Friday, December 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Josef Lada!

A Czech Christmas wouldn't be complete without Josef Lada's simply drawn carolers, snow-covered villages and nativity scenes.

Josef Lada was born on December 17, 1887, in Hrusice.  He was a Czech painter and writer and best known as the illustrator of Jaroslav Hašek's WWI novel The Good Soldier Švejk.  He produced nearly 600 cartoons of the Švejk characters, depicting Austria-Hungary officers and civil servants as incompetent, abusive and often drunk.

Josef Lada

Born in the small village of Hrusice, his father was a cobbler and the family was very poor, but Josef seemed to have a very happy childhood and loved Christmas.  Years later he recalled with relish the traditional foods his family prepared and said he loved their small and modestly decorated Christmas trees more than the wealthier boys whose trees reached the ceiling.

The village of Hrusice

Lada's villa in Hrusice today houses his museum

Josef Lada was sent to Prague to be an apprentice binder, but art was his passion and he loved to paint and draw.  Entirely self-taught, he created his own style as a caricaturist for newspapers, and later as an illustrator.  His first illustrations were published by a magazine called Maj.  He also wrote and illustrated the adventures of Mikeš, a little black cat who could talk.

Mikeš and his travels...

Two years later Josef had his fateful first meeting with Jaroslav Hašek.  Decades later, Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War would be most people's first introduction to Lada's distinctive art, at least outside of the Czech Republic.

The Good Soldier Švejk 

In this country, however, many people associate Josef Lada with his wonderful Christmas paintings, many of which have been appearing on Czech Christmas cards for generations.  Typical images include large families in simple but cozy rooms; the men smoking pipes while rosy-faced children marvel at Nativity scenes.  Other typical Lada Christmas figures include carolers, and children building snowmen or sledding.  Invariably, there is snow all around, and while it may be a dark the village looks calm and pretty, and the wooden houses warm and welcoming.

His grandson, also called Josef, says that the reason his grandfather's illustrations remain so popular over five decades after his death is that everyone can relate to them.  "I think that with his art he managed to capture something general, something that everybody can accept.  His pictures from all four seasons were so perfectly done that everyone finds something in them, everyone finds a bit of their own childhood.  They show villages and the countryside as they used to be, but aren't any more.  I think that's why his work is still so popular."

In the 1970s there were Lada calendars in which religious figures were removed and replaced by, for instance, a bowl of apples.  Now, however, all of his wonderful Christmas illustrations are exactly as he painted them.  

Chances are that if you receive a Christmas card from the Czech Republic it may very well feature one of Josef Lada's timeless images.

Josef Lada 
December 17, 1887 - December 14, 1957...buried at Olšany Cemetery in Prague