Very Picturesque Melancholy - Prague, Jakub Schikaneder and his Nocturnes

27 February 1855, the Bohemian painter Jakub Schikaneder was born in Prague.

“You know yourself how little sunshine reaches Prague's dark streets and alleys.“ (Gustav Meyrink, “The Golem”)

Jakub Schikaneder "Early Evening on the Hradčany" (around 1900)

"A schöne Leich”. A beautiful funeral, to the good people of Vienna, the place where the dead buried at the Zentralfriedhof, the Central Cemetery, outnumber the living by almost two to one. The place where the elderly still set up saving accounts to pay for their “schöne Leich”. The place where Sigmund Freud came up with the “Todestrieb”, death drive, and where death and dying always had a somewhat funny side and usually was celebrated with a drunk and merry note over Mozart’s “Requiem”. Not that Vienna’s beautiful Bohemian cousin Prague isn’t every bid as morbid as the merry Danube necropolis. With the added melancholy of centuries of foreign rule by the Habsburgs, the apocalyptic visions of the Hussite Wars and the Thirty Years’ War and a liberal dose of mystery and magic since the days of Emperor Rudolf II’s Bohemian Parnassus. However, it was the Habsburg’s spearheading of Germanisation since the Thirty Years’ War that reduced Czech language almost to being the means of lower class communication and hindered the further development of genuine Czech fine arts for almost two hundred years. The nationalist revivals of those downtrodden by the major empires of the age at the beginning of the 19th century, from Dublin to Warsaw, Athens and Kiev, saw a rise of Czech identity as well, first in language and writing, then with fixed bayonets on the barricades of the revolution of 1848 and finally in music and the visual arts a generation later. And while the first notable Czech painters took up the style taught at the Imperial Academies and celebrated under these auspices their own Slavic and Bohemian identity-establishing heroes and heroines, only a few years later modernity caught up with their successors who began to work with the various –isms of the second half of the 19th century’s art trends. They studied in Paris, naturally, in Vienna, Düsseldorf and Munich and one aspiring artist from Prague was quite taken with the Munich School’s subtle blend of Academic Art, elapsing Romanticism, Baroque Chiaroscuro and a note of Impressionism. Jakub Schikaneder who would develop the style into imagery with a morbid and mysterious All Souls' Day mood, sometimes gloomy enough to let even the sulkiest of his Russian contemporaries appear like they were merrily morbid Viennese. 

Jakub Schikaneder "All Souls' Day" (1888)

Schikaneder grew up in Prague’s Old Town as the son of an Austrian customs officer, not exactly in bourgeois upper middle class surroundings, but as the scion of an art loving family who had the author of the libretto of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” among their forebears, the lad had at least the moral support to further an artistic career, first in the theatre and, since he was 15, at Prague’s Art Academy. He began to exhibit his works already during his time at the academy to an audience that hungered for works by genuine Czech artists. Even though the young painter’s inherent sarcasm and irreverence that went against the grain of the hard core of Bohemian patriots like the journalist and author Jan Neruda who criticised Schikaneder’s works rather severely in the National Newspaper, the “Národní listy”. Never the less, Schikaneder won the prestigious artistic commissions to contribute to the decoration of Prague’s iconic National Theatre and other public works and had finally assembled enough money to finance several trips and stays across Europe, first and foremost in Paris and Munich. Becoming a professor at Prague’s new Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in 1891 helped him to travel again and again to Europe’s artistic hotspots and stay in touch with current art trends while he led an otherwise quite un-bohemian life, overshadowed only by the death of his only child during the first year of its life. Getting inspired by Whistler’s Nocturnes and reading Schopenhauer in Prague’s moody atmosphere does things to one’s inspiration, though. When the last decade of the 19th century ended, Schikaneder entered the arguably most important phase of his artistic work after a couple of years of refocusing. It was the time when his night images of Prague came into being.

Prague and her defenestrations. Here: Jakub Schikaneder "Murder in the Hiouse" (1890)

So-called “Problem Pictures”, a visual narrative encouraging the spectator to solve the depicted puzzle, family drama with open endings, court procedures, crime scenes, more often than not, were quite popular in France and especially in Great Britain. Schikaneder saw a few during his travels and was intrigued. He painted one or two himself, bridging his period à la Munich and his later Prague nocturnes. Narrative along with Realism went overboard while Symbolism lurks in the shadows of the Staré Město’s winding lanes, the Hradčany and the shores of the Vlatava and the eerie light of the gas lanterns. Gustav Meyrink’s golem wouldn’t look out of place at all and sometimes, Symbolism comes out in the open when Joe Black is seen, fiddling in the driveway or listening to a moribund musicians last song in a Prague with her landmarks depicted not quite correct but extrapolated to convey a mood. It all ends with the usual late Symbolist body count, sick beds, morgues and dead girls by the dozen until modernity and the 20th century finally caught up with Schikaneder himself on the brink of the Great War. When a new generation of very active young artists began to exhibit their works, Cubists, chiefly, their professor from the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design began to withdraw and finally fall silent. Schikaneder’s last pictures show scenes from the German North Sea coast and Heligoland, quite sombre, still with a whiff of Symbolism, until he died at the age of 69, back home in his beloved Prague, duly forgotten outside his home turf, leaving a legacy of very picturesque melancholy.

Jakub Schikaneder: "A Lane in Old Prague" (1907)