Underground and unappreciated

Czech Position

Prague’s metros offer superb public art – if you pause to have a look

Rushing through them daily, most people barely look up, much less pause to admire their surroundings in the Prague metro system. But sitting in plain view are some priceless works of art from the oft overlooked ‘70s and ‘80s.

Sculptor, member of UM! Art group and teacher at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, Pavel Karous has a deep interest in the subject, both above and below ground. He created the website Aliens and Herons to document the still remaining public space art pieces installed under communism. He says, in this regard, today’s government could learn something from their communist predecessors.

“It is easy to see how in the communist era in the ‘70s they were very focused on public space and supported financially the realizations of fine art. There was a state law that said every building built had to give 4 percent of its whole architecture budget to art. This was cancelled in 1990,” Karous told Czech Position. “Of course, the competitions were censored, this was the ugly part, but it is hard to say what was so bad – the competitions were more transparent then today and the people choosing the projects were experts.”

Art all around, for free

There were originally 220 pieces of art in Prague’s metro system, 30-40 which have been removed or somehow obscured since 1989. Karous likes to refer to the metro system as “Prague’s biggest art gallery” and if you keep your eyes peeled you can discover some impressive works.

“In the Karlovo námestí station, the whole architecture of the station is glass bricks, designed by Frantisek Vízner, who was famous in the ‘60s and ‘70s for minimalistic objects from glass that were a balance between design and fine art,” he said. “He died last year, and his work is now a collector’s item, very expensive and we have a metro station covered from top to bottom in his work.”

Another interesting example at this station are the lights in the vestibule entrance by the university. Made by Josef Kochrda, the cylinder shapes give off the effect of a water drop.

“This is an intellectual design, he made many minimalist fine art objects but today you can’t find him anywhere,” Karous said. Another forgotten artist is Benjamin Hejlek, a glass artist whose work can be seen at the Kacerov station. Karous described Hejlek as one who made easy, decorative works for architecture. The glass panes have been specially indented in a spiral shape. “There’s no deep intellectual meaning but just simple decorative art that’s part of the time.”

Kacerov also holds another impressive piece – a wall of sandblasted sandstone by Vladislav Gajda, an artist whom. Karous says was quite high up in the communist hierarchy. “Gajda did lots of Lenins and Gottwalds — he was a powerful official from the Czech Association of Visual Artists, but he was a good sculptor and this is a beautiful piece of work,” he said.

Karous says the supporting walls at the Vyšehrad station by Stanislav Kolíbal are one of the best works of art in the metro. “He was a sculptor and the geometric gesture is comparable to the radical movement in the 60s that was happening all over Europe,” he said. “This is also a good example of an architect and artist working together, the work is done by the architect, the facelift by the sculptor. It’s astonishing to think that in the late ‘60s Prague had a huge concrete realization of this caliber in the city center.”

Karous said no new pieces of art have been installed in Prague’s metros since 1989 and he wishes that if new stations would be built an artist would work with the architect to improve the feeling of the station. He shares the example of what was done in the Malostranská station.

“There they used copies of baroque statues from Matyáš Bernard Braun and installed them into the modern interior of the station,” he said. “It is a great way to connect the modern transport system to the old city. It was genius work by the architect to combine the two.”

Pieces from a bygone time

What’s most interesting are the pieces that are no longer there. In Námestí Míru, there used to be a light installation by glass artist Václav Cigler. It was installed in 1979 and was choreographed to a specific program which scanned the movement of people and then changed the composition of the lights.

“People affecting art – it is very contemporary to do it now, much less in the 70s,” Karous said. “It was removed to make room for shops and it makes me sad that this work is no longer there, it’s something we should be very proud of.”

Another piece by Cigler that Karous mourns the loss of is in Námestí Republiky. There used to be a set of pillars made from glass bricks which gave off a rainbow effect when coming up the escalator. “Palladium bought them when the station was being reconstructed for the mall,” Karous said. “I’m a bit angry – these works were made for the pubic, using their money and now they can’t see them.”

In the Dejvická metro station, which used to be known as Leninova, there was a brass relief head of Lenin looking fierce, which is now covered by a Relay newsagents shop, with copies of Cosmopolitan and Elle probably blocking his view. Looking at pictures of the metro from the ‘80s, you are startled to notice it was clean, there’s no commercialization, advertisements, shops, or graffiti.

“The communist party was using the metro to show the power of socialist technology and art,” Karous said. “While fine art was censored like books or movies, in the public space it was considered art for architecture and not so ideologically controlled. There were many abstract and minimalism concepts, and they were very good because they (government) had money for fine material and to create large projects.”

Dopravní podnik hl. m. Prahy (the Prague transport company) had been interested in working with the UM! art group to categorize what is currently in the metro stations as well as work on new pieces, temporary, site specific works that would, as Mr. Karous describes “connect people, make them comfortable and interested in the space, have playful and interactive installations and to exhibit to the public real contemporary art and create interesting interiors.” Due to changes in DPP’s management the project is currently on hold.

“There are many reasons for public art and why it should be supported,” Karous said. “In Prague we have a tradition of creation between public art, people and architecture all the way back to baroque times. Every day people here going to work can see baroque sculptures from the best European artists. Even under the dictatorship, they followed this tradition, now we are in a situation where this doesn’t exist and no one wants to support it.”