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Meda Mládek with František Kupka’s work “Lines, Planes, Space”,1911–1912. Photo: archives of the Museum Kampa

An interview with Czech art collector Meda Mládek 0

Monika Čejková

Translated by Vladimíra Šefranka Žáková

“If a nation’s culture survives, then so too does the nation”. A motto that drove Meda Mládek to found the Museum Kampa in Prague. In her homeland, Mrs. Mládek has the reputation of a great patroness of art, for which she has won a number of awards. She is known for her unrelenting work in elevating Czech art to the international level. This interview took place on the occasion of a new acquisition of works by the artist František [aka Frank or François] Kupka for the collections of the Jan and Meda Mládek Foundation, and is being published at the moment when the Museum Kampa – and by extension, Meda Mládek, at her respectable age of ninety-seven and after a long struggle with the bureaucracy – has opened Villa Werich, the former residence of the popular Czech actor and comedian Jan Werich.

Meda Mládek traditionally opens exhibitions by ringing this bell, undated. Photo: archives of the Museum Kampa

The story of Mrs. Meda began in 1946 when she left Czechoslovakia to study in Geneva, where she remained in exile after the political coup in 1948. At that time she was involved in the publishing of the exile magazine Skutečnost. In the early 1950s, she founded her own publishing house, Edition Sokolova (her maiden name), which after some time relocated to Paris. She met her future husband, Jan Mládek, in the mid-1950s, with whom she later built an art collection whose current value amounts to around EUR 30 million. While still a student, she visited the studio of the Czech artist František Kupka, who lived in Puteaux near Paris, and began collecting his works. Nowadays, no major Kupka retrospective would be imaginable without loans from her collection.

In 1960, Mrs. Mládek and her husband settled in Washington DC, and their house became the meeting point for the Czechoslovak intellectual elite in exile as well as those who managed to leave socialist Czechoslovakia for a short time. Their guests included the dissident, and later President, Václav Havel; Ferdinand Peroutk, a journalist in exile; the writer Bohumil Hrabal; as well as prominent Americans such as the director of the Guggenheim Museum, Thomas Messer; US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; his successor, Madeleine Albright; etc. In 1967, after 19 years in exile, Meda Mládek returned to Czechoslovakia and visited local unofficial artists who worked in difficult and limited conditions. Up until the Velvet Revolution, in addition to the works by František Kupka, she managed to collect hundreds of paintings, prints and sculptures made by anti-regime artists, creating the largest private collection of Czechoslovak art abroad. Meda Mládek also visited other countries of the socialist block; her collection includes, for example, works by the famous Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz.

Mrs. Mládek’s help also consisted of presenting works by these artists at foreign exhibitions. This encouraged them in their creative work because their production was reaching a wider and more informed audience. Of the many exhibitions in which Meda Mládek participated, some of the most notable are: the exhibition of Czechoslovak art at the Corcoran Gallery (1968); a retrospective exhibition of works by František Kupka at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (1975); and the exhibition “Expressive – Artists from Central Europe after 1960”, at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts in Vienna (1987–1988), and again at the Hirshhorn Museum and its Sculpture Garden in Washington (1988).

View of the Museum Kampa before reconstruction, 1999. Photo: archives of the Museum Kampa

In the late 1980s, Mrs. Mládek began to look for ways to bring the collection back to Prague. After failed negotiations with the management of the National Gallery, the Velvet Revolution came unexpectedly. However, Mrs. Mládek returned to Czechoslovakia alone because Jan Mládek died less than four months before the fall of the totalitarian regime. After her return, Mrs. Mládek fought for the opening of the Museum Kampa where she wanted to present the collection of the Mládek Foundation and the collection of works by František Kupka, which she donated to the city of Prague. In 2003, the Museum Kampa opened in the reconstructed premises of Sova’s Mills near the Vltava River in the center of Prague, and it represents one of the most beautiful places in the city.

The Museum Kampa is situated 500 meters from Charles Bridge. Photo: archives of the Museum Kampa

The Museum Kampa enjoys great attendance especially from foreign tourists, who come here to see the permanent exhibition of works by František Kupka and Otto Gutfreund as well as other Central European modern artworks. Short-term exhibitions often present artists from other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, which makes the Museum Kampa special on an international level. From the beginning, its exhibition program has been complemented by rich educational activities for different age groups, including preschool children. The Museum Kampa is also one of the first Czech institutions to offer visitors a mobile application as a modern guide to their collections. With its esteemed exhibition profile and the fascinating personality of Meda, the Museum Kampa is the best-known private art institution in the Czech Republic.

In the following interview, Meda Mládek summarizes her experience in collecting art, a pastime to which she has devoted herself for over sixty years; she also reminisces about her life in exile, in Washington, her return to Prague, and the difficulties associated with establishing the Museum Kampa.

Many people, including myself, wonder how you managed to found such a museum.

When I go through the museum, I sometimes think about how it is even possible that I succeeded. I did not bribe anyone, I did not ask anybody for help. I was driven by the loss of my husband, Jan Mládek, who wanted to do something for his native country. I did everything with the thought of him. In the evenings, I look at his photograph and I say to myself, Jan, help me.

