By Sandra Samolik, October 20, 2016
Josef Lada, a painter and writer, is especially known for his illustrations, which accompany Czechs from their cradle, through their holidays and later age. Czech children grow up with his illustrations of fairy tales and children’s readers, such as ‘Kocour Mikeš’ or ‘Mikeš the tomcat’. His landscapes adorn thousands of Czech Christmas cards and calendars. Thereby, his satiric illustrations of the World War One novel “The Good Soldier Švejk” by Jaroslav Hašek’s, give the character a face, that amuses the adult readers.
Who was ‘Kocour Mikeš’ or ‘Mikeš the tomcat’?
Mikeš, is a black cat, that lives with the shoemaker Pepik, grandmother and his friends in the village Hrusice. The intrepid tomcat, Mikeš, decides to explore the world and the readers get to follow him on his journeys. Eventually, he returns to his safe hometown and enjoys his time with his family and friends again.
Josef Lada himself was born in a cobbler’s family in Hrusice and left his village to start a training as a bookbinder and worked later as editor-in-chief for the Sunday issue of České slovo – Kvítko z čertovy zahrádky in Prag. After 1924, he started returning to his native village with his family where they spent their summer holidays. There, he decided to buy a piece of land and built a house in 1930. Four years later, he started to write the adventures of the talking cat, Mikeš, and completed his story in 1936. It has been translated into 30 languages and published around the world.
Lada has a very characteristic style, but the artist shouldn’t be confused with his simple visual style. His work concentrates on the simple things in life, gatherings, landscapes, very romantic, quiet and poetic scenes. But this doesn’t mean that he was simplistic or unsophisticated.
According to art historian, Dr. Pavla Pečínková:
“Josef Lada does paint a world of his own…. All sorts of artists were doing this in the 1930s, and throughout both of the World Wars. The artist had the choice of using his art to engage with his surroundings, or to escape them. Lada was one of these introverts and sought inspiration from within.”
He was very productive through his lifetime and created hundreds of landscapes and quaint scenes. Nonetheless, Lada also took on a serious topics, by creating illustrations for the satirical novel ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ in 1923. He confronts the viewer with the events of World War I. However, his images allow readers to face the topic from a critical, satirical point of view, without being confronted with the cruelty of war. The storyline is set during World War I in Austria-Hungary, a multi-ethnic empire full of longstanding ethnic tensions. This war caused the deaths of about fifteen million people; one million of them were Austro-Hungarian soldiers, which included around 140,000 Czechs.
In 1925, the satirical war novel was banned from Czechoslovak army libraries and was suppressed in Bulgaria. The Polish version was confiscated in 1928 and the German translation was burned on Nazi bonfires in 1933.
What made ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ so unacceptable?
It explores in a hilariously subversive depiction, the pointlessness and futility of conflicts and military discipline, Austrian military discipline in particular. Many of its characters, especially the Czechs, are participating in a conflict they do not understand on behalf of an empire to which they have no loyalty.
The main character, soldier Josef Švejk, is a symbolic representation of this theme, undergoing many amusing and surprising adventures. Through idiocy or incompetence, which is possibly feigned, he repeatedly manages to frustrate military authority and exposes its stupidity in the form of passive resistance. The reader is left unclear whether Švejk is genuinely incompetent or acting deliberately with dumb insolence. Nonetheless, these absurd events reach a climax when Švejk, wearing a Russian uniform, is mistakenly taken prisoner by his own troops.
Due to the contentious political situation in Europe after WWI, the controversial character of soldier Švejk became inadmissible for nations that were opposed to minorities (e.g. Czechs) or supported the military or monarchy. Although all the given disapproval against soldier Švejk, Josef Lada continued to develop his soldier character and edited his illustrations until 1954.
This novel is the most often translated Czech book worldwide and one of the most popular anti-war novels. Art historians assume that Josef Lada’s style was influenced due to his work as an illustrator for newspapers, conditioned by the black and white printing techniques, and permitting simple, clear lines.
However, he kept this narrative, picturesque style with an idyllic accent also in his oil paintings. Lada’s work is clear and understandable for all age groups, therefore, put in context, it receives an absolute different resonance, what makes his images so popular.