Bohemia’s Beautiful Style: The Met’s Ticket to Prague

Let’s get the kudos out of the way: Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is yet another serious, authoritative and astonishing exhibition from an institution that seems incapable of mounting anything less. (Granted, the Met bumbles once in a while, but overall, its recent track record warrants the hyperbole.)

This exhibition outlines an ambitious feat of cultural engineering. Born in Prague, Charles IV (1316-1378) was raised in Paris and connected by family to the courts of Europe. Upon ascending the throne in 1347, he set out to transform the capital city of his beloved Bohemia into a rival of Paris and Rome.

Despairing of the ruinous state in which “the green garden of our eyes” had fallen, the new king set about building bridges and churches, restoring palaces and financing the construction of the Saint Vitus Cathedral. Intellectual capital was equally critical; he founded the first university in Central Europe, and he surrounded himself with advisors who were, in the admiring words of Petrarch, “so mellow and urbane that one would think they were Athenians born and bred.”

The subsequent reigns of Charles’ sons, Wenceslas IV and Sigismund, were distinguished as much by personal tribulations—Wenceslas’ fondness for drink and his temper were well known—as by political unrest fomented by Christian reformer Jan Hus. But against those odds, the cultural campaign spurred by Charles continued and deepened. Though history counts Wenceslas’ rule a political failure, it was during his tenure that Bohemia became renowned for “The Beautiful Style,” an aesthetic characterized by ornamental vitality and the tempering of scenes involving drama or violence. “Made in Prague” became an indicator of high and particular achievement.

And Prague is replete with manifold and glorious examples: A brief tally of the art and artifacts on display includes paintings, architectural drawings, illuminated manuscripts, stained-glass windows, silk embroideries, jewelry and a manuscript of Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides. Short of visiting Prague, it’s hard to imagine an experience as thorough and true to a culture and a city, to a place whose “magic needs no wand,” as that provided by this exhibition.

Yet notwithstanding a painting as arresting as The Madonna of Breznice (1396), wherein the entire cosmos resides within the Christ child’s vestments, or a curio as bizarre as Chandelier of Queen Sophia of Bavaria (ca. 1400), an assemblage of walrus tusks and a miniature of St. Catherine, the most distinctive feature of Prague is its sculpture. Throughout the course of the exhibition, despite shifts in style and influence, there are fascinating constants in Bohemian sculpture.

One is the attention paid to the particulars of individual likeness or personality. Reliquary Bust of Saint Ludmila (ca. 1350), with its streamlined mix of kindness, authority and mischievousness, is no less individual than the more naturalistic and haggard Head of a Prophet from the Beautiful Fountain (1385-96). Elsewhere, two busts made of gilded copper and enamel imbue Saints Peter and (especially) Paul with a palpable sense of spiritual longing.

Another characteristic is a rhythmic undulation of form. This snaking, languid and often weightless sense of movement informs Christ on the Mount of Olives (ca. 1390-95) and Saint Quirinus and a Prophet (1378-81), among others, but it’s most typical of the depictions of Virgin and Child. It suggests otherworldly destinations just as surely as its infant-on-the-hip postures acknowledge the realities of parenthood.

But the Bohemian shimmy, if you will, also betokens something else. Jakoubek of Stribro, a follower of Jan Hus, had it out for “images of beautiful virgins [that] arouse lust in men.” He also warned that “from a vision of beautiful virgins comes the carnal love of saints.” Linking religious ecstasy with sexual ecstasy is a shopworn conceit, but it goes some way towards explaining the unnerving lyricism of Bohemian sculpture. As such, Jakoubek’s complaint constitutes but one facet of a rich and beautiful exhibition.

Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437 is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, until Jan. 3, 2006.

Laocoön in L.I.C.

One thing you can say about Ron Milewicz’s paintings at the George Billis Gallery—or at least those on display in the back room—is that they’re not a waste of time. A tepid observation, perhaps, but not really: Given the absence of aesthetic rationale typical of 99.9 percent of contemporary art, that means Mr. Milewicz has got the competition beat by a country mile.

Even so, the recent canvases are puzzling. Setting mythological dramas within the grittier precincts of Queens is curious enough. But conferring the roles of Theseus, the Minotaur and a pile of dead Athenians upon action figures and dolls is doubly odd. Self-consciousness is to be expected from such an endeavor, but the resulting variations on the enduring classical narratives are a mite heavy-handed and more coy than comical.

Not that you would mistake Mr. Milewicz for a postmodernist know-nothing. Regardless of the willful absurdism of the mythological scenes, he’s a serious painter with a keen appreciation for the rigors and tradition of his craft. The pictures in the front gallery at Billis confirm that fact. There, you’ll find the artist’s usual subject—Long Island City in all of its industrial glory—in a series of zooming, electric paintings. Mr. Milewicz paints what he sees, but strictly speaking, he’s not a naturalist: The palette is too extreme and acidic, the forms too abbreviated, the torsion of pictorial space too wildly elastic.

They’re splendid paintings, smartly constructed and shaped by a curt, decisive hand. Yet the more time I spent with them, the more I found them wanting—or, to be precise, the more I missed Laocoön as performed by a trio of G.I. Joes. The Billis exhibition finds Mr. Milewicz at a fascinating juncture: Having become adept—maybe too adept—at painting the city, he finds himself yearning for pictorial complications both heroic and silly. As a critic, I worry that this enterprise will lead Mr. Milewicz astray; as a fan, I can’t help but cheer him on. For the time being, Tribute and Theseus and the Minotaur (both 2005) are as close as he gets to realizing his contradictory ambitions.

Ron Milewicz: Recent Paintings is at the George Billis Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, until Oct. 29. Bohemia’s Beautiful Style: The Met’s Ticket to Prague