Pilsen, September 1928
Aleksandra Mir: What year were you born?
Irena Sedlecka: 1928. I was born in Pilsen. Good beer is coming from there.
Didcot, December 2010
Irena, I have been looking for you for almost a month now…
I am a very private person!
I understand that, there is hardly any information about you online, I tried to reach you through the Royal Society of Sculptors but had no reply. To be honest I didn’t even know if you were alive. I just recently spoke to Queen’s manager Jim who traced you and said to phone you up, so I am really, really happy to meet you finally!
I got your letter from the Royal Society of Sculptors. They asked if I wished to deal with you through them or myself. I didn’t respond because, well, I felt this is a little bit fantastic!
Well, Queen is fantastic, you know. Freddie Mercury, the same. But figurative statues? They are taken for granted. Knowing the situation here in Britain, I have a feeling that there is a very big problem with figurative statues today. There are a lot of them around, every personality nearly, every actor, every writer, every sportsman now is getting his monument. But the commissioners often choose sculptors who are not very professional, who can be terribly amateurish and the work is done very quickly. But nobody cares either way, nobody is interested in what is it, how it is, or if the artist had a desire to make a good statue or not. People just see this figure, they identify the person, Is it him? Yes, ok, and that is enough.
And so I have a feeling that figurative art these days is not considered art. But for me it is like a life, fantastic. A portrait is not an easy thing to create, it is the most difficult thing because you really wish to do a little bit more than solely a likeness. Anybody can do a likeness, everybody has got talent. Every lady who has got a couple of evening classes behind her can do a model head and is immediately a sculptress, you know. But to do something seriously, or knowledgably, it is not so easy. And so I just said, Let it be, and so it is, so it is.
Can you explain what it is that you are bringing to your work that is more than any lady that has taken a few evening classes?
I don’t know, it is the way you feel the art, the way you grow with it. It is your education. If you have proper teachers, I mean, someone who is a proper sculptor but also an artist, somebody who can really tell you what is art and who can show it to you, the difference between one or another sculpture you see on the street. That is the difference.
Do you see yourself as a master?
Do you see yourself as a master?
Yes, I am serious, I am serious, very much so.
I recognise there is more in your work than any ordinary statue but I would like to know what took you to make it extraordinary?
Again, it’s how one was brought up. When we were young students, we had an incredible education at the Academy of Fine Art.
In Prague? What year did you enter the school?
Prague, May 1945
The War ended in May and I started in the Academy the same summer. Before that, I had been to college for three years during the Nazi occupation. I had wanted to be a teacher. Then suddenly they said, No, you are seventeen years old, you have to go to work, no more studying. I wasn’t allowed to study anymore. So I was taken out of the school and I went to work in a factory for half a year. Then in May, the war ended. What now? By then I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore. I was drawing and modelling all the time. I wanted to do ceramics but for the pottery school you had to be 18 and I was still only 17. Somebody said to my father, Take her to the Academy, they accept everybody! Because the school was empty, it had been closed for six years, so they filled the studios with anybody who wanted to go, and so it was a lucky accident really. I didn’t know anything about art at that time. When I came to the Academy they opened my eyes to what art really can be.
Who opened your eyes?
I had two incredible professors. My sculpture professor was one of the great last sculptors, Karel Pokorny, he was the last pupil of Josef Václav Myslbek which was the man who created, if you know a little bit about Prague, on the Wenceslas Square, this monumental statue of Saint Wenceslas. If you study it as a young student you just think that it is something that you actually will never reach, just admire, like you admire Donatello or Michelangelo. I like Michelangelo but Donatello is my man!
Who was your second professor?
He was a theoretician, V.V. Stech. Oh, that man, without him I wouldn’t be artist. I will tell you how I did his exam. It was incredible! I become so famous because of it! I really loved the man. I followed him everywhere. He took us for a three-day trip through the Czech countryside and showed us all the famous places. Just to walk with him through Prague was incredible. Prague is great for sculpture and art and he was pointing at everything. So it was simply fantastic.
And then his lectures, I went to every single one. I was writing everything down like an idiot, every name from art history, so I was very confident for the exam because I was young and stupid. He loved that, he knew that I worshipped him because everything what he said was great news for me. I was the youngest so he made a lot of jokes on me. When the examination came, he looked at me and asked, Where you were born? I said, in Pilsen, and he asked, Oh well, do you know Pilsen? I said, Yes. He asked, What is in Kopetski Park? I thought, A Statue? He said, Yes, yes, there is a statue and whose statue it is? I answered, Well it is Kopetski park so it must be Kopetski, no? He said, Yes, and who was Kopetski? I only knew one Kopetski, he was a puppeteer. I asked, Was he the puppeteer? He answered, No, no, no, he was this Mayor of the town. So I said, Oh, my God, I never knew! And he asked, Who made it? Of course, I had no idea so I said, I don’t know. He asked, Do you know how the statue is dressed? I thought, Has he got a coat on? He said, Yes, he has got a coat. What does he have in his hand? I was just thinking and thinking, and guessed, A hat? He said, Yes, do you know why it is important, that hat? And he started explaining about the composition etc. Then he said, That’s it, thank you. And I was out! And everybody, they laughed.
He then made a speech to us, he said, Do you know what is it, you want to be artists, yes? And you go and you are blind, you don’t look what is around the corner. He simply told us we should have our eyes open everywhere and I was furious! I hated him because I knew everything about art history, but he asked what was in my hometown and I didn’t know and so I got the lowest mark…
No, but he wanted to help me, which he did. So from thereon, I knew everything that is in Pilsen, everything that is in Prague, everything that is around my corner!
But art history is still important to you?
It is how you learn the styles, looking at the old art, you look at the Greek, you look at the Roman, you look at the Gothic, even this … how do the English call it, Romanesque, what came before Gothic, what came after the Antique, and so you look at it all. It is difficult but it has got style and has got this depth and it is all realistic. You look at a Rodin and it is pure, even today. But after that came Naturalism. It is not a pleasant style really.
What is the difference?
Naturalism only strives for a likeness, it is cruel copying, showing every single hair on the body, never really looking at it or interpreting it. For me this is not art. Then you might as well cast the figure. When I work I have in my mind a sort of art. To make a piece out of it, to bring it out, to suppress what is not important. It doesn’t matter if I smash it, you know. It is still realistic.
Making things appear realistic, is that what you were taught?
Not exactly. We had classical training, which means you learn anatomy, you draw from life models, you learn the art historical styles and you learn about perspective, about architecture so that you can make reliefs. We had exams in art history and in plastic anatomy. We had to know everything about the body, how it works in theory, and then we had the models to draw from. For the first three years in the Academy we were studying first the heads, the portrait, then the body, the figure, hands, feet, then the dress, clothing. And after that we had three years for compositions, you were free and supported and you could bring in a big project. If you had an idea of what to do you even got a model for yourself, so we were doing that. Or sometimes our professor would give us a theme, like, Make a composition of working people.
How much time did you actually spend in school?
I came in the morning and left in the evening. And if it was Saturday, school was closed so what I did, because the sculpture studio was on the ground floor, I left a window open and climbed into the studio secretly. So I was alone on Saturdays and it was the best time to work. We had the evening classes for drawing if we wanted or needed to take them, or if in the winter we couldn’t work in the studios because they were cold we would draw, but mainly we were just sculpting in clay. And if what we did was good, the professor said we could cast it in plaster. At that time, bronze was out of question because it was after the war. It was a shortage of plaster as well so if we were allowed to cast something in plaster, it was special. So we were just working in clay, destroying it, start working again, etc. There was a plasterer who cast it for us or he was looking after you when you made the mould so we had help with everything we needed in the school. It was Paradise.
Did you already know as a student that you would do monumental work?
Yes, yes. I did, because my colleagues were such a nuisance. I was the youngest girl, they didn’t take me seriously. Even my professors they said, You are a good portraitist, you should stick to portraits. I said, Yeah, never ever! Everyone told me I was good with portraits, pottery and little animals and you know, doing such silly things, I wanted to do more and be better.
In terms of physical labour, the monumental pieces that you did, were there any limitations for you, just in terms of the mass and weight that you had to handle?
Oh yes, they were, but I just wanted to do big things and I wasn’t afraid to do big things or ask for help. I would always find somebody to help me with the heavy armature for example. There were handymen available in the school just for that and then I would finish the work myself.
Have you ever used the word ‘feminist’ to describe yourself?
No, I didn’t think about it those terms. Sometimes I just said what a shame I am not male, I would be stronger, more aggressive, I wouldn’t be such a softie.
Did the school keep supporting you after you had graduated?
Not officially, but you knew the people who were working there, so in the beginning when you left school, they helped you. When you needed clay you telephoned the studio, the handyman and said, I need clay. He said, Ok, wait for me in the evening, and he brought me fresh clay. I said, Listen, I need a stand. He said, Ok, there are some stands here, I will bring you stands. He stole them, I think, he stole them because I got stands, you know! So there was always help this way, we were all the time around the school. My studio was always around the school. I never went far away from the school. Later, when I got the commissions, I employed the same people, the studio plasterers, the technicians and the models that were always around and available.
Were you given the commissions right away after you graduated?
Yes, there were anonymous competitions and so nobody knew who will win and if you were good, if you had an idea and you were lucky you would win the commission.
You won a lot?
I won quite a few things and I happily did them before everything changed again. I lived my whole life as a sculptor, I was very ambitious when I was in school. After World War II, we had a new socialistic system, it was a dream. We thought that at least in this new society with these new ideas and this regime, we thought a very human regime, we could show the real man, his feelings. So we just thought, Ok, this is the new art, we can go for it. I was never really so much keen to do portraits, I just wanted to do the big compositions. So when I started to work professionally I had all this enthusiasm to enter the competitions.
What did you make?
I did a statue of someone, which I saw as a hero. Julius Fučík, He was a newspaper man, a doctor and a Communist before the war. He was in the underground and got arrested by the Nazis. He wrote a famous book secretly in jail on these little rolls that were smuggled out and then published.
He was executed?
Of course he was executed! I admired him as such, as a man and I admired his book. It was a strong thing and I think it was translated all over the world, so I had a good motives.
Was this statue also the result of competition that you had won?
Yes, I won and it was quite a tragic thing because I was carrying my maquette from Pilsen, the competition was for Pilsen, he had been studying there or something, and I had a car accident. I broke my neck so they had to wait a long time before I was able to work again. So Fučík became my first tragedy because I had it in the car and I was driving and I was mad. It was a horrible day, so slippery and there were so many catastrophes that day and it was all my fault. Nobody was killed, only me nearly, and Fučík. He was killed as reprisal for the attentat on one of Hitlers closest men … Heindrich … Heydrich … Haindrich? So Dear Heydrich was killed too … I really don’t know how they spell him. You will have to find it. It is incredibly silly that I don’t know. If you would have come two years ago, probably I would have known it! You see, I am a little bit off with everything now.
Listen, you’re very much on for your age!
No, I am so ill, it is in my hands and it is so quick suddenly and I just think I really need a proper examination and probably some steroids or something because it is this incredible weakness and it is making me crazy.
