I was born in Holešovice, a borough of Prague, in a family of well-known sculptors. My first memories are of my parents’ studio, which also served as lodgings. The light of day, which passed through the glass ceiling, would shine down on the wall as high as a many-storied building. My father sitting at his desk, the fragrance of all sorts of paper towels, Chinese inks, real goose feathers, mixed plaster, the scent of wood, precious, perfectly sharpened chisels, and mallets lying around everywhere. There was also, kept in a specific order, bags of tin casting, beeswax, paint thinners, turpentine, alcohol and shellac. An open chest with several compartments lined with metal which served to prepare the clay, easels, lathes, a workbench, shavings from different wood species and, in Winter, the comforting heat of the big American stove whose mica openings would show the burning coke.

The next room was altogether different. The arrangement and the furniture were modern. The floor was red and covered with a large carpet of the same colour. There were light fixtures almost everywhere and, above all, modern paintings hanging from the walls, gifts from painters who were my father’s friends. All these impressions certainly have marked my life.

I remember the joy that radiated from my father when he was drawing. This is why I became very keen to have the same instruments he had, and I did get them. From then on, I could make my own experiments, sitting side by side with him. His serene attitude towards us during all his life inspired in me, since the age of four, a strong urge to work in the magic field of art.

Like any child, I perceived, without being aware of them, all the other stimuli coming from the world : streetcar bells, din from nearby factories, odours from the slaughterhouse, but, before anything else, the view from the window, the noises and the swarming city life, the presence of the river close by, the ships carrying coal, the ferries and fishing boats, the barges and the moored fluvial platforms which served as swimming pools, the harbour and its cranes. The latter genuinely bewitched me.

Hawsers, charcoal makers, warehouses, railway switches leading to the harbour, signals and inscriptions whose meaning escaped me, all those things influenced me by simply being there. Each had its own rhythm: the sand on the conveyors, the machines, the bustling of activities on the shore.

It was a happy life, with the protection and the security provided by a family.

During my first trip in East Bohemia where my parents came from, I discovered a completely different environment: the forests, the quarries and new smells, like fresh unbottled milk, homemade bread, and butter being churned, but above all there was the smell of the machines sawing, grinding and polishing stone in family workshops. The stone sculptors and carvers wore paper hats which they often gave me as presents. I discovered the clatter of tools for the first time, stones of all sorts, colours and hardness. There was also the smell of dust, the ground strewn with fragments, and the ceremony of meals. On Sundays we went on trips in the old car that we used to visit the vicinity of Kuks, where the gems of Czech baroque sculpture can be found in the middle of nature or in the superb hospice which includes a church.

In those days, I did not know that my father was contributing to the preservation of those masterpieces. Yet I remember that, before Easter, with his brother and other adult members of the family, he washed the statues thoroughly with water, and then brushed them hard.

Our beautiful log chalet - later completely destroyed - was in the vicinity of Kuks, in the heart of the new forest (Nový Les). It was, again, a totally different world, as if we had gone back to the Past. The comfort of the chalet was rudimentary: there was no electricity and no sophisticated contraption. The water came from a fountain in the heart of the woods, where wild strawberries, blackberries and wild raspberries grew in abundance. I usually overindulged and, once full, since I often forgot to wash my hands, they left marks in my books of which I was equally fond.

The second world war deeply changed my perception as a child. For instance, the obligation to cover the walls and the ceiling of the studio with black paper, the wailing of the sirens, comings and goings to and from the cellar, and there were some food shortages. Chocolate had almost disappeared as well as bananas and oranges. I also remember a small piece of very hard Hungarian salami hanging in the pantry! We spread margarine and molasses on our bread. But everybody in my generation has experienced that.

At the end of the war events sometimes took a dramatic turn. One day I saw through the small window of the basement a man who, in his flight, jumped a fence that today’s athletes could not leap over.

