From ghosts to hoaxes, the city has some oddities in stone and metal
Prague has more than its fair share of odd statues on public view. Some contemporary ones were designed to make the viewer ponder, while others reflect the city’s long and peculiar history. A few look odd, and others have bizarre tales to tell. Here is a list of 10 significant statues that one can only find in Prague.
We ignored giant horse statues and saints on or near bridges, as these are everywhere in Europe. Even war memorials didn’t make the cut, as these could be a topic on their own, each with a story to tell. And we only chose one example of Normalization era art, as this is another topic that could fill a whole book, and it has. Even after all that, it wasn’t easy to pick just 10.
There is no way around the work of Czech sculptor David Černý when following the tracks of significant public statues in Prague. He is known across Europe for his modern, provocative and original works, which often stand in contrast to the historical places where they are situated. He has created plenty of sculptures that can be found all over the city and could fill this whole list, but there are three works that are especially noteworthy. Among others, we had to leave out his Man Hanging Out, Quo Vadis, Embryo, Tuned Death and In Utero, the latter a giant stainless steel structure depicting a pregnant woman, which adorns a square in Dlouhá Street.
1. Piss by Černý
In Malá Straná, on the small plaza at Cihelná 2b where the Kafka Museum is situated, there is a fountain made by Černý in 2004 titled Piss. It is typical of his body of work: both controversial and amusing. The basin of the fountain is made out of bronze, and it is formed in the shape of the Czech Republic. Two men are standing on opposite ends, and they appear to be peeing onto the country. Visitors can even send an SMS to the fountain, and the men will write the message into the water.
2. Horse by Černý
Inside Lucerna pasáž on Vodičkova Street, another public sculpture by Černý can be found. Černý decided to make a parody of the famous sculpture of St. Wenceslas by Josef Václav Myslbek that can be seen on the square. That statue, which was installed in 1924 after decades of work, is a symbol of the city.
However, Černý’s statue Horse is not an appreciation of Bohemia’s patron saint. Instead, hanging upside down from the ceiling of the passage is a horse that is obviously dead and ready to be rendered. A determined Wenceslas sits on its belly. While Černý himself does not comment on the meaning behind this humorous piece, some people claim that it criticizes Czech politician Václav Klaus, as Václav is the Czech version of the name Wenceslas.
3. Babies by Černý
Other public artworks by Černý that are worth seeking out are his statues of babies. Three of these large statues are at the entrance to the Museum Kampa, and more are on the TV tower in Žižkov. The large, crawling rugrats have disturbing machine-like slots on their faces. These Babies are part of Černý’s project to make the Žižkov TV Tower more beautiful, as it has been named one of the world’s most ugly buildings. A swarm of the mutant babies crawls on the tower’s exterior. At night they are lit up in the colors of the Czech flag.
4. Memorial to Franz Kafka by Jaroslav Róna
Another important Czech sculptor is Jaroslav Róna. His most significant public statues are focused on Prague native Franz Kafka and his stories. Kafka lived in several places in the Old Town area, and his face can be seen in many spots throughout the former Jewish section. But the largest monument to him, Memorial to Franz Kafka from 2003, is a bit more introspective than the others. At the intersection of Dušní and Vězeňská streets there is a large, headless and handless man who is carrying a small man on his shoulders, as if it were father and child. The small man is a representation of Kafka. This image of a man carrying another man on his shoulders, walking through the streets of Prague, appears in Kafka’s story “Description of a Struggle.”
Another of his statues unfortunately can only be seen with a ticket to explore the Golden Lane at Prague Castle, so it no longer really qualifies as being in public. Next to the Dalibor Tower, one can find Róna’s 1993 sculpture Parable with a Skull. It represents one of Kafka’s characters.
5. The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek
Kafka isn’t the only author to get a recent memorial. Jaroslav Hašek, the author of The Good Soldier Švejk, finally got a fitting statue in Žižkov at Prokopova náměstí. The work by sculptor Karel Nepraš, who died in 2002, was finished by his daughter Karolína Neprašová and architect Milan Kupka.
Hašek is said to have never ridden a horse. He was also known as a heavy drinker, aside from being a humorist, and the statue was christened with beer when it was unveiled in 2005. The horse is said to resemble a pub table and seems to be made of the sort of pipes and valves that one would see exposed in working-class pub.
Hašek’s characters were always quick to sidestep authority. From one angle on the square where the statue is located, you can also see the famed horse statue of Jan Žižka, once the world’s largest. The two statues have similar poses. Hašek is still poking fun by parodying famous figures.