You are ok. I want to ask you about the years from when you finished school until you left Prague. 1961 – 1966. You were a professional in those years. Did you always work?
Oh yes. I immediately jumped on it after school. I did a memorial for the victims of the Nazi regime and of the war. They killed a hundred and forty people in Moravia, so there is big monument there that I made. What else was I doing then? I did some silly things, decorations for a hotel lobby. It was a big hotel in Prague and it was done à la Moscow style, you know, like these cakes. We called it the Cake Hotel, I don’t remember its real name but I think it still functions. So I just made an ornament over the door that was welcoming the foreigners, one from South America, one from Africa, one from India, and one from China! It was big, about four metres. Then I was also doing some little things for The Museum of The Communist Party History. It was always when I needed money so I went to my friend there. He was The Director of The History of The Communist Party. He was the top man and I told him I needed money and he said sure, Let’s got to the museum and see where there is space. So we found a space and I suggested, Here could be a mother and child. He said, Yes, ok, do a mother and child.
Was it an ordinary mother and child?
Yes, ordinary. She was just kneeling and the child was climbing on her. It was actually my daughter, my baby daughter. Then I said, Ok, there will be the hunger strike walk. Before the war, there had been this big depression and people were marching for food. So I made three figures and then I said, I need more money, it will be four figures! So it became four figures in the end. I liked doing things like this because they were just ordinary people.
What material were they in?
Well, at that time, I don’t know if it was plaster. I think it was plaster, yes. I first made it in plaster for the museum and then it was actually finally made in stone, for a housing estate somewhere.
You were only in your twenties. Were you personally responsible for these big pieces?
Well, yes. My first husband was a sculptor too so we were, you know, supporting each other and we had a little group, another two friends, so the four of us worked together when there was something bigger, like the Lenin Museum commission for example. We took it on as a group and divided the work. It was all in the same style and a similar idea and so each of us made our own work there.
What was the idea?
They were scenes from the October Revolution. Because the Bolshevik Party started in Prague, in that house, they made the Lenin Museum from it and it was so romantic, something so romantic about this October Revolution, romantic, yes. So we made some reliefs with scenes in them, they were inside these five lunettes, half moons, which was something new at the time and they were good, we even got a prize for them. I made an agriculture scene in one, and another from these factories. And my husband was doing a marine scene. Then they wanted something on the roof as well because it was a Baroque house and all the houses round there had statues on the roof and that one didn’t have anything. And so we made these larger figures in stone for the roof. They were two and a half metres I think, big.
Who did these figures depict?
Oh, they were the same people from that same Russian Revolution, a sailor from the Aurora, the ship that shot the cannon that started the Revolution. That’s history. Then a man from this factory and a woman with a child. They were just anonymous characters from that period. It was all history for us and very romantic.
You were telling stories.
I enjoyed it because at that time, I loved these old Soviet films, you know, Eisenstein, these were excellent films. Some movies were silent, some were really early and they were excellent. Even today, if I see them, I am impressed by how good they were at that time because from the beginning, the Russians had an incredible way, you know, the Russian artists in film and even painting were excellent. Or the life of Gorky, I read Gorky stories as a child. So it was romantic, more or less romantic.
What about contemporary events?
There was a competition for a portrait of the Czech President who had just died, Gottwald. It was a big competition for artists from all over the Republic to do his portrait. So we entered with Ludovic, my husband, who said, What about if we do his funeral procession instead of just his portrait? I thought, What an idea! We had been watching his funeral procession, the casket was partly open so we saw his head and all the people in the Government were behind him and his wife and daughter. There were horses and the crying ladies.
It sounds like a huge piece.
Well it was a sketch, but it was long, it was big, over seventy people in it. It was like this frieze in the Parthenon. He had all these good ideas, my first husband, and I knew how to realize them. And so we did it together, and it was really the last day that we finished the casket, we put it together with the help of the concierge in the house, we brought it to the competition, put it up and we got the first prize. I was witnessing the Minister of Culture, he was completely jumping in front of our sketch because he said to the other ministers, Look, that’s me and this is you, this is you! You know, I had made these little portraits of them all. They were so happy, they really gave the prize to themselves.
What was the sketch for?
It was to be in this mausoleum because he had just died. That mausoleum was a big joke. They built a mausoleum and did what they had done with Lenin and Stalin. He was embalmed!
You are laughing. Why was it funny to you?
It was ridiculous. It has nothing to do with education, it was something done in the Soviet Union, after some Egyptian habit, it wasn’t a Czech thing to do.
What about your piece then, was it realized full scale?
No, because by then things had already started to change. But suddenly when it happened and we got this first prize came an order from the Soviet Union, an invitation for thirteen people working in culture to go on holiday. And they nominated me and my husband to go on holiday with these old really big people. We were young, completely mad, plus one poet who was the same age like me but he was a good poet, Josef Keinar. He just got the State prize in poetry so he was also nominated. We three youngsters went as guests of the Soviet government, can you imagine? It was 1954.
Where did you go?
Moskow, August 1954
Well, at first to Moscow. There we were fourteen days. We stayed in a fantastic hotel where we had an apartment, all silk and velvet and they said, We would recommend you have lunch here, your dinner here. Then when they gave us the list, of what to eat, we had no idea what to order, we were peasants. But this man in our company, he was fat, a real hedonist and he knew. You never saw so much caviar on silver. We started to eat lunch at twelve o’clock and finished at four o’clock. In the mornings we were allowed to go to exhibitions and all the museums. We saw what we wanted to see, which was fine. Then in the evenings, we went for some entertainment, we went to all the theatres. You know to get to go to the Bolshoi, for a Russian if they go once in their life, it is like they saw God. So every evening, we went to the Bolshoi. And then of course since we were in Moscow, we went to see Stalin in the mausoleum. He was still there, it didn’t matter that he was already blacklisted. We were some of the last people who saw him there, next to Lenin. But while Lenin had this pink face, Stalin’s was all gray, they somehow couldn’t get him coloured enough. But then they took him out and burned him I think.
Are you grateful that you saw all of this?
Yes, I am very happy because it was really an experience. And then they said, Now, where do you wish to go for your one month holiday? You can go to St.Petersburg or to the Black Sea. We said, We want to go as far away as possible because we know it is a once in a lifetime opportunity and we will never be able to return. So we went to the Black Sea, and that was magical, it was incredible, incredible. We were at the Kramer Sanatorium in Sochi for four weeks where we went with these top society people, nice people, doctors and scientists, medallist, even some people from the Kreml, really the highest people and we were just these three young funny clowns amongst them. There was also an Ambassador from India because he was ill and came to the spa for a cure. He really couldn’t walk and it was a good thing for his rheumatism to be there. So there were some culture things about India which was a new thinking in Russia at the time. There was a big festival of Indian films and all of the Soviet Union fell in love with Indian films. Then all these film stars came to see him and I saw these great directors. So we thought, Ooh-la-la, this is the wildest thing. We thought all of Russia was like our little spa, the sanatorium and then we went to the market. We were free to walk around a little bit but they warned us, be careful you might come out naked. So we went and then we were horrified by what we saw there. Flies on poor meat hanging there, old ladies selling a glass of raspberries, really something unbelievable, you just stepped out from this big Potemkin village into the worst poverty and you came back and you realized that all those high people were just ordinary. I tell you, that Sanatorium, I would need it now. I was so healthy. It was really the first time I went over sixty kilograms in my life. I have never reached such a big weight and I was the thinnest one there!
To be invited to go on this trip, you must have already been a celebrated superstar in Prague.
Well, as artists, we were propagandists; we were working for the State. The ordinary people, even if they liked our work, they didn’t have any money to pay for it but the State was paying us so we did anything it needed from us. And at that time, it was quite a good thought because we were making statues of these beautiful working people looking into the future! Thinking nothing.
Seeing nothing, beautiful people seeing nothing!
Looking into the future!
You are laughing. I think it is so great that you are laughing at all of this.
Well, you know …
I have never met anybody with your sense of humour about it.
Well, if you’re in it, you’re in it.
I am curious because sometimes you say you were working for the State, you were a propaganda artists, paid well above average. Then you say you were clowns, we were just doing it for a laugh. So were you not really loyal at heart? Was it all mockery and just trying to get by as young artists?
No, but listen. We loved to do it because we believed it in the beginning. You know, at school we never paid any fees. I never could have afforded to study in the Academy. I even got a grant, not only that I didn’t have to pay, and it was expensive to study art with all these models and materials and people around and so on. So we were completely fine and we believed in it. I accepted that I knew certain people very well from the government and I enjoyed it. I believed it. Why not celebrate ordinary man? Why not?
It seemed like a good option at the time?
We had just been very hurt by the West, we were very, very hurt because we had a contract with them and we were sacrificed to Hitler.
How did it happen?
Munich, September 1938
In 1938, it was in Munich, 1938. It was where Chamberlain started to deal with Hitler about Sudeten and where he sacrificed us, Czechoslovakia. He trusted Hitler, not us. If he hadn’t sacrificed us, the war would have been shorter.
Tell me about Sudeten.
Sudeten, that was a part of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, Bohemia, where mainly people who spoke German lived. They had been there since centuries you see, there were the old German schools. My parents were very patriotic but I had an aunt in Sudeten, she had married a German and I was going there for holidays, it was near Pilsen where I lived, so I knew Sudeten country well. After the First World War, we became a Republic, extremely democratic. Some of the Sudeten Germans spoke Czech, some didn’t and they were nice to me. We were singing Czech songs, German songs, it was just a very tolerant country. Nobody interfered with each other and there were no problems at the beginning.
Then Hitler started to think, ok, He had plan. He wanted not only Sudeten, he wanted more, he wanted Czechoslovakia because we were a very rich country, with our industry, and so this is what he needed. The Nazi Party then established in Sudeten but not all Germans living there were in this party, because my uncle wasn’t, but his daughter was and her husband were and they started to agitate, they wanted to go back to Germany because they said they are German. But not everybody felt like that, some of the Sudeten Germans were horrified.
We always knew the danger of being invaded but we had a contract with France, we would never be taken by Germany. This contract was established at the end of the First World War and we had an understanding with England that we are a republic and we have our rights and that we will never again be a monarchy or a German monarchy or anything like that. But the danger was always there. And so suddenly this problem started. There was the conference in Munich. Hitler wanted Sudeten and said he would take it by force and so Chamberlain started to deal with him and he said this famous thing, that we were just a little country and that Hitler had his right to Sudeten which was horrible because we really had a very good protection of it, we had a great defence and we could fight.
You were traded off.
Yes, Munich was a complete disaster and for me as a child, nine years old, going on ten, I knew it because my parents were so involved. Everybody now was in terror. We knew that it is the end, we knew that Czechoslovakia is gone.
You were taken.
Yes, and Hitler got all our equipment, all this fantastic machinery because we were so advanced. Hitler wasn’t so much prepared for the war. When he got the Czech preparation and Czech factories and everything, oh gosh, this is what he needed so then he could afford Poland.
