Josef Lada – landscape painter and Švejk illustrator

As one art critic once said, the paintings of Josef Lada accompany Czechs from cradle to grave. He is as well known for his illustrations of fairy tales and children’s readers as he is for his landscapes, which each Christmas are printed thousands of times over on the front of the nation’s Christmas cards. Lada was also the artist who gave the grinning, rotund Good Soldier Švejk his form.

Josef Protiva and Pavla Pečínková, photo: CTKJosef Protiva and Pavla Pečínková, photo: CTK Pavla Pečínková teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, over the years, she has become one of the country’s leading experts on Josef Lada:

“Josef Lada was born in Hrusice which is close to Prague in 1887. He was the son of a shoemaker. The family was poor and Lada was born in a little cottage with a turf roof. When he was very little he had an accident which meant that he could barely see out of one of his eyes, if at all. When he finished primary school he went straight into an apprenticeship. He trained to become a house painter. Already as a child he displayed great talent as an artist, but the family couldn’t afford to let him go and study fine art. Painting houses was the closest he could get to that.”

Lada gave up house-painting after six or so months and set off for Prague to earn a living there. His first attempt was unsuccessful, and so, after several weeks, he came back to Hrusice with his tail between his legs. Unbeaten, Lada set out for Prague again, where he got a job as a book-binder, which he really seemed to enjoy. He tried to get into the city’s Design School on three successive occasions without any luck. When he finally did on his fourth try, he stuck with it for less than a term.

So was Josef Lada a bit of a rebel in his youth?

“No, no, not at all. Lada is often considered to be a good, kind, country boy at heart, who, for all of his life, stayed faithful to his little country village, his Hrusice, and who returned to this village again and again in his work. But this isn’t the truth entirely. He was obviously a strong character, even when he was very young. He was no backward country boy – he settled into city life very quickly in Prague. And he found work. He illustrated his first children’s book in the 1920s, in a Secessionist style. He also became involved in Prague anarchist groups, where he got to know Jaroslav Hašek.”

Jaroslav Hašek was a known hell-raiser in Prague in the 1920s, he is also the author of one of the best-known books written in the Czech language, the Good Soldier Švejk. A recent exhibition of Lada’s work at the Municipal House in Prague documented the cooperation between Hašek and Lada. Its organizer, Jan Třeštík, talked me through the pair’s relationship:

“Lada had a very close relationship with Hašek, the famous writer, and so he painted many, many variations of the famous figure Švejk, who was the main character in Hašek’s book, which is one of the best known works in Czech literature abroad. And here you see some early variants of Švejk – we start with the first edition of the book which came out in ’23 or ’24 – and it goes all the way to ’54 or ’55, which was the last edition that Lada painted, and you can see the way Švejk changes over this period.”

But isn’t it true that Josef Lada wasn’t Hašek’s first choice to be the illustrator of the Švejk books? Didn’t Hašek originally choose someone else?

ŠvejkŠvejk “Yes, that’s right. I don’t know all the details about this, nor who the first illustrator was. I think it was Muzika, but I’m not sure.”

At the beginning of his career, Josef Lada drew a lot of satirical pictures and cartoons, even though he is best known now for his tranquil landscape scenes. Here’s Pavla Pečínková again:

“At the start of his career he would draw in all sorts of different styles. He set out to establish himself as a caricaturist and published works under tens of different pen-names. He experimented with all sorts of various styles which were being employed elsewhere in the satirical drawings of the time. So his repertoire is huge. But his own individual style gradually develops and crystallizes around the year 1920. By 1920, Lada is a fully-developed artist and he has adopted this specific, original, drawing style which is typical for him – these thick black lines. It’s this style, based on these dark black outlines which makes him famous today.”

Mrs Pečínková has a theory about the inky black line that became his signature:

“The fact that he spent a long time working for the media obviously had an effect upon his work. Because he drew cartoons and illustrations for newspapers, he had to work with a strong line, because it had to be visible on bad-quality paper, and be able to withstand constant reprinting.”

Mikeš the tomcatMikeš the tomcat Lada illustrated volume upon volume of fairy tales, and even wrote a few of his own. You just heard the start of ‘Kocour Mikeš’ or ‘Mikeš the tomcat’ – a story by Lada about a speaking cat. Testimony to the popularity of this tale is the number of black cats called Mikeš in the country even today.

Even his more classical oil paintings for adults seem to have a bit of a fairy tale quality to them. I asked Pavla Pečínková whether she thought Lada created his very own parallel universe in his paintings:

“Yes, Lada does paint a world all of his own. And this came under a lot of criticism – in the 1990s it was very fashionable to have a go at Lada for not including any evil in this parallel universe. In Lada’s paintings there is no sex, no violence, no death – the artist was criticized for presenting a ‘dangerous ideal’. I think that creating a parallel world as a form of escapism is not just something that Lada does. All sorts of artists were doing this in the 1930s, and throughout both of the World Wars. The artist had the choice of using his art to engage with his surroundings, or to escape them. Lada was one of these introverts and sought inspiration from within.

“In his pictures it is eternal spring, there is harmony, children are playing. It’s a world of positive values.”

One of Lada’s favourite times of year was Christmas. Here, from our own radio archives, is an excerpt of the artist talking about the festive season. The way that he poeticizes Christmas maybe gives you a bit of a feel for how his paintings look:

“The sparkling brightness of the white snow and the whistles of children on sleighs, as the warm rosy glow of the dying day gives way to the blue of the night, which for me always ended with the trumpet call of the night watchman, and the dogs barking in the neighbouring villages. It may be children who expect their dreams to come true on Christmas Eve. But Christmas affects everybody one way or another. The smell of different foods being prepared for the Christmas table, mixed with the characteristic smell of the Christmas tree – that pure bit of nature brought into the home.”

Lada died in 1957, but thanks to his originality, and perhaps the enormous amount of different things that he did, his work is still very popular amongst Czechs today. A recent retrospective of his work was even prolonged due to public demand. It eventually closed this week. Jan Třeštík, who was behind the exhibition, explains Lada’s enduring appeal:

“He is so popular because everybody understands his visual style. It is clear to everyone – children like it, parents like it, everybody likes it. There is no abstraction, there is no expressionism, and there is no cubism. So this could be one explanation.

“But we shouldn’t confuse Lada with his simple visual style. His work concentrates on the simple things in life - like you see these pictures of people in a pub, or these landscapes, these spring and winter landscapes - it’s very romantic and poetic and quiet and nice. But this doesn’t mean that he was a simple or naïve person. You have to really look more deeply inside him.

“This was also my case. I changed the way I looked at Lada’s work in the course of preparing this exhibition. Because I was one of the people who always thought ‘I know Lada, there is nothing new for me to discover, I’ve got him pegged, I’ve seen his pictures many, many times’. But then when you are in everyday contact with the pictures then you realize, ‘wow, there is probably more to it than that’. So now I see his work with different eyes.”