch. Vojtech Kubasta (Architectural Engineer Vojtech Kubasta) nameplate.

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