Sculptor Jaroslav Róna on Kafka, America, and life in Prague

Jaroslav Róna with the Franz Kafka Monument, photo: CTK

In this week’s edition of One on One we talk to the artist, sculptor, painter, musician and actor Jaroslav Róna. In the 1980s, he was one of the founders of the art group Tvrdohlaví, or The Stubborn but today, he is perhaps best known as the author of the Franz Kafka Monument in Prague’s Old Town. I talked to Jaroslav Róna in his studio and asked him was why he decided to base the highly acclaimed Kafka memorial on his short story, Description of One Struggle.

Jaroslav Róna with the Franz Kafka Monument,  photo: CTK
I got this idea when I started thinking about the monument. I was thinking about it for months, and I studied a lot of materials about Kafka’s life and his own works, but it was very difficult to find something that would be relevant to this object. But then I got some sort of a message when I was reading this novel, Description of One Struggle. At that moment, I realized that I had to create two bodies and I was looking for a comic situation, and that came from the novel because it has a figure with another person on his shoulders.”

Some of the reviews said that the monument is in fact optimistic, because the figure of Franz Kafka, sitting on the shoulders of another man, is in charge. Is this a contrast to your other pieces that are often described as pessimistic or dark?

“I don’t think it’s so optimistic because the figure is a little terrible; it’s a monster. On the one hand, the figure can represent something optimistic but on the other, it’s a power that could be evil. And you don’t know exactly in which situation Kafka is there.”

The Prague memorial was not your first work relating to Franz Kafka. In 1994, you were the art designer of the Czech film Amerika, based on his novel. Where did you seek inspiration for this work?

That was very nice work for me because Kafka had never been to the United States, to America, so I could think about what he would imagine New York to be like. So I though of someone who spent his life in Prague, so his ideas of New York are that it’s like Prague but much higher. That’s why I made some sort of Prague or Viennese palaces, but much higher and of a bigger size, and I think I discovered some very special, dreamy imagination.”

In the mid 1980s, you actually went to America twice. You spent some time at the Pilchuck glass school near Seattle. Coming from a communist country, what did you think of the United States?

The Stubborn,  photo: CTK
“It was like a dream for me because I had never thought I would go to America in my life. My professor, Mr Libenský, he took me there as an assistant, and when I came to America, the dream was fulfilled. The most important thing for me was the atmosphere and the big proportions everywhere. When I was in open countryside, the biggest surprise was that the horizon was so low. In Europe, we are not used to this kind of horizon. That was the biggest surprise.”

Did you ever think of staying there?

“Yes, I was thinking of staying there. I got some offers from my American friends to stay, and I had an offer from a very good gallery in New York for cooperation. But I had family here, and I wasn’t under such great pressure here in the totalitarian state. I am also a big patriot, I love Prague, and just like Kafka, I couldn’t spend a long time away from Prague.”

In 1987, you were one of the founders of the art group Stubborn which became one of the most significant associations of Prague artists of your generation. What did you have in common?

“I think that what we had in common was that we were part of the same generation; we knew each other, and we had the same attitude to the totalitarian government. With our art, we wanted to protest against the situation on the Prague arts scene.”

There is a Czech film by Jan Hřebejk, called Pupendo, which is set in 1980s Prague. It features a sculptor who is discriminated against by the authorities. Did you see the film, and what do you think of the way it shows the life of an artist at that time?

“The message of this film is a little shifted because the situation was different. At that time, the society was sharply divided; one part supported the regime and the other was against it. There were various degrees of how much people opposed the regime; there was sort of a “soft” and “hard” underground; but there were really only two groups. This character in the movie was somehow in between these two positions, and that was not very realistic.”

You have created a number of statues and memorials for public spaces in Prague and elsewhere. What do you think of the quality of contemporary Czech public sculpture?

“I think that the quality of contemporary Czech sculpture is on average not worse than in Western Europe but it’s true that what we miss are some top quality pieces. But I believe that we need some 20 years and the people who work in public spaces will find the courage to make bigger objects, with a stronger impact. Money is also very important here. If you are creating for public spaces, you really need big support from public funds and from official structures. But these official structures are not yet sophisticated enough to provide such help.”

People in Prague as well as visitors to the capital have a chance to see your work at the Guttmann Gallery until May 10. What kind of exhibition is it?

“It’s a smaller collection; it’s a selection from my latest works. There are 14 bigger paintings, three sculptures and about 20 drawings, and this is a collection from my period I would call “lost towns” or “lost civilizations. It’s a very special connection and I would really like people to go see it. I am also working on many new things; I am preparing the unveiling of a big statue in Bratislava, Slovakia. It’s a big bronze piece near the Danube. Then I will have an exhibition of paintings in Prague in December, and next year in May at the Czech Centre in New York.”