Once the war was over, boys would find unused killing devices, weapons and ammunition thrown out in the river, wrecked armored vehicles, all sorts of insignia, military medals, mountains of broken glass, empty shells... All that was the background of our school life which however did not suffer from the impact of the war. Our schooling went on unaffected; on the one hand, homework and duties, a heap of copybooks and manuals defending new values and, as far as leisure was concerned, soccer on the other side of the street and hockey on the frozen river or in the stadium. In Summer swimming in the Vltava whose water was already rather dirty.

In those days, I was not really aware of the value or the importance of my parents’ s work; to me it was all routine. I was engaged in other activities: competition bikes and aeromodelling, a time-consuming pastime which demands thoroughness and patience. I read voraciously, Karl May, Jules Verne, Mark Twain and other writers for boys, but above all Czech reviews read by my generation: Vpřed (Forward), Junák (Scout). These magazines narrated the adventures of a group of scouts who had decided to call themselves Silver Arrows. They were our idols.

I was thus dividing my time between school, aeromodelling and, later, flying (first glider and then airplane), but also photography and competitive cycling. I enjoyed all these activities with a youthful passion before, once in high school, turning my attention to literature, history and philosophy.

Er, I was about to forget some changes that happened at the same time: I began to be more careful about how I dressed, I developed a passion for dancing, going out, and I discovered the world of women with a few romantic adventures.

Then came the day when I decided to register for the entrance exam to the School of Applied Arts of Prague. It was a decision based upon the judicious advice of my father’s and his friends.

I still remember with esteem and respect the discussions between all those learned people (doctors, architects, photographers or poets). Their life was entirely dedicated to their work, but they also were eager for new knowledge, and they were all interested in other fields other than their own.

But let’s get back to my teenage years. After graduation, I finally passed the exam to the School of Applied Arts of Prague (in the architecture department) and the years that followed were the longest vacation I have ever known! It was a breather before moving ahead in a direction whose seriousness, it must be said, youth underestimates.

When you entered the School of Decorative Arts, you felt like you were entering a cathedral and not only from a visual point of view. It was a period of intense work with in-depth study of drawing and specialized subjects related to the profession of architect, interspersed with a number of periods of study abroad.

Then, all of a sudden, my father died prematurely, a death unexpected by our family although he had been treated by doctors who were his best friends. Out of mercy they had hidden how serious his illness had been for a long time. The death upset our family life. I only found solace in classical music and work, and some perspective in painting.

In the following period, I became acquainted with a number of colleagues, educated painters who became examples to emulate. The studio where my childhood had taken place was the background of my first experiments in painting. My father’s friends (professors, doctors and musicians) did not let me down. On Thursday nights, they would come to the studio to play music, but they also had a look at my latest work. They usually congratulated and encouraged me and assured me that one day I would succeed.

Time passed and, during that period, my family decided to rehabilitate the House in Hořice and the Art Deco pavilion, but also the outbuildings which were to become a museum dedicated to my father’s work, a place where exhibitions could be organized. I was responsible for the artistic legacy, together with the originals and the casts, which were slowly transferred to the museum collections.

At the same time, I was working as a designer and teacher at the school of sculpture and stone masons of Hořice. Then I became Chief Architect of the Union of visual artists and in charge of the exhibitions department of the Czech visual artists. I also worked at the Czech National Gallery in Prague.

All those commitments consumed a considerable part of my time and there was not much left for my artistic work, but the field of my professional activities encompassed all the arts and was not restricted to a single period. The exhibitions, prepared with the help of my collaborators, enabled me to broaden my knowledge. All that had a positive impact upon my perception and my conception of the world.

The impressions related to the different stages of my life have inspired my paintings, consciously or not, as can be seen in their emblematic themes.

Sometimes painting is the result of an effort to clarify the periods of my life and it ended up forming different cycles of paintings : memories of cranes (their pulleys, cables and hooking devices)..., the study of the Second World War (the reaction to the terrifying beauty of the machines of war, the memories of military facilities), the attempts to expressively capture some unexpected events,, the tributes paid to eminent persons and the criticism of insignificant others occupying positions of power, views of the earth from the cosmos, the representations of the need to protect ourselves against all the evils of the world (systems of protection or rescue in the form of towers),  thr perishability of human existence (with a whole cycle of human heads), biblical subjects and many other themes.

