Josef Lada

If you have friends in the Czech Republic and they send you Christmas greetings regularly, you might have received an idyllic post card depicting village children sledge-riding, skating or building a snowman. They are all dressed up in the style of the 1930s, the most fruitful period of our Czech in History today - painter and writer Josef Lada.

Josef Lada was born in the village of Hrusice some 30 kilometres east of Prague, and there is a Josef Lada Museum in Hrusice now, in a villa that Lada built later in his life. The museum guide is Kvetoslava Nasticka:

"Lada was born in Hrusice on December 17, 1887, as the youngest of four children in the local shoe-maker's family. As a youngster he left for Prague to get an apprenticeship in book binding, which he received in 1905. At that time he met his future wife, Miss Hana Budejicka, but they only got married after 18 years, when Lada was 36 and his fiancée was a year younger. They had two daughters - Alenka and Evicka. Alenka inherited a talent for painting from her father and became an academic painter. She died in 1992, at the age of 67."

The fate of the younger daughter was much sadder - Eva, born in 1928, was a gifted piano and violin player. She sang well and studied languages - Italian and French. She died tragically, at the very end of WWII during the bombardment of Prague, near the Emauzy monastery. She was only 17.

In 1931 Lada's native house in Hrusice was pulled down, because it was dilapidated and there was a threat of complete collapse. A new house has been built on the site, on which there's now a plaque commemorating Lada. At that time Lada lived in a block of flats in Prague, but he missed his native village, so he had a beautiful villa built there in 1935, which since 1986 houses the Josef Lada museum.

"In 1942 Lada wrote a wonderful book, which was in fact his autobiography, called "The Chronicle of My Life". Unfortunately, Lada stopped writing the book in the year 1942, but it's followed by another book, written by his elder daughter Alena, called "My Dad Josef Lada". Besides many other things related to Lada, we have a few of his personal belongings - his favourite pipes, cards with which he played a popular card game called 'marias' in Czech, and we also have samples of his beautiful hand writing - it's part of a manuscript for his book 'Magpie on a Willow Tree'."

Lada died on December 14, 1957, just three days before his 70th birthday, and he is buried at the Olsany cemetery in Prague. Lada started painting in the style that we know now only later in his life, after 1920, and by then he used several different styles, but there are only three tiny pictures from his early period in the museum. He also painted scene decorations for theatres, the most famous of which were those for Bedrich Smetana's opera 'The Bartered Bride'. When the opera was performed in Amsterdam in 1937, using Lada's decorations, it was conducted by the legendary Czech conductor, Vaclav Talich.

"What we also have here is quite a unique thing - a small picture, the only one preserved, from the time when Josef Lada was a young boy. He was thirteen and painted this postcard, a view of Hrusice, for Miss Katerina Novakova. Katerina went there for her summer holidays, and the young Lada liked her very much. That was in 1900. She kept the picture for her whole life, and when she died, her daughters donated it to our museum. No other works from Lada's earliest period have been preserved, because their house was very damp and nearly all things went destroyed."

The second most famous book of Lada's is for children, and it's called 'Kocour Mikes' or 'Mikes the Tomcat'. The book has been translated into 30 languages and published in many countries around the world. In fact, we can describe Lada as one of those Czechs who made his native country famous abroad, and he is sometimes described as a universal writer. Mikes is even now one of the most popular children's characters, and he is also very popular in a country as far off as Japan, where they know Lada's writings and pictures very well.

But Lada did not only illustrate his own fairy tales. He also illustrated fairy tales of Red Indians, Siberian fairy tales and a children's book written by the Czech 'king of comedians' - Vlasta Burian, who was popular mainly between the wars. Due to alleged collaboration with the Nazis, Burian could not act in films in the 1950s, so he read his own fairy tales on radio as bed-time stories for children. Lada illustrated a book for the first time in 1906, but his pictures were more or less in the Art Nouveau style and resembled the paintings and graphic sheets of Alfons Mucha. In 1957 Lada did his last illustrations for a book of Czech fairy tales by Jan Drda. He himself wrote 13 books both for children and adults.

"Lada always narrated stories about places and people whom he knew, that's why all his narration takes place in and around the village of Hrusice and its real characters. For instance, Mikes did exist - it was a black tomcat belonging to Lada himself - and the 'shoemakers' Pepik' from the same book was no one else but Lada as a little boy, as Pepik is a nickname for Josef. The grandma from the book was in reality Lada's mother: she gave birth to him when she was nearly 44, and so as a, say, ten-year-old boy, Lada saw her as an elderly woman rather than his beloved mum."

Lada could only see in one eye - as a little baby he reportedly fell down from the cradle and jabbed his eye on one of his father's knives. Some critics connect this fact with Lada's special visual perspective, so typical for his pictures. Despite this, he painted around 15,000 pictures and illustrated books by 130 authors. The most famous of them is Jaroslav Hasek's 'Good Soldier Svejk', which has been translated into 47 languages. He also contributed to 81 magazines, six of them foreign ones.

And he also managed to devote much of his leisure time to his daughters, to whom he used to tell stories on which his later books are based, such as 'Mikes the Tomcat" or "Ghosts and water sprites".

"He also had great knowledge in geography and astronomy, and was extremely talented for learning languages - he spoke English, French, German and Hebrew. He is said to have learned Hebrew simply out of curiosity, he was self-taught in it - and the main reason for this was that he longed to read the Old Testament in original."

Lada loved winter, that's why most of his pictures depict winter time, and fewer of them show spring and autumn and the smallest number depict summer. He also loved Christmas, although as he once told a magazine, as a child he never received expensive Christmas gifts.

He confessed that his family's Christmases had always been poor, because they had little money to buy gifts. But he liked their small Christmas tree more than other children loved their larger trees that touched the ceiling. As a deeply religious man, Lada once said that for him Christmas was a real holiday season thanks to its festive atmosphere, the ringing of the bell in the small church in Hrusice, and the sparkling children's eyes which reflected candle light during the Christmas Eve dinner.