So he took Poland with Czech … ?
Well of course, you can’t imagine the weapons, these shooting things, I don’t know, Czech patents and everything. It was a very industrialised state. He got it and he was so pleased with all this. That was what he needed and then he could dream about Poland and of course then Chamberlain saw this and that was it, he couldn’t give him Poland and so it had to be war. And thanks to it, it lasted a long time because Hitler was so well equipped now.
It was the wrong move.
It is a shame. There are films on it and they’re showing how Chamberlain was stupid that way because Hitler became so rich when he got Czechoslovakia. And we were so protected and prepared, he could never had passed the Czech frontier so easily. We were waiting for it, we knew that we are in danger with the Nazis. Here in England, half of England were friends of the Nazis. Well, in the end the royal family is German isn’t it? So they didn’t see anything wrong in it. They were not there, they didn’t see what was happening.
Pilsen, May 1945
The war ended and you were liberated.
Yes, we were liberated. Pilsen was liberated by the Americans on May 5th because that is where the demarcation line was. But they were not allowed to cross this line and Prague was calling for help while the Germans were bombarding it for the first time. Pilsen had already been bombarded during the war, all these fantastic big factories, they were enormous, they were broken to ground, completely. Prague hadn’t been touched before but after May 5h they still were fighting, they didn’t stop. They ignored that it was the end of the war and attacked Prague. It lasted till May 9th when the Russians were at last able to come down and help. We just couldn’t understand why the Americans don’t go to Prague which was crying for help and we were pushing them, You must go to Prague, you must help, they’re breaking Prague, they’re bombarding Prague, but the division had already been prepared, it had been decided on in meetings between these big people, like Churchill and Stalin and Roosevelt and that was such a disaster for Prague. How sad the Germans bombarding it, there were certain things broken, certain fantastic churches were bombed during those very last days of the war. It really was cruel, it was.
Then after the war, what was the atmosphere like in Prague?
We had two years of Paradise, it was great.
What did Paradise look like?
You could read all the books, you see the films, you got the newspapers, people could travel, if they had money. It was simply an incredible freedom. Nothing was forbidden or censored. There were big shops coming from the West, I remember that immediately some French man opened a fantastic shop with French art books. They were expensive, I couldn’t buy them but at least they were there. So you went mad because you were quickly catching up on everything that had been forbidden during the Nazi occupation, we didn’t have education, the books were forbidden and some were burned. Now suddenly we now knew what was happening in the West, what was happening in the East. Some people started to learn Russian, or English. I quickly started to learn French. I was going from one lecture to the other. It was unbelievable, the books, the theatre and everything was suddenly coming here and even the people who were living abroad, the Czech intellectuals, they started coming back to finish what they had started in the academies, in the universities. There was one man who had been in jail and he came back and on the first lecture, he simply said, There I finished, so I start where I finished. There was a big applause!
And who was this man?
The man, his name was … oh, famous man, I must have some book by him.
What was the subject that he lectured?
He was the professor on the films, what was his name, Jerny? I must have some book by him somewhere. Listen, I can’t remember the names. The names disappear. I start to speak about something and somebody, and suddenly I wish to say the name and it’s gone. And then of course I remember the names when I finish talking.
Listen, I am half your age and I have the same problem, at 43.
Forty three, my youngest daughter is fifty one and the oldest is fifty eight! I can’t believe that you are so young, you are a child! My God! Forty three, I was here in England already. Your life has just started really.
That’s what they say, life starts at forty! But coming today, I did have a big job for you. Because I have been writing your story for several months now and I have a text of nearly twenty thousand words but I am still missing a lot of dates and names. And I wanted to check the facts today and your job was to remember!
Listen, I’m really in the prime of senility. When I start to talk my English disappear because it never was so deep, you know, so it is the first thing to go away. I speak such good Czech now, my Czech language is coming back!
Is it a sign of senility that you start to speak better Czech?
Yes, it is!
Senility is going back into your childhood then, into your deep memory!
We will see! I don’t know!
Ok, I am making you work very hard. I am just going to ask you some general things then, if you don’t remember, no problem.
You wanted milk in your tea?
Prague, May 1947
Paradise ended, what happened?
It is all history. It is very odd this last century because after The First War, there was this beautiful republic in Czechoslovakia, a wonderful republic, so good that it couldn’t exist, it couldn’t survive. Then came Munich, which was a complete disaster, not only for us, but because it supported Hitler it was a world disaster. And then the occupation, the war. After the war we had these two fantastic years, an incredible freedom in my country, beautiful. We dreamt what we saw, we felt this was it. The Russians had helped us fight Germany and we were so very disappointed with the West. So we were very, very much for the new Socialism, very much, all these universities, all my friends from the other universities. We were on it, we were on it and we thought that’s it, it’s our time, we will do it better! But then after two years, suddenly a twist again and slowly it was going somewhere horrifying, where we got ourselves. You never noticed and suddenly we said, Oh gosh, that’s not our way.
What way did it go?
You know, it all came from the Soviet state or Soviet Russia. They never had an industry before or they had very little. It was a peasant nation, it was not really a very industrial intelligent state like ours, because when you have industry you have also high education, industry brings education. So it was something different and suddenly we were put on this Russian style, you know, not like the original Socialistic sayings that were based on Germany, which was highly industrial, Marx etc. Anyway, so we said, It is not us, and all my fellows got so depressed even those who were in high positions in the Party, they were very depressed. They couldn’t believe what was happening to us, how we were driven to something where we never wanted to be and it didn’t suit us, it wasn’t us. You couldn’t believe what’s happening suddenly. These big processes, scandals, I knew people in the government at the time, Communist people who were really on the top, that were sentenced to death and they were not executed but spent seven years in jail.
What were their official crimes?
Traitors, they were seen as working against the Soviet Union, against our own nation.
And from where you were standing, what do you think they did wrong?
I don’t know if anything. They didn’t do anything. They were simply not allowing the Soviet Union to take over completely, they were simply holding off. The Soviet Union had freed us from the Nazis but suddenly they were taking all our industry, they took our mines, the uranium, they were taking our production, shoes, clothes, fashion, light industry, etc. They were getting all that stuff they didn’t have for nothing. We were becoming poor and we couldn’t allow them to bankrupt us. And certain things, there was for example a factory for artificial rubber, Germany build it for us as repatriation or something like that. So they were taking it from us and we would stay naked, they were just trying to make us stand on a certain lower level, to accept their rules. These were not acceptable to us because we were different nation. We had agriculture but not that much, we were an industrial state and they wanted to take our industry and we were just trying to keep it.
What was the catalyst for change for you?
Lenin died and Khrushchev came with this big speech about what a horrible man Stalin was. You have it here translated. We didn’t have it translated at that time, we were far too isolated to know what was really going on. But then I got this speech translated to Czech only because some American aeroplanes were coming and throwing it on the frontiers of the Czech Republic, just down on Czechoslovakia. And because my second husband’s father was living in that area they got these flyers on their roof and we got them and I was handing them out to my friends in the Communist Party to read because they didn’t even know, the official Communist Party. So they were really so curious to read it and this Director, this man, the top man that I knew, he was so pleased to read it.
He appreciated that you gave it to him?
Yes, yes, of course. He had some real ideas, like the ordinary people who had good reasons to be Socialist or Communist, not only for the sake of the good living on top. He said, I am so pleased, now everything will be so different. You can’t imagine the big changes. You will see how life will change now, we will be going in a completely different direction, our direction, not the Soviet Union’s, But he was wrong. Of course nothing happened. The man jumped out of the window when he saw that nothing changed, he committed suicide. He was so disappointed that he simply he couldn’t carry on that way. I respect him very much for that because he was different, he was a real man. Vasally was his name. He liked me, he liked my work. And so then after some time, when the whole political situation grew in a different way and we realised it is not all that right, it is not all the truth, we got depressed and started to think about options. We were quite depressed and didn’t know what to do and so started to produce stuff which was not exactly optimistic, art that was only created for ourselves, and occasionally was accepted for exhibit. I did a few depressing things!
Like one was called ‘God is Dead.’
God is Dead? Did you exhibit that?
It was actually quite successful, I even got a prize for it. The Communist regime, these people who were really ideological, they thought that I meant Nietzsche, you know, God is Dead. Well, I meant Nietzsche as well but … what it meant was that this new dialectic had become a religion, and that it was dead. Everybody among the artists knew what I meant, that simply this illusion is dead and we were faced with this new religion and it was wrong!
And what did ‘God is Dead’ look like?
Oh, I have it here.
You have it here?
In the studio. If you’re interested.
Can you describe it first?
Well, it is a man who just sits alone because he doesn’t have his God anymore, he is responsible for himself and he hesitates a little bit, does not know what his first step might be because he is responsible and it is a little bit scary, to be alone. He is responsible now, you know, it all has to come from him. There are no orders.
Is that what you felt?
Mmm-hmm? Oh yes.
It was a self portrait?
Well yes, of course, of course, because that was it. We quickly became very disappointed with this Socialist Realism, we saw it is so twisted, so frightening, used so wrongly, so that was not a chance. I still believe that it had chance but not the way it was going.
And the only option was to leave, then?
I had already divorced my first husband. He was a sculptor in my school and we were very good working together, we had children but never fit well together at home, only in the work. So we amicably divorced and he found another sculptress. And because I had two children that were sick all the time I found a Paediatrician to marry anyway!
And during the war, he had been in service in England, he was working in the army there and he had friends in England so that man dreamed to escape, to move back to England. And he was quite a genius that way. He knew how to organise it incredibly …
How to get you all out?
… smuggle three children out!
How did he do it?
Trieste, July 1966
It was incredible, it was incredible because it was in 1966 and we were not allowed to travel abroad with the children. We had met some French doctors earlier somewhere at the seaside in Bulgaria, and they came to see us in Prague and they were very nice. I told them, We wish to try to emigrate, my husband and I. We will try and in that case, could you take with you, because you can take it by car, take this statue of mine, take it over and my fur coat? And if we will not manage to escape, you can keep them. If we will manage, you will return it to me and I will keep my favourite statue that way. This statue for me is the end of the past, and a new beginning. So they agreed and took this statue to France. Half a year or so later, we managed to get an invitation from my husbands friends in England for only the two of us to visit. So we got this permission to our passports but the children, the children had to stay at home, You were never allowed to take children out. So then my husband said, Let’s pretend we are going camping to Bulgaria, let’s go for a holiday with the children by car.
They had no passports but you could take them East?
They had no passports, they had nothing but if you travelled in East Europe, like to Bulgaria by the sea, you could get a special paper and they put the children on it and gave the car permission to go. We packed as if to go camping on the sea.
Did you ever reach Bulgaria?
Of course not! We had no intention. We started off from Prague, and went through Hungary so it means we had to go through Slovakia. Yes, to Slovakia, then Hungary and then from Hungary to Yugoslavia.
Here, can you show me the route on the map?
Yugoslavia, so Yugoslavia is …
Well, now it is divided but this is what it was …
But I need old Yugoslavia so I must find the old map, I can’t do it.
