Grandson of Josef Lada discusses artist’s classic Christmas cards and more

Cards featuring the work of Josef Lada are an integral part of Czech Christmas. Lada is best known internationally for illustrations of the Good Soldier Švejk, but his simply drawn carol singers, snow covered villages and nativity scenes are just as popular in his native country. His grandson, also named Josef Lada, says the artist's images capture something everyone can relate to.

Josef Lada’s illustrations of Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk must rank among the most iconic Czech art of the 20th century. The two men’s short-lived collaboration was extremely important to the artist, says his grandson, also named Josef Lada.

“He was inspired by Jaroslav Hašek, who in 1921 asked him to do an illustration for the cover of the Good Soldier Švejk. That was the only one of Lada’s illustrations that Hašek actually saw. That first Švejk was taller and thinner. The version we know now is from a series in České Slovo between 1923 and 1925, which featured four or five hundred drawings. That’s when the characters acquired their generally known dimensions and features.”

Grandson of Josef Lada,  also named Josef Lada,  photo: Martin Frouz
Lada was self-taught and his style was somewhat naïve. His grandson says the reason his illustrations remain so popular over five decades after his death is that everyone can relate to them.

“I think that with his art he managed to capture something general, something that people like, something that everybody can accept. His pictures from all four seasons were so perfectly done that everyone finds something in them, everyone finds a bit of their own childhood. They show villages and the countryside as they used to be, but aren’t any more. I think that’s why his work is still so popular.”

Josef Lada has been familiar with his grandfather’s work from a very young age – including the Christmas scenes.

“At my parents house we were surrounded by it. They worked with his drawings every day, so it was always all around me – including of course the Christmas illustrations...Sometimes I get Lada cards, which is always pleasing. And I myself only send Lada Christmas cards.”

Josef Lada says that given how many are sent every year, the total number of Christmas cards produced to date has to be in the millions. But not all of them are the real thing, and there have been court cases over the publication of cards imitating the Lada style. The fact the artist created so many illustrations makes verifying their provenance more complicated.

“It’s far easier to say that something is counterfeit that to say that it’s the real thing. You have to work with experts and be 110 percent certain before you say a work is a genuine Lada. The best thing is when we have documentary evidence that it has been exhibited or published somewhere. With some pieces it’s what you could call ‘borderline’ and really hard to tell.”

By the way, one interesting fact about Lada’s Christmas scenes is that while he remained popular under communism, the regime took exception to some images. For instance, religious figures in a 1970s calendar were replaced by a bowl of fruit.