Prague uncovered: 15 modern sculptures that help make Prague a 21st century city

After a somewhat artless decade in the 1990s, modern sculpture in public spaces took off in the 2000s.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston
Published on 24.11.2020 12:22 (updated on 24.11.2020)

Public art that pushes boundaries is fairly new to Prague. Up until the middle of the 20th century art in public was a serious affair, dominated by unsmiling depictions of religious figures or politicians.

From the 1950s to the end of 1989 public art was a required part of every building project. Many of these were abstract, to avoid any hint of reactionary politics, or tributes to the socialist ideals of work and family. Some of these depictions of athletes and playing children took on a whimsical tone, and their abstract nature often challenged the viewer to search for meaning.

But after 1989, interest in public art came to a sudden halt for about a decade. The law no longer required it for public works, and private developers of housing and office projects were more interested in maximizing rentable floor space than creating beauty.

Around 2000, public began to enter the landscape once again with David Černý’s Horse (1999) in Lucerna Passage and Babies (2000) at the Žižkov Television Tower, and Jaroslav Róna’s Memorial to Franz Kafka (2003) at the intersection of Dušní and Vězeňská streets.

We’ve rounded up 15 works of 21st century art that go beyond the usual suspects (each artist can only appear once, as Černý and Róna might otherwise take up the whole list).

1. Memorial for the Victims of Communism (2002)

Memorial for the Victims of Communism
Memorial for the Victims of Communism by Olbram Zoubek. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

At Újezd at the foot of Petřín Hill one can find a monument by sculptor Olbram Zoubek in cooperation with the architects Zdeněk Hölzel and Jan Kerel. They made the eerie Memorial for the Victims of Communism monument, unveiled in 2002. Six broken figures look hauntingly out from steps. The monument is in memory of those show suffered under totalitarianism from 1948 to ’89.

Zoubek’s other work tends to feature thin women draped 1920s-style flapper dresses. Some of these can be seen in the reliefs at the entry to the office building at Spálená 51, near the Národní třída metro stop.

Zoubek is known for making the plaque of Jan Palach at the side of Philosophical Faculty of Charles University. It is based on a death mask that Zoubek also make.

2. Czech Musicians (2002)

Czech Musicians by Anna Chromý.
Czech Musicians by Anna Chromý. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

Blindfolded musicians in medieval garb prance carefree around a fountain at Senovážné náměstí. The figures by Anna Chromý were installed in 2002. She also made Il Commendatore, the ghostly figure in front of the Estates Theater. It is one of several takes on the theme of an empty cloak, some large enough to walk inside.

Chromý was born in South Bohemia, but moved to Austria with her family in childhood and them later relocated to France. In Paris she became friends with surrealist Salvador Dalí, who became an influence on her work. Chromý changed from painting to sculpture in 1990.

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3. Statue of Jaroslav Hašek (2005)

Statue of Jaroslav Hašek
Statue of Jaroslav Hašek by Karel Nepraš. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

Looking as if it was made of spare parts, the whimsical equestrian statue of Jaroslav Hašek sits on Prokopovo náměstí in Prague’s Žižkov district. It is near where Hašek lived while writing his famous novel The Good Soldier Švejk (Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války).

The work by Karel Nepraš, who died in 2002, was completed by his daughter, Karolína Neprašová.

In the 1960s Nepraš was part of the Křížovnik School of Clean Humor Without a Joke, which met at the pub U Křižovníků. After 1990, he taught at Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. He is also responsible for the blue bollards with metal faces on the upper part of Malostranské náměstí.

4. Freedom Monument (2009)

Monument of Freedom by Josef Vajce.
Monument of Freedom by Josef Vajce. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

On the 91st anniversary of the establishment of the First Republic of Czechoslovakia, the local authorities in Prague 11 decided to make a Freedom Monument (Památník svobody), sometimes translated as Statue of Liberty, It is in a corner of the sprawling park surrounding Chodov tvrz.

The forlorn work resembles a robotic arm with an axe blade, all made out of white stone. Its style hearkens back to the legally required public art of the 1980s, and there is a reason for that. Sculptor Josef Vajce made several abstract geometrical pieces in that era.

He also is the author of much more successful figurative works such the 1984 statue of astronomers Brahe and Kepler at the Pohořelec tram stop. His 2000 statue of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk at Hradčanské náměstí is the basis for others in Mexico, Ukraine and Slovakia.

