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Monday, 30 April 2012 02:00

Otakar Švec

By  Sébastien Berthier

Dear all, welcome.

Fridriech Nietzsche presented himself as an envoy of the Übermensch.

George Bataille depicted himself as a champion of cruel Aztec rituals.

I, Otakar Švec, have been commissioned to realize the largest representation of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, of all times.

If I'm in front of you today, it's to talk about my practice as an artist. You will see that the questions my work raises are rather evident, but the answers I can give you, aren't. You must already have your own idea about what lead me to accept this commission. You may think I was a simple tool, part of an extremely efficient propaganda machine. But sometimes propaganda fails and contradicts itself, with dreadful implications.

Anyhow, I would like to start this talk with an anecdote. It was at the end of the Second World War, in February 1945. The American air force launched a campaign to raze the city of Dresden. A Czech pilot, Harold Van Opdorp, born and bred in Prague, was at the lead of the gigantic fleet of B17 air bombers that raided the city day after day. Dedicated pilot, Harold, joined the American army with a clear purpose, to liberate his country and his peers from the Nazis. The missions were frequent and rather risky. One day, the weather was more capricious than usual. Strong wind, opaque clouds, and upon that a radar system that broke down. But nonetheless, they managed to reach their target. The bend of the Elbe river was recognizable, so Harold gave the order to drop the 152 tons of bombs. The sixty Flying Fortresses formed a dense group so a "carpet" of explosions would light large areas of the city below. Mission accomplished, the fleet flew back to base. There, Harold came to know that the city he just raided was not Dresden, but his hometown, Prague. Both his parents lost their lives during the bombing.

Harold, like Oedipus that the gods forced to commit a crime while keeping him ignorant of the plot, sets a tone for the tragic story I'm about to tell you.

In 1945, a few days after the bombing, Russian tanks entered the city. People ran down to the streets to cheer them during an improvised parade. Elections were held and signs claiming "With the Soviet Union, For Eternity" started to appear in the city. People were excited. The bitterness towards France and England for not helping the country against the Germans in the beginning of the war was strong. So the Soviet Union seemed to be the main ally of the country... With the result we all know today.

It did not last long before someone proposed that we should erect a monument for the one who had won the war, for the one who had liberated us from Nazism: Joseph Stalin. The Great Helmsman was turning 70 in 1949 and officials thought that the Czech population should offer him a present. A gigantic statue of him - if possible the greatest ever made - would do the trick.

At this point I had no strong connection with socialist realism. My biggest achievement was the sculpture of a motorcyclist in bronze. People liked the way I managed to capture movement, the speed of the engine that the motorcyclist peacefully tamed, making one with the machine. They said it was an exemplary futurist sculpture. I let them say this as I had a passion for motorcycles. It suited me fine. But I didn't like futurism. The avant garde's oath for a future discarding all past distressed me. The moments I enjoyed the most were the long strolls along the Vltava River and the narrow streets of the old town. I spend hours wandering the city without a purpose. Trying to remember the buildings in their integrity before the fateful bombing.

Like many of my friends, I wanted my art to be politically engaged. It was a moment of hope, when art had a part to play in the shaping of the New Communist Man. So I started going to the meetings organized by the National Artist Union. At first, only out of curiosity. In contrary to what you might expect, these meetings were not the place where the future was discussed. For the simple reason that we were living in the future. According to Marxist historical materialism, the socialist revolution was the final stage of evolution. Class equality was reached; we were living in the peak of time. Back then, to be engaged meant to use the artistic heritage of all epochs. A renaissance painting was contemporary when it was made accessible to the proletariat. The classics had to be confiscated from the bourgeoisie and put at the service of the new socialist state. Appropriated by the victorious working class, old artistic forms became renewed simply because they were filled with a new content and given a new function. The style or form of an artwork didn't matter. Only the "popular spirit" people could see in them was of importance.

Some of my colleagues thought it reactionary. That new revolutionary forms should represent new revolutionary times. But if we look at it this way, "to seize the cultural heritage from the bourgeoisie and give it to the proletariat" was a more radical position than finding a new art form supposed to depict the current times as the avant garde proposed. Art history was to us a storehouse of inert things to be manipulated according to the Party agenda.

Of course as a creator, if this agenda was not yours, then you had to pay a price. Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and hundred others were blacklisted. The People, to whom socialist realist art was dedicated, the mass, also had to make some effort. They should stop their reading of bad literature and their mediocre longings. Thousands of dime novels were seized and torn to pieces in public. The communist times deserved better than stories of teenager romance and gloomy crime scenes. The mass needed something more edifying to inspire them. And what was more edifying than Stalin himself?

The monument to his honour was to be erected at a hill separated from the city by the Vltava. In 1949, 54 artists sent their projects to the competition organized by the Communist Party. People say that I didn't have much choice, I had to participate in this competition, and that I didn't expect better than the second prize. However, the thing is that among the 54 small figures gathered in the main hall of the city museum, the jury chose mine. According to what criterion? In what way was my figure of the Father of the People more inspiring for the Czech people? I couldn't tell. One sure thing is that I was the only one to have depicted him accompanied by a group of people. All the other sculptors represented him standing alone.

The decision was made public soon after in the official newspaper, the Red Law. It nearly coincided with the beginning of the fourth Five-Year Plan, decreed by the state planning committee to modernize the Soviet Union. Labour, science and culture had to create great achievements together to exalt the working class. It was time for the words "production" and "food" to be eminently poetic!

