My Prague – Eugen Kukla

Eugen Kukla on a rowboat on the Vltava, photo: Ian Willoughby

Born in Prague and living in the downtown area, photographer Eugen Kukla is highly knowledgeable about the history of his native city. Taking time out from preparing for an exhibition of his work that starts at Velryba café next week, he suggests we begin our tour of “his Prague” at the spot on Old Town Square where a Baroque Marian column stood for over 250 years. A member of an association pushing to have it rebuilt, Kukla explains how the monument was toppled in November 1918, shortly after the foundation of Czechoslovakia.

Old Town Square with Marian column

“It was destroyed by a rabble led by the anarchist František Sauer, who in collaboration with Žižkov district firefighters managed to tear it down. It was done in a kind of revolutionary euphoria.”

They regarded the Marian column that stood here as a symbol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?

“Yes, to some extent some people understood it as a symbol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, the column was erected as an expression of gratitude for the successful defence of Prague in 1648, when Prague managed to fight off the Swedish army. It had been in grave danger of being totally destroyed at that time.”

And you’re part of a group lobbying to have the Marian column rebuilt at the exact same spot where it stood for all those years?

“Yes, that’s true. Except for four angels, all the work is done, we have all the elements ready. That includes the Virgin Mary, which we can see at the southern part of Týn church [where, surrounded by bouquets of flowers, it is on a temporary metal plinth].

The top part of the proposed Marian column already exists and currently stands around the corner from Old Town Square,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“But the most difficult part is to convince the authorities – and sometimes it seems even part of the general public – that it would be a really good thing to have it back here.”

Some people might say it’s a pity that the Marian column was knocked down – but what’s the point, all these years later, of creating a replica of the Baroque column?

“Because we simply have enough historical evidence, fragments, thousands of photographs, giving us the chance to come with a very well done art replica.

“By the way, most of the statues on Charles Bridge are also replicas. Also bringing the column back here would be an excellent starting point for the general recovery of Old Town Square.

“People come here and admire it a lot, but very few know that what we have here is an open wound. Because over there, by the Old Town Hall, the whole block has been missing since World War II. We also don’t have the Krocín fountain – it was also torn down. The Krenn House, just next to the Church of St. Nicholas [is also gone].

The spot where the original Marian column stood,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“By the way, the St. Nicholas Church was conceived to be a monumental, Roman-style church with a piazzetto in front, amplifying the monumental look. It was not supposed to be visible like this [from around the square].

“So the square is actually not finished. For me it’s an open wound and the column was a centre-point of all this.

“Bringing the column back here would also allow us to think properly about what to do with the missing part of the Town Hall, etcetera. I think [the column] is a centre of gravity and the centre of gravity is missing now.”

Our tour of “Eugen Kukla’s Prague” takes place on a lovely sunny afternoon, so I very much welcome his suggestion that we hire a rowing boat from the island Slovanský ostrov and spend an hour mucking about on his beloved Vltava.

“The Vltava is the main vein of Bohemia. I cannot imagine my country without the Vltava. I love it on all its long way from Böhmerwald, the Šumava, to the confluence with the Elbe.

“Actually, if history was fair the Elbe wouldn’t be called the Elbe after meeting the Vltava but the Vltava would continue to Dresden and Hamburg – because it’s far bigger than the Elbe.

“But that doesn’t matter. It’s a beautiful river. It’s the river of my childhood, because my parents’ summer house is close to Slapy [dam]. My family roots go back to South Bohemia and also to the Vltava river valley. So when I’m on the Vltava I feel at home.

Eugen Kukla on a rowboat on the Vltava,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“The Vltava is actually getting better and better…”

It’s cleaner now, right?

“It’s cleaner. It’s absolutely OK to bathe here now. You can see a lot of fish.”

In the 1990s, say, nobody would have swum in the Vltava in Prague, but now people do.

“People do – on a more and more frequent basis. Not only in let’s say the outer parts of Prague but also here. On Střelecký ostrov [island] you can see many people swimming in the summer. It has become quite normal.”

Right now, we’re by Žofín [palace on Slovanský ostrov], maybe 100 metres from Střelecký ostrov, and near [riverside gallery] Mánes.

