William Cook

The rise and fall of bohemia

Golden Gate Park, September 13, 1967, San Francisco. (AP Photo/ Robert W. Klein/Alamy)

In the Kunsthalle Praha, a smart new gallery in Prague, a Scottish professor from UCLA called Russell Ferguson is trying to explain to me the meaning of bohemia. Like a lot of fashionable buzzwords, it’s surprisingly difficult to pin down. Is a bohemian an artistic rebel? Or merely a pretentious layabout? Ferguson is an expert on the subject, and even he can’t quite sum it up.

However, unlike most academics (and most journalists, for that matter) Professor Ferguson isn’t content to just sit around and chat. As well as writing a book about bohemia, he’s mounted an exhibition about bohemians here at the Kunsthalle – and after he’s shown me round, I have a far better sense of what bohemianism is all about. ‘Bohemia – History of An Idea (1950-2000)’ shows how bohemians have shaped the cultural landscape of our lifetimes, and how, after a century of cultural supremacy, their time has passed.

Ferguson’s book (which shares the same name as his Kunsthalle show) contains the best definition of bohemia I’ve found so far: ‘A commitment to art in all its forms, sexual freedom, the embrace of alcohol, drugs and intoxication in general, hostility to work and conventional ambition.’ Apart from the commitment to art (most of us, I fear, are quite happy simply scrolling through our iPhones) what’s notable about this definition is how these values have spread from the fringes of society to the mainstream.

The first thing I learn from Ferguson’s enthralling exhibition is that I’ve been lured here under false pretences. I knew Prague was the capital of bohemia, the historic forerunner of the Czech Republic, so I always assumed this must be where bohemianism started out. Not at all. Turns out the word is a complete misnomer. The term bohemian was coined in Paris in the nineteenth century to describe a certain lifestyle – a dissolute revolt against the dreary conformity of bourgeois life.

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