Communist-era public art to receive better protection

'United Europe', photo: Filip Jandourek

Some of the thousands of statues, fountains, murals and other artefacts erected in the Czech Republic in the 1970s and 80s are set to receive better care and protection. The Czech National Heritage Institute says these works of art are among the most endangered in the country; to save the most valuable of them, the state-run institute is now planning to identify and preserve them.

'United Europe',  photo: Filip Jandourek
A large stone fountain known as “United Europe”, sculpted by Petr Šedivý in 1981, was added to Prague’s Jiří z Poděbrad Square in homage to the peace efforts pursued by the 15th century Bohemian King George of Poděbrady. It has since fallen into grave disrepair, and might be removed completely during a planned renovation of the entire square.

The “United Europe” fountain is one of around 1,800 artefacts erected in the capital’s public space during the two last decades of the Communist regime. These monuments are often scorned as relicts of the country’s totalitarian past. But some experts say the fountain and many other artefacts are in fact fine examples of public art of its time.

Several years ago, Pavel Karous launched a project entitled Aliens and Herons to raise public awareness of these works of art, and to highlight the need to protect them.

Pavel Karous,  photo: Czech Television
“As a sculptor, I could not but notice how these works have been massively disappearing from public space over the last decade or so. So my reaction was to try and create an archive of these artefacts, and to change the perception of this part of our cultural heritage.”

Many of the statues, reliefs, mosaics and other artefacts from the post-1968 period reflect the Communist Party’s renewed grip on power, and are often politically themed.

The 29-year-old Prague-born sculptor Pavel Karous admits that for many people, these works of art represent just another form of Communist propaganda. But he says many of them have no ideological undertones.

“Younger people now look at these works from a different perspective, and are aware of their quality. For instance, the “United Europe” fountain is a very interesting abstract work which has not features of the socialist realism, and has nothing in common with the regime’s ideology. In fact, it could be seen as critical towards the regime”.

'Aliens and Herons' documentary,  photo: archive of Pavel Karous
This approach has recently been also adopted by the National Heritage Institute, the Czech Republic’s agency in charge of preserving its cultural heritage. Its head, Naděžda Goryczková, says the society’s approach to cultural heritage from the Communist era is still unbalanced which is why these artefacts are among the most endangered ones. She explains how the institute is planning to change this.

“We have set up a commission that will evaluate the quality of these artefacts. It will review all proposals to remove or change these works which will completely change the way it is done now.”

There are no estimates of how many artefacts were in fact put up in the 1970s and 80s, or how many of them should be preserved. But Ms Goryczková says one of the new commission’s first tasks will be to decide whether the “United Europe” fountain in Prague will be removed as planned, or whether it will remain in the square even after its revitalisation.