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August 11, 2017

Unfolding Prague’s Complex Past Through Its Sculptures

Text by Vidya Vijayasekharan

A novel approach to exploring art and culture can help in unfolding a city’s storied history

We all have our own ways of remembering places that we visit and I tend to associate cities with their art and architecture, food and vistas. Prague, the erstwhile capital of Bohemia, boasts all of these and also showcases the work of a single artist — the audacious, contemporary sculptor David Cerny, who has made it to the top-10 list of most controversial artists, along with Damien Hirst.

When I visited last May, it was already packed with tourists so trying to get up-close to one of the many saints flanking the Charles Bridge was almost impossible. In my attempt to avoid crowds and the long lines, I opted to explore the city on foot and find the sculptures by Cerny that are located near popular sites. Most of his pieces focus directly on the city’s complex political, social and cultural history — so it seemed like a unique way to experience its art and culture.

The first work that I encountered was an equestrian sculpture, Svaty Vaclav (Saint Wenceslas), at the Lucerna Palace galleries, an art nouveau building that was originally owned by the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel’s family. Today, it is a multipurpose mall that also shelters the ungainly upside-down horse, its tail dangling awkwardly above the spectator. To understand the absurd sculpture one has to compare it to the much-admired, bronze statue of Saint Wenceslas, in the eponymous square across the street. Wenceslas Square, the commercial centre of Prague, was a horse market when it was established in the 14th century. The patron saint of Bohemia was a 10th-century duke and Cerny’s irreverent take on this patriotic piece in the square is believed to be a caricature, lampooning Vaclav Klaus, a former right-wing president. Through a clever play on the saint’s name, Cerny literally turns the equestrian subject matter on its head — by highlighting the distinction between legend and reality, the past and the present…and with references to the three Vaclavs in one sculpture, it is an abbreviated lesson in modern Czech history.

Across the Vltava River, and in the courtyard of the Franz Kafka museum (in the Mala Strana area), is a sculptural fountain that provokes much conversation and mirth — simply known as Piss, the installation includes two bronze nudes urinating into a puddle that is shaped like the map of the Czech Republic. The figures have Cerny’s characteristic style and the pelvises swivel from side to side as they ‘fluidly’ inscribe famous Czech quotes! This bawdy piece possibly alludes to the Czechs being ‘pissed on’, a reference to the centuries of invasions that they have had to endure. In this post-Brexit era, it seemed as if Cerny was showing his displeasure with the government for joining the EU in the first place. The sculpture is dated 2004, the very year that the Czech Republic joined the European Union!

Followers of Franz Kafka will appreciate the colossal, kinetic Head of Franz Kafka, which is just a stone’s throw from Wenceslas Square. Since the troubled writer was born and buried in Prague, there are several commemorative sites around the city but this is by far the most impressive and mesmerising —  in scale, concept and execution. Over 30 feet tall, the image is composed of constantly shifting sections of steel, and the mirror-like base reflects the stodgy office buildings surrounding the piazza, which are in stark contrast to the outstanding Gothic and baroque styles seen elsewhere in the city. It appeared to me that the handsome Kafka, with his slicked-back hair and aquiline nose, was spinning around in eternal distress, trapped forever in a claustrophobic purgatory of bureaucratic buildings. Cerny’s virtuosity and ability to choreograph this action in an urban environment is remarkable. And while we were there we witnessed a young man propose to his girlfriend, a group of Czech athletes pose with the national flag, and innumerable tourist selfies, all illuminated by the theatrical glow of the setting sun. There are a few cafes and bars around so it is worthwhile to sit back and enjoy a glass of wine while watching the shifting perspectives and people, much like performance art.

Encountering the figure of Sigmund Freud, hanging precariously by his right hand about 40 feet above the street, is startling even when you’re expecting to meet him. Though it is very close to the Old Town Square, locating ‘the hanging man’, as the locals refer to him, is not easy. There is a warren of cobbled alleyways criss-crossing the picturesque neighbourhood and I had to ask several people before I found him! Why Freud? Why in such a position? Born in Freiburg, now a part of the Czech Republic, he certainly qualifies as a valid subject. As for the pose, it could allude to the psychoanalyst’s deep anxiety about death and dying. Or, it could be an allegorical work; Freud, according to Cerny, was the ‘intellectual face of the 20th century’, and this sculpture sums up the artist’s point of view about the state of intellectualism in our own time.

There are several other outlandish works by David Cerny in and around Prague, but I was able to get a sense of the city’s storied and complex past through the four examples that I saw. The artist’s derision for politicians, the bureaucracy and communism is evident but so is his abiding interest in the history of his land. His outrageous, colourful humour complements the monochromatic sculptures and each of the works has a special connection to the city — those interested can get a wonderfully illustrated introduction to Prague through the works of this quirky artist.

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