My husband and I recently returned from a stay in Prague. After extending our layover in Munich, we arrived in our final destination as the sun went down. By the time we first ventured out into Prague, evening had fallen upon the bohemian city.
Have you ever arrived in a city after dark? If so, you know it's harder to get a read on the city – its arteries, its rhythm and its vibe - by moonlight. You see it under the cover of darkness, when people take to restaurants, bars, squares, and other gathering places to rejoice in the end of another day.
So, when we set out that evening in Prague we didn’t have big expectations. We wanted to explore a bit, find a place for dinner, sample a Pilsner Urquell, and to try to get our bearings for the start of the next day. We didn’t expect to tap into a unique side of the city’s personality just one block from our hotel. But, there it was - the one sculpture that started it all.
There on a quiet street not far from Prague’s old town square stood a nearly 20-foot, stainless steel sculpture of a naked woman in all her artistic glory.
Its multi-faceted exterior catches and reflects the lights from the lampposts and the headlights of the passing cars.
It caught your eye. It startled us. It reeled us in. And, it made us chuckle. All at the same time.
The sculpture, titled In Utero, is a work by Czech artist David Černý. Little did we know that it isn’t the only witty, quirky and often controversial mark Černý has left along the streets of his hometown.
Rather, it is one of dozen or so pieces of public art the artist that have added to and shaped the personality of Prague – and sparked curiosity and controversy around the world.
David Černý is shaping Prague’s personality - one sculpture at a time
Last year, Černý sent a larger-than-life statue of a purple hand with its middle finger raised down the Vltava River in front of Prague Castle where the Czech president resides, just days before a general election. Now after having seen eight of the artist’s sculptures, I am not surprised by the bold move by the artist – or the fact that he’s the one behind it.
For more than 20 years, the Czech-born artist, known for his anti-communist stance, has faced controversy head on, using Prague’s streets, public spaces and even its Vltava River as his viewing gallery.
Many have said that Černý first came into the controversial limelight when he painted a Soviet tank pink back in 1991. The tank was the centerpiece of a memorial to the liberation of Czechosolovakia in 1945. At the time, Černý’s move was thought to be an “act of civil disobedience” and he was briefly arrested by authorities.
But, that didn’t slow down the artist – or put an end to his social commentary.
In 2009, Černý created Entropa to commemorate the Czech Republic’s six-month presidency of the European Union Council. The piece was to be created by artists from each of the EU member states. Instead, Černý created it on his own with the help of two friends, and chose to use it to depict stereotypes of each country. Not surprisingly, many of the countries took offense to the images.
Rather than put his sculptures in museums or galleries, Černý has opted to place them within the public spaces of his hometown, inviting locals and visitors to discover them, internalize them, react to them, and even admire them.
For my husband and I, his sculptures, starting with In Utero, set us on a journey to discover the quirky and witty emerging personality of Prague – one sculpture at a time.
A tour of Prague built around eight of David Černý’s sculptures
As morning dawned on Prague, my husband and I set out to spend our first day there exploring the city. Little did we know that our journey would put us hot on the trail of Černý’s sculptures, urging us on to find the next piece that would provide us with yet another quirky and provocative glimpse of Prague.
As the storm clouds grew over the Vltava River, we sought shelter in the city’s Malá Strana neighborhood, home to the Franz Kafka Museum. There, in front of the museum, stands Černý’s poignantly titled sculpture, Piss. The piece, produced in 2004, features two bronze male figures, with moving hips, forever relieving themselves into a pool shaped like the Czech Republic.
Even in the rain, crowds gathered around the statues, snapping photos of it and trying to catch the figures’ “streams” of water in their hands. Interested parties also can text a message to number posted near the statue and have it written into the water by the two figures - if you so choose.
Next, we sought out one of Černý’s earlier works, Quo Vadis from 1990. The piece, a bronzed Trabant with four legs, commemorates the 4,000 East Germans who camped out in the gardens of the German Embassy in Prague before being granted permission to travel to West Germany in 1989. Many of the East Germans who traveled to West Germany left behind their Trabants, two-door sedans, produced by East German car manufacturer VEB Sachsenring, that were the most commonly driven vehicle in East Germany at the time.
