The city of Prague is famous for elegant architecture, historic churches and castles, Charles Bridge and, of course, beer. The city is also dotted with fun, quirky, challenging and just plain weird sculptures and statues that are a delight. We tracked down several, presented here, and look forward to finding more on our next visit (whenever that may be).
Perhaps one of the best known is the 11 metre high rotating kinetic sculpture with 42 discs depicting the head of Franz Kafka, the Czech Republic’s most famous author. Inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the sculpture is by David Černý, a somewhat controversial but obviously talented modern Czech sculptor. Unveiled in 2014, this massive head is in constant motion, distorting and then realigning into a recognizable form. Mesmerising. This video is about 6 times actual speed. Worth a detour – here is the location.
Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883 – June 3, 1924) was a German Jewish writer who was born in Prague. Author of many works, including Metamorphosis and The Trial, he was one of the most significant writers of the 20th century, but it took until 2004 for a monument to be erected in his honour in the city of his birth. This eccentric statue is by Jaroslav Rona, Czech sculptor, painter, actor, educator, and writer. It depicts a scene from an early Kafka short story, “Description of a Struggle”. “And now – with a flourish, as though it were not the first time – I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot. But since he stumped forward rather reluctantly and sometimes even stopped, I kicked him in the belly several times with my boots, to make him more lively. It worked and we came fast enough into the interior of a vast but as yet unfinished landscape.” This sculpture is in Prague’s Jewish quarter, next to the Spanish Synagogue – very close where Kafka grew up.
Another Jaroslav Rona sculpture we spotted was “Sitting Devil”. He was sitting in Prague’s Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square), seemingly as oblivious to the many passers-by as they were to him. He was actually just outside the Narodni Gallery, so may have been part of an exhibition and not a permanent fixture (although he is currently visible on google street view). Check him out here.
Man Hanging Out
Černý sculptures can be found all over Prague. We tried to seek out as many as we could in the limited time we had. This one proved the most difficult to find, but it turned out to be just around the corner from our hotel. (You’ll find it here). Called “Man Hanging Out” it is a sculpture of Sigmund Freud, hanging high above a narrow cobblestoned lane in the historic centre of Prague. From a distance it looks so life-like that apparently many people have called the police, thinking it was a suicidal man. It possibly represents Freud’s fear of death, or perhaps Černý’s fear of the death of intellectualism. It is in fact 7 feet tall, and is suspended so that it swings in the breeze slightly.
The statue of King Wenceslas riding an upside-down, probably dead horse is one of Černý’s more controversial pieces. It is somewhat hidden within the Art Nouveau Lucerna Palace. The artist himself has declined to comment on its meaning, leaving plenty to speculate. It certainly is a mocking reference to the more familiar statue of Prague’s beloved patron saint in Wenceslas Square. Is it also an attack on the Czech president? An irreverent comment on hero worship? Perhaps it is simply an absurdist work. I’ll leave the conclusion up to you.
Crawling Babies sculpture
Ten enormous crawling babies (by David Černý again) decorated a particularly ugly communist era TV tower in Prague. At the time of our visit they had been removed for restoration, but we did get to see 3 bronze versions on Kampa Island. From a distance they look like cute babies, but you do come to expect surprises from Černý – these babies “faces” are a mechanical looking slot, which is quite disturbing, if enigmatic.
Peeing Men statues
The last Černý work on this list is the most amusing/shocking/offensive/creative/irreverent (choose your own adjective) of the sculptures we saw. Known as “Peeing Men” it consists of two animated figurines urinating onto a pool which is the shape of the Czech Republic. The symbolism is fairly obvious. Their pee spells out words in the water, and originally you could SMS a word or phrase and they would spell it for you. Sadly that doesn’t seem to be working any more, but the entertainment value is still high. It is in the forecourt of the Kafka Museum.
Memorial to the Victims of Communism
From the ridiculous to the sublime. This work is one of the most moving sculptures I have seen anywhere in the world.Unveiled in 2002 (12 years after the fall of communism in the Czech Republic), it depicts 7 men walking down a flight of stairs, the bodies progressively more broken and damaged so that they seem to be fading into the surrounding hillside. A bronze strip running through the centre of the memorial recounts the horrifying statistics:
- 205,486 arrested
- 170,938 forced into exile
- 4,500 died in prison
- 327 shot trying to escape
- 248 executed
This memorial is a bit off the beaten track, at the base of Petrin Hill, in Malá Strana, but worth the trip.
Tip of the iceberg
Here are some more public sculptures that we came across. If you are visiting Prague, keep your eyes open and be ready to be inspired, amused, shocked and sometimes all in the same moment. I haven’t touched on major works like the many sculptures on Charles Bridge, the Jan Hus Memorial. Those will have to keep for another post.