5. Untitled a.k.a. Swimmers (2011)

Untitled by Zdeněk Ruffer.
Untitled by Zdeněk Ruffer. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

Futurama Business Park, near Invalidovna in Karlín, has several very shallow rectangular concrete pools, which were added late in the planning phase to make the complex less austere. Sculptures of swimmers as well as some birds and two hippos, all by Zdeněk Ruffer, were eventually included as well to create the illusion of relaxation. Two large concrete upholstered chairs, not meant to actually be sat in, are in the middle.The untitled work is often called Swimmers by people posting images on social media.

Ruffer’s other works include a monument to aviator and World War II hero František Fajtl in Prague 6. A silhouette of a plane was planted in contrasting grass on a slope in 2017. The grass, though, was not maintained and there is little left to see except a plaque in the pavement.

6. Slight Uncertainty (2013)

Slight Uncertainty by Michal Trpák. (photo: Raymond Johnston)
Slight Uncertainty by Michal Trpák. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

Czech artist and sculptor Michal Trpák has made several pieces around Mosaic House, just south of Karlovo náměstí. Slight Uncertainty has two people floating in the air, seemingly drifting down slowly using umbrellas for parachutes.

They are often mistake for works by David Černý, who made a figure of a man holding onto a plank suspended over above Husova Street next to Betlémské náměstí.

Trpák also designed the oversized mushrooms in front of Mosaic House. He was one of the founders of the annual Sculpture Line festival, which brings temporary installations to Prague and other Czech cities.

7. Garden Butterfly (2014)

Garden Butterfly by Romero Britto.
Garden Butterfly by Romero Britto. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

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Brazilian pop artist Romero Britto made a particularly colorful sculpture for the small park at Ortenovo náměstí in Prague 7. The artist donated the work in 2009, but it took five years to actually get it in place an unveil it as the square was undergoing a complete renovation.

Britto, the founder of what he calls the Happy Art Movement, is heavily influenced by street art and cubism. He has been based in the US city of Miami since 1989. One of his first major successes was an ad campaign for Absolut vodka. He has collaborated with many major international brands since then and also made posters for Jeb Bush’s unsuccessful presidential bid.

8. Tesla Memorial (2014)

Tesla by Stefan Milkov
Tesla by Stefan Milkov. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

A bronze interpretation of an electrical shock on Nikoly Tesly street in Prague 6, across from where the statue of Marshal Konev used to stand, is the work of sculptor Stefan Milkov. The allegedly world’s largest monument to scientist Nikola Tesla is illuminated from the inside at night. The foundation stone was laid in 2006 on the 150th anniversary of Tesla’s birth, but the it took eight years to finally get the work in place.

Tesla lived in Prague in 1936–37 at Ve Smečkách 79, and he received an honorary doctorate from the Czech Technical University (ČVUT) and the Order of the While Lion, First Class.

Milkov is a founding member of the Tvrdohlaví (Hard Head) group. His other works include El Niño and the abstract Flight, both in the sculpture garden at Hadovka park in Dejvice.

9. The House of the Son and House of the Mother (2016)

House of the Son and House of the Mother by John Hejduk.
House of the Son and House of the Mother by John Hejduk. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

A memorial for student Jan Palach, who died in 1969 after setting himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion, consists of a polished rectangular structure representing the son and a similar rusted structure representing the mother. The six-meter tall houses have spikes on top to symbolize flames. The work by American architect John Hejduk, who had Czech roots, is located on Alšovo nábřeží, near náměstí Jana Palacha.

The metal sculptures are based on his wooden models. These stood from 1991 to 2000 in the Royal Garden of Prague Castle, and were removed when they fell into bad repair.

Hejduk, who died in 2000, was inspired by David Shapir’s poem  “The Funeral of Jan Palach.”

As an architect, his best-known works are Kreuzberg Tower and Wings in Berlin and Wall House II in Groningen, the Netherlands.

10. Heart for Havel (2016)

Heart for Havel by Kurt Gebauer
Heart for Havel by Kurt Gebauer. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

Kurt Gebauer’s heart sculpture in the plaza of the National Theatre is in memory of former president and playwright Václav Havel. The sculpture, which lights up at night, was placed at the same time the square was renamed náměstí Václava Havla.