It’s not easy to see Quo Vadis, which is located on the grounds behind the German Embassy. To view it, we had to walk along the length of the German Embassy, go down a path in a park, and then peer between the iron rungs of a gate at the back of the embassy. We felt like the only ones leaving footprints in the mud, but it was worth it to see the beautiful grounds of the embassy and feast our eyes on yet another quirky Černý sculpture.
Next, we ventured to the Futura Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague’s Smichov neighborhood to find another provocative Černý piece – Brownnosing - which was installed there in 2003. Like Quo Vadis, you have to be motivated to find it.
For us, that meant ringing a doorbell on a nondescript entry way along Holečkova and entering into a quiet gallery. Once inside, we explored the gallery until we found steps leading downstairs. We then passed through what looks like an old hidden wall and proceeded to climb out into the garden behind Futura. And, it was all worth it. For there, in the garden are two huge statues of the lower bodies bent at the waist.
Behind each statue are ladders you can climb to peer inside the “rear ends,” literally putting your face (or nose) up each one. My husband made his way through the muddy grass so he could do a little “brownnosing.” With his head inside the statue, he saw a video of former Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus and Czech performance artist and AKTUAL founder Milan Knizak spoon feeding each other as the rock anthem “We are the Champions” plays in the background.
Our next Černý sculpture spotting was completely accidental.
Wandering around Prague’s cobblestone-paved streets, we accidentally found ourselves at the entry way to the Lucerne Passage, a covered shopping plaza decorated in the art nouveau style that punctuates much of Prague’s unique, captivating architecture. There, just inside one of its entry ways is Černý’s Horse.
At the time, we had no idea it was another piece of his, but we weren’t surprised to learn its origins at all. The statue, erected in 1999, depicts King Wenceslas riding a dead horse hanging upside down from the ceiling, its tongue hanging limp from its mouth.
As we later learned, the huge sculpture is a parody of the famous Wenceslas Monument at Wenceslas Square, the centerpiece of so many visitors’ photos of Prague. The statue, which sits just a few blocks away in front of the Czech National Museum Building, features Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, on horseback.
On our last day in Prague, we set out to find three more of Černý’s works in three different areas of the city.
Just across the Charles Bridge, we ventured down and out to Kampa Island. There, on the grass in front of Museum Kampa, are three of Cerny’s “Tower Babies.” The larger-than-life-sized babies are far from cuddly. Rather, the bronze, oddly muscular babies feature “smashed in" faces.
The three babies aren’t the only babies to grace Prague. More can be found climbing the city’s Žižkov Television Tower.
Ten fiberglass babies were installed on the tower in 2000 when Prague was named a Cultural Capital of Europe. Černý, who at the time was living in Žižkov, was asked to create a temporary work to mark the distinction. At the end of the exhibit, the babies were removed from the tower, much to the chagrin of Prague residents who demanded they be reinstalled on the Žižkov Television Tower where they remain.
The last Černý sculpture we sought out in Prague proved more difficult for us to locate due to its perch high above the city streets. Created in 1997, Hanging Out features a tiny figure of Sigmund Freud dangling by one hand above Husova Street.
With our tourist eyes’ trained on the many restaurants, cafes and stores that line the picturesque street, it’s easy to miss the sculpture that’s said to depict Černý ’s thoughts on the role of the intellectual in the new millennium.
Having taken our last photo of the last Černý sculpture we were to discover during our short visit to Prague, we couldn’t help but reflect on how each one of them added to the burgeoning personality of the Bohemian capital. We were glad the prospect of seeing each of his sculptures had lured us to new, less touristy areas of the city, helping show us a unique viewpoint of the city as curated for us by its famous artist in residence.
Have you been to Prague? Did you see any of David Černý ’s sculptures? Are you a fan of his work? Which one is your favorite sculpture? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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