No, but do you remember the cities you passed? Bratislava, did you go through Bratislava? Budapest? Zagreb? What towns did you pass?
No, no, we didn’t go to big towns, we always went along the borders. We were really just striking around the frontiers. We didn’t go through the big cities.
You never entered Austria?
No, not to Austria. We went around Austria. We crossed Hungary to get to Yugoslavia and from there we planned to go straight to Italy.
On your way to England?
We had transit visas, my husband and I. The Italians never asked why the hell we needed to transit through Italy.
And the children?
Well, we got stuck with them at first. Our French friend René had promised to come and pick us up at this camping near Trieste and to take us to Paris. And from there we finally planned to go to England. So we made the appointment near Trieste and we were sitting and waiting on this roadside and within two hours, René came for us. It was so wonderful. We were celebrating. But then suddenly he said, Yes, but if you don’t have the children in the passports, there is nothing I can do. You have to go to your consulate and try to put it right. He was really medical man, he said, I am sorry, I have to be in hospital the next day, I can’t wait for you but if you manage to go through, you are welcome to come to us in Paris. So that was it, he left us there.
We were so miserable at that point. In Yugoslavia they hadn’t checked the children, but when we then tried to pass through the Italian border with them, we were stopped, the Italians recognized that we didn’t have visas for the children. So we had to go back to camp where we stayed for another couple of days. It might have been about a week, four days, and there at the camping we met an English couple who had four children. My husband spoke a little English, he told them how we were stuck here. English people were free. They were camping in Yugoslavia and they were allowed to go to Italy on daytrips and back because nobody bothered where they went. So they said, You two go through Trieste with your transit visa, we will take your three children and one of our own in our car and meet you across the border. So they left three of their own at the camping, took one, their son and my three, so there were four children in their car, and we all passed!
You went together or separately?
Separately. We choose a place across the frontier to meet on the map. They said, If you will be there, we will give you your children. If you will not be there, we will bring the children back and that’s it. So we went and at the border the Italians said, But you were just here? We said, Yes, but we forgot our tents! you know, and they said, Oh, ok, and they let us pass. So then we were just sitting there on the road past the frontiers waiting and about half an hour later the English family came, gave us the children, said goodbye and left. They took a different route back because that way nobody would know how many children were going in or out, you know, and so we took our children into Italy.
You were super lucky with these people.
It was so lucky.
They were just strangers? Do you know their names?
They never gave their names because it would have been too risky for them. I don’t know anything about them.
Why did they want to help you?
It was wonderful. Well, at that time immigrants were not really wanted in England, 1966, gosh they would have been punished if they tried to bring someone over illegally.
So why did they do it?
English, they just wanted to help us to get to Italy.
That is crazy! So you got your children out on these stranger’s passports.
You made it to the West. What was the first thing you did?
We went to Venice. We stayed about two days and then we moved on.
Did you experience Venice as an artist?
Oh yes, but I remember that we had so little money, all our savings, but it was so little because we didn’t have the currency. We had to get something to eat and my daughter, she couldn’t believe everything that she saw, she was very small, and she said, I want this, buy this, and my husband, he said, Everything is sold, or she wouldn’t understand, that we don’t have money. We always used to have money. And then she said, my little daughter, Yeah, ok but promise me, promise me that we will come back when you will have money. I said, Yes, I promise you that we will come back when we have money! And that was enough for them, they didn’t ask any more. They stopped to demand this and demand that. Anyway, so we went for a walk a little bit through Venice, only walking, not spending anything, and then we decided that we will try to cross the frontiers.
Yes, we had managed to smuggle the children into Italy but what now? To pass from Italy to France was not so easy. We had again our transit permission from Italy to France but not for the children so same story. We stayed a little bit in Venice thinking what to do. My husband wrote the names of the children to his passport and when he did it, I realised he will never go back because he would go straight to jail for a long time for doing that. We still didn’t have transit visas for the children. But we said, Ok, we will try, we will try to go through Mont Blanc and we will see how it will work. We arrived there late in the evening, it was raining like hell and my husband, he said, Look, take our passports and go over there, don’t let them go out to the car in this rain. The guards would be quite happy because there was this distance to walk where you had to bring your passports. I spoke some French and so I went with the passport to this office and I was telling them that we are going to England but that I am an artist and wanted to go through France with my husband and how wonderful it is and so they passed us.
No mention of the children?
No, no, no mention, luckily nobody asked about the children at the passport control, the men there, they were very happy they did not have to go out in the rain. They saw a small car, it was a little tiny Czech car, a stupid Skoda! The children were sleeping in the back, they didn’t see them through the window, but then further on there was a custom agency and the man who checked our car was not interested in the passports, he just looked at what was in the car, he saw the camping equipment, some pots and something sleeping back there … nothing.
Yes, we went through the mountain and when we came to the other side, I was already ill, I really … I was vomiting, it was too much for me. It was raining and we found a little place where it was possible to camp, you know, some people, someone or something, they said we could stay … so we stayed there and we telephoned to René and his family in Paris and said we had made it to France.
You drove to Paris?
They told us to come so we did. They lived close to Paris, they were working in Paris and my husband was there for only two days. Then he said, I have to go to England to get for us passport, because to go over the Channel is not so easy, so there we really had to get a permission for the children. He had friends in England so they promised they will help. He left us and I didn’t hear from him, nothing, and it was getting crazy. I had only the transit visa valid for fourteen days so I pretended I am an artist who came to Paris to see art and I just can’t go back yet, because it is so beautiful, so beautiful all this art! So I went to the police every fourteen days, always asking for fourteen days more. The art is so beautiful in France. They said, Oh yes, and gave me fourteen days more. They co-operated, I was forty but they saw a youngish artist, completely mad!
Nobody knew about the children, I was there for nearly two months in the summer.
How did you spend your time in Paris, those two months?
Well, with the children, we were walking around Paris. I tried to cook. I got some little jobs to earn some money, I got a plaster board and did two heads. I made a head of René and then I got a commission from a nice beautiful lady, to do her portrait. And in the meantime, I just hoped. Then finally my husband, through some help of friends, some medical doctors he knew a got a permission to work a year in England and he got this special paper for the children to be allowed to go with me there.
Finally an official permit.
So when did you finally arrive then, in England?
London, September 1966
1966. 1st of September exactly, 1st September 1966. I didn’t speak any English, I never had, because we didn’t travel, you see. So I had never cared to learn. I had tried a little bit but being so obsessed by my work, I didn’t learn. I didn’t have time, I was working day and night on these statues. My work was in the first place, more than the children because the children were looked after by my mother and I paid her to work in the household. I was really dedicated to my work and so my English was quite pathetic.
Did you continue working as an artist right away when you arrived?
I tried and of course, but how you can start as a forty year old sculptor with nothing to show. I had a chance to see Wellington, you know, Wellington Gallery, the famous gallery in Cork Street. No?
This was in 1966? I was born in 1967.
He was a gentleman, old Wellington. He was dealing with the Impressionists and he said, Your generation are modern artists, you have to do something that shocks, even if you last only fourteen days. And if the gallery sells it, you immediately need to have about fifty pieces behind you so that they can start to sell or the gallery will loose interest and let you go.
How did you feel about this advice?
Well, before I would have made ten statues behind me, it would be a year! But then, if you are not part of a generation, if you just arrive at forty years old and there is no sensation behind you or anything that stands out, you don’t really have too much of a chance, which is the truth. Then he sent me to try some little gallery, he gave me the name of some gallery in Soho and a recommendation. It was run by a lady and she had horrible stuff in the gallery, I just thought, Oh gosh. And she said, Look, this is my line. She showed me some silly things like, well, in bronze, but like, a knot, a knot on a stand and I just said Well, that’s not really… and I realised it was hopeless, I simply must try to make a living somehow.
You had no work samples with you, nothing to show?
I had only one little thing. You couldn’t take statues, gosh. Going camping to Bulgaria!
You were supposed to be on holiday, not starting a new life?
I didn’t even have photographs of what I left at home. I just thought that maybe I will simply have a go and start working but it wasn’t so simple. I first got some work in a small workshop, a little tiny business that was working for the British Museum doing replicas and they occasionally had some jobs in window decoration. Somebody would come in and say, We will need for our window a male mannequin with a fur coat and he is carrying boxes with flowers. So I said, Ok, I will do that. So they said, Can you model a big hat with this? So I said, Yes, I can model that.
What did you actually do for the British Museum?
Oh, just copies, just little copies of things they were exhibiting, for the gift shop.
Was this humiliating?
If you need money, you don’t experience it as humiliating. You just do what you can do to earn money. No, I wouldn’t say it was humiliating, but it was wasting time. I did feel that I was wasting time but I had a Czech friend there, she was a painter and she also needed money so we were together and we had great fun, otherwise we couldn’t survive, you know, we had great fun talking and doing these silly things. And you didn’t think, it was just what you did when … Look, I never asked for any help from the State because I said, We were not asked to come. We came on our own initiative and we were accepted here, so I have to work. I couldn’t be the big artist and live some bohemian life with three children and a mortgage. It was just how it was. I always tried to do something for myself but I needed to earn money. I was working Saturdays, Saturday nights, Sundays, Evenings.
What about your husband?
My husband, he collapsed on me straight away because he had thought, Well, she is a sculptress, she will make big money like she did in Prague. Because him, he was a medical man, and it was a joke, what they were getting, a miner had a bigger salary than a doctor. My husband who had planned on continue working as a medical doctor found out when we arrived here that he can’t really work here without an English certification. England did not recognize his degree from the Charles University. So he had to go back to study. He was an oldish man, you know. I was forty and he was about fifty four, fifty seven. He was so annoyed with it, very nervy. He started to work in a hospital but his salary was real zero, like a young doctor’s salary, and he was a good paediatrician really. He was a medical academic, he had held a high position at the Charles University and then because he was Jewish, he had to go. He was a very good specialist and so he was pretty unpleasant and depressed. And so he started to hate me because he thought I will immediately make the same money like I did in the Czech Republic!
You were always making better money than him?
Well, I was…we were propagandists. We were the only people who were making any real money.
He put his bets on you when you didn’t …
He did and then somebody here, a teacher in a Jewish school, when she saw that I do nice children’s portraits, she said, Oh, that would be good because the parents could be interested. But she wanted to have a provision from it, you know, a little money of course, like every agent, and my husband said, Nobody will live on us, which was silly because if I would be lucky to get an agent, I would be in heaven.
He prevented you from working, doing these children portraits?
So he really, yes, I lost my chance. That was upsetting. At the time I didn’t know the system here. Later I would come to understand that if you get a gallery agent you accept that they take a big cut, not twenty but fifty per cent. So you just calculate and that is it, but at the time I didn’t know, so I didn’t get those commissions. He became really quite horrible and we divorced. So suddenly I was alone with the house, mortgage, three children. He was annoyed, he didn’t want to pay anything. He immediately found another lady’s house and married quickly and I was caring for his child so I had these problems. I had a lot of work.
