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Explore the history of this important cultural centre in Prague with us.
Family history predetermines the path for future generations. This Art Nouveau house standing on Národní třída has influenced numerous destinies and has been shaping Czech society for over 125 years. The grandson of the owner, Martin Jan Stránský, completed his life objective with its restoration. The unmistakable yellow house with a beautifully decorated Art Nouveau facade is known to all Prague citizens as Topič Salon. The name Topič is also mentioned on the building’s mosaics on both sides and in the centre of the balcony. It refers both to the investor and the original purpose of the building – František Topič, who was born in 1858 in Chvalín near Roudnice and came to Prague to study at a business academy.
Topič earned his living as an accountant and, in his spare time, wrote articles for České noviny calling for greater national awareness and defence against excessive Germanization. With his articles, Topič reacted to the events of the time when Czech representatives returned to the Reichstag and began to reassert their rights after 16 years of passive resistance. In 1880 Czech was elevated to an official language. In 1882, the University of Prague was divided into Czech and German sections. The National Theatre was ceremonially opened in June 1881, and in May 1891 the National Museum building was presented to the public. This led to an increasing interest in Czech books and art, which was also stimulated among the general public by national revivalists and publishers.
In Prague, the most prominent persons of this group were Jan Otto, Josef Richard Vilímek, and František Topič. Since 1888, Jan Otto had published a unique encyclopaedia, Otto’s Encyclopedia, while J. R. Vilímek published the weekly Humoristické listy, almanacs, and games. František Topič focused mainly on works of Czech contemporary authors, which he had illustrated by Czech artists. Other publishing houses also collaborated with artists, but it was František Topič who very soon realised the role of pictorial works for the promotion of books and systematically built relationships with illustrators, graphic artists, and painters. This is also why he founded one of the first private art galleries in the Czech Republic – Topič Salon.
František Topič is a shining example of the fact that a combination of noble intention, strong will, diligence, and unconventional thinking leads to lasting values. However, his unforgettable imprint on Czech history came by a freak of chance. In 1881, František Topič wrote a critical article titled ‘An Honest Word to Our Traders on the Unsatisfactory Working Conditions in Bookstores’. This drew the attention of František Šimáček, the publisher and owner of the České noviny newspaper. He offered Topič a position of an accountant, and the young František soon married Šimáček’s niece, Terezie Šulcová. Her dowry enabled Topič to open a bookstore together with his father-in-law as a partner – located on Ferdinandova třída 9 (today’s Národní 9). In reality, however, only the couple worked in the store, and the father-in-law only provided a publishing concession.
Two years later, František Šimáček died and, in 1886, František Topič opened a bookstore and publishing house under his own name. In his publications, he tried to popularise Czech culture and promote national awareness, inviting famous authors such as Božena Němcová, K. H. Borovský, K. V. Rais, Jan Neruda, and Svatopluk Čech to collaborate. He also published art books presenting Czech and foreign works. For his new bookstore, František Topič chose the modern Ferdinandova třída, a business artery ending at the National Theatre, where there were 11 bookstores. It was lined with exhibition houses in a predominantly classicist style, which gradually over time gave way to historicizing construction.
Topič originally moved into a building that belonged to Prague Association. He had the partitions on the ground floor removed and connected into one large space. He then replaced the classicist lining on the facade with massive shop windows in which he presented current publications, as well as music and artistic artifacts. In deciding to build a sales art gallery Topič may have drawn inspiration from his neighbour, the publisher Mikoláš Lehmann, or perhaps he gave utterance to his love for art, which he shared with his wife (a distant relative of the Náprstek sisters). In the courtyard of the former garden of the Jezdinská pilsner tavern, Topič built a one-storey building with a rectangular floor plan and a glazed roof. From October 1894 until its closure in 1899, 35 exhibitions of Czech and foreign authors were held there.
With the growing production and popularity of the bookstore, František Topič began looking for new premises. In 1905, he acquired a neighbouring three-storey building from Konstantin Nádherný and Ervína of Borutín. It was here that the Lehmann Gallery was located. He commissioned the architect Osvald Polívka to renovate the building. The facade is dominated by a balcony with a projecting central section on the first floor and an accentuated entrance, which forms an inverted letter T. The name F. Topič also decorates the railings on the balcony and mosaics in the rounded attic gables on the sides. The main entrance was relocated from the centre to the right side, which resulted in moving the staircase and opening up the main room on the ground floor for commercial purposes. There were large shop windows facing the street.
