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Prague's upside-down horse hangs with King Wenceslaus riding his belly.

POTW: Prague’s Upside-Down Horse

An upside-down horse is likely not what you came to Prague expecting to see. But then Czech artist David Černý likes to do things differently. The horse and the beautiful Lucerna Passage it hangs in, should not be missed.

On any trip to Prague, you’re certainly going to visit Wenceslaus Square. This is where things happen in Prague… revolutions, celebrations, demonstrations. And all this feverish activity is watched over by the country’s patron saint, Vaclav, who we in the West tend to know as Good King Wenceslaus. He was the Christian ruler of the country in the 10th century and was murdered by his ambitious brother Boleslav the Cruel.

There he sits at the top of the square, astride a majestic prancing horse, in front of the domed National Museum. The statue was begun by sculptor Josef Vaclav Myslbek in 1887 and finally put into place in 1912, a testament to Czech honor, patriotism, and all that good stuff.

But not so far away, near the other end of the square, is another King Vaclav and his horse… but with a twist of classic Czech irony.

Prague's upside-down horse hangs with King Wenceslaus riding his belly.

Do you think King Wenceslaus is oblivious to the fact that his steed is not only an upside-down horse
that’s sticking its tongue out but is also dead?

Inside the Lucerna Passage—an elegant and decorative Art Nouveau shopping and entertainment area built in 1920—you’ll find yourself confronting another horse that, while perhaps not of a different color is certainly of a different condition. He’s dead, you see, and hanging by his feet, his poor head lolling down and his tongue sticking out. But apparently King Vaclav still needed a mount, dead or alive, and so he mounted the upside down steed, riding astride the dead horse’s belly.

This upside-down horse, a perfect depiction of the Czech penchant for black humor, was created in 1999 by the post-modern Czech artist David Černý. The same David Černý who once painted a Russian tank that was gracing the square pink. And the same one who designed those odd babies you might have noticed crawling up the sides of the Czech TV tower.

The poor dead horse and his oblivious king seem yet more bizarre surrounded by the elaborate marble work and stained glass and general Art-Nouveau kitschy loveliness of the atrium where they hang. You can’t help but wonder how that fragile and lovely ceiling can support the weight of such a large piece. But although it looks like bronze, the horse and rider are actually sculpted of foam.

A Presidential Connection

The building was built by Vaclav Havel, grandfather of the famous poet/playwright/dissident of the same name who became the first president of the nation after the fall of Communism (which he helped bring about). Havels are still part owners of the property and in fact, one of the stories I heard about the Upside-Down Horse involves the family. Word is that an aunt of the presidential Vaclav was a firm Royalist and ordered the statue as a statement of persistence and faith. She decreed that the king should ride on an upended dead horse until the monarchy is restored to Czech. Probably an apocryphal tale but if not, our Vaclav here is likely to have a long dead ride.

Like most of Černý’s work, this bizarre, controversial but ultimately enjoyable piece of art is certainly a worthy addition to the Czech tradition of Theater of the Absurd.


Note: There’s a nice cafe on the upper level of the atrium, the Cafe Kino. Just go up the amber-rose colored marble steps across from our guy here. If you can get a seat by the window looking down into the atrium, you can get a nice angle for a photo. I had coffee with whipped cream and a pastry. A bit pricey for Prague, but not out of reach and a pleasant spot.