You were a single mother with three children. You raised them by yourself, basically?
How do you manage to be an artist in a situation like that?
I don’t know! So I started working with this silly thing in advertising, Talking Heads.
What was a Talking Head?
It was a sculpted head of certain personality. You projected a film on it then suddenly the head would be alive and talk. It was created for marketing of certain products. It was quite a good idea but they couldn’t succeed in making it natural and somebody recommend me. I don’t know how we got into it but I saw it and I saw straight away what they were doing wrong. They had brought it over from America, from Disneyland to England and they wanted to start this business. I looked at it and I said, I see the mistakes, I can do it better!
What were the mistakes?
They had made a head, a sort of mannequin, and filmed the person talking, but when he started to move and smile, the laugh was going from here to there and suddenly everything was distorted. So I said, Oh, la la, how stupid! You know, and I said, I can do it for you but at first I need to direct the film myself. You have to film the person straight, get a good chair for him and a head support. I need that the person who will be filmed does not move. He can talk, he can make grimaces, look here, look there, he can shut his eyes but he can’t move the head, not even a little bit. They did as I said in the end and they got famous actors to do it. And so it was quite magical.
You improved them quite a lot?
Yes, but then I was I was watching it and watching it. I realised that the projection was still not rightly fitted to the head so I said I will sculpt my own head from the model for projection and the film had to be set exactly on that head. So they gave me a film loop of that person talking and I made a big box, just a paper box. I put my stand in it, made the clay head, and projected the film on it. And then with the film on the base of the box I saw if this fitted or not. When I saw how he talked I knew how to adjust the sculpture accordingly, to stop where his smile stops, and adjust it in the clay. So I made it a little bit unrealistic but realistic, and simple. It was easy for me.
To make something unrealistic but realistic, is this something you learned in school or is this simply an intuition, your talent?
No, no, no, it was just when I saw this primitive thing they had brought over from Disneyland, I just knew how to improve it. I thought that it had possibilities but it must be done differently.
You sculpted it in clay and then there was a cast?
They were cast in a light resin, and painted.
Where were these Talking Heads exhibited?
Sometimes they were in museums. But it was mainly for marketing, you know, for any big company at the time.
Do you remember what products they advertised?
I remember the first thing I did for them, perhaps it was in 1972, something like that because there was a big air show and I so I did the first head of Raymond Baxter, the airman. They had two Talking Heads with him and the other younger pilot who at that time flew from here to Australia with some Asian plane and he became very famous, I forgot his name. So that was the first job I had.
What did they say, what did they sell?
I don’t know, something connected with aeroplanes. They were all different. One head was for the Technical Museum, they wanted somebody to advertise something there. Another head was for the London Museum and it was of the first Queen Elizabeth so I did a Talking Head of her. She was giving this famous speech to the Army.
I see, and the commercial Talking Heads?
The commercial heads all went to different places, for different things. I really can’t remember all the companies that used the actors. Donald Sinden was used by the cleaning company for the posh clothes in Harrods. They used him because he was acting some character in television so they wanted him as that character.
I have never seen these Talking Heads. I wonder where I could find these? Do they still exist?
I don’t think so. But I can’t even call my partner, the man who owned the company has dementia now. You couldn’t speak with him and his wife died of cancer. The firm finally collapsed and I was glad! But then I had met all of these people I had sketched and suddenly they started being interested to have their portraits done.
So then slowly you started doing what you were trained to do again?
Yes, so then it became serious, you see, it grew from these silly sketches. Donald Sinden had this desire to be done in his big role as Othello. So three times I went to visit him in his changing room. I made a sketch of his ordinary look and then him as Othello. It became quite a successful bust, he was very happy with it.
But how did the work with the Talking Head lead you back to the bust, exactly?
Well, I had to do sketches and photographs of him for the Talking Head. I just needed the basics for the film projection, but they were profiles and semi profiles, it was important otherwise I couldn’t make the head really fit the film, and also because it was three dimensional, the film is spread out on it, so I had to know where I have to suppress something and so on. It was clear, you need to be a sculptor to know how to do that. So after that, I said, If you will come to sit for me, I could finish you as a proper portrait. It became a very good portrait and I exhibited it of course at the Society and it was quite appreciated and commented on there.
Who were your other sitters?
Can you mention them, the names?
I don’t know, is that a good idea?
If it is your work, of course.
Well, here is my diary. I have made portraits of an incredible collection of people. Lord Lichfield, Bobby Charlton, Lord Laurence Olivier, Lord Chilver, Peter Brown, Vernon Ellis, Duncan Goodhew, Andrew Gardner, Ted Moult, Magnus Magnusson, Sir Frank Whittle, Jackie Stewart, Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorn, Kenneth Kenndall, Kenneth Williams, Nicolas Parsons, Raymond Baxter, Richard Briers, Ken Dodd, Andrew Gardner, Jimmy Edwards, Peter Brown, David Bellamy, Gordon Kay, William Lyne, Vernon Ellis…
And can I ask you, how much of a sitter’s time did you require to do a Talking Head and how much of a sitter’s time was required to make a portrait?
Oh, the Talking Head was usually just once. They came for two or three hours. When I did a portrait I would ask for another two or three sittings. And when I was doing a really official portrait, I would ask for six or eight sittings.
How long is a sitting?
A sitting is about an hour and a half, two hours.
It sounds very demanding, also for you.
Well it is, because when I do a portrait I don’t normally use photographs. I want the model to be animated, to see him talking.
To get into the person, the character. I was doing a portrait of the comedian Ken Dodd and I could see him and speak with him and so suddenly I saw that he was actually not a clown. He was a tragic man who has got a lot of problems and you get it into the head, you get it into the face. So if you are really free, that is the idea, to get his soul not only the likeness.
And if the person is dead?
If he is dead so he is dead. So you go to study his history. You can see him on films and speak with people who knew him. You don’t just do an ordinary head. You always wish to get to something that was is in him and what he represents.
When you left Prague you were a very well known artist.
Yeah, I was a celebrated superstar, I was a famous sculptor, yes.
So how long would you say the period was from when you came to London, where you were … nobody … and until you reclaimed your identity as an artist again? How long did the gap last for?
Oh, a few years, I had the identity back that moment I could exhibit with the Society of Portrait Sculptors, probably around 1969. To be an Academic Sculptor is joke but I had a title! Here, the sculptors don’t have titles but you know when someone is a professional, so he is either a Royal Academician or he is in the Fellowship, a Fellow of Royal Society British Sculptors. You don’t get this title straightaway, you have to exhibit, you have to be accepted and you have to prove that you are a professional sculptor. So if you get a client they know I am not any lady who is doing portraits in the garage or has got a studio because her husband is feeding her, or that she has a hobby to do heads and she get lots and lots of commissions or something because she knows the right people. I am a sculptor who is trained, not an amateur and so it was important for me to be accepted by the society as a trained sculptor. But earning money as a sculptor again, that really started really, really very late. I think that the proper work what I got which I think was official and at a proper price would be Sir Frank Whittle and that was … which year it was, I don’t know, and there were … I would have to look into my papers. Sir Frank Whittle was this man who developed the jet engine.
Who gave you the commission to do him?
The Royal Society of British Sculptors, they were always showing photographs of the portraits I had made. They were accepted as good portraits and a man from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers came there to look at photographs and he choose me to do the portrait from these photographs. It is in the Institute of Mechanical Engineers now.
Do you remember how much they paid you? What was the reasonable price for you then?
At that time, it was I think four thousand five hundred. That was ok at the time.
What year was it?
The years are my enemies! I will have to look into my papers. I tell you, the years go so fast for me that I can’t believe it. It is like, you don’t want to know how time goes fast, you don’t want to know how you age!
Do you remember where you did these first commissions, did you have a studio at the time?
My first studio was in Kentish Town, Camden, this is where we were doing all this ordinary stuff for marketing, where the Talking Heads started. That was easy because that was a proper studio but then it became too expensive and we got a very cheap and bigger place in Bushey and that was perfect. It was really derelict. It was really crazy studio with strange windows! It was great fun, people didn’t mind coming there. They found it interesting. It is different now. Bushey is in the North West, north of Edgware, where all the Pakistanis live, how it is called, that little place? Watford, so Bushey is still greater London I think.
Bushey, November 1977
Were you alone there in Bushey or was there a community?
I had a friend there who was a caster, he was doing moulds and casts. We were doing little jobs together because I didn’t really live really from sculpting because you have to do these silly little jobs for marketing and so he helped me to cast. He cast the heads for me so it was part of it.
This is where you went to work every day?
Yeah, I went there, every day. I was living in Wandsworth South. Yeah, it was big travelling, nearly two hours one way.
And how many times a day did you go, per week?
Every week, every day, sometimes Sundays. Discipline on the work.
Who took care of your children?
They cared for themselves. They were a little bit bigger by then. I was doing for them food for next day in the evening. In the morning of course, they went to school and in the evening, they were already nearly in bed when I came back from work. But I did prepare them food. And on Sundays, I was cleaning, washing and so on!
Do you remember these years as hard years, as difficult years?
Yeah. It was. It really was. For my children as well, I must say, because they were so on themselves and I was very tired coming home and on Sundays, sometimes I was still working for this idiotic little casting place, making these little figures that were paying for us. I had in the house a garage, a little garage, so we made a window in the roof because I have little tiny house and the tiny house was really tiny with half the garage inside the house, it was stupid. We put lights and we changed the door and we put water in and some sort of heating. So I had a relatively very good studio light and it became my little private studio at home. So when I didn’t have any big job in Bushey, I was working in the garage doing small things. Or I was working there when I came home late in the evenings, sometimes I was there casting late until the night. And it is where I could also work out my own ideas for exhibitions.
I am trying to imagine some of the most successful artists of my generation, the real big Superstars being put in a position where they suddenly have to support themselves and their families working for museum souvenir shops. I try really hard to imagine such a scenario and I cannot. It is incomprehensible.
But you know there are things you can only do when you are on the ground as an immigrant. I had to make a living and really, they knew that I was having problems, I don’t know how they knew, but once I was called up and they said, Look, we can give you a council house, very comfortable, somewhere behind Croydon. You don’t need to pay this mortgage and all that and I said, No, no, I wish to have my own house. My children and I, we don’t want the council house, thank you. I was offered help and I just stayed in the house.
Are you crazy?
I was crazy but not really crazy because as I was helping my children, and eventually I sold that house which was bought very cheaply quite well.
But was it pride originally, did you need to do that to keep your dignity?
For the children, yes, because I didn’t want my children to … Look, I was quite well paid in Czechoslovakia. We had a very good standard. We couldn’t imagine to live in the council estate and my son told me later, I’m so glad that we didn’t have council flat, I’m so glad. Even as a child, he knew that he was going home to this little house, his garden and for all the jokes, it was such a stupid little house. It was even not detached, you know.
But it was yours and it was important that you had earned it by yourself?
Yes, and Bushey was also good because I could build big things there. I could build Freddie Mercury there.
So all of this lead up to the Freddie Mercury commission. He was already dead and you were asked to do a memorial statue of him. How did it happen?
