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The Vltava River in art

The writer Karel Čapek once said that the Vltava River is “inexpressible and cannot be put into verse, down to its last drop”. In spite of this, or precisely because of it, this river has always inspired artists, and undoubtedly shall continue to do so. However, this is not only due to its alluring beauty. The Vltava has earned, among other things, the famous attribute of having silver foam. The Vltava changes during various seasons and in the various corners of our country through which it meanders, from where it springs forth in the hills of Šumava down to its confluence with the Labe (Elbe) River in the town of Mělník. The Vltava River, over 400 km long, is the natural axis of the country, running through its capital city of Prague. It is precisely this joining of the life-giving river and the former seat of the Přemysl princedom that creates a symbolism that entire generations of artists have endeavoured to capture in their work.

Without a doubt, the best-known and most famous work regarding the subject of the Czech national river is the symphonic poem “Vltava” (from the year 1874) composed by Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884) in his cycle My Country. The composer, who at that time was deaf, ingeniously utilised notes to portray the flow of the river from its spring down to its mighty flow in Prague and its subsequent demise in the Labe (Elbe).

Naturally, the river and its environs received the greatest attention from graphic artists, and later photographers and filmmakers. Old drawings and engravings, capturing sections of the river that no longer exist today, are often not only valuable works of art but also valuable historic documents, preserving the appearance of the Vltava and life on it and its environs in the times of the distant past. The same can be said of photography: Here, in addition to many “ordinary” views of the river and the surrounding landscape, many works came into being whose artistic value dwarfed other creations. As an example for all, we can name the famous book of photographs by Karel Plicka (1894 – 1987). The Vltava understandably has “starred” in many films.

We can find the symbol of Vltava also in the well-known sculptural group Alegorie Vltavy (Allegory of the Vltava) by sculptor J. V. Pekárek from the year 1916, standing on the tip of Dětský ostrov (Children’s Island). The figures of girls depict the Vltava and her tributaries, the Lužnice, Otava, Sázava, and Berounka.

Completely naturally, the Vltava, often in connection with Prague, appears in so-called commercial art, whether this is on stamps and banknotes or in the logos and symbols of various associations and companies.