Topič and his family moved to the first and second floors. František Topič placed the gallery in the courtyard between the rear tracts of the building and used the natural light from above. During the six years of the salon’s operation, there were 47 exhibitions, which generally received positively by critics but failed to attract the greater interest of the public. This resulted in the closure of Topič second salon in 1911.
During the First World War, František Topič collaborated with the resistance organization Maffia, and the proclamation of an independent Czechoslovakia crowned his many years of efforts. He also opened a new exhibition hall located in an almost identical space, which was built by Osvald Polívka over the original hall, and which in the meantime served as a bookstore. It was entered, as it is nowadays, by a staircase from the street. In competition with the newly emerging galleries, Topič Salon had profiled itself as a stage of Czech, Slovak, and French art, and a rental exhibition space. Critics often pointed to the fluctuating quality of the programme. Topič bookstore could not evade the impacts of the financial crisis in the 1930s, but its end came with the death of his only son Jaroslav. In 1936, five years before his death, František Topič sold the house and the bookstore to Jaroslav Stránský.
Jaroslav Stránský moved the editorial office of Lidové noviny and the publishing house Fr. Borový to the building, which he owned. He restored the salon in November 1937 in the basement of the building and turned it into an important Czech cultural centre. Here, he held discussions, theatre performances for children and adults, concerts and, of course, art exhibitions. Due to this Jewish origin, he was forced into exile, then again in February 1948, when he resigned as the Minister of Education and Enlightenment in protest of the February coup. The publishing house continued in operation under the name “Czechoslovak Writer” and the exhibition space was run by the Union of Czechoslovak Fine Artists.
The Stránský family lived in London, and the son Jan Stránský and Pavel Tigrid founded Radio Free Europe in Munich before leaving for New York with Ferdinand Peroutka. This is where Martin Jan Stránský was born. He studied art history and medicine in the USA and only visited Prague during the Velvet Revolution. “From an early age, I took it for granted that the moment it became possible, I would be involved in the culture life of this city. When the editor-in-chief of Lidové noviny, Jiří Ruml, asked us for cooperation, I flew in at once. It turned out that one of the possibilities the restitution law gave us was the restitution of both houses at Národní,” he described the beginning of his three-year troubles.
Right before taking over the buildings, all marble, metal, and cast-iron equipment was destroyed. “At Národní 9, they managed to dismantle and remove everything. At Národní 11, we saved part of it directly from a truck and had it restored. The basement had been used for 40 years as a warehouse for heating oil. There was water, yellow linoleum lying on the floor, and the rooms devastated,” recalls Martin Jan Stránský. Stránský obtained a 75 million loan from the Czech Bank and began repairs. Unfortunately, the bank soon went bankrupt and Martin Stránský decided to agree with the creditors on repayment.
After 13 years of cooperation with conservationists, the house was finally completed. The Art Nouveau facade was installed only in 2017 thanks to a grant from Prague 1. After the building’s 2007 reconstruction, Topič Salon was restored for the fifth time. “Topič Salon is a symbol of Czech culture. I wanted to resume the tradition, which is why I contacted the auction house 1. Art Consulting Brno–Praha,” explains Martin Jan Stránský. The auction house leased the first floor as offices and the gallery for pre-auction exhibitions. The gallery is occasionally used for short-term exhibitions organised by the Society of Topič Salon, which was founded by the builder and art lover Pavel Vašíček. “This created an original and creative cooperation between the auction house and a non-profit organization financed from public budgets and various grants. Here, visitors can admire both classical works and new directions in contemporary art.”
The company’s council consists of ten members of the artistic community, who together prepare the plan of exhibitions with the objective of showing what is not normally seen in Prague. Pavel Vašíček ran the gallery until 2015, when he died suddenly. He also initiated an edition of publications on the history of Topič Salon and its exhibitions, which maps the history of the salon from its establishment in 1894 until 2017.
From 2017 to 2020, the gallery has been managed by Anna Kučerová, Executive Director of the Society of Topič Salon under whose auspices the programme of Topič Salon has grown include other activities and a varied accompanying programme – guided tours, thematic lectures, and art workshops. The gallery also regularly hosted literary evenings focused on contemporary Czech poets. The programme focused on prominent personalities of the Czech art scene and brought to the fore especially authors of undeniable qualities who, for various reasons, are undeservedly neglected or forgotten. It also offered space to the newly emerging artistic generation. Thanks to the regular activities of the Society, Topič Salon has again become a cultural centre with a wide range of activities.