From the saints on Charles Bridge to the bronze dignitaries on every square, Prague  is a showcase for statuary and sculpture. While these historical monuments can be arresting, they donʼt offer much insight into Czech art and character. For that unique blend of intensity, absurdity and fantasy, contemporary work is the most revealing. And surprising. One of the great delights of walking the city is suddenly coming across giant babies or dancing nymphs. If they seem amusing, bewildering, even crude at times, youʼre on the path to aesthetic enlightenment. Thatʼs the one we will follow in this select overview, with a few detours to take in revealing or overlooked slices of the past.

Černý's Babies
© Bachtrack Ltd | Alison Karlin

The most prominent sculptor working in Prague today is David Černý, who might be more accurately described as a provocateur. Černý came to prominence in 1991 after organizing a crew to paint a Soviet tank pink. The Russians were gone by then, but the tank was part of a war memorial, and Černý was briefly jailed. Since then he has specialized in the surreal, the bizarre, the outrageous – anything to shock viewers and shake up their sense of reality.

The huge, faceless babies crawling up the futuristic television tower in Žižkov and around Museum Kampa in Malá Strana are Černýʼs work, as is the caricature of Sigmund Freud hanging precariously from a plank perched high above Husova Street in Old Town. His irreverent response to the iconic statue of St Wenceslas at the top of Wenceslas Square is a near-copy hanging from the ceiling of nearby Lucerna Palace – except that the horse is upside-down, and clearly dead. Even more impudent are the two men pissing into a pool (shaped like the Czech Republic) in front of the Kafka Museum in the Cihelná area of Malá Strana. Saving grace: They are supposedly spelling out noteworthy quotes from famous Czechs.

Franz Kafka, by Jaroslav Róna
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

Kafka fares better in another piece by Černý, a large stainless steel head perched behind the Quadrio office/shopping complex at the Národní třída tram and metro stop. The glittery bust is sliced into 42 rotating layers that keep its expression constantly changing and mesmerized tourists busy with their cameras. A more serious take on Pragueʼs signature author can be found in front of the Spanish Synagogue in the Josefov section of Old Town, where Kafka sits on the shoulders of a much larger, disembodied suit. Sculptor Jaroslav Roná took his inspiration from the Kafka short story Description of a Struggle, in which the narrator is carried around on an acquaintance’s back. In good weather, the outdoor tables at the V Kolkovně restaurant across the street offer relaxed viewing and tasty Czech dining.

Monumental sculptures in city center tend to be high atop monumental buildings –  the twin triga driven by Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory, on the corners of the National Theater, and Genius and the Lion, symbolizing progress and prosperity, on the impregnable Czech National Bank at Náměstí Republiky. The street art is more accessible and engaging, starting with Il Commendatore, a shrouded figure seated outside the Estates Theater in Old Town. He is a character from Mozartʼs opera Don Giovanni, which premiered at the theater in 1787. Sculptor Anna Chromý has a more joyful piece at Senovážná náměstí, one block south of the Masaryk train station (Masarykovo nádraží), where a quartet of musicians play and dance around a fountain. Frozen in a moment of revelry, they embody grace and artistic exuberance.

Anna Chromý - Il Commendatore
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

Other noteworthy works in city center range from the legendary to the sublime. Surprisingly, thereʼs no golem in the Jewish Quarter, where Rabbi Loew is said to have created the fearsome guardian in the late 16th century. However, the rabbi occupies a corner niche at City Hall on Mariánské náměstí. The Darth Vader lookalike on the opposite corner is the Iron Knight, said to come to life every 100 years in search of a virgin to release him from his curse. On the opposite end of Old Town, near the Marriott on V Celnici, red deer with wings soar through the Sv. Norbert alleyway. Sculptor Michal Gabriel created them for the newly opened Červený Jelen (Red Stag) restaurant, a renovated Baroque palace worth a stop to take in the bright, airy atrium and sample what is reputedly the worldʼs tallest beer tower.