For a time, people could write messages on the red heart. These were then permanently engraved on it. A metal depiction of Havel’s signature is above the heart. On national holidays, people leave candles in front of it.

Gebauer in 1985 made Pond Stodůlky, a fountain with a lost-looking metal woman. Other works include a plaque for writer František Langer on the corner of Preslova Street and náměstí 14. října.

11. mPOD (2019)

mPOD by Jiří Příhoda.
mPOD by Jiří Příhoda. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

You can visit Mars for the price of a tram ticket, well, sort of. The plaza at the Rustonka office complex in Karlín has a rotating corkscrew of reflective metal with a large LED screen playing a loop of NASA video of the surface of the Red Planet. Sculptor Jiří Příhoda created mPOD as a residence for Mars on Earth.

Příhoda, a Czech artist now based in the US, won the Jindřich Chalupecký Award in 1997. His other works include Music for Prague, a 1998 collaboration with Brian Eno that combined a temporary architectural space with randomly repeating music.

12. King Kong Balls (2019)

King Kong Balls by Denis Defrancesco
King Kong Balls by Denis Defrancesco at its original location. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

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A large sculpture of a reclining blue ape with polished brass privates was originally on náměstí Miloše Formana in front of the Intercontinental Hotel as part of the 2019 Sculpture Line festival. It has since been moved to the Smíchov location of the Manifesto market, and is near the entrance. Manifesto is just a temporary project until that site is developed. Where Kong will go next is uncertain.

French sculptor Denis Defrancesco lives and works between Prague, Budapest and Aix-en-Provence. His other works include a giant plexiglass rabbit, a plastic Obama and a steel machine for slicing memories.

13. Beetle (2019)

Bug by David Černý.
Bug by David Černý. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

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The most recent installation by David Černý is Beetle, a motor-operated wriggling Porsche 911 automobile impaled on a giant pin at the BB Centrum office complex in Prague 4.The almost 17-meter-high, eight-meter-long and three-and-a-half-meter-wide sculpture took nearly two years to make.

Vehicle themes run throughout Černý’s career, going back to Quo Vadis?, a walking Trabant made in 1990.

He started this century with Babies, first placed on the Žižkov Television Tower in 2000 when Prague was a European City of Culture. They became a permanent exhibit in 2001. He is also known for his Head of Franz Kafka at the Quadrio shopping center, and several other works across Prague.

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Future projects include a full-size shipwreck crashed into a skyscraper.

14. Maria Theresa (2020)

Maria Theresa by Jan Kovářík.
Maria Theresa by Jan Kovářík. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

The sculpture of Empress Maria Theresa, located in Park Marie Terezie in Hradčany, is controversial for two reasons. The first is that the Vienna-based empress would be honored at all, since her reign was part of almost three centuries of foreign occupation of the Czech lands. The second is that stature bears no resemblance to her, and as a result is disrespectful.

Supporters claim Maria Theresa deserves a statue because she was the only ruling queen of Bohemia, one of her several titles. She was crowned in St. Vitus’ Cathedral in 1743. During her reign, basic education became compulsory.

The foundation stone for the statue was laid in 2017, the 300th anniversary of her birth. Sculptor Jan Kovářík designed the statue to resemble a peg from the board game Člověče, nezlob se! (Hey, Don’t Get Angry). It is similar to the American game Sorry!

Most critics say it looks a tailor’s dummy or, from the back, like a bell. The park itself is new and was created during the construction of the Blanka tunnel.

15. Giraffe (2020)

Giraffe by Jaroslav Róna.
Giraffe by Jaroslav Róna. (photo: Raymond Johnston)

Czech sculptor Jaroslav Róna’s latest work is Giraffe, at the Enterprise office complex in Pankrác.

The 10-meter-tall red painted bronze figure with a stacked ball neck and shower-shaped head was inspired by Pokemon, according to the artist. He made smaller versions of it as early as 2008.

His most significant public statues are focused on writer Franz Kafka such as Memorial to Franz Kafka from 2003 in Josefov. Kafka riding on the back of a standing empty suit is an image from Kafka’s story “Description of a Struggle.” Róna’s 1993 sculpture Parable with a Skull, located in Prague Castle, is from another Kafka story. He also made Reader in a Chair, at náměstí Franze Kafky, and Little Martian, in the sculpture garden at Hadovka park.

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