New exhibit at Café Slavia captures four decades in the life of the great Czech actor Jan Werich

Jan Werich

A new photo exhibition at Prague’s Café Slavia depicts four decades in the life of the great Czech actor, playwright, and comic Jan Werich. The exhibit, entitled “Jan Werich and Friends” opened on Tuesday, and features photos from private collections that have taken years to put together.

For more than 130 years, Café Slavia at Prague’s Národní třída has been a favourite meeting place for writers, actors and intellectuals – but rarely a venue for exhibitions.

Now, the Art Deco café hosts a photo display that captures the life of one of its frequent visitors – the avant-garde theatrical pioneer, great actor and writer, and one of the most popular Czech comedians, Jan Werich.

The exhibition features some 60 photos, some of which are on display for the first time. The shots span the period of Jan Werich’s exile in the United States and the final years of his life, up until his death in 1980. Tomáš Šindelář is one the organizers from the L´Atelier Arte agency.

“These photos come from private collections and from individual collectors, friends and colleagues of Jan Werich. So the impression you get from them is more private and intimate, and certainly not very official. I think this is the most important aspect of this show.”

Jan Werich’s rise to stardom began in the 1920s in the cutting-edge theatre group, Osvobozené divadlo, where he appeared together with his partner, Jiří Voskovec. They fled the country to escape Nazi persecution, and spent the Second World War in the US, a time captured in some of the photos.

After the end of the war, Jan Werich returned to Prague and resumed his career on stage and in film. Jiří Voskovec, however, only came back briefly before he fled the communist dictatorship, and settled in New York for good. One of the rare photos from this period shows an encounter of the two old friends that took place in Vienna in 1974.

The organizers originally wanted to display the photo collection at a new Jan Werich museum that was to have been established in his home on Kampa Island across the river. But the museum never opened, and Tomáš Šindelář says Café Slavia was an obvious second choice.

Café Slavia
“Café Slavia was the ultimate choice for several reasons. This was one of the places here in Prague where Werich spent quite a lot of time, and held many private and work debates, talks and chats. Also, this is one of the few places in the capital that still retain the atmosphere, the feel of the old days when Werich actually came here.”

February 6 will mark the 106th anniversary of Jan Werich’s birth; the occasion is also commemorated by an exhibition of his theatrical and film costumes at the nearby Café Patio.