VISEGRAD: An Epic battle in Prague

By bne IntelliNews July 21, 2010

Nicholas Watson in Prague -

When the Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha created The Slav Epic, he would have had no idea that one day his masterpiece depicting the proud history of the Slavs would become the focus of more contemporary Czech life: low politics and money grubbing.

The grandson of the artist, John Mucha, said he intends to appeal on July 21 an earlier Prague court ruling that dismissed an injunction filed by his family designed to prevent Prague City Hall from unilaterally moving the 20 giant paintings that comprise The Slav Epic to its new home in Prague, Veletrzni palace, where the National Gallery is located.

The Slav Epic is currently housed in the chateau in Moravsky Krumlov, a town in the Moravian Region, where it was put by the Communists, who had little use for the work of an artist that had espoused Czech nationalism. Yet, according to Prague City Hall, the bad state of the chateau means that The Slav Epic needs to be moved, with an opening date in Veletrzni palace set for the end of September. Cesky Krumlov mayor Jaroslav Mokry told CTK that the first five works will be taken down and prepared for transport to Prague on July 26, even though a ruling on the Mucha family's appeal is not expected for another 15 days.

In its appeal, the Mucha family disputes that moving the paintings to Veletrzni palace would be any safer, nor does the new home meet the condition that Mucha and his patron, the late US millionaire Charles R. Crane, laid down when they bestowed the work to Prague City in 1928: that it should be exhibited in a proper space especially created for it, something that has never happened.

Who's work is it anyway?

The problem is that there was never any formal agreement signed by the three parties - Crane, Mucha and Prague City. The Mucha family is using this as one its main arguments against the move, which they fear will damage or even destroy the work - a claim that's been backed up by expert testimony from, among others, the chief of the conservation department of the National Gallery, the very place the work is intended to be exhibited. "The Fascists and the Communists tried to destroy the Epic, they didn't succeed. If the Epic moves to Prague as envisaged by Prague City, it would be very sad if the Prague City succeeds where others have failed," says John Mucha.

He adds that he's "not being hysterical," but the language shows how bitter this fight is becoming. Prague City Hall has meanwhile been doing its bit to lower the tone of the dispute, with Ondrej Pecha, Prague councillor in charge of cultural affairs, quoted as likening the city's assertion of ownership over The Slav Epic to how one asserts ownership over a motor car: if you've got the keys to the car, then you can drive it where you want to. Pecha did not return calls about the matter; Mucha calls this talk "almost barbaric."

This is a shame, because the two sides had been in constructive talks over the past few years to find a permanent home for the work in Mucha's beloved Prague. The Mucha family's preferred site for a specially built gallery is the rundown and Graffiti-defaced area in Letna park where the giant statue of Stalin used to stand. Mucha says he has two investors lined up ready to finance the building of a new gallery, which would not cost the city a crown and would be jointly owned by the Mucha Foundation, Prague City Hall and the investors. Mucha says the Foundation would also donate works and educational materials from the present Mucha Gallery in central Prague, as well as contents from the family house opposite Prague Castle, where his 93-year-old mother has lived for the past 50 years but which the family only rents. For its part, Prague City Hall had suggested Vitkov in the Zizkov area of Prague. No agreement had been reached, but at least the two sides were talking.

The question for many observing this battle is why Prague City Hall has decided now to abandon talks and unilaterally assert its legally dubious ownership rights over the collection. Perhaps, say some, it might have to do with the upcoming municipal elections in October, where the Civic Democrats (ODS) are in danger of losing power to a new party Top09, which was a huge beneficiary of the Czech public's rejection of the institutional corruption of the main two parties in the May general elections, winning 43 seats compared with ODS' 51 seats. Bringing The Slav Epic to Prague would be a big PR coup for the local government.

Needless to say, the issue of money also clouds The Slav Epic affair. Prague City Hall says it is putting up CZK25m (€1m) to move the work to Veletrzni palace; Mucha says, based on the cost of sending some of the paintings that comprise the collection to galleries around the world, it shouldn't cost more than CZK8m. Someone will clearly benefit from the city's largesse.

The irony is that should the Prague court accept the Mucha family's injunction to freeze The Slav Epic where it is until the ultimate ownership question is resolved, the court that then decides who owns the work could plump for the party that appears aloof from the battle: the family of Charles R. Crane, who financed the work. John Mucha claims that the Crane family has already given him assurances they will pass ownership onto the Foundation, which would put the issue back to square one in Moravsky Krumlov.

VISEGRAD: An Epic battle in Prague

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