Takeaway

Still life in Prague

Joanna Lobo | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 06, 2017

High on a bridge: The statue of St John of Nepomuk on Charles Bridge Image: Joanna Lobo

The statues of the Czech capital help you engage with its complex history

It isn’t often that I see naked men on the street. These two stand proud in the courtyard of the museum dedicated to Franz Kafka. The tourists milling about aren’t interested in learning about the life of the tortured genius. Their voyeurism is basic. They watch in delight as the men move their bronze penises to spell out quotes from famous city residents. On moving closer, I realise the men are urinating into a puddle shaped like the map of the Czech Republic.

‘The Piss’ is one of the more whimsical works of contemporary and controversial artist, David Černý. When it was created in 2004, many said he was showing his displeasure at his country joining the European Union. Others said it was a reference to the many invaders in Czech history. I soon learn that the artist, like his mechanical figures, enjoys pissing people off.

Černý’s art is a social commentary and the city of his birth, Prague, is his playground.

The Czech capital is rich in historic imagery, from the Baroque statues that line Charles Bridge to the horse-riding monument at Wenceslas Square. The public art at Prague’s squares, parks and streets is alternative and experimental, amusing and irreverent, playful and provocative.

A troubled past

On a narrow alleyway near the Old Town Square, a glance upward reveals the figure of a man about to commit suicide. This is the ‘Man Hanging Out’, or what the locals call ‘Hanging Man’. Another Černý special, it has a bearded Sigmund Freud hanging by his right hand, at the end of a beam. This sculpture hints at the hopelessness of the psychoanalyst’s life and his phobia of dying. The other meaning is more symbolic. Černy called Freud “the intellectual face of the 20th century” and perhaps, this is the artist’s way of pondering the role of intellectuals in this century.

I leave Freud hanging and head out in search of another troubled genius. Self-doubt and depression had plagued Kafka all his life. Černý represents this through an 11-m, 45-tonne stainless-steel kinetic bust of the writer. The ‘Head of Franz Kafka’ rests near the office where he was a clerk. The head consists of 42 motorised layers that move independently, metamorphosing into the writer’s face only for a split second.

Another strange tribute to Kafka lies in the old Jewish Quarter, in the neighbourhood where he lived, worked and wrote. In it, sculptor Jaroslav Róna has a mini version of the writer riding on the shoulders of an empty suit, a reference to a passage in Kafka’s short story, Description of a Struggle. “I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot...” It’s a surreal tribute, slightly ruined by tourists touching the statue’s feet and sitting on each other’s shoulders, mimicking the pose. I wonder if it would depress Kafka to see this base devaluation of art.

In the streets of Mala Strana or Lesser Quarter is a monument that truly does depress. At the base of Petřín Hill, I climb the stairs to find six naked figures. Unlike the gleeful naked men in ‘The Piss’, these men are zombie-like, their faces a mask of pain and despair. This is Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek’s ‘Memorial to the Victims of Communism’. The six figures, in different stages of disintegration, descend a flight of stairs. A bronze strip tells us of the losses — 205,486 arrested; 170,938 forced into exile; 4,500 dead in prisons; 327 shot while trying to flee and 248 executed. Only one figure is whole; the rest are missing body parts, and the last one has just limbs. For a monument that’s a sombre reminder of the perils of despotism, the setting couldn’t be more picturesque — the surrounding garden and paths are blooming with colour.

Local legends

The most scenic view is at Prague’s oldest bridge, the Charles Bridge. I weave my way through street musicians, artists and selfie-sticks to admire the 30 Baroque statues lining its balustrade. I’m searching for a legend, which I find at the feet of the statue of St John of Nepomuk. John was a priest in Prague, under King Wenceslas IV. He was thrown into the river for refusing to divulge the queen’s confessions to the king, who suspected her of having an affair. It is believed that touching the plaque commemorating his martyrdom brings good luck. The brass portion I run my hand over is smooth, and gleams bright against the blackened surroundings. Nearby is a plaque of a dog, whose shining body indicates that it also receives attention.

My favourite legend in the city involves a statue of a ghost. This creepy cloaked figure sits outside the Estates Theater in the Old Town, where composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducted the première of his opera Don Giovanni in 1787. The creation of Austrian artist Anna Chromy, it is said to represent the opera’s character, Il Commendatore, who appears as a ghost.

The cloaked figure has no face and is empty inside, possibly an allusion to the emptiness of Don Giovanni’s soul. Local legend has it that pictures taken without a flash reveal the image of a face inside the empty cloak. My photos reveal nothing but a black hole but I revel in the possibility of a spectre haunting this ghostly figure.

It’s what makes Prague a fascinating city. Every statue has a story to tell, even if some are more believable than others.

Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer based in Mumbai

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Published on October 06, 2017
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