Anyone who has been to Prague is extremely likely to have seen some of the work of artist Jiří Votruba. Posters, postcards and t-shirts bearing his distinctive brightly-coloured images of Franz Kafka, the Golem, and Prague landmarks are on sale throughout the city. Indeed, they themselves help form the image of the Czech capital for many visitors.
When I spoke recently to Votruba, who is 65, we discussed his success, the huge number of souvenir shops in Prague, and his popularity in Japan. But I first asked him about the story behind a couple of posters he created for the Civic Forum during 1989’s Velvet Revolution, including one depicting a group of children and the slogan “Dear teacher, you don’t have to lie to us any more”.
“When we were making those posters at that time they seemed to us to be very brave and provocative. But when I look back at them today I have to laugh a little about them, especially the ‘Dear teacher’ poster. I was given two slogans by Mr. [Bohuslav] Blažek, who was a sociologist, and I tried to make a picture for these slogans.”
Were you involved with Civic Forum? How come they came to you? How come Mr. Blažek came to you?
“At the time of the change of the regime I was working at a children’s books publishing house called Albatros, which exists to this day. Mr. Blažek frequently visited us and we discussed political matters. We tried to do something when things were heating up.”
When and how did you become so commercially successful with your postcards and other products?
“It’s funny [laughs]. These postcards and t-shirts that are so visible in the city I don’t treat as my most important art creations. Because I also paint and do illustrations and other kinds of artwork.
“I had a friend – who is still my friend – whom I worked with once at the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Architecture. During the change of the regime I was working at that children’s publishing house and I wanted to start a paper studio or toy studio and also to create postcards of Prague, because I’ve always lived here and I love the city. I wanted to start publishing some postcards that I had in my desk. But in this big company it was rather difficult, because there other people were deciding what to do and what not to do.
“And this guy came to me and said, no problem, I will have them printed, and I will sell them. So I gave him four cards. After a week I was walking in the Old Town and in a shop window I saw these four cards for sale.
“This is how it started, because they were immediately successful. Also there was nothing else like that [laughs]. This is how it started. This person, called Martin [Vohryzek], still has this small company [Fun Explosive] using my designs, but I’m not so much involved in it any more.”
So for you it’s something you did 20 years ago and it’s still out there, but you aren’t so actively involved in it?
“Yes. The main work was I think done from enthusiasm for this beautiful change and the end of communism. It was very sincere, what I did. Of course, after 10, 15 years that aspect faded a little. Now I still do a little for this company from time to time, but I think the best work was done in the past.”
For many visitors to Prague, your images – for example of Kafka, or the Golem, or Prague landmarks – are part of their overall image of the city. Is that something you take pride in?
“I have to say I don’t think about it very much. I told you, it’s something I’ve left behind. But in fact from time to time I face it somehow. For instance, I don’t know if you know that CNN…”
You were on some kind of CNN travel programme.
“Yes, they were shooting a programme about Prague for their travel section, CNN Go. Before they came to Prague they emailed me to ask if I would be able to present the city, because they knew my poster of Kafka. So it seems that this art work still has something to say, even though for me it’s like history.”
Do you think the people who buy your posters or t-shirts or postcards of Kafka would be surprised to learn how little most Czech people are interested in him?
“I’m surprised in general that so few people who buy these images know who Kafka was. I think it’s because we live in a world of brands and Kafka has become a kind of logo, a kind of brand, and people don’t like to read books like those he wrote. So I’m not surprised that people even here don’t know much about Kafka.
“I have to say that I myself knew him. In 1968, in the so-called Prague Spring when we were freer, several books by Kafka were published even in this country. I had them, I read them, and after the change of regime I could express what I felt.”
Your posters and postcards have a very distinctive style with black lines and bold colours. Have you ever found that other companies or other people have imitated your style?
“I think it happens, especially in the field of small items about Prague. But I don’t care very much.
“You are right about the thick black lines and the direct colours that are somehow typical of me. I think this is why I’ve had success in Japan. This is exactly what they like, from old Japanese woodcuts, first. And second, I apparently have a sense of humour, and that’s another reason the Japanese like what I do.”
There was a big debate in the Czech media a year or two ago about how the Royal Way, which runs through the Old Town and up to Prague Castle, had become very commercialised. People said that how it has become today was disgraceful. Given that your work is on sale in some of these shops, what’s your view of the state of the Royal Way today?
“My view is exactly the same. I think it’s disgraceful. I don’t know why it’s like that in Prague. If you go to Vienna or London or Rome you don’t find such a strong impact of these souvenir shops.
“I don’t know why it’s like that. I think it will get better. I think it’s because of former corruption. I’m surprised that so many shops can live off this business. I have to say that I love my city but I avoid walking through these places, because it’s not Prague at all.”
I was reading that you have exhibited nearly 50 times abroad. What do you think is the secret of your success, that you can have so many solo shows outside your own country?
“I have to say I don’t know. It comes to me like…clouds in the sky [laughs]. I never plan anything, but somehow these exhibitions appear.”
And you’re big in Japan.
“I don’t know how big [laughs]. But I am very lucky to be able to do very interesting work there. For instance, the visualisation for what I think is the biggest Japanese classical music festival, in Tokyo. The concept is taken from France, it’s called La Folle Journee Au Japon.
“Each year, in May, there is a three- or four-day festival which is attended by, let’s say, 700,000 people – even a million when it’s included Mozart. Such an event has a really big impact and I’m very happy to be able to work there because Japan is very interesting and Tokyo is VERY interesting [laughs].”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on October 15, 2012.
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