The way I got to do Freddie Mercury is that I was working with Dave Clark on a show and it was with Laurence Olivier and he wanted a portrait of Olivier so I did this mask for this big show. ‘TIME’ it was called. Olivier was still alive, he was seventy eight or something. He was quite happy posing for me, he wasn’t bored stiff. Dave Clark organized it and so I met these people from his area, pop music. Dave Clark, he was the big man in it, Dave Clark Five or I don’t know how all these people they call themselves. It was the first time I got in touch with such a group of people, with pop music.
What did you feel, meeting up with Pop?
Well, I never fell for pop. I was only into classic music before. I liked certain American musicals, very old, you know, the old version with Ginette McDonald, Deanna Durbin and such, but that was my youth. My interest in pop ended at Fred Astaire! I loved that, but this kind of pop, I heard it for the first time when I came to England and The Beatles had just started, so well, it was ok for me but I wasn’t mad. I could listen to it, the music was fine, but I didn’t buy records or collect. I went to my classical concerts. When we emigrated here and these were really hard years, I still went to concerts at the Festival Hall probably twice a week to survive culturally. I would get a one pound ticket in the orchestra.
Classical music helped you to survive artistically?
Oh yes! With these horrible things that I was doing, you know, for the British Museum, It was important for me to survive, to keep my standards.
Was Pop music low standards?
Well, long before I got the Freddie Mercury commission, there was this big thing, help for Africa.
Live Aid, yes. I wanted to hear what these pop singers were doing. I said, Are you crazy? It makes me feel like somebody is taking my nerves and pulling them, pulling them, all my nerves. It’s not relaxing, is it? I wasn’t so keen on this Baroque music because of the steady rhythms, this tst tst tst and when I hear that, I just can’t listen.
Ok, but you listened to Live Aid because you were curious and then you saw Freddie Mercury.
Yes, and then I saw him and I said he was so manly …
He was so manly?
… such a good voice, such a communication with the audience. I said at least a man between the rest, they were all such pussies, but he was a man!
Yes, he was a discovery for me. I was just impressed by his personality, his voice, his songs and from that whole program lasting twenty four hours, I remember him perfectly.
And how much later did you get the commission, how many years later?
It must have be fifteen years ago or seventeen years ago. Yes, when I met this Dave Clark, and he first just asked if I could make the bust, so I did and they said that’s it, we want that. So I got the commission to do Freddie. I also met his girlfriend and she took me through his house which she inherited. It was really touching, everything was so touching. I started to like him as a person of really big quality because he was also a great artist.
You connected with Freddie as a great artist. So this was not a competition? Were there any other sculptors involved?
I don’t know, I didn’t ask. No, they just trusted me. They just said that’s it. I passed it, I came through it. I was living in a different time. I had to work to get through, I couldn’t have any other chances. So I really had to produce some work and I am too old to start anything else so that was it. I am quite happy all right, I don’t put my address anywhere, I don’t tell local people around here that I am working as a sculptor, that I signed it Sedlecka, you know. So I am quite happy with this lovely anonymity which is good.
Maybe not for long.
I think I will remain anonymous for long. I like to be. I will not be not around. I don’t know.
Didcot, December 2010
Can I see your studio now?
Sure, come with me. This bronze here used to be in the garden but I moved it in under the roof.
Why did you move it?
The fence fall down and there were some guests of the pub next door, they were odd people, they were saying, Yeah, is it bronze? I said, No, it’s plastic, plastic, for God’s sake.
Oh my God.
Because people are stealing bronze now, of course, to melt it.
Wow, this is incredible. It is a museum.
Well, not museum, it is a sculptor’s studio.
It is a sculptor’s studio but there are so many finished pieces here. And you are still working?
I am trying.
What are you working on?
I am doing a small relief here for myself. And here I have two heads. That is a lady from Denmark, so these I am just starting.
These are commissions?
You are still working at eighty two? How many artists are working at eighty two?
I think all!
I don’t know how many artists of my generation will. Some are already dead.
This is ‘God is Dead’.
This is ‘God is Dead’?
This statue has got the greatest story. It is funny. I already told you that I exhibited it in Prague and it got an award because they thought it was against religion. But ’God is Dead’ simply means the end of this Socialist regime, the dialectic materialism or whatever it is called here. I like this statue because it was my change. Then when decided to escape I gave it to my French friends who came to visit. And so they took it, they smuggled it out because nobody was interested about this statue on frontiers. And then when I made it to Paris they said, When you will get to London, we will bring it to you there.
And here it is.
They brought it when they visited us. Then I was exhibiting it here and it was sold.
It was sold?
Yes, it was sold, through some little gallery in Hampstead and I just thought, Well, I need the money and I said goodbye to the statue. They never told me who bought it because it was their own business. So that was the end and it disappeared, then the gallery disappeared and suddenly, another sculptress who I know a little bit, she said, Oh, there are these people who has got your statue. They bought it in an auction and they asked me if I know of the existence of a Sedlecka? And she had told them, Oh yeah, I know her. She gave me the address, it was an ex-footballer who had bought it at auction for a song, for a hundred pounds.
And there was a label, it said ‘God is Dead’, they didn’t know what it meant. But they had it and they were so pleased with it. I asked if they could send me a photograph. What they had was the original maquette. It was a one off cast and never made in bronze. And so then I met them I asked if I could borrow it and cast one in bronze for myself, so they said, All right. I signed a paper that it will only be a one off cast in bronze so that’s it, I can’t do any more. The mould had to be destroyed of course, and this is the finished statue. I was so happy.
There is more. Then suddenly the Society of Portrait Sculptors was going to have an exhibition at the Winchester cathedral. And they asked me, Do you have anything about religion? I said, Well, you know! I have this statue, ‘God is Dead’ and so they exhibited it!
Really? With this title?
Yes, with this title, ‘God is Dead’.
So this was the first time you showed it as a bronze?
In the cathedral?
The world is mad.
Can you imagine what they had there? It was a big exhibition. Here is the catalogue, you will see what they were exhibiting here, my colleagues, people were trying anything, anything that was connected to Religion. Look, they had all these big churches, Christ and there is the Pope, they were doing Popes and churches, all this beauty, the Christ and Mary Magdalene, and another Christ.
So if you exhibited ‘God is Dead’ in a cathedral, you don’t think you can show Freddie Mercury on Trafalgar Square?
No, that’s different thing but the story does not end there. The statue was quite a success there, big success really and they wanted to make a sermon on it. I said, I don’t mind.
‘God is Dead’. They used it to explain Nietzsche, how he is wrong, how we need a God. It is a beautiful intelligent sermon. I had it somewhere, they send me copy, so it was a really great sermon and then an old lady said, We love your statue, and I was so shocked.
You are totally punk rock.
They loved it, and I still got a letter from an retired canon who wanted to write with me, exchanging letters, so I told him, I am not a believer, I can’t … I apologised, and he said that he was reading Nietzsche. So I said, I had only read Nietzsche a little bit, I couldn’t finish it, it is very hard!
Obviously a fan of yours.
But I had read it and it influenced me. I really loved meditating over it. There is also an essay by Albert Camus, called ‘Rebels’ that meant a lot to me, so I sent him the book and thanked him. This man, he even wanted to buy it. It was very nice of him, he loved it. I said, I can’t sell it. I have only one. He told me he was dying. I said, No, there is plenty of time. So that is the whole the story.
But what an extraordinary story.
Well I liked it …
And God is still Dead?
It is the most important piece for me. I wished to keep it.
You never believed in God?
I did! When I was twelve. I said to my mother, Can I be baptised? My mother answered, If you wish to be baptised, get baptised. And they didn’t care so I got baptised and so I started to be really, really terribly religious. I was going every Sunday to church and I was praying in the night.
What church was it?
What is the name of it? I was twelve.
You must remember, it was only 70 years ago.
I remember my teacher. I can see him in front of me, I know what he was teaching and I know how I really loved this going to church on Sunday. It was not a Catholic church, it was Protestant. It was our State religion, I don’t know if it still exists, it was created when Czechoslovakia was established after the First World War. We had it in our schools and that was attractive because they were actually teaching us the history of Czechoslovakia. The teacher was killed by the Germans anyway, taken to a concentration camp because he was teaching us very patriotic stories. So that was the end for me of the religion and when I was fourteen I was out of it.
At least you were deeply religious for two years, so you know what that is like.
I was deeply religious and I tell you, I was so nice that I didn’t lie, I was so fair and so then when I started to lie again, nobody believe me that I lied. I could lie as much as I liked to, my sister was furious! That was really funny. Then when I exhibited ‘God is Dead’ here in England I got a letter from an ex-Canon or something and he said that you don’t care about God but God cares about you, something like that.
That is the sketch for Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes which is a big statue, also over life size. This is the sketch for this Beau Brummell, this one is under Piccadilly, this one. Then I made the portrait of the Director of Wigmore Hall, so this is in Wigmore Hall.
This is a bust of the Queen, the real one. You made this?
This row here is my third husband’s. He was also a sculptor, Franta Belsky. He made Truman, he was doing royalty. My work is on this shelf over here, I was more for actors. This studio was originally built for him. I still kept working in London. Then when he got ill, he didn’t work towards the end, and so I started here.
You were married three times.
All dead, not my fault!
Two were sculptors.
I had met Franta in the Academy in Prague, he was older, seven years older. I already knew about him a little bit from our librarian because he was always proud that Belsky was having some success abroad. He had left for England during the war and then he came back to finish his study. He had married a very nice English lady, who was very nice, she was a cartoonist, illustrator, whatever and so he was English. Anyway, then they returned to England, they could emigrate easily in 1948. So when I arrived here Franta was quite kind to me, his wife as well. They were kind to my children and he said, Well, it is time for you to get to go to the Royal Society for British Sculptors so he got me associated and then there was a exhibition at the Portrait Society so I was slowly exhibiting with them.
Franta became your mentor here in England, in a way?
Well yes, slowly he showed me which way to go, otherwise how would I have know that there even exists a Society of Portrait Sculptors? I never would never have known.
And then he married you later in life?
What happened was, I liked this man very much, but I didn’t see him so often and because I had this problem with my second husband, we divorced, he immediately found another and married quickly and I was caring for the children so I had all these problems, a lot of work. Franta was helping me quite a lot, I mean, with the societies but I didn’t know that Grace, his wife, was ill. She had cancer and they moved from London to here in Didcot. This was their holiday home. Then, some time after she died, he asked me, Shall we go sometimes to the theatre together? It is fine. And then he said, We could go travel a little bit, so we started to travel. Then we were together more and more. I was living in London and working there, he was here, so we met only on weekends and suddenly we were in St. Petersburg for some great event, I don’t know. We are going to sleep and he says, Will you marry me? I said, Yes, and fell asleep. In the morning, What did I say?! I didn’t want to get married at all.
You didn’t want to get married?
No. I had experience with husbands.
How old were you?
I was about fifty nine.
Oh. That is probably the right age to get married.
