Jewish Museum in Prague
AlexadrBrandejs / Adolf Wiesner
Alexandr Brandeis and the Czech Artists of the National Theatre Generation
Alexandr Brandeis (1848–1901) was a patron of the arts, but primarily a friend of the leading Czech artists of the 19th century. He liked to surround himself with their paintings and was sufficiently generous to believe in their talent and to give them help whenever they needed it. He was a well-known figure among Czech artists, many of whom later reminisced about their time spent at his estate in Suchdol near Prague. To this day, however, little is known about his life. Alexandr’s parents, Vilém and Marie Brandeis, managed the estate in Suchdol, which was owned by the Emauzy Monastery in Prague. In September 1873, Alexandr married Jenny Witz (1852–1937) in the Spanish Synagogue. Her parents, Salomon and Aloisie Witz, were also wealthy, for they owned extensive property in Holešovice and an estate on Trója Island.
Alexandr and Jenny Brandeis grew up at a time when the old restrictions on Jewish life were being dismantled. Economic and legal emancipation led to the need for involvement in cultural and public life. Wealthy families found private tutors for their children and invited famous writers to give talks in their salons, which became the main cultural centres of civic society. After the fall of Bach’s absolutism, things rapidly became freer while social and cultural opportunities for the Czech national movement increased. The family residence was Suchdol Chateau, originally a 17th century late Renaissance fort that was partially rebuilt later. Brandeis enlivened the house with social activities and filled it with old items that he loved to collect. He collected everything – especially books, paintings and prints, but also old weapons, furniture and textiles. Dignified in stature and with the face of a majestically bearded oriental potentate, he was a rewarding subject for portrait painters and for figures in Brožík’s historical works.
At the Suchdol estate, Brandeis created a small courtyard, where he received visits from young artists, who paid for his hospitality with their presence and, sometimes, with artworks. Brandeis’ friendship and the cordial atmosphere of his young family, together with the unforced conviviality and jollity of the Suchdol parties created an unusually attractive environment for artists. Most of the artists of the National Theatre generation met here. Among the painters who visited Suchdol were František Ženíšek, Mikoláš Aleš, Václav Brožík, Josef Tulka, Emanuel K. Liška, Antonín Chittussi, Albín Lhota, Jakub Schikaneder, Hanuš Schweiger, Václav Kavka and František Štraybel. Other visitors included the sculptors J. V. Myslbek, Josef Mauder and Hugo Schüllinger, architects Jan Zeyer and Antonín Wiehl, and writers Julius Zeyer and Jaroslav Vrchlický, as well as Dr. Josef Thomayer and R. J. Kronbauer.
The atmosphere of the Suchdol parties was best described by Mikoláš Aleš: “All of us who knew Brandeis, know best that he was a noble enthusiast who liked everyone who went there – he was genuinely happy when he was in our company and he behaved to us in such a charming and cordial way that we all came to see him as a fraternal friend.”
Adolf Wiesner and the Mánes Association of Fine Artists
Alexandr Brandeis’s relationship to art affected the whole family atmosphere, as well as the lives of some of his children. His eldest daughter Helena (1877– 1975) began to draw and paint as a child and later went to the art school of Antonín Slavíček. In 1903, she left for Paris, where she met Adolf Wiesner, who was already well-known painter at the time. Like Brandeis, Wiesner was also a supporter of the Czech national movement and an admirer of Mikoláš Aleš, the respected first president of the Mánes Association. It was through the publication of his works that Brandeis met his future son-in-law for the first time.
The painter Adolf Wiesner (1871–1942) belonged to a group of young artists who came together in the mid-1890s in the Mánes Association of Fine Artists and, in 1896, founded the independent journal of Czech Modernism ‘Volné Směry’ (Free Directions). In 1893, after studying at the Prague, Dresden and Munich academies, he entered the school of Prof. Vojtěch Hynais, who had just started at the Prague Academy. Wiesner was in his first group of pupils, together with J. Schusser, V. Županský, A. Hofbauer and O. Homoláč, who worked very diligently and achieved remarkable results. They were the first to introduce Czech art to a wave of new contemporary art trends, aiming primarily for a mastery of colour and light effects in painting.
