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Even monuments started small
October 2, 2013

Even monuments started small

Models and designs for many Prague statues show what might have been

The great era for building public statues was in the 19th century. But what you can see in public today is just a fraction of what was planned or has since been destroyed. And for many monuments, there were several versions before a final one was selected.

The Archives of the City of Prague, in association with the National Gallery, has brought together a vast collection of working models and accompanying documentation to show how politics and art combined to create the cityscape. Metamorphoses of Politics: Prague Monuments of the 19th Century, now at the Clam-Gallas Palace near Old Town Square, traces both he development of sculpture as an art form and changes in the political climate from the 1830s up to 1918.

Even though many famous sculptors of the era are credited with some of the city’s most famous monuments, the final result is often more like the work of a committee. The plans were selected by juries, and often they demanded changes to tone down certain aspects.

“Sculptors had to compromise between their original ideas and what political committees wanted,” Magdalena Živná, the PR coordinator of the exhibition, told The Prague Post. She gave Jan Hus as an example. Many models on display for various monuments show him as a religious icon. The plans that tended to be approved show him in more of secular pose. “The religious aspects tended to be toned down by the committees,” she said.

Metamorphoses of Politics:
Prague Monuments of the 19th Century
Where: Clam-Gallas palác, Husova 20, Prague 1
When: To Jan. 5, 2014

A model by sculptor Vilím Mort shows Hus looking very reminiscent of Jesus Christ reaching out the bless passersby. That idea was passed over for the defiant-looking Hus that can be seen today in Old Town Square, the work of sculptor Ladislav Šaloun. But even Šaloun’s early designs had a more somber Hus, a religious martyr, looking down in resignation at his fate as he is about to burned at the stake.

As the 19th century progressed, what is now the Czech Republic began to experience a movement called the National Awakening. Along with historical figures like Hus and St. Wenceslas, the new leaders of the movement like historian František Palacký, composer Bedřich Smetana and writer Karolina Světlá were immortalized. Foreign-based rulers and military leaders fell a bit out of favor. “The idea was that we should show our own history now,” Živná said, adding that there was an emphasis on the “symbols of the new emancipation” as Bohemia gained more relative autonomy within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The exhibition also shows some stubborn rivalries between sculptors. A catalog essay by Kateřina Kuthanová, the author of the exhibition, points to Josef Václav Myslbek and Bohuslav Schnirch, who went head-to-head in several competitions. Myslbek always won. Kuthanová suggests that artistic merit was not always the only factor. In some cases Myslbek would work for less money. In other cases, such as the statue of St. Wenceslas on Prague’s Wenceslas Square, Myslbek gained an advantage by having powerful friends in high places.

The various studies for the Wenceslas statue are by far the highlight of the exhibition. Several maquettes of the complete statue show various shifts in poses as the idea developed, and separate castings for the head alone show variations on the helmet and expression.

While Myslbek’s version won, you can also see two losing designs: one by Schnirch and another by František Rous. All three are quite similar, and it is hard to say that any one at the initial stages was better than another. Schnirch did have success with a statue of Jiří z Poděbrad for the town of Poděbrady, and the maquette for that shows his technical skill.

Another sculptor who did not fare well with juries and political committees was František Bílek, whose designs were quite modern and also infused with spirituality, according to Živná. One of his designs, “Tree Struck by Lightning that has Burned for Ages,” shows Hus fused with or growing out of the charred bottom of a tree. While it is truly lovely sculpture, it is easy to see how a panel of conservative people would opt for something else.

Another modern piece that was never made is Stanislav Sucharda’s brilliant design “Libuše” from 1910. The princess from old legends looks more like an opera diva draped in a rather thin costume.

Both Bílek and Sucharda toyed with ideas for monuments at Bilá Hora, the site of a battle that Bohemian forces lost in 1620. Both artists put forward large-scale plans showing suffering figures mourning the loss of Bohemian self-determination. Despite efforts at raising public support, neither plan was realized, and save for a small stone marker the site is still vacant.

One statue that was in public was removed after Czechoslovakia gained its independence in 1918. A statue honoring Field Marshall Josef Václav Radecký used to stand in Malostranské náměstí in Prague. Even though Radecký was Bohemian, his statue was seen a symbol of Austro-Hungarian domination, as he fought for their army. The statue still exists and there has been a movement over the past couple of years to put it back in its original place, as the anger toward the Hapsburg monarchy has waned.

Overall, the exhibition provides a fascinating glimpse into both the development of the concept of public art and the evolution of sculptural styles. And the items that weren’t built often say more than the ones that were. If you have ever looked at the monument for Jan Hus in Old Town Square or the statue of František Palacký at Palackého náměstí and wondered why they look the way they do, you can see what the other options were at the time.

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James Ragan
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