Sixty. I was sixty and then we were living very nicely together, it was quite lovely.
Was that a successful marriage, do you think?
Yes, because being old, experienced, having the same interests in everything, in art, in literature, in music, in everything. It was wonderful, you know. He was great, he could speak Czech and he really discovered his Czech again and then we were able to travel to Prague. I introduced him to my colleagues because he didn’t have any. He was very happy, he liked them. It was good, but then he got cancer. It is ten years ago he died now.
So how long did you have together?
Ten years only?
It was a gift. You can’t find it as a young person. My first husband was a sculptor but he had no interest in music and I was so annoyed when we went to concert and suddenly I saw he’s sleeping, it so annoyed me! And then he said he was tortured, so he said, No, go alone. Then I went alone and so he was jealous I was going alone. But I needed it. So it was difficult.
Oh, look, you made a mask of Kafka.
I love Kafka, as you can see. It is a little portrait of Kafka, from his book, I don’t know if you read ‘The Trial’?
And this is Picasso?
That is Picasso, yes. If you know the painting, these two ladies running on the sea, so knowing how horrible he was against his women, I changed the lady there …
… to him. He is trying …
To catch her. Maybe it was him?
… running after her! It is a little joke, a homage.
Oh, here is Freddie’s head.
It is a plaster cast from the statue. It was a present from the foundry. When they cast the bronze they still had the mould so they made the plaster from that mould. They were so happy to do it and I was very grateful that they did it for me. This is all some people, this is a minister, this one a doctor. That is my husband, these three are my husband. This is a maquette for Emily Dickinson and this is some lady, that is a Czech singer from the beginning of the century. This is the head of a man who bought me in auction. They asked if I would do a sculpture for charity so he bought me at the auction and I did his portrait. I have hundreds and hundreds of heads, not hundreds but a lot. So yes, I am living with portraits.
Amazing, to live with all of this. Does it make you happy to be here?
Oh yes, oh yes. I can sit here and look at the books all day, not working!
Yes, what do you want?
Do you normally eat this whole cheesecake by yourself?
Well, when you live by yourself you get to indulge your pleasures.
Look. I brought you a present. It is a present for me but it is a present for you as well. I received these photographs from Richard, do you remember Richard Gray, the Art Director of Queen who photographed your work?
Yes, of course!
So I met him and I did an interview with him as well.
Yes, because he was so impressed when he was going to the foundry and he gave me about four photographs as well. Oh, that’s wonderful!
He gave me all of these, he gave me a whole CD and I printed them out for you. I am so excited about these, they have never been published, never been seen, archive only. For me, these are the best thing that has happened all year.
Oh nice, oh, that’s lovely! Thank you, I don’t have that one …
I love this one of you working on the sculpture, this is my favourite.
Yes, that was in the studio.
And here it is finished. This is Freddie in Montreux on his birthday. Look, look what’s going on around him, the craziness on his birthday, the fans are still celebrating every year.
Isn’t he lovely?
And here you are working from behind.
Yes, that’s wonderful!
Look at the sexy ass you made! And you are so small.
Yes, here inside is the structure, and you leave it a little bit empty, so that way you can put clay around the armature but it is not full clay.
You also made smaller studies?
Oh yes, when I have to do bigger stuff I first have to do a study of the body.
This is another Freddie study, without the clothes. What material is it?
It is resin. It is only a study for the body because you have to understand what is under the clothes, then when you dress it, you know the body. And then I first made the small size, I think one third or a half? I can’t remember. I think it was a half, yes it was a half, it was over a metre. So from that you enlarge it.
Who helped you with the armature then?
I had a friend come from Prague, because you will not believe me, I couldn’t get the right support for the statue here. I asked them to produce it for me, but no, they were doing it differently here and I was working the Czech way, you know. So I asked my friend, he was older, he just recently died now, if he would make me the stand and the armature for Freddie and I would pay him. I said, Come if you wish to come, and so he made these things in Czechoslovakia. He brought them over and he helped me to build it. He stayed about, I think for forty days and then he say goodbye. I paid him for the armature and then I carried on with the sculpture.
Freddie was dead, so did you model him from a photograph?
I made it from photographs, from videos, from everything they gave me that was important. Seeing him singing and moving was important.
How did seeing the moving images help you to make it in bronze?
Well, I had to live it really. I had to do it like I knew him so well, like I had him in front of me.
Did you have to become him in order to understand him and to depict his form?
I always say that it is a little bit like acting with the person. You try to find what they feel, and if you are the actor, you feel it. When I do the statues, I always imagine being the person. When I was doing Conan Doyle, the writer who wrote Sherlock Holmes, I just relaxed into imagining Conan Doyle writing and talking in his mind with Sherlock Holmes. Then I was doing the Beau Brummell who was this beautiful dandy, he knew that he was perfect, he was so proud. And when I was doing it, so I felt like that too, I am so beautiful, I am so proud, you know.
I am going to ask you …
I am a perfectionist, you know!
Irena, when you are sitting in front of me right now, you are closing your eyes and you are making the gestures of these bodies that you have sculpted. I am going to ask you a very personal question. When you sculpted the Freddie Mercury, did you ever strike this rock star pose in front of a mirror, to feel what it is like to stand in front of this mass of people at Wembley Stadium? Did you ever raise your arm and strike that gesture?
Listen, we were raising so many arms in the Socialist period.
You mimed it?
Yeah, I usually use mirrors, yes.
And that is completely natural for you to do, there is nothing strange about doing that?
No, it’s nothing strange. If you wish to sculpt even a hand, it is also your duty as an artist to show something more, the strength for example, so you try it out with your own hand.
You use your own body a lot.
Both as a vehicle and as a model.
I have to get into the person, feel him, yes of course. You’re right, I do it, I do this acting sort of to get into the person.
And do you think this is what separates you from other contemporary sculptors who…
I don’t know what they do.
Because a lot of these pieces by others that I see around that you mentioned are completely dead to me in that, you know, it seems like the artist has not really lived it.
Well, that is possible, yes, because to my surprise, they are quite quick. I am not quick, I am slow. If you are quick you end up just making a figure without resolving any of the problems.
Do the commissioners and the public accept it because they can’t tell the difference you think?
They are only focused on the photographic likeness, if they can identify the person or not.
One of the reasons why I wanted to come and meet you is because I think you represent an approach to art that is completely lost on my generation.
Yeah, I am old-fashioned. I am passé. I am passé but my problem is that I came here too late. I should by now have been on the map, that’s what I wanted, but now it’s too late.
Maybe you are timeless.
I doubt it, but perhaps it is going in spirals, you know. I touched it a little bit at some point, but no, it is all right. When I was in Prague I won the State prize, you know, which is a big honour. My picture was in the newspaper and people said, Oh, I saw your face. Yeah, yeah, yeah, and it was big laugh. We were young, we got used to it. The work was exhibited all year and so then if I did a new work my name was already known and everybody said, Oh yes, that’s by her.
But then I came here. And you know, you know you are nothing without your generation. You need a generation, people who grow with you, like in Prague. We all knew each other. We were fighting against each other but supporting each other and we were happy together, we had laughs and we were in competition. We held secrets from each other and then we would laugh again and so it was my generation. Here in England, I just always tried to do the best that I can do, you know. I am very happy I got to work. I was basically lucky that I made a living. I still enjoyed what I was doing but I didn’t have it, my generation.
Did you suffer from this?
No, I just said to myself, It is your own choice or it is your own fault. You could have stayed in Prague, you didn’t need to leave with your crazy husband!
But your work is in bronze, it is forever, it can be seen by future generations who might discover something new in it for themselves, or just find a new purpose in the old, like I just did. You cannot work in a more durable material than this.
Nothing is forever. I had this fantastic statue in Prague which I really loved, I told you, of the journalist who was executed by the Nazis in middle of the war. He wrote this fantastic book where he is talking with his executor. The statue of him was in bronze and they melted it in the end.
They melted it? When exactly?
Prague, 1991 – 1992
It was in the Nineties, wasn’t it, the Revolution? Because it is twenty years now, yes? That’s right, and so around 1991, 1992. Oh yes, this is what happens, through all the centuries, the new regime usually kills the other earlier regimes.
Can you talk about this, the experience of having your work destroyed, what were you thinking, how you felt?
I was sorry. I was sorry for one reason because he was a Communist but he was also a big writer who was executed. The book is translated to every possible language, so I was very sorry because the man who was an intelligent man, his writing was excellent. So he was simply a big man.
And no doubt your sculpture of him was also really good.
The sculpture was good, I think it was. I liked it and they liked it where he was born. It was placed in front of the gymnasium where he was studying and I just thought, a big writer, somebody executed by Nazis during the War … what is the point to pull him down? It was the little Czech people, so cruel, so stupid.
What was really the point of destroying it?
Well, revenge. Revenge, revenge on everything that was Red and because he was a Communist, so revenge, down with him. It is gone, yes, and I liked it, I thought it was a good piece.
And today, where do you think the winds are flowing? Do you think people there would like to have it back, if they could bring it back, your sculpture?
I can’t imagine.
Did any of your other works survive the 90s?
The statues from the Lenin Museum, on the roof that me, my husband and our friends were doing together. They were in stone and when they took them down, somebody bought them here in England for a song, as garden ornaments. There was an article in the Guardian, my daughter found it. Then they sold it to some American and so now they are in an American garden somewhere.
What feelings did you have when you saw it here in England, in a garden shop!?
Well, I was pleased they were saved, I thought they would be broken. Here is a photo from them taking it down. My brother-in -aw photographed it. And this is the monument in Moravia, 140 people were killed running from the Nazis. It is still there.
So this one survived?
Yes. This was the maquette. It was enlarged to three metres
And the lunettes from the Lenin museum, do you know what happened to them?
I don’t know. They were also bronze and I think they were also melted. When I started going back to Prague I asked people about my work and they just said, Oh, we don’t know, we don’t know.
But Freddie has not been melted, it has been emigrated. It lives in exile in Switzerland!
Montreaux, April, 2011
I went to Montreaux to see it for myself. Freddie is facing the calm waters of lake Geneva. It seems wrong. I mean, I understand the circumstance and I think the welcome the statue has received here is enough to say that it belongs here. It is very melancholic there, a good tribute. The locals adore it and the fans don’t mind to travel from all around the world to see it there. But still, you know, this statue also does belong in urban London somehow, facing a bustling crowd. It should come back, even on loan, for a short period of time, so that people can have a chance to see it properly, admire your work, pay their tribute to Freddie and then it would be returned to Montreaux, and missed.
Didcot, April, 2011
You wanted milk?
No sugar, I guess.
No sugar, thank you. You want to sit in the nice chair today?
We change the setting. Do you normally sit in your big red chair?
No, I sit usually here.
I don’t know, because …
OK, if you sit there, I sit here because I want to see your face otherwise…
You want to see my face?
You cannot hide!
There is you.
Did you make this, the flower arrangement? Did you make this?
About twenty years ago! And it’s all dusty and that was only what we collected walking in the country.
And it stayed like this for twenty years? It looks like wood now, it is a whole story in a flower arrangement.
