Satirist, illustrator and landscape painter Josef Lada subject of major retrospective

Josef Lada, photo: CTK

Josef Lada’s paintings have reached iconic status here in the Czech Republic, and you may be familiar with them too, without even knowing it. Lada was the illustrator who gave the smiling, rotund, Good Soldier Svejk his form. In the course of his career, he illustrated over 200 books - some, fairytale anthologies for children, others, like Svejk, intended for grown ups. Now Josef Lada is the subject of a major new retrospective in Prague.

But Lada never planned to be an illustrator, nor did he end up devoting himself to illustrating books alone. Josef Lada trained to be a house painter in Central Bohemia before chucking it in and coming to Prague. He found work as a cartoonist for several newspapers and became famous for his landscapes and village paintings which ended up in private collections – and are now found on the front of lots of Czech Christmas cards.

On the 120th anniversary of his birth, and the 50th anniversary of his death, a major retrospective has got underway at Prague’s Obecni Dum. Its organizer, Jan Trestik gave me a tour:

“Josef Lada is known as a painter who had a very specific style. And we want to show through this exhibition, that he was also very developed in other styles. He did caricatures, cartoons, advertisements, sketches for certain magazines and books, and famous illustrations for children’s fairytales. So we wanted to show Josef Lada’s range. And he was a really good painter, you know, even when he tries his hand at a different style, the work is of a really high quality.”

You said there that Josef Lada has a very characteristic style – that there is one style that people see and think ‘oh, that’s by Josef Lada’ – so, how would you describe that style to people who hadn’t seen his pictures before?

“Oh, that’s a very difficult question, because he has such a very specific style. On the first viewing, his work looks very naïve, very childish, which is true, to an extent. But if you look at his work more deeply, you see that there is more to it than that. Also, if you compare the different things that he painted, you see that he was able to paint really well. Because some people think that he isn’t a very good painter, but they like his style nonetheless. But I think he chose his style deliberately, and his style was something he settled on in the end.”

We’re standing in front of a wall of Lada’s political, satirical works. They’re not particularly Czech, some of them are about the run-up to World War I for example. So can you maybe talk me through what we’ve got in front of us? Maybe choose one which is your favourite?

“They are all very good, and very funny and sarcastic. I like for instance this ‘Evropa’ or Europe one. It is very universal and everyone will understand the metaphor. If you also look at the title ‘Europe is drowning’ then that’s another clue. It is very characteristic in the way that it is drawn.”

So it’s quite a simple idea, Europe is depicted as being a boat, and I can see there is a nice Scottish man in his national dress, and then we have someone who is identifiably Russian.

“And there’s a Frenchman.”

Then there’s maybe Kaiser Wilhelm and a Spaniard all sitting on the boat. But what’s happening there?

“This could be maybe a Turkish or a Bosnian man [going overboard]. Because in the year that this was painted, 1912, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was still very significant.”

Josef Lada,  photo: CTK
“These are from before the First World War, but he also drew some very strong and very sarcastic anti-communist cartoons after the Second World War.”

The next thing that you notice upon entering this room is the sheer number of pictures that are hanging here, and this is only one of two rooms, and this is only some of Lada’s work. He was extraordinarily prolific. Was he a workaholic? How much did he produce, and how did he produce so much?

“I don’t know if workaholic is the right word, but he sure was productive. He really painted many, many pictures, at least a couple of thousand pictures. He definitely liked his work. He worked for several newspapers, he did many drawings and sketches for magazines, he did these cartoons, he did also paintings for his own collection, he illustrated books. So all sorts of different, but connected things.”

This whole exhibition is taking place in a very grand, very big space, and even at this time of night – it’s half past six in the evening – there are families here with children, all sorts of people here. Josef Lada has been popular in this country for the last fifty, sixty, seventy years. Why do you think that Czechs like him so much?

“He is so popular because everybody understands his visual style. It’s clear to everyone. You see these illustrations for example, children like them, parents like them, everybody likes them. So you can attribute it to his simple visual style, because there is no abstractionism, no expressionism, and no cubism. So this could be one explanation.”

In many ways though, the simplicity of his work reflects the artistic trends of that time. So maybe we could have a look at these paintings you have put here, which are by other painters, Lada’s contemporaries. I was wondering if you could tell me the ways in which they were influenced by him, he was influenced by them, and the aspects of modern art which come into Lada’s paintings?

“I’ll tell you something that came into my head when you asked me this question. One of my friends, who is a really, really famous contemporary artist, Jiri Dokoupil, a Czech artist who is living abroad, not in Prague - he came to this show. And I was surprised because he is contemporary, he paints completely different things. And I was really surprised that he came from Brazil, because he is living in Brazil, and Madrid. He told me ‘you know what, Jan, I was influenced in my work very much by three, four, five artists, and one of them was Lada’. Beside painters like Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Gerhart Richter, he mentioned Lada. And it was something I couldn’t understand.”

“He compared for instance the famous Svejk – one of the famous drawings of Svejk - to the Mona Lisa. He said ‘I know it is different, but it is the same phenomenon as the Mona Lisa – Svejk is a phenomenon for the Czech nation’.”

The exhibition ‘Josef Lada: 1887 – 1957’ is on until February 3 2008 at Prague’s Obecni dum. More information can be found on the website