The Mládeks among Otto Guttfreund’s works, undated, United States of America. Photo: archives of the Museum Kampa

How did you actually meet your husband, Jan Mládek?

It is a long story. In the 1950s I published books in exile; the preparation and printing of each of them cost one thousand dollars. When I ran out of money, I decided to publish books bound in white leather, in a limited edition of ten pieces, which would each sell for a hundred dollars. I thought that with this sale, I would finance other books in a higher print run, but it did not work out like that. Then I learned that there was a Czech man living in Paris, Jan Mládek, a great patriot in a high position who contributed two dollars to my publishing house. I thought, such a patriot and contributing only two dollars? I went to Paris to see him; I opened the door and told him straight away: “Mr. Mládek, I heard that you are a great Czech patriot and I am a poor student who publishes Czech books, and you are contributing only two dollars? How do you want me to continue?” He was terribly embarrassed; he apologized and said that he did not realize this. He invited me to lunch, then to dinner, and then we started to date, and eventually we got married.

Did your husband support you in collecting art?

Of course, he had a greater sense of art than I did. He was a natural, whereas I had to learn it. When we lived in Washington and, for example, Jan would go to Paris, I told him to go see František Kupka and buy whatever we can afford.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, “Figures”, 1970s, group of nine figures hardened burlap, laminate, h.170 cm. Photo: archives of the Museum Kampa

It is wonderful that you found your companion in him. You became acquainted with the work by František Kupka thanks to a painting by Kupka given to your husband by his close friend, an antique dealer. Can you describe this meeting in more detail?

It is already a well-known story. When we still lived in Paris, my future husband received a gift from his close friend, the famous Parisian antique dealer Jacques Kugel. It was a painting by František Kupka [author’s note, Cabaret Dancer, ca. 1900]. Kugel gave this painting to Jan with the following words: “I bought it for fifty francs. It is not a very good picture, but this painter is your countryman and one day he will be very famous.” At home, I kept looking at this painting and decided to find František Kupka. I got his address; at that time he lived in the Paris suburb of Puteaux. I went there and rang the bell. The door was answered by an old man in a white cloak. I told him I was a Czech student living in Paris who was interested in art. So he took me upstairs to his studio, and I suddenly ran from one painting to another; it was wonderful; I was running like a fool. I was crazy about his works. Kupka was very happy, and I spent a lot of time there.

Did you buy a painting yourself?

I bought a picture that I could afford as a student. It cost about fifty dollars; we have it in our collection. I took it home and sat in front of it for several hours, quite excited. I was trembling; it was a breakthrough experience in my life. I could feel the music, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, which I used to dance. So I started to visit Kupka. He was very happy to have me – suddenly there was a Czech woman who studied art and loved his paintings!

But at that time you really did not care about art, did you?

It is true; I did not really care about art then. I did not think of going to the Louvre to see pictures, I had no relationship to art, I just did not feel it. In particular, I had difficulty in understanding Cubism and abstract expression. But everything changed after encountering František Kupka and his body of work.

Emilie Benes Brzezinski by her work “Titans” (2002, oak wood, h. 370–420 cm) at the Museum Kampa, 2003. Photo: archives of the Museum Kampa

Still, didn’t you study art history at L’École du Louvre in Paris, at the Sorbonne?

I forced myself to study art; I lived in Paris, after all.

Today, no major retrospective of this painter can take place without a loan of studies and paintings from your collection. As regards the exhibition at the Museum Kampa, it presents Kupka’s development from realistic painting to pure abstraction. This has been your intention, right?

In our museum, we can show František Kupka’s development in full. It is an ideal setup for studying his work. In my collection there are his early works, realistic ones, such as Kupka’s Self-Portrait Among Roses from 1894–1895, from the time when he was still a student. Kupka earned his living by painting fashion. Once he got very tired of it – of all those long, thin legs, hands, etc. – he began to go to the zoo in Paris to draw monkeys. I have one such monkey with human features in my collection; it looks like a half-man [author’s note: Study of a Monkey, 1896–1898]. My husband kept this picture in the office. Kupka wished to develop like music, abstractly; he did not want to make music, but to develop like music, so he let a girl spin around, throw a ball, walk, etc. This is an example of a study for Fugue in Two Colors, which we have in our collection. I explored it and came to the conclusion that it represents a dancing girl. Kupka abstracted her movements, her leanings. But I am most proud of the series Abstraction, from the years 1928–1932. It is the most important thing we have. It shows how far Kupka arrived in his work, up to the black line. When Americans see it, they are amazed; they did not start with this art until after the Second World War.

Meda collected art for several decades in her house in Washington, undated. Photo: archives of the Museum Kampa

Can you tell me something more about the painting Girl (1912), which you acquired for your collection in 2010?

