Umělecká zahrada in Nusle: one of Prague’s hidden gems

Umělecká zahrada, photo: archive of Umělecká zahrada

Umělecká Zahrada or the Arts Garden in Prague’s district of Nusle is located at the site of a former sculpting studio established in the 1920s by Karel Novák. Over the thirty years of its existence, some of the country’s most famous statues were created here, including the memorial to Jan Hus on the Old Town Square by Ladislav Šaloun or the statue to the pagan god Radegast in Beskydy by Albín Polášek.

Umělecká zahrada or Arts Garden is a place largely unknown not only to tourists, but also to most Prague locals. It is hidden between Čiklova Street and  railway tracks, right below the Nusle Bridge. The garden is surrounded by full-grown trees and is filled with all sorts of sculptures – from large statues to fountains, street furniture and stone pavilions, overgrown with vegetation. The easiest way to spot it is from the top of the bridge, connecting the city’s districts of Pankrác and Karlov.

Umělecká zahrada,  photo: archive of Umělecká zahrada

The garden is located on the site of a former studio established by the sculptor Karel Novák at the beginning of the 1920s. The studio focused mainly on large scale-statues designed by some of the country’s most renowned sculptors, such as Josef Václav Myslbek, Albín Polášek or Josef Pekárek.

The memorial to Jan Hus on the Old Town Square, the statue to the pagan god Radegast in Beskydy, the Woodrow Wilson monument at Prague’s main train station or the statue of Jan Žižka at the National Memorial at Vítkov Hill – all of these statues were created here over the thirty years of the studio’s existence.

During the communist regime, the studio and the surrounding garden were practically destroyed. Its current owner, Vojtěch Haluza, bought it in the mid-1990s and has since been working on restoring the place to its former glory. I asked him to take me around the Arts Garden and tell me more about its history:

“In 1924, Karel Novák, an established sculptor at the time, was looking for a new space for his studio. He came across this plot, which belonged to the Vyšehrad Chapter, and bought it from them.

“But he didn’t establish an ordinary sculpting studio; he called it a ‘sculpting company’. He surrounded himself with ten or twelve young graduates from the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, and they provided work for some of the country’s best sculptors.”

Umělecká zahrada,  photo: archive of Umělecká zahrada

The studio focused mainly on creating large-scale statues, and was one of the first to use the so-called pantograph – or a pointing machine - for making one-to-one copies of existing sculptures and to reproduce and enlarge models made of plaster in stone or metal.

Vojětch Haluza describes how the huge monument to Jan Hus, which stands in the middle of Old Town Square, was made:

“Ladislav Šaloun created a paper model in real life, over there in the garden. From here the model was moved to the Old Town Square, where it was placed on a special device and moved around the square to find the best location for it. And then it was cast into a form and that was it.”

Karel Novák was not just an artist but also a skilled businessman. His team didn’t include just sculptors but also architects and craftsmen.

Apart from creating large figurative sculptures, his studio also produced a range of other products, including tiles, garden pavilions, fountains, staircases and flower pots, which were showcased in the garden surrounding the studio. Vojětch Haluza again:

Radegast statue in Umělecká zahrada,  photo: archive of Umělecká zahrada

“To speed up the production process, he started making statues not only from marble or metal, but also from artificial stone. As a result, he gained new clients among the growing Czechoslovak middle class.

“These people didn’t have money for marble statues, but they could afford statues made of artificial stone. And many of the new industrialists didn’t order just statues but also various items for their gardens.”

Karel Novák, who himself created mainly decorative sculptures, has also left his mark on many facades of Prague’s houses, explains Mr. Haluza:

“Karel Novák brought art to the facades of Prague houses. There are so many decorations of his, that you don’t even notice when you walk past.

“It is for instance the Art Nouveau Municipal House, the Fanta Café at Prague’s Main Train Station or Invalidovna in Karlín.

“And these facades are one of the things that have attracted tourists to Prague.”

Over the years, Karel Novák’s studio became one of the largest of its kind in Prague. However, its further development was thwarted by the onset of the Communist regime in 1948.

Umělecká zahrada,  photo: archive of Umělecká zahrada

The studio was nationalised and in 1952, it was closed down for good. For several years, it stood empty and many of the statues in the garden were either stolen or destroyed.

“All of the statues that you see around here had their heads chopped off. We had to dig out the fragments from the ground, spread them on the grass and try to put them together again.

“At first, it made me really angry, but then I realised it wasn’t the people’s fault. It happened just a few years after the war and they were fanaticized.”

In 1957, the animated film studio Krátký Film Praha started to use the building as an atelier. It was here where some of the country’s iconic animated series, such as the Potkali se u Kolína by Břetislav Pojar or Jiří Trnka’s Zahrada, were made.

However, after a few years, Krátký Film moved to Barrandov and Karel Novák’s studio was left empty again. The final blow came in the late 1960s during the construction of the Nusle Bridge, when the garden was turned into a construction site.

“It was the worst thing that could have happened. They used the rubble from the apartment houses that were knocked down to cover the remaining statues.

“Some of the statues that stood in their way were thrown into the concrete foundations of the bridge construction. So the garden was totally destroyed and when I saw it I thought - This can never be put together again!”

After the Velvet Revolution, the studio and the garden returned to the family of Karel Novák and they sold it Vojtěch Haluza. Mr Haluza, who owned a building company, was working on the reconstruction of the nearby Fidlovačka Theatre and wanted to turn the site into a parking lot.

But his friends realised its potential and persuaded him to preserve the garden and restore it to its former glory.

“It was in a terrible state. But I had the support of other people, professor Kuča and also Karel Novák’s daughter, who was 85 at the time and who brought me pictures of her father’s plans for this place, that had never been carried out.

“At the time, my company was doing really well, so we spent about a year or two here, doing the necessary construction work, I then I cooperated with several sculptors on renovating all the objects that you can see here.”

Over the years Vojětch Haluza has spent more than 20 million crowns on restoring the studio and the garden to its former glory. He also has plans to build a hotel at the back of the garden, but so far hasn’t received the necessary building permissions.

In the meantime, he continues to look after the place and research more information about the people who used to work here. Although the Arts Garden is not officially open to the public, Mr Haluza welcomes any visitors who call him and arrange a visit over the phone.