“Yes. And over there we see the Milunic and Gehry’s beautiful Dancing House, a monument of modern Prague architecture. The house of Václav Havel, just next to it.

“Also this is a great place when it’s humid in Prague and you need air conditioning – the best thing to do is to hop on a rowing boat and you have air conditioning of the best quality here [laughs].”

Also generally speaking this time – the end of May and the beginning of June – is for me by far the best time to be in Prague.

“Absolutely. Also the light conditions are excellent for taking photos. In July and August it’s not as good as now – we have to wait until September to have that light again. I love the light – it’s that kind of light that I remember from California. It’s really nice.”

One nice aspect of Prague is the several islands that are in city. Some have improved in recent years, such as Střelecký ostrov, which has been remodeled wonderfully, I think.

Vltava | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“I think so too. And every island has its own history. There used to be far more islands than now. Unfortunately, many of them disappeared, especially in the Karlín area, even though the new restoration project counts with the reconstruction of some original channels.

“This Střelecký Island was ‘Shooter’s Island’. It was a place where people trained with bows for centuries – nobody was in danger when people were shooting here.

“Over there the smaller one is Dětský [Children’s] or Jewish Island, close to Smíchov.

“In that direction [south] we would find another island close to Vyšehrad called Císařská louka [The Imperial Meadow].

“In the opposite direction is Štvanice or Hunting Island, with a beautiful old electric power station from 1913 that you sometimes have a chance to get into and see the beautiful facility inside.”

Eugen Kukla at his home away from home,  the Konvikt pub,  photo: Ian Willoughby

After a little exertion on the Vltava, it’s time for a late afternoon pivo at the pub Konvikt, Kukla’s home away from home. I actually first met the photographer at the štamgasts’ or regulars’ table where he and his friends hold court – and from where he frequently posts black and white pictures popular with his thousands of Facebook followers.

“Konvikt, with a little bit of exaggeration, is one of my main working places. It’s a place for me to meet other people, edit photographs, plan, discuss politics or just be silent with my friends.

“It’s a highly inspirational place with good beer and a place where we have our own stammtisch regular’s table. We are quite a motley crew from various professions, but I would say with a large share of journalists, all kinds of media people, musicians and artists of all kinds.”

I know you have regular friends and acquaintances that you meet here. But you also, at least going by your Facebook posts, meet a lot of random people here, it seems.

“Sometimes incredibly interesting random people, like a guy who was coming here and sitting silently and sipping wine, though it’s a pub. And eventually it turned out it was John Hurt, the actor from David Lynch’s The Elephant Man.

John Hurt at Konvikt,  photo: Eugen Kukla

“We had the son of Natalya Gorbanevskaya [her picture is on the wall in Konvikt], who was one of the heroes who in 1968 protested in Red Square in Moscow against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. We had a great time with him. Or Mr. Viktor Feinberg, who was an actual participant in that event in Moscow in 1968.

“Various people come here and they’re always very much invited to our table – and we feel privileged to enjoy such great meetings.”

What in particular do you like about Konvikt? What makes it special for you?

“The people. The people who come here. The good beer. And also I like the paradoxes. We are in the main Prague police street, Bartolomějská, and most of the buildings are police buildings.

“At the same time, we are on the premises of a former monastery. It was a college for students. Not only priests but students lived here. They had a dormitory.

“You have a church which is almost invisible, but there is a church. You have the Institute of Criminology, where they have dead bodies, the bodies of murdered people [Kukla points out windows in the morgue illuminated at night by a blue light].

“There’s a kind of bizarre mix of things going on here. I like it a lot.”

Sign fixed to the štamgasts' table at Konvikt,  photo: Ian Willoughby

I know you’re here very often, but what other pubs in Prague would you recommend or do you particularly like?

“It’s a matter of taste and of your expectations. Certainly I would not omit The Golden Tiger [U Zlatého tygra] for sure.

“Or U Pinkasů, especially the garden, the beer garden, which is just next to a huge Gothic church. It’s a pub with verticality. I love it a lot – it’s unbelievable.”