Sculpture: She could make heroes

Irena Sedlecka made art for communist Czechoslovakia. Now she has discovered her early works fetching a fortune in Surrey. By Mike Harrison

Mike Harrison
Saturday 24 January 1998 01:02

A young Czech sculptor, Irena Sedlecka, was one of a group invited, in the early 1950s, to decorate the roof of the new Lenin Museum in Prague with heroic statues. More than 40 years later, she rediscovered them waiting for sale in an architectural salvage yard in Surrey. Works that had earned her no more than routine fees were now tagged at pounds 40,000 each.

Behind this encounter is the stuff of 20th-century legend: lives shaped by world war, a dedication to art and the compromises imposed on creative workers by systems of patronage.

Today, Irena, 69, rents a studio on a run-down industrial estate in Watford. It is a disused chicken shed, expensive to heat and with a leaky roof. When she is not driven there by her friend and mould-maker, David Perrott, she has to spend hours travelling by public transport from her home in Wandsworth.

The studio is packed with the clay models for her commissioned bronzes of actors, singers, musicians and TV personalities. The kindly Perrott busies around her when visitors come, fielding questions and prompting answers. The pride of her collection is a model for a statue of the singer Freddie Mercury, made from photographs, which was commissioned by Mercury's music publishers as a posthumous tribute. The work was intended to be displayed in London, but music colleges and public authorities turned it down for fear of theft or vandalism. Freddie now stands, in his trademark strutting pose, staring out over Lake Geneva at Montreux, stretching a hand up to the 3m height limit imposed by the town authorities. The work is fast becoming a shrine.

Irena Sedlecka was born to a middle-class family in Pilsen in 1928. Her father was a publisher's representative. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia at the start of the Second World War, he was drafted to work in the Skoda factory, making military equipment. All education ceased. Irena and her younger sister, Jaroslava, were taught basics by their mother and by neighbours.

At 16, she applied to train as a teacher but failed a test of Aryan purity; her father had black, curly hair. She was sent instead to work 8 miles away from home in a wire factory. In the terrible winters at the end of the War, a freezing journey to work in the unheated factory took her to the heart of the American bombardment of the Nazi industrial machine. It was a terrible time.

Irena and Jaroslava found solace in drawing and painting: "Art was our play. We drew all the time, even sometimes on the white edges of old newspapers." But she had found her calling. Before the War ended, she made portraits in clay of Communist heroes. They were prepared in great secrecy for a bookshop-owner friend who wanted to be ready for the post-war celebrations.

At the end of the War, higher education began again under the Russians. Irena and her sister went to the Prague Academy of Fine Art. They began to make up for lost time. "I just fell for sculpture. There was nothing else. Even at weekends when the place was closed, we used to break in and keep working. It was so exciting to be doing what we had wanted to for so long. There was so much hope."

With the Russians came the socialist realist style. Irena and her teachers took to it readily. "I could see there was no money to be made from private collectors," she says. "The only client was the state. It saw sculptors as good propagandists." And so she came to learn both art and craft, working on massive statues and reliefs in bronze and stone, designed to be seen under heavy skies and to survive frosty, stone-flaking Eastern winters.

During the Cold War, these monumental pieces, heavy with their message of the dignity of labour and proletarian courage, became the target of Western anti-Communist propaganda. But for Irena, they were the passport to a technique that liberated her creativity. "We were happy to mirror life. We did pieces that commented on the War, celebrated the army, the working class that were rebuilding the country. It was natural to follow the new style - we were living it." Irena won a commission for a monument to the victims of fascism - it still survives at Melke Mezirici in Moravia - and a monument in Pilsen to a Czech journalist, Julius Fucik, who was executed by the Nazis.

To get access to larger projects, she teamed up with two other sculptors from her class, Svata Hajerova and Ludwig Kodym, who soon became her first husband. Together they worked on several prestigious projects, culminating in a set of reliefs for the walls of the Lenin Museum in Prague. They are still in place. Irena says they won the Lenin Museum competition by including portraits of town dignitaries alongside the great and the good of Communist history. The habit of stroking the ego of the client was well-formed, even in a Communist state. Sycophancy was rewarded; the group was asked, without competition, to do additional pieces to decorate the roof of the building.

They were to do six statues depicting heroic characteristics of the revolutionary state. They had to be big and inspiring, at least 2.5m high. Apart from that, the sculptors were on their own - a rare freedom.

The three divided the work between them, taking two figures each and working on half-sized clay models. Irena sculpted an agent provocateur and a worker. The others sculpted a mother and children, a machine-gunner, corps commander and a Cossack. They worked quickly on the clay miniatures. Then massive two-tonne sandstone blocks were carved in situ on the top of the building by expert masons.

Today, with Cold-War prejudice gone, even against the backdrop of a scrap- yard, the pieces are impressive. They have an inspirational quality that encapsulates the glowing hope of the 1950s. Irena's group knew a trick or two. "You have to know where your work will be seen," she says. "These are designed to be looked at from below, the roof was so high. We had to work on the models with mirrors to get the perspective right. People don't respect that way of working any more - they won't call it art, only craft."

The statues were brought to the UK in 1991, during the run-up to the formation of the Czech Republic. An ex-City dealer, Drummond Shaw, who owns an architectural salvage yard at Bramley in Surrey, saved them from being toppled from the roof of the museum. He bought them for an undisclosed price and describes them as of extremely high artistic quality. His present asking price, around pounds 40,000 each, reflects his belief in the new market for socialist realist art in the West. He has not been disappointed. Two have been sold to private collectors in America and Scotland. Further exports of such treasures are restricted by the government of the Czech Republic. There is now some regret at the haste with which the Soviet-dominated past was erased.

Irena came to the UK in 1966 at the age of 38. By then, she had divorced, remarried and had three children. She and her second husband, a paediatrician, were worried by the increasing instability of their country. In 1968, she hoped to return to Czechoslovakia but was deterred by the USSR's brutal repression of the "Prague Spring" uprising. Her husband decided he had to be there and they separated.

In coming to the West, Irena says, she had to do realistic figures and portraits in order to earn money. "If I were completely free, I would still do figurative work, but it would be less controlled. Your work needs to evolve and coming here has stopped my development. But I don't regret it. I enjoy my work."

Irena has had a steady stream of commissions in the UK. She is currently working on a series of theatrical portraits for the actor and collector Richard Bebb, of Gielgud, Olivier, Callas, Sutherland and others. She was married for the third time in September 1997 to another Czech sculptor, Franta Belsky. He was responsible for the Mountbatten memorial statue that stands in Horseguards Parade in London.

Irena's story raises some sharp questions about artistic patronage. To Western eyes, the old Soviet system of state control looked like a straitjacket. Many artists paid the penalty for failing to comply by being ostracised, imprisoned, or worse. But in the capitalist world, it is the market that decides who shall be funded as a sculptor and there is pressure to dance to a patron's, rather than the state's, tune.

Irena is stoical, but she can be persuaded to confide her ambition. She explains that, in the early years in Prague, she modelled for her first husband. To while away the boredom, she read Kafka.

"Reading The Trial, I understood for the first time what it means to be Czech. He made sense of those terrible times when the authorities would simply pull you in for questioning, without your ever knowing the reason. That experience has shaped our national psyche."

In a cupboard at her studio, there is one clay model that is seldom shown to visitors. It is a spiky, male figure standing passive, waiting, head bowed, hat in hand, before an unseen authority. Irena Sedlecka's dream is to make a series of Kafka-inspired bronzes as a tribute to the author who gave her a sense of identity

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