As a member of the revivalist Mánes Association under the guidance of Stanislav Sucharda, it was the ‘tireless debater’ Adolf Wiesner who, with his article ‘Stereotype in Painting’ and his examples from international magazines, gave the decisive impulse toward the founding of an art magazine. He was one of the first members of the then Mánes Association to require Czech modernists, in their own periodical, to speak to the Czech public about the new art and the freer trends that were emerging in art. On the cover of the first issue of ‘Volné směry’, which was published in November 1896, a young man with a palette pushes forward through thorny undergrowth towards artistic freedom, symbolic of the determination and hope of young artists. The first volumes of ‘Volné směry’ featured Wiesner’s work and texts, and Wiesner was active as a member of the editorial board. He was also among those who strove to get separate exhibition space for new Czech art and participated with others on the first exhibitions of the Mánes Association in the Topič Salon. Wiesner was also a keen supporter of the Czech national movement and a member of the Sokol Association, in which he was active as a trainer throughout his youth.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Wiesner came to the fore as a distinctive artist, noted for his well thought out and executed paintings. He was a painter of figurative compositions and portraits, although his most popular works were melancholic landscapes and genre-based paintings, and he also made decorative artworks. Between 1900 and 1910 he was mostly in Paris, where he met Alfons Mucha and other Czech artists and regularly exhibited his paintings at the ‘Salon des Artistes Français’.
After his return to Prague, he became one of the leading Prague portraitists. Together with his wife Helena, in 1916, he held an exhibition in the Rubeš Gallery on Ferdinand Avenue, which presented his hitherto work to the public. From then on, he was in demand as a portraitist of Prague society. Apart from a large amount of portraits of girls, married couples and children, he also portrayed famous personalities, such as the sculptor Stanislav Sucharda (1896), the painter Alfons Mucha (1900), his Paris patron Freund-Deschampes (1902), the writer Růžena Jesenská (1903), the Russian actress Olga Vladimirovna Gzovska (1912), the Prague actor Gustav Löwy (1907), the industrialist Emil Kolben (1920), Leon Bondy and the lawyer Julius Petschek and his wife, along with many others. More frequently, however, he portrayed his own wife Helena, her sister Irma and the other members of the Brandeis family. His clientele was almost exclusively from the Prague Jewish society, which is why so few of his portraits have been preserved. Most of them were destroyed during the Holocaust, as were the lives and properties of their owners.
After the Nazi Occupation of the Czech lands on 15 March 1939, most of Brandeis’s grandchildren managed to escape abroad. Adolf and Helena Wiesner stayed in Prague and on 6 July 1942 were both deported to the Terezín ghetto. Three months after arriving in Terezín, Adolf Wiesner died on 10 October 1942 as a result of exhaustion at the age of 72 and was buried at a local cemetery. Helena Wiesner survived the Terezín ghetto where she was employed in the art workshops, making various decorative objects for German companies. In February 1945, she was sent abroad on the ‘Swiss Transport’ and returned to Prague after liberation. Later she left to stay with the family of her son René in England, where she lived to the age of 98 and continued to paint flower still-lifes until the very end.
René Wiesner (1904–1974), the son of Adolf and Helena Wiesner, became a Prague architect and acknowledged expert in the design of Verlith glass and concrete structures. Verlith technology was very fashionable in the 1930s and many examples of its use can still be found in Prague to this day. René Wiesner’s main projects included the glass house in Palacká Street, the Czechoslovak Pavilion at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris, and the Masaryk Sanatorium in Vyšné Hágy, Slovakia. The daughter of Brandeis’s youngest daughter Irma (1882–1979), Karla married Emil Weiss (1896–1965), who was a skilful caricaturist, graphic artist and poster designer in 1930s Prague. During and after the war, he was a political cartoonist for English and American newspapers.
Brandeis’s grandchildren are represented at this exhibition by Erika, the granddaughter of Brandeis’s daughter Otilie Stiassná (1878–1920). In 1942, Erika Stránská (1930–1944) was deported to the Terezín ghetto, where she lived in the children’s house L 410 and, like many other children, took part in clandestine art lessons supervised by the artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. A whole series of her drawings, which are the last testimony to her life, have been preserved in the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague. Shortly before her 14th birthday, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she perished in the gas chambers.
A number of Brandeis’s great grandchildren have contributed to this exhibition. Much of the credit for preserving the family history goes to Jan V. White of Westport, USA, who has written a detailed family chronicle.
The Jewish Museum in Prague would like to thanks all the members of the Wiesner family in the UK, the White, Kubin and Weiss families in the USA and the Sedmík, Kosák, Fanta and Skála families in Prague for providing family portraits and documents for this exhibition. We would also like to thanks all the institutions, particularly the National Gallery in Prague, that have loaned paintings and drawings by Adolf Wiesner to the exhibition.