Art: Josef Lada’s holiday classics

Holy Night, 1933, by Josef Lada. Ink, watercolor on paper. © National Gallery in Prague.
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Rare originals of the ubiquitous holiday pictures

One Czech illustrator is more closely associated with the holidays than any other. Josef Lada drew pictures of village life in all seasons for children’s books, magazines and classic novels. But his winter scenes are perhaps his most prized.

Josef Lada / What Winter Brings
When: To Feb. 23, 2014; Daily 10–6, limited hours Dec. 24, 31 and Jan. 1.
Where: Museum Kampa, U Sovových mlýnů 2

In time for the holidays, Museum Kampa has collected a handful of his best work for a show called Josef Lada/What Winter Brings. Note that the title is not a question. Lada does not deal in the abstract or theoretical. His drawings have a deceptively naïve simplicity that conveys an almost perfect world of village life where virtually everyone is smiling as they undertake their daily routines. Even at the time these pictures came out, that type of life was a fading memory.

The retrospective starts with some of his work from the 1910s and goes up through the late 1940s, his most mature era. While many people are quick to dismiss his work as kitsch, many art historians find a complex combination of traditional themes and modern technique. His flattened almost 2-dimensional use of perspective, for example, shows a familiarity with what was happening in the world of high art.

For most of his life, especially the early years, he did work as a commercial illustrator delivering pictures and demand, and the holidays were a busy season. You can find variations on the same theme year after year. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, for example, he did scenes of a Christmas manger transposed into almost-modern times, with the halos around a typical Bohemian family as if they were Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Villagers fill the scene, busy as always. The jumble of people, moving every which way in an impossible space at times even suggests Hieronymus Bosch, although the attitude of the villagers is more upbeat.

After 1945, when the communist era started, he dropped the religious overtones and instead embraced the secular side of winter, with lonely night watchmen sounding a horn in the village square while snow falls all around. A faithful dog is usually by his side. People building snowmen and playing with sleds become more common themes.

He also drew warm and cozy interiors, using the same squashed-space technique to show people playing with their presents. One color illustration from 1939 even does a role reversal, with the children playing at smoking pipes and wearing oversized slippers while the adults ride a scooter, bang a drum, ride a rocking horse and color a book.

The time, of course, is the start of World War II. While Lada is not really seen as political commentator, in this piece he does seem to be commenting that normal state of affairs has turned upside down.

A few works give insight into his technique. Much of the paper has yellowed, and on some pieces, especially the black-and-white ones, you can see white correction ink and other evidence of retouching. These originals were never really meant to be displayed. They were made to be reproduced in magazines and other formats where none of these imperfections could be detected.

Most of the show is rare originals from the National Gallery and private collections. But some examples of his work as it appeared in magazines show how his pieces were originally presented.

Copies of Lada’s work are easy to find. There are numerous calendars at almost every street stand, and his books are still popular. The originals, though, are seldom displayed and worth a peek.


About the Author

Raymond Johnston

Raymond Johnston is Editor in Chief of the Prague Post.

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