What happened, some bird, the blackbird came in here, it was late, it was a really dark evening. And he was really mad, he didn’t know how to get out. I opened all doors I could and couldn’t get him and he sat up in this! He went straight for it. I also have a local robin, he always come to speak with me.
Ok, let’s sit down.
Actually, we could have a nice cake, a lemon cake. Do you prefer that rather than these biscuits? I think it would be better.
No, I’m happy with this. As you want.
The lemon cake is quite safe, I didn’t make it.
You always have amazing cakes.
Well, this is from Waitrose, you know. When I go shopping, I can’t resist.
You have the best cakes. Oh, that’s too big, half. Half of this.
Half of this? Well, it will put it for you in two pieces, whatever.
No, because I already had a big lunch.
You know, I couldn’t get out of bed this morning, I was so tired from Montreux.
How you can manage, go for one day, and next day to come back.
Very tiring but it was very, very useful for me.
You are incredible to go for that one day, such a long journey.
Yeah, but today flying like that is not …
Yeah, I know but still. How we say, the schlepping!
Schlepping is my job!
You are young, that’s it. You are young. When I was young …
I just wanted to take a photo and it was raining all day and I was waiting, waiting. Then half an hour before sunset, beautiful light. I took my picture and that’s it. I am really happy with the sunset, look.
Who did you meet?
I had lunch with Anne, Jim’s personal assistant, she manages everything. She was so nice, she organized everything for me there. She remembers you from the inauguration. And then I met a wonderful man called Norbert who owns the biggest souvenir shop and also runs Montreux Music, the festival. I said to Anne, “I have to photograph Freddie with a ladder because I want to be on the same level as his face”. So she found Norbert for me and he lent me this ladder. He of course has the biggest interest in the statue staying in Montreux, he knows my project to take it away and still he was so enthusiastic and helpful. I called him from London and said, “I absolutely have to have a big ladder”, so he brought me the biggest ladder. But then when we were all finally there in front of Freddie, I had vertigo so I could not even get up! I said, “I cannot take the photo”, so he climbed up on the ladder and took the picture from above. It was raining the whole time.
He was nice man, that’s lovely!
He told me all these great stories about how pop music landed in Montreux. It started in Paris in 1968, when all the students were trashing the music venues and abusing the musicians on stage so the promoters were forced to move the gigs further and further away and eventually the acts came to tiny Montreux and here nobody trashed the concerts and the performers were respected and let be so they loved coming there. When Freddie arrived he was so anxious about being harassed by fans and paparazzis he would take a car to the studio every day until one day he was convinced to take a walk along the promenade and nobody cared and so he loved it there and stayed. As a young man Norbert saw every major act in that town in a room together with only 200 other people. The music just came to him.
You have a nice collaborator!
He organises the festival around Freddie every year and he said, “Oh, but if you take it away, I lose my business”. He was supposed to be my nemesis but he became my best friend in Montreux for the day, you know. He even took the photo I came to do in the end. So from his souvenir shop, I have some very interesting things for you. This T-shirt was made to support a Hungarian cyclist, “Last year, Tibor cycled one thousand two hundred kilometres, climbed five thousand metres from Budapest to see Freddie in Montreux.”
Oh, that’s so fantastic, this love of Freddie Mercury.
Yeah, but look how crazy. A guy on a bike, the Alps and young Freddie, all in one picture. So you think if it was in London, people would not cycle from all over the world to see him?
You leaving this here?
It is for you.
Oh, thank you!
You have to wear it, I hope it’s your size!
I don’t think I will be wearing it, I will have to … my size is slightly bigger, I’m sorry.
No, this is a big T-shirt.
Yeah, I know, but this old lady’s …
Anyway, keep it. And here is a big box with a small miniature version of your statue.
Because I sold them the rights, you know …
Yes, so then you can see what they made from it.
Yes, how I can get in it?
You have to do it yourself, I am not going to help you to open your present!
I will try! It is so very … the box is probably a statue in itself.
It is a big box but a small figure inside.
Yes, you can’t get in so easily out, look at my hands, I am really ill now with my hands, you know.
Ok, you want me to help you?
You’re doing it wrong, you just do it like that. It comes out more …
It is an edition because this is the certificate. Some other artist must have made that miniature from your monumental piece, don’t you think? It closes the circle because you told me when you were working in the British Museum doing souvenirs and now you get a souvenir made of your monumental statue. Maybe some young artist from Prague made it?
I wonder if I didn’t make it? I have the original clay in the back. But this one is even smaller, they made it smaller with a machine.
Oh you did? So this is by your own hand, the figure I bought? How stupid of me.
Yes. But with the technology today, you can easily do small or big. The foundry here is very good. I saw some sculptors there bring in such small sketches that then were enlarged to the size perfectly with the machine. My colleagues, of course they’re all forty, fifty. The oldest is sixty. So then they only finish it, so that is possible.
You think it is “legal” to work like this?
Well, there’s nothing wrong with it, there is nothing wrong with it if you are there, and you see it. But I never dreamed to do it like that. I am so old fashioned, the way I was trained, I am old you see. I do the sketches, the bodies, then I made this small study with clothes and then I made it slightly bigger and bigger. It is a slow process. My professor in the Academy, he would spend eight years on one statue. He did it big and they said, No, and he started to sketch another, then it changed and finally he came back to the beginning. And his professor in turn, who made this big monument to St Wenceslas in Prague in the square, this fantastic big statue, it is really perfect, it took him twenty five years!
One piece, twenty five years?
Well, that monument, there were four figures but yes, twenty five years. And when I show it to the young sculptors around me when come here, they always hang on to all my books and I tell them, Look, that face is wonderful, look how many times the mask he made and how many faces for that same Wenceslas he made, expressions, six of them. It is just unbelievable, they are beautiful, the faces, these sketches. The young sculptors, they come here because they don’t work like that. They make a sketch, enlarge it and it takes them about maximum a year to make a piece, usually just six or seven months.
How long time did you spend on Freddie?
About two years.
It is incredibly loved in Montreux.
They were very happy to get it there because there is a tradition of this light music they have for this festival every year.
The Jazz Festival. But you know, there is a hotel there called The Royal Plaza Hotel and in front of it is a sculpture park. Some American lady paid for maybe ten bronzes to be put there of American jazz legends, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin and so on. They took me there because they said, “You have to see the difference between Sedlecka’s masterpiece and this nonsense that we have here in Montreux”. It was incredible. I didn’t know they existed.
It depends what she was after, did she want it to be very modern or something or very stylised?
I don’t know how to talk about it even because I don’t have a language for this but I would say on first glance they look ok, you could see the likeness like you say, they are jazzy, they are a little bit like funky, the sculptures. You can see the hand of the artist in the clay, you can see the very big expressions of the musicians. But it is nothing like your work. It is a joke compared to yours. Like a child did it. This is what is missing, a sense of architecture from within. There is no skeleton inside of these.
Yes, so what they do. These are sculptors who wish to be a little bit modern, they stylise it, they ignore certain things but if they get the feeling, it is all right. There are so many statues out there now and they are really amateurish. You know immediately if a proper sculptor did it, you know if the figure stays right even if it is moving. The clothes too are really like architecture. Everything sits right on the piece. It is not done not by accident, but by thinking, by proper composition.
But when I came from watching these jazz sculptures and went back to your Freddie, it looked like every bone in his body is broken and still you put it together in a way that is totally is realistic. It works, one understands that you really know everything about him, that you can take radical liberties and still it is perfect and totally engaging to be with this sculpture. You know the skeleton of this man, not just his musculature and clothing and gesture, but you understand the complete anatomy and the spirit of this person. Incredible!
Better make the tea …
It was really so important for me to go and see it, you know. Here is a selection of postcards. I took lots of pictures but I think these are better than mine. So this is on the birthday celebration, he is covered in flowers. And here he is on the lake, at sunset, more flowers. So many flowers in Montreux, you cannot believe it.
So if it would go to London, it would be all scrabbled on, with writing and colours, I don’t know.
I don’t know, I think people would bring flowers as they do there. It is not destroyed, nobody is vandalising it. It is celebrated.
On the other hand, of course, how old would he be now?
Freddie? He is turning sixty five this year.
Sixty five, so the people who are coming there are over sixty, they have money. And that is it, that is a very good business for Montreux, so they must be quite happy.
Yeah, but they also admit young people. You see lots of different people, tourists everywhere. Everyone is taking photos and posing. Look at this photo of this little girl posing properly like Freddie, same stylized expression, but look at her little attitude!
It is lovely because now she also knows who Freddie is.
This is my picture. I think Freddie looks a little bit like Lenin from this angle, no?
I can’t imagine. I know Lenin by heart! I could draw him still!
Jim, Queen’s manager told me a funny story about the legs. He said that you made the legs shorter with the intention of looking up on them, which is how you normally would look at a statue of this importance. But now it is placed nearly on street level, which is the wrong perspective to see it from and so the legs simply read short?
They are long, I made them longer because to look shorter when you look up, so they’re longer now. They should probably be shorter. I never thought that it would be placed so low.
So if it was shown on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, it would be at the right perspective that you had originally devised. The proportions would be correct. You ARE a master.
Didcot, June, 2011
I have to go back now. You have given me so much homework!
It is nothing important! You don’t need to do anything and I don’t believe you will get permission with putting Freddie Mercury on the plinth.
Well, how do you know that?
I know. I would be very happy of course. I wonder, I don’t know what they do with this thing. A lot of funny things happen on that plinth!
You know what? For me, my work is to try and see what happens when I try, and a lot of times I fail but sometimes, if an idea can capture other people’s imagination, and if they are as passionate about it as I am and if I can have some support for it, then sometimes, it can even be successful.
Yes, you are right. I would be happy to see this because I love this Queen, I love these songs, I love this Freddie Mercury.
This year is the 40th anniversary of Queen and the 20th anniversary of Freddie’s death and September 5th would have been his 65th birthday, so there is a lot of renewed interest. I think he would eventually fit very well there on that plinth in Trafalgar Square, with those other bronzes of war heroes. Freddie also fought a war of sorts, that he lost, with his own body. He was very important for this country, for music and for art. There are many people all over the world who love him still. You know this?
Oh yes, they do, they do. Then some people learn that I have done his statue and they come around, and I know how much love there is. I was in love with it when I made it.
And I would also like to bring you into my generation because this is also an experiment for me to see what one can do across generations.
Well, I am not really invited, nobody is asking for it you know. So this is a purely independent and unsolicited proposal. My motivation is sentimental. I have already spent six months on your story and I feel great loyalty and passion towards it. I was struck by the connection between you and Freddie, across styles and generations. I admire your skill, quest for excellence, sense of humor and humility. It would be wonderful for you to see Freddie on the Plinth happen in your lifetime and so the urgency is right there. But I also know that the longer there is a void on that plinth and the longer Freddie remains in exile, while this story is being circulated, the more potent all those factors become. It is all about longing, and distance, and time, this piece.
And this stupid taxi doesn’t pick up.
Maybe try another?