Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sculptures of war (Břetislav Benda 1897 - 1983)

1. Czech sculptor Břetislav Benda
(Left): In his workshop studio (1956)
(Right): With his wife, Bohumila Bendova (1976) 
2. Two postwar sculptures
(By Břetislav Benda, 1948 and 1952)
3. "Victory at Stalingrad"/"Vítězství Stalingradu"
Sketch (left) and figure in bronze (right)
Břetislav Benda, 1943)

4. "Lidice Girl" / "Lidické děvčátko"
(Figure in bronze by Břetislav Benda, 1948)
5. Terezin Deportation Memorial 
[Terezin / Theresienstadt Concentration Camp]
Břetislav Benda, 1968)

Břetislav Benda (Biographical notes)
Born: 28 March 1897 
Birthplace: Líšnice, Austro-Hungarian Empire 
                    (now in the Czech Republic)
Parents: František and Žofie Benda 
Spouse: Bohumila Bendova 
Died: Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) 
Date of death: 19 August 1983


Břetislav Benda (1897 - 1983) was a noted 20th Century Czech sculptor and artist, seen in photograph No. 1 in his studio and with his wife, Bohumila Bendova. His elder son, also called Břetislav Benda (born 1925) became a Czechoslovak and Czech electro-technician, academic teacher and a Communist member of the Czechoslovak parliament (1986 - 1989) in the period immediately before the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. 

Milan Benda (born 6 October 1941), a younger son of the elder Břetislav Benda followed in the footsteps of his famous father to become a highly respected sculptor of international renown. Milan Benda also collaborated with his father on a number of sculptures. Both father and son are primarily known for the study of the female form although some significant works are realisations of individuals or tributes to working craftsman. 

Examples of these are shown in photograph No.2. On the left is a sculpture in bronze by  Břetislav Benda of his wife, Bohumila and son, Milan (1948). On the right is another sculpture in bronze by Břetislav Benda honouring the skilled working man, in this case the 'Miner and Metallurgist' (1952). 

The artistic creation of Břetislav Benda also looked at various aspects of war, especially the Second World War. Examples of these can be seen in photographs No 3 - 5. The remainder of this article concentrates on this aspect of his work.

For additional information click on 'Comments' below. 


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

The early years of Břetislav Benda

Břetislav Benda was the eldest of seven siblings, born in 1897 into the family of the village teacher at Líšnice near Sepekov, not far from the town of Milevsko, Bohemia and at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For his secondary school education Břetislav Benda studied for three years at the school in Milevsko followed by a fourth year at Strakonice.

By 1911 it was clear the young Břetislav Benda had an artistic talent. Thus, between 1911 and 1915 he studied at the Sculptor's College at Hořice under the direction of the respected Czech sculptors Quido Kocián and Václav Suchomel. In 1915 he was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts run by Josef Vaclav Myslbek but by then the 'Great European War' of 1914 - 1918 had already begun.

In 1915 Břetislav Benda was conscripted into the army. Throughout 1916 and 1917 he spent in the European war zones and was badly wounded in both hands. Fortunately these wounds did not completely prevent his artistic development. In 1918 he resumed his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts as a student of Josef Vaclav Myslbek but was then called up again shortly before the end of the war. Between 1919 and 1922, Břetislav Benda was able to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, this time under the direction of Jan Štursa who he assisted in the execution of a number of works.

By this time Czechoslovakia had declared its independence from Austria-Hungary. The newly independent country of Czechoslovakia was confirmed by the signing of the Treaties of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1919) and the Treaty of Trianon (1920).

In 1923 Břetislav Benda became a member of the Mánes Association of Fine Arts, with whom he was a regular exhibitor at members' exhibitions. He took part in a number of prestigious