This painting marks the beginnings of abstract art. Kupka’s daughter ran naked in the garden, moving around, and Kupka began to form an anti-realistic approach. This is a very important picture. With this purchase, we have acquired not only the painting as such, but mainly the documentation, which is perhaps even more important. Alfred H. Barr Jr. [author’s note: the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City] wrote in 1938 that Kupka had arrived at abstraction sometime around 1910. He was keen to know the causes of it; at that time, there was Cubism in Paris, Expressionism in Germany, etc. Barr sent a young female art historian to visit Kupka in Paris and collect documents. But she kept them to herself. Barr asked her to give them to him, but he died in the meantime. She offered them to us. I believe that Kupka, as a Spiritist, would wish us to have the paintings.

You have interconnected the František Kupka exhibition with works by the Czech Cubist sculptor Otto Gutfreund; what made you present these two artists together?

I placed the works by Kupka and Gutfreund side by side because both of them were our greatest artists at the same time, a painter and a sculptor. One was abstract, the other one figurative; they did not know each other.

View from the exhibition at the Museum Kampa; in the forefront, Karel Malich’s work “Landscape of Eternity” (1980–1983, hanging wire object, 260 x 220 x 110 cm). Photo: archives of the Museum Kampa

In addition to this collection, you have an extensive collection of Czechoslovak art. When did you come back to your native country, and how did it go?

I came in 1967 and immediately went to see the then director of the National Gallery, Jiří Kotalík, with a letter of recommendation from Solomon R. Guggenheim. I went to the reception desk at the National Gallery and said that I wanted to talk to the director. They scolded me and told me to make an official request. I asked how long it would take, and the answer was that it would take about a fortnight. So, I at least gave them the letter for Kotalík, and left. Before I reached my hotel, I got a message from him that he would see me the next day at ten o’clock in the morning. We met, had a snack, then lunch, and in the evening I met his wife. We talked about what we would do about Czech culture. When I told him that I was interested in meeting the best nonconformist artists, Kotalík not only recommended some, but on top of that, lent me his car. However, he never went with me in person, so as not to raise any suspicion with the Communists that he was associating too much with an American exile. My guides were the art historian Jiří Šetlík, and the art theoreticians Jindřich Chalupecký and Jana Tvrzníková [author’s note: Jana Claverie] from Václav Špála Gallery. This gallery was one of the most progressive exhibition halls at the time thanks to Jindřich Chalupecký, who included unorthodox artists into the exhibition program and presented up-to-date artistic tendencies.

You had a chance to compare the Czechoslovakia that existed before the Prague Spring with the one that came after the occupation of August 1968. Did you feel an impact in the art scene?

When I first arrived, it seemed to me that art was on the right track – that it was rather strong. I believed in its future success. After the occupation, of course, I felt a change; I witnessed the collapse and tremendous skepticism. Some artists ceased to create almost completely; others retired to their studios, and in order to earn a living, took on a regular job or restored old works of art, designed film decorations, illustrated books, etc. And then there were those who could not stand creating art without any hope of showing it, so they started to make compromises. A couple of people continued to work consistently, and they began to address these major contemporary issues in their art. After Charter ’77, it finally changed; people found their lost self-confidence, art began to rise up again, and unofficial exhibitions were held.

Have you had a particularly close relationship with any of these artists?

I really liked Stanislav Kolíbal, Karel Malich, Magdalena Jetelová, Václav Cigler, Theodor Pištěk, and especially Adriena Šimotová. Adriena and I have similar fates; both of us have an empty chair at home, occupied by somebody who is no longer with us. Adriena lost her husband, the outstanding and intelligent artist Jiří John. The great suffering and grief in her immediate vicinity enriched her art in a certain way. After his death, Adriena began to work with color, among other things. By the way, my husband once inspired her to create the painting Jan in Prague in 1975. Jan and I came to Prague at the time of “normalization” and Adriena was waiting for us at the airport. She took us for a walk to Prague Castle, from where there is a beautiful view of Prague; Jan was moved to tears. Later, after this event, Adriena gave him this painting.

Why have not you included works by Czechoslovak artists living in exile in your collection?

I was of the opinion that exiled artists have the opportunity to exhibit throughout the West; they did not really need any help.

You and your husband spent most of your life together in Washington. It seems to me that you had the best social position of the Czech emigrants in America.

We were exclusive. We had a beautiful house; I kept inviting guests there all the time. Both of us were educated people; we were talked about as being a strange couple. I had established the habit that, after dinner, the men stayed together with the women; at the time, it was customary that they spent time alone, in the lounge. It often happened that someone would call me to say that his friend was on his way to Washington; and I knew what was going on – that he needed to be accommodated. For example, Václav Havel stayed with us.

Meda Mládek

What made you return to your homeland after the Velvet Revolution and establish the Museum Kampa?

My husband longed to do something for his country. When he died, it was a matter of fact for me that we should give what we have to Prague. The atmosphere in the Museum Kampa and its modern reconstruction is reminiscent of the experience one has in large Western institutions such as the Guggenheim Museum, MoMa, etc. At the same time, it is very specific, for example, we install art on the staircases and corridors; a small stream goes through the museum; we have a glass terrace, and so on.

You are over ninety. Where do you get the energy for all that you do?

I am a Virgo, so as such I have a fighting spirit. Without my ambitions, there would be nothing. I continue to be involved in minor and bigger bureaucratic disputes. I have been saying for five years already that I have to last another five years to accomplish my mission. That is my nature.