Acclaimed Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek dies at 91

Olbram Zoubek, photo: CTK

The celebrated Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek died on Thursday at the age of 91. Zoubek, who studied at Prague’s UMPRUM (Academy of Arts, Architecture & Design), was the author of many sculptural works, including a memorial to the victims of communism at Prague’s Újezd at the foot of Petřín Hill.

Olbram Zoubek,  photo: CTK
Olbram Zoubek is considered one of the most important Czech figurative sculptors of the 20th century, who left a mark on the Czech art scene. Zoubek first gained wider attention among the public and high moral standing – after he cast the death mask of university student Jan Palach in 1969, following Palach’s self-immolation in protest of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. The act, extreme as it was, was an attempt to rouse the Czechs to resist. Here is how Mr Zoubek described the situation in a past interview for Czech Radio:

“I grew up in the First Republic and lived through the German occupation, a short period of freedom and then the Russian occupation. When Jan Palach came it was like a miracle in contrast to the dirty and stinking mud [we were in]… I felt that I couldn’t just stand by and do nothing. Not many people know how to cast a death mask but I did and it was my idea.”

Jan Palach’s death mask,  photo: Hana Novenková
Zoubek’s decision to commemorate Palach’s sacrifice earned him the wrath of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime for many years to come – effectively until the fall of the system in November 1989. In the past interview with Czech Radio, the artist described how the repercussions for the act were hardly a surprise.

“I expected it but it wasn’t the kiss of death. I only couldn’t travel, I couldn’t sell my work, I couldn’t accept commissions. But I was able to work as a restorer and that wasn’t too bad. It was possible to survive.”

Among the foreign audience but also at home Zoubek was also very well-known for his Memorial to the Victims of Communism located at Prague’s Petřín Hill, commemorating those who suffered or lost their lives after the Communists seized power in 1948, to 1989 when it fell. Unveiled in 2002, the work shows seven ‘broken’ or ‘decayed’ bronze figures in a line on stairs, with missing limbs, more damaged the further they are away.

The monument has been criticized by some artists who slammed the design as kitsch, while others criticized the work for featuring only male and no female figures. Over the years no one could argue it hasn’t raised emotions and attracted attention. The largest retrospective of Olbram Zoubek’s work, meanwhile, was held at Prague Castle Riding School in November 2013.