Pick of the Month
In this edition of Pick of the Month: a new book tells the sometimes tragic stories of the original Jewish owners of art works on show at Prague's Museum of Applied Arts; despite various campaigns, racism has still not been eradicated from Czech football terraces; an enfant terrible of the Czech art world discusses his work; and we look at the explosion in beauty contests in this country in recent years.
A new book entitled Navrat pameti (Bringing Back Memory) documents hundreds of pieces of art stolen by the Nazis which are on show at Prague's Museum of Applied Arts, and acquaints us with the often tragic stories of the art's original Jewish owners. In Czech Books, David Vaughan discussed its publication with the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, Tomas Kraus.
"It is the outcome of a joint effort of our federation and the Czech government. In the late 1990s there was an effort internationally, which I think we can say was started here in Prague, to find out what we now call the 'Holocaust assets'. A very important part of these assets is art and art collections. We have established a joint commission, together with the government, and one of the outcomes of the commission is to research the archives, and to research also the museums, because until now we were not quite sure what part of the collections, not just in the Museum of Applied Arts in Prague, but in all museums and galleries around the country, include former Jewish property confiscated during the Nazi time and which in many cases was never returned."
One of the original impulses was the idea of returning property to people who had it confiscated - or to their heirs. In practice that has proved very difficult.
"It is very difficult because the main obstacle is that there are no heirs. It goes hand in hand with legislation adopted by the Czech parliament. The legislation enables the return, but only to those heirs in direct heritage line, which is also a bit of a complication." So that means children and grandchildren.
"Exactly. Another problem is there is a lack of documentation. So even people who might have survived - the second or third generation - who would be able to claim, don't know that they can. So a very important part of this work is to spread about the word of these possibilities."
Unfortunately, the Nazi ideology is not completely consigned to the dustbin of history, and one edition of Panorama in September looked at the problem of neo-Nazi football fans in the Czech Republic (the issue has been in the news recently, after a Sparta Prague player made a Seig Heil gesture to fans during a game). The Czech first division club Most have a number of foreign players; Jan Richter asked their English midfielder Byron Webster, who himself is white, if he had seen evidence of racism.
"No, not me personally but some of the other players must have. When we were warming up in Ostrava and Olomouc, a few of the fans were doing monkey chants and saying racist things. It was not all the fans; it was just a small minority of the fans that were doing the chants."
But it does not stop with monkey chants; some hard-core football hooligans supporting Sparta Prague have on several occasions chanted 'Jude Slavie', labelling their biggest rival, Slavia Prague, Jewish. This made Frantisek Banyai, the head of the Prague Jewish community, and Leo Pavlat, the director of the Prague Jewish Museum, send an open letter to the Sparta management asking them to prevent their fans from doing so. Leo Pavlat explains.
"Before the match against a British club from London, against Arsenal, Sparta fans were warned about manifestations of racism during games. It was said that the authors of such manifestations can be identified and held responsible. After chanting the German word for Jew - Jude - we thought that it would be appropriate to approach Sparta and ask them to fulfill their promises."
All those concerned agree that it is a minority of football fans who cause these kinds of problems. While the number of visitors to football stadiums in the Czech Republic is rising, Marek Suchanek of the Czech Interior Ministry estimates the number of the real hard-liners among football fans to be about two to three hundred. Moreover, Mr. Suchanek claims that the situation has been improving.
"In my opinion, the situation is getting better. There are not as many violent incidents as before, especially in the early 1990s. Several preventive activities have started based on the models from the U.K. and Germany. As far as violence among spectators is concerned, I can generally say that the situation in the Czech Republic is not as bad as in some Eastern European countries or in former Eastern Germany."
The situation might be improving but that does not mean the problem of racism and anti-Semitism should not be addressed, and stopped. In the game between Viktoria Zizkov and Sparta, the main referee interrupted the match in the 13th minute upon hearing Sparta fans shouting 'Jude Slavia' once again. Leo Pavlat says the police should act immediately without any other incentives.
"Look. Chanting 'Jude' is just a manifestation of racism that has nothing to do with Slavia or anybody else. It is a matter of fact that a part of Sparta fans are right-wing extremists who hate Jews; who are anti-Semites, and they show it."
The young Czech artist and curator Krystof Kintera has been compared to Britain's sometimes controversial artist Damien Hirst. Indeed, one of Kintera's sculptures features an electric carving knife "having sex" with a melon. In One on One Coilin O'Connor asked the artist if it meant something, or was it just nonsense?
"Of course it's nonsense, but on the other hand I think good art always has a lot of different layers and levels in terms of how it can be read and understood.
"Naturally I can always try and explain everything by using language. I do that very often but I don't like to do it because it's kind of like giving people a manual for my work.
"People can interpret things without having a manual. Of course with this piece I can say it's about the bizarreness of using household tools. The electric carving knife is already a work of art in itself. It's so bizarre and it's not something you really need. It's just an electric knife.
"I was trying to push this absurdity even further by suggesting that this electric knife was really having wild sex with a water melon."
Who do you sell your art to? Once you sell your art, do you just let it go or are you interested in whom it goes to once it's out of your hands?
"That's a good question. Partly, I'm interested but most of the time I don't know precisely where the piece goes to."
"I'm usually happy when it goes to institutions like museums. In a museum you know a piece will get feedback from a lot of people because it will be exposed to them."
"But sometimes a piece ends up in a private collection and I don't really know if it just becomes a decoration in some living room with a pool table. I haven't any guarantee that the piece is in the sort of context I would like it to be in."
The years since the fall of communism have seen an absolute explosion in beauty pageants here in the Czech Republic, with too many "miss" competitions to count. In Panorama Rosie Johnston investigated the phenomenon, speaking to (among others) the owner of the Miss Czech Republic contest, Miroslav Zapletal.
"Miss competitions aren't too popular in a whole lot of other countries because they have been running for more than 50 years. So they have kind of passed their best there. But 'Miss' competitions were banned here under Communism. We managed to set them up here eventually, and next year, Miss Ceske Republiky will be celebrating its 20th birthday. Maybe for this reason the contest is really very popular here, unlike in Scotland, England, France and Italy."
Tatana Kucharova won this contest back in 2006. She subsequently went on to become Miss World. She disagrees with Miloslav Zapletal, attributing the popularity of such competitions to the reputation they have built up here:
"I think it's because this competition has a really long, long history, this year it will be the 20th Miss Czech Republic. And we have had a few very successful Misses in the past. For example, there was Alena Seredova, she came fourth in Miss World, and Monika Zitkova, she was Miss Europe in 1995. So, that's why I think it is so famous and popular here."
This all sounds very rosy. So, is this really the golden age of the Miss pageant here in the Czech Republic? I asked Miloslav Zapletal:
"Three years ago, we underwent a slight crisis when a rival Miss contest set up in competition. In my opinion, this was a bit of a blow. But in the course of the last couple of years, we have stabilized ourselves a bit. We don't have any problems finding sponsors, we don't have any problems with the staging of the event. So I would say that we are experiencing a second golden age. We are even in talks with the organizers of these international Miss competitions, Miss International, Miss World etc, about staging some of these events here. It's looking promising."