The lush Franciscan Garden tucked between Jungmannovo náměstí and Wenceslas Square offers a respite from the noisy streets and a safe haven for children, with sculptures to match. Josef Klimešʼs trio of Wild Girls seem to float like butterflies, ephemeral nymphs let loose to play. Stanislav Hanzlíkʼs young boy drinking from a conch shell captures the spirit of the adjacent playground, and serves as a drinking fountain in the summer. In the passageway leading from the garden to Wenceslas Square, look for the storefront counter at Ovocný Světozor, which serves the best ice cream in the city.

Green spaces offer even more enticing viewing in other parts of Prague. In Malá Strana, the expansive Wallenstein Garden (around the corner from the Malostranská metro stop) is a manicured masterpiece with a large pond, aviary, wandering peacocks and a handsome collection of figures from Greek mythology. Most of them are copies; the originals were stolen by the Swedes during the Thirty Yearsʼ War. One tram stop away, in the well-hidden Vrtba Garden (accessible through a doorway next to the U Malého Glena jazz club on Karmelitská), a rich array of statues and sculptures maintain the classical theme in what is considered one of the most beautiful Baroque gardens in Central Europe. A short walk  south on Karmelitská, two restaurants serve authentic foreign fare: Asian cuisine at NOI, and Tex-Mex at Cantina.

Rabbi Loew
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

Further afield, Vyšehrad, the historic rocky promontory overlooking the Vltava River, hosts four pairs of mythic Czech figures. Originally created by Josef Václav Myslbek for the Palacký Bridge, they strike valiant poses: Šárka the warrior with her lover Ctirad; Záboj and Slavoj, the brothers who drove off the invading Franks; the brave bard Lumír with his muse Song; and Libuše, the mother of the Czech nation, with her ploughman husband Přemysl. On the other side of Sts. Peter and Paul Basilica, many of the nationʼs real-life heroes are buried in an elegant cemetery that doubles as a meditative sculpture garden.

Myslbekʼs most famous work is the aforementioned statue of St. Wenceslas astride his horse at the top of Wenceslas Square, which was not completed until a year after the sculptorʼs death in 1922. In keeping with nationalist loyalties, he surrounded Wenceslas with four Czech patron saints: Ludmila, Agnes, Prokop and Adalbert.

Many of the most intriguing historical curiosities in Prague are less obvious, like two ornate plague columns in Malá Strana whose appropriately blackened condition make them easy to miss. Both the Plague Column of the Virgin Mary on Hradčanské, behind Prague Castle, and the Column of the Holy Trinity on Malostranské náměstí, below the Castle, were erected by grateful residents who survived the epidemic that ravaged Prague in 1713-14. Look closely and you can find an even more grisly memorial on Malostranské náměstí: 27 stylized heads mounted on a row of posts in front of Lichtenstein Palace. These are the noblemen who led an unsuccessful uprising in 1621. They were beheaded on Old Town Square, but the sentencing took place here.

Memorial to the victims of communism
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

Both gratitude and misery carried over into the 20th century. At the base of Petřin Hill, near the Újezd tram stop, the Memorial to the Victims of Communism portrays a series of disintegrating figures, graphically illustrating the corrosive effects of totalitarian rule. Sculptor Olbram Zoubek worked with  architects Jan Kerel and Zdeněk Holzel to create a memorial that tallies the horrific numbers of the Communist era: 205,486 arrested, 248 executed, 4,500 died in prison.

Local sentiment ran in the opposite direction 45 years earlier, when the Russian Army liberated Prague in the closing days of World War II. This is commemorated in memorable fashion in the park next to Hlavní nádraží, the main train station. At the north end of the park (near the Hlavní nádraží tram stop), atop a tall plinth, a grateful Czech soldier is kissing a Russian soldier full on the mouth – a star-crossed love affair if ever there was one.

Overall, the one word that best sums up the sculpture scene in Prague is dynamic. Every summer the city hosts Sculpture Line, an event that exhibits large-scale sculptures at prominent points throughout the city. They range from outré to abstract, with some left in place through the fall and winter. Two holdovers from the 2019 exhibition both featured simian subjects: Original Sin, an anguished, oversized ape-man in the portico of the Dancing Building, and King Kongʼs Balls (in gold, no less) on the plaza in front of the Intercontinental Hotel in Josefov.

In short, expect anything on the streets of Prague.

This article was sponsored by Prague City Tourism.