Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999

K A L E I D O S C O P E:
Flogging a Dead Horse?

Vaclav Pinkava

My father's award winning first novel GraveLarks, shortly to be published in English for the first time (extract), starts with a motto from Pushkin's rudely symbolic poem Tsar Nikita, featuring male 'birds' entrapped by female 'nests': The motto (my translation) goes like this:

Some folks seem to be detesting
my own style and way of jesting
and alas take me to task.
I felt like it. Why d'you ask?

Speaking of irreverent comment, of the Czech sense of the absurd, something strange is hovering over Prague's Vaclavske Namesti - Wenceslas Square.

David Cerny, the artist who gave us the Pink tank, and the Trabant on legs, (symbolising the East German exodus of a decade ago), has put up (put down?) a dead horse, hung by the legs from a beam, appropriately enough at the bottom or 'bum' end of Wenceslas Square in Prague, the meeting point of drugdealers and pickpockets. Astride the dead horse, (who seems to be a mare or a gelding, in fact), sits a representation of St Wenceslas, the patron saint of the country. To my 'screwy' eyes he is very definitely modelled on Vaclav Klaus himself.

Cerny's work

To me, a Klaus-lookalike St Vaclav caricature, riding an upside down dead horse is the very essence of the absurd theatre - worthy of the other Vaclav, the playwright-president. Such synergy and contrast between the three Vaclavs has not gone unnoticed before, and has even been quoted in the Czech national daily Lidove noviny, evidently discovered via Britske listy (to which they cited an incorrect weblink)

The horse is hung in the opposite direction to his role model, vertically and horizontally. Being dead, and upside down, it is sticking its tongue out at the archetype at the far and top end of the boulevard, so massive, yet elegantly balanced on just two legs.

For those who do not know the deep symbolic significance of it all, some local lore and history.

  • St Wenceslas (The "Good King" of the English Christmas carol) was a Christian who ruled the country in the 10th century. He was murdered by his half-brother Boleslav the Cruel, on his way to Church. (a snippet from my father's English-language play for schoolchildren about Good King Wenceslas here)
  • The statue which adorns the top of Wenceslas Square is by Josef Vaclav Myslbek, whose surname is better known to Prague visitors as a modern shopping mall, Na Prikope.
  • Wenceslas Square (boulevard would be a better way to put it) used to be the city's Horsemarket. Between 1678 and 1879, there was an equestrian statue of St Vaclav there by Jan Jiri Bendl. The Square got renamed to Vaclavske namesti in 1848, when a celebration open-air Mass was held at the statue. When the National Museum was designed at the very top en of the square, the architect sought a new statue to go with it, and a competition was formally announced in 1894, but Myslbek had been working on his piece since 1887. Myslbek was not the outright winner, but got ahead (by a nose so to speak) of the romanticised design by Bohumil Schirl, through reworking his concept into a very symbolic and national revivalist Christian patron. He added four saints, St Ludmilla (Vaclav's grandmother), and St Prokop at the front, St Vojtech and St Agnes at the back. The equestrian statue was finished in 1912, the entourage added gradually to complete by 1922, the year Myslbek died. The statue, which carries around the plinth the emotional motto, "St Wenceslas, leader of the Czech lands, do not let us or our descendants perish" has served as a rallying point during all subsequent times of crisis and triumph. Curiously, St Agnes was canonised to sainthood only in November 1989, days before the Velvet Revolution.
  • Legend has it that St Wenceslas and his knights are sleeping underneath Blanik Mountain in Central Bohemia, and when the going gets really tough, they'll come charging out to vanquish all our foes.
  • In reality, the nearest Blanik is the cinema near the statue, currently showing American Pie - and ordinary cinemagoers come charging out, nights, to get to the metro, probably having slept through the film.
  • The Myslbek statue is undoubtedly the meeting point in Prague. Meetings are variously arranged 'by the horse' or 'under the tail', perhaps to reflect the nature of the rendez-vous. (Ocas or 'tail' is, like the German Schwanz, an alternative slang word for a gent's reproductive accoutrement. Aletrnative to "bird'', as in the Pushkin reference at the beginning, or the American giving thereof)

So the rotationally symmetrical arrangement of Cerny's equestrian statue is a contrast and a provocation in more ways than one. It might become the alternative meeting point and wreak havoc in ordinary Burghers' meeting schedules, if it stays up a while. I fear it might be defaced or removed, by the Prague 1 Municipality supporters of good taste and Vaclav Klaus, (provided they share my vision, or read CER - hmmm, that is not a large probability).

Meanwhile, the possibilities for interpretation are virtually endless. In some ways this is a self-portrait of the artist, in that he is once again taking advantage of an absurd situation, riding the absurdity to triumph. So far, no graffiti. The petitbourgeois don't express their disapproval that way. But there is plenty of tut-tutting going on.

For me, this brings another curious echo and link to my earlier theme here.

David Cerny's equestrian construction proudly bears the English title "Object", a seemingly all-too literal translation of the Czech "Objekt", meaning artistic installation. Perhaps it should carry a subtitle for the benefit of passers by. "You don't have to." For passers-by certainly do object, however quietly. And that is perhaps the real point. This is a 'happening', not an installation. It is time to speak up about what 'they' are doing to our heritage and values. Speaking up can sometimes work.

Take an example from the far end of the Square. Some years ago the Municipality of Prague 1 attached a brass plaque to the real St Wenceslas Monument, and my opposition to the English translation propelled me to the front page of Lidove noviny, (here, and here in Czech), and the sign got taken down. I objected because the trilingual sign's English portion read "Keep off the statue and the basement". I thought it might stop the cinemagoers from getting into the Metro. My objection was heard.

Equally, if you'll excuse another pun, some artistic commentaries are more fundamental than others, and I bow before David Cerny's inspiringly objectionable koan metaphor. However large and unsightly the horse's fundament might be, so close up, this is not a bum work of art.

Finally let me tie up a couple of remaining loose strands in this article, to make a decorative bow: On the 'basement' of the statue of St Wenceslas there are still four ugly holes, where the 'educationally disadvantaged' brass plaque used to be. How about putting up a small tribute to Josef Vaclav Myslbek there, Mr Burgermeister, to hide your embarrassment?

Vaclav Pinkava, 26 October 1999



This week's theme Refugees and Migration

A New Europe Deserves a New Asylum Policy

Asylum in Hungary

Life in a Czech Refugee Camp

Roma Leaving

Hungary's '56ers


Jan Culik:
Czech Communists Back on Top

Sam Vaknin:
The Myth of Greater Albania (part 3)

Vaclav Pinkava:
Czech Saint Turned on His Head


Interview with Marta Meszaros


Readers' Choice:
The most popular article last week



Hungary's Most Wanted Man Finally Captured

Czech Lustration


EU Hopes


Poland's Moved and Missing


(Baltic news on holiday)


Frana Sramek's Leto on Stage

Central European
Culture in the UK

Cultural Round-up from Poland


Book Shop


Rock Estonian Style

Music Shop

Receive Central Europe Review
free via e-mail
every week.


Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved