Sculptures of the late president Václav Havel arouse controversy

Photo: CTK

As Czechs prepare to mark the second anniversary of the death of ex-president Václav Havel, an exhibition has opened at the Czech Academy of Sciences reflecting an age-old dilemma – how best to portray the nation’s heroes.

Photo: CTK
Tributes to the former Czech president can be found in many parts of the country ; schools and streets have been re-named after him and busts have been unveiled both at home and abroad. The exhibition of Havel busts put on display at the Academy of Sciences was intended both as a tribute to the late president but also as a protest against the artistic quality of those displayed elsewhere, most recently a controversial bust of Vaclav Havel unveiled at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. The Association of Czech and Moravian Sculptors which organized the exhibition called on artists to produce a sculpture of Vaclav Havel which would best capture the late president’s personality.

Twenty-seven artists took part, producing 34 busts, most showing the president in his later years, but some depicting a young or “Cubist” Havel. A jury of sculptors, art historians and the late president’s friends picked the best four. One of the winners, Marie Seborova, said the responsibility of sculpting the legendary hero of the Velvet Revolution had been awesome.

“The burden of responsibility was huge, I would say it was even constraining in a way. Because we all admire the late president so much and you want to capture the essence of the man. It took me three months to make up my mind whether to take part in the competition because it was such a huge challenge. That made it so much harder.”

Photo: CTK
Marie Seborova’s nervousness in tackling such a task is not just based on her own measure of respect for the late president. Czechs have always been quick to criticize sculptures of the nation’s heroes. An equestrian statue of president Masaryk has come under fire because the president – known to have been a first class horseman - appeared to be “slouching”on his horse, and a statue of him in Karlovy Vary has been ridiculed because it allegedly bears a striking resemblance to Lenin. The statue of the late Vaclav Havel by the Czech-American sculptor Lubomír Janeček which was unveiled at the Council of Europe won general acclaim there, but was vehemently criticized in the Czech Republic by the Association of Czech and Moravian Sculptors as shoddy and third-rate.

In a debate on Czech television, the rector of the Prague Academy of Arts Jiří Kotalík, was one of the few Czech experts to come out in the author’s defense.

“From a sculptor’s point of view there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Whether someone likes it or doesn’t like it is immaterial. It depends on who commissioned the work and what they asked for. Everyone will find their Vaclav Havel in this work, everyone sees the late president through their own eyes.”

However not everyone is so tolerant of works depicting the late Mr. Havel who alone commanded the kind of respect reserved for the founder of Czechoslovakia and the country’s first president Tomas G. Masaryk. A fund-raiser for another Havel statue – by student Barbora Daušova – has already raised hackles. Sculptor Jaroslav Rona says the late president deserves greater respect.

Barbora Daušová,  photo: Czech Television
“A sculpture depicting a personality who is so important for the Czech nation should not be made in this obscure way, by some student. This is a matter for public dialogue.”

The organizers of the exhibition at the Prague Academy of Arts are also hoping to spark a debate on the subject and show how things could be done – with a public exhibition of proposed models which could be rated by both the public and experts. Sculptor Marie Seborova agrees.

“I think that this exhibition is extremely useful as a means of pointing the way how things could work in the case of important commissions of this kind.”

Vaclav Havel it seems has become national property and people often find it hard to agree on the best tribute to his legacy. When Prague’s international airport was named after him there were those quick to point out that Mr. Havel hated flying and maybe a think tank would be more suitable. Paradoxically, according to his close friends, the hero of the Velvet Revolution died feeling that people had forgotten him and were increasingly critical to his legacy. The outpouring of public grief at the news of his death marked a radical change. Vaclav Havel was recognized as one of the nation’s true greats –a symbol of freedom and democracy and possibly the second and last Czech president to be perceived as a legend. Jan Hartl, the head of the STEM polling agency confirms that Vaclav Havel has a very special place in Czech history.

Photo: CTK
“Vaclav Havel now seems to be the second, untouchable legend after president T. G. Masaryk.”

Do you think that Czechs still need heroes?

“Obviously. I do not know whether I would use the term “hero” but they need positive examples and as Czechs are generally disenchanted by politics and the way public administration is run in the country they seek strong, positive examples and presidents are prominent figures in our public life.”

We do not seem to have many strong positive examples today – is that why people are harking back to the days of Masaryk and Havel?

“That’s it, exactly.”

As people argue over which bust is the "real" Vaclav Havel, it would be interesting to see what the late president himself would have had to say about the ongoing “bust” controversy. Close friend and photographer Alan Pajer says he knows exactly what his reaction would have been.

“One day we were having a picnic in Central Park when Vaclav Havel came upon the discarded base of a statue. He immediately jumped on it and made a funny pose asking me to snap a photo with a message for posterity – please don’t build me any statues –this is how awful they would look.”