6. Memorial for the Victims of Communism by Olbram Zoubek
At Újezd at the foot of Petřín Hill one can find a monument by sculptor Olbram Zoubek in cooperation with the architects Zdeněk Hölzel and Jan Kerel. It is quite different from others on this list, because it carries a weighty message. The base of this monument is a staircase, on which seven figures descend. However, the farther away the figures are from the lowest stair, the more ruptured their torsos appear, with missing limbs and broken chests. This monument is the Memorial for the Victims of Communism that was unveiled 12 years after the fall of communism, in 2002. This monument is meant to make the observer think about the history it portrays.
7. Il Commendatore by Anna Chromy
Fictional figures are sometimes made into statues, but ghosts are not done that often. Outside the Estates Theater, where W.A. Mozart conducted the 1787 premiere of his opera Don Giovanni, there is a heavy shroud around an empty space. This figure represents the opera’s character Il Commendatore, who appears as a ghost.
This version has an especially spine-chilling appearance, but not so much that tourists are afraid to crowd around it for photos. The work was created by Czech-born, Austrian-raised artist Anna Chromy and is one of several “empty cloak” statues she has created. It was installed in 2000. Chromy also designed the allegorical Czech Musicians fountain, installed at Senovážné náměstí in 2002.
8. Iron Man by Ladislav Šaloun
Sculptor Ladislav Šaloun is best known for his statue of Jan Hus in Old Town Square, and while that one is a bit odd, it doesn’t really make the list. A more interesting work of his is the faceless knight on the side of Prague’s City Hall. This is another ghost story. Prague’s oldest houses are known by colorful names that refer to a symbol above the door. This was done because houses at that time had no street numbers.
On Platnéřská Street there was a house called At the Iron Man, with a stone statue of a knight above the door. That house is now gone, and the original statue is in the Municipal Museum. When City Hall was built near the original site, Šaloun made a large stone copy of the faceless knight, who is said to have killed his lover in a fit of rage. The knight was turned to stone as punishment. He can be freed by the love of a pure-hearted woman but only once every 100 years on the anniversary of the murder. The exact date, alas, has been lost to history. Šaloun’s copy includes the poor victim off on the side. Prague must have the only City Hall with a statue of a murderous and ghostly knight as a decoration.
9. Přemysl and Libuše by Josef Václav Myslbek
Our next statue is the result of a hoax. Josef Václav Myslbek, the man behind the St. Wenceslas Statue, had another go at Czech history. He made a group of four statues depicting pairs of Czech figures from early history. Characters like Přemysl and Libuše, one of the pairs he depicted, are generally looked on as legendary, semi-historical figures akin to Britain’s King Arthur. But he also took two characters from the Manuscript of Dvůr Kralové, an epic text that was miraculously discovered in 1817. Myslbek unveiled his sculptures of Záboj and Slavoj in 1895 at the base of the Palacký Bridge. The four pairs were moved to Vyšehrad during World War II to keep them safe, and they can be seen there today.
Nationalists swore that the Dvůr Kralové epic was authentic up through the 1920s, and some people still vouch for its authenticity. But an article published in 1886 raised the first serious questions, and over the years those doubts have solidified. The epic manuscript has too many linguistic and anachronistic errors to be authentic. Myslbek fell for a hoax and made a statue to honor his gullibility.
10. Pond by Kurt Gebauer
Many statues that one can see in Prague were constructed under the Soviet occupation. One example is Kurt Gebauer’s bronze statue Pond from 1989. It is located in the Stodůlky neighborhood on Kovávořa Street. The statue portrays a young, nude woman who is standing on a stone edge with her body in an alert pose. While she might look like a futuristic character from a science-fiction movie, she actually belongs to a past artistic era that is referred to as Normalization. In this era, free experimentation in art was no longer tolerated, but the demand for art was still high: Between 1965 and 1989, there was even a law requiring between 1 percent and 4 percent of the funds for every building project to be spent on public art. As a result, many statues from this time can be found all over Prague, and Gebauer’s statue in Stodůlky is a typical one, as the nude or semi-dressed human form was frequently portrayed.
The man who isn’t there. One of the dominant features of the city is the empty base of a statue. It now has a metal metronome that swings freely. But it was built to hold a giant statue of Soviet leader Josef Stalin leading a small parade of workers and scientists. It was often called the Line for Bread, but not too loudly as the secret police might overhear.
The statue took five years to build and stood from 1955 to 1962. It was blown up as Stalin’s personality cult faded. Movements have arisen to rebuild some Habsburg-era monuments such as a victory column topped by the Virgin Mary on Old Town Square or Field Marshall Josef Václav Radecký in Malá Strana, but no preservationist has been brave or crazy enough to suggest rebuilding this former communist hero.
Photos by Raymond Johnston, except for the archive photo of the Stalin statue on Letná Hill.