In spite of those various ways of expressing myself, partly linked to increasingly complex methods of representation, a certain coherence should emerge if one takes into account my relationship to the world.


I’d like, once again, to go back to my childhood, specifically to my maternal grandfather, a sculptor and restorer, somebody who left a permanent imprint on me. With his white mane and long white beard, he looked like he came straight out of a fairy tale! He had two suits: the first was cut in a herringbone fabric complete with waistcoat coat and equipped with a pocket watch attached with a fine chain, and a Swiss knife. The second suit was for Sundays: dark fabric with thin white stripes and more refined accessories (a flat pocket watch, made by the Swiss company Tissot and a knife with small scissors). I was particularly fond of the latter and I kept asking him to lend it to me.

One day, it must have been a Sunday because he was wearing the striped suit with the appropriate accessories, grandpa told us that after his death all his belongings would be my brother’s and mine. And indeed later I inherited, among other things, the very knife I had coveted so much ! I like to remember that episode because the perfect shape of the knife keeps appearing in my paintings.

The death of that grandfather was somewhat unreal, and I found it difficult to fathom. He was very wise, something I did not immediately understood. I suppose that the relationships between children, parents and grandparents are, with a few exceptions, the same everywhere. He died when my father was eight and my father when I was eighteen. That is why I imagine a complete family must be a wonderful experience, something which I unfortunately never knew myself. His death brought about changes in the life of our family.

I want to make it clear that he was my best teacher. He was a world-class artist. His work was exhibited in the USA, at the Universal Exhibition of Saint-Louis in 1904. The many projects he carried out attest to his undeniable talent: Art Deco facades, houses, funerary steles, and gardens, in Russia, under the reign of the Czar and, of course, this pavilion that we keep restoring.

Today, some would say that he was an active conceptualist and progressive visionary. His technical foresight, exceptional for his time, prefigured, in many respects, trends which were to appear much later.

Thanks to his universal skills, my grandfather could make any dream of ours come true. For example: a small wooden house for me and my brother, built in two days, as charming as if it sprang up from a fairy tale. Its proportions were perfect, and we were allowed to live in it. It was surrounded by a small garden with an Art Deco belvedere made of poured concrete, with coloured stained glass inserted into the material itself. All that in 1902. That was the world of our childhood.


After I completed my university curriculum, I worked as a project designer in an architecture studio which claimed to follow the famous tradition of the modern Czech tradition of the inter-war period. Then I taught in a school of sculpture and stone masonry which also could claim it belonged to a very old tradition. The daily work with the new generation was a source of enrichment. Former students of mine, some of whom have become my collaborators today, have found their place in the art world.

My work as Chief Architect, in charge of exhibitions within the Union of Czech Visual Artists, as well as my collaboration with the National Gallery of Prague, have put me in the heart of artistic activities. The team of my collaborators, whose excellence I remember with great pleasure, have organized hundreds of exhibitions, some of which were technically very difficult. For instance: The Tombstones of Medieval Bosnia (gigantic blocks of stone which we could hardly transport to the Queen Anne Belvedere, the beautiful Renaissance pleasure pavilion near the Prague castle) or the installation, less difficult that time, of the works of Pablo Picasso for which Louise Leiris gave me carte blanche. The confrontation with this giant of painting strengthened my resolve to do my utmost under any conditions. Then there was the exhibition of Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzù and the one, more complicated, of Gothic sculptures which demanded a huge amount of work, but I felt like I was living a dream because I was in close proximity with extraordinary events, albeit behind the scenes.

The extensive knowledge I acquired of that very active environment reinforced my conviction that a work of art, be it ancient or contemporary, is determined above all by its intrinsic value as art. It remains unaffected by outside events; immutable, it emphasizes the importance of the beauty of the world. 

Josef Wagner, 1985