What You Didn’t Know About J. V. Myslbek, the Author of the Giant St. Wenceslas Statue
I bet that if you were asked to name a Czech sculptor or two, you would probably be slumped. I don’t blame you, Czechs are not exactly Florentines when it comes to art. Some names do, however, keep popping up and Josef Václav Myslbek, who died exactly 100 years ago on 2nd June 1922, is one of those.
A Bit of Historical Context…
…she said to the thunderous applause of the masses of history enthusiasts reading this. You might be aware that Czechoslovakia (what we were before we split into Czechia and Slovakia in 1993) only came about when the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated after WWI (1918). Since Myslbek lived from 1848 to 1922, you can imagine that most of his lifetime Czechs were struggling to assert themselves as a nation to be reckoned with within the Empire.
This meant, among other things, producing art which could contend with the other European nations and which could at the same time, ideally, promote Czech culture and history. Some of these attempts are too monumental and cumbersome for contemporary tastes, but you gotta understand the need for nationalism that permeated those times, I guess.
Myslbek, he of the magnificent, period-appropriate beard, was born and spent most of his life in Prague, which in the second half of the 19th century tended to be a very nationalistic place. Young Josef, whose father was a painter (of rooms), always harboured artistic wants so instead of following up in his dad’s footsteps (or to become a shoemaker, which is what his parents actually wanted for him) he started working as a helper in a renowned art studio and as part of that job he got to travel abroad… well, ok, to Vienna which wasn’t exactly abroad at the time.
Afterwards he enrolled into the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague to study painting – it wasn’t possible to study sculpture there then. This enabled him to find apprenticeships with various art studios and even travel abroad – this time actually abroad though not much further than before, to Dresden. After his studies he established his own art studio and later even taught sculpture at his alma mater.
Surprisingly for someone so into his work, Josef also had a private life – he got married at the ripe old age of 25 and he and his wife had 8 children (pretty average for the time), most of whom didn’t make it into adulthood (also pretty average for the time). Less average for the time was the manner of his wife’s passing – she suffered from depressions (or, as the newspapers called it, bouts of nervosa) and hanged herself at their home. She was almost 60.
His work is lousy with French influences – he even travelled to Paris in 1878 to soak up the atmosphere – and mostly resembles the style of neo-renaissance and monumentalism with its classic lines and traces of antient Greece. As themes he most often chose motives from Czech myths and history by public demand (of course, there was a bunch of private commissions as well, which he approached meticulously).
Myslbek influenced an entire generation of Czech sculptors, either through directly teaching them during his tenure at the Academy, or just by the virtue of the existence of his work alone. Luckily for you, this work is something Prague is riddled with so if you are so inclined, you may commemorate his death anniversary by gazing at some of it.
He worked on commissions for the City of Prague or various Czech civic organizations, but he also made gravestones and likenesses for people of note. Obviously, the important commission work is more on display and more easily accessible.
There is the aforementioned Saint Wenceslas statue on top of the Wenceslas Square, four group arrangements of famous mythical duos which were originally decorating the Palackého bridge but now reside in the park at Vyšehrad, the statuary on the front face of the Church of St. Ludmila at náměstí Míru or the river-facing statues of Opera and Drama at the National Theatre.
Some of Myslbek’s works also made it to the Viennese parliament building and the Hofburg palace and one of his crucifixes even hangs over one of the altars at the Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris, but we’re not going to include those in our handy easy Myslbek in Prague map, duh.
So if you have some time in Prague and are tired of the most touristy places to visit, a Myslbek mini-tour might just be the thing for you. And, honestly, if the weather is nice, just buy a bottle of wine (or another beverage of choice) and drink it at the Vyšehrad ramparts after having beheld the mythical statues – the views are amazing and I bet most of the people enjoying them aren’t tourists!