The project was gargantuan and could easily be described by a series of figures. First it's height: 31 meters, the equivalent of a 10-storey building of 10. Its scale was meant to challenge the castle standing on a nearby hill. The monument weighed 17 thousand tons or the equivalent of two Eiffel towers. It required the shipping of 235 granite blocks of two by two by two meters from a mine in the north of the country. And it took 600 workers 500 days around the clock just to assemble the stones on site. You should have seen the building site. The workers' activity was only paused by the horns announcing breaks and new working shifts. Art had become, literally, labour.

Sometimes, when I was working with them, I wondered what I was doing there. Was I an artist, an architect, a worker... or maybe a scapegoat? I knew that the work I was carrying out was extremely tricky as it could easily be criticized. For my artist colleagues the symbolism of the statue was either too obvious or not strong enough. The enthusiasts thought that I didn't make a sufficiently truthful and cheerful representation of our great Stalin, while the sceptics claimed that I could do nothing of any artistic value under those conditions. The situation was inextricable.

On the other hand, the reaction of the Prague inhabitants was clear. When they pointed out my statue they were saying "look at this group of people, do you think they are waiting for the tram?" They also nicknamed it "The Meat Queue", as if Stalin would queue with them in front of the butchery.

I also knew that the authorities did not like my monument, but for completely different reasons. They thought that Stalin was not dominating the composition enough. That I should put him on a socle so he would stand out from the characters behind him. Stalin was from tip to toe over twenty meters high, standing on a huge plinth, itself placed on the top of the highest hill of Prague. A hill that you could see from the main square of the city. And they wanted me to elevate him even more! It was verging on the ridiculous.

Sebastien-berthier -otakar-svec---artist-talk-a

So I tried to resist but with anxiety... It was a time when everyone was guilty of something. Even the top politicians were guilty. The prime minister of Czechoslovakia for example, Rudolf Slansky, had just been executed after Stalin's infamous Show Trial. He was a member of the jury who selected my statue for the competition. I knew, from now on, that every detail was deadly important. The position of a hand, the shape of a mouth, and of course how distinguishable Stalin was from the procession behind him.

Stalin himself didn't have the chance to take sides in this matter, as he died in 1953. The news was ground breaking. Hundreds of millions of people followed the procession carrying his mummy to Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow. But behind the scenes, there was no time for mourning. A power struggle began and shook the entire political sphere of the Soviet Union.

Klement Gottwald, president of Czechoslovakia and warm sympathizer of Stalin, paid a visit to Moscow. He wanted to discuss the future of his country with Nikita Khrushchev, the new head of the Communist Party and leader of the Union. But the Party was in crisis. During the Twentieth Congress, Khrushchev denounced Stalin's reign and revealed the atrocities he committed. Stalin, the eternal leader became Stalin the criminal of the worst kind. The cult of personality at his honour had to cease immediately.

Gottwald died very shortly after his trip to Moscow. It took everyone by surprise. His last wish was his body to be mummified, like his mentor, and be displayed in a mausoleum. But the embalmment failed and his corpse slowly blackened and decomposed. During the same time, the construction of the statue of Stalin was still under way.

I wasn't the only one who had doubts about what would happen. Everybody did. I heard that the secret service wrote hundreds of pages of reports about the monument. Nobody was able to foresee when and how it would end up. The only reassuring voice was the one of the official newspaper, but everyone was used to read in between the lines. At this time, I was an outcast. My relationship with the officials didn't ameliorate after the death of Stalin. I guess I crystallized their anguish. They had so much to lose and so little to gain by this stone giant built five years too late.

Nevertheless, the construction of the statue reached its end. The inauguration took place with great pomp on the 1 May 1955. The hill around the statue was literally submerged by the crowd. Antonín Zápotocký, the new president of Czechoslovakia, made a speech on the tribune. He was one of the rare officials to be present. I was not there. This entire thing had made my life so difficult - I was quite relieved to leave the scene. My name never appeared on the statue, nor did it in their speech. Instead a sign claimed that the Czech People was the author of the statue. I didn't mind sharing the seventeen-thousand ton burden with them.

The event ended with fireworks over the beautifully floodlit statue. But the glory days of the statue were short lived. Barely seven years after the inauguration, Moscow felt less at ease with it, as it brought them back to dark days. They finally managed to remove the mummy of Stalin from Lenin's mausoleum so Stalin also had to depart from Prague. But the statue was too heavy to displace, so the decision was taken to blow it to pieces. Nobody thought that anyone would touch it for centuries to come. It was "built to last". People even thought that if it would be blown apart, pieces of the old city would disappear with it. But that wasn't the case. The statue was strapped with 800 kg of dynamite, and once the head of Stalin had been dismantled, the explosives were set off. Parts of the head were later buried in a nearby forest.

Sebastien Berthier  Otakar Svec - Artist Talk B

The space where the statue overlooked the city remained empty for decades. But not in people's minds. At the sparkle of the Prague Spring, Jan Palach burned himself to death a few hundred of meters from the hill.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, politicians decided to erect a large metronome on the spot of the statue as a way to get rid of the past. The metronome was meant to represent the constant passage of time and the swaying of the Czech pendulum would synchronize with the ticking of The Big Ben. But at times the city can't find sponsors to pay the electricity, so the metronome stops moving. People joke about it: "Time stopped again". What a bad metaphor for this place! If time has stopped, we're forced to look backwards.

Yesterday, before I came to Stockholm, the pendulum was again inert. So if I'm in front of you today, it's to invite you to remember me, Otakar Švec, and this moment of eternity that only lasted for seven years. I never had the chance to tell my story as I took my life a few days before the inauguration. So for my last words on stage, I want you to know that you can act as true socialist realist artists yourselves. As they were manipulating art history, you can also confront their art that is otherwise so easy to despise.

Thank you all for your attention.

Otakar Švec

This manuscript was written with the support of Iaspis and the Czech Institute, Stockholm, and the help of the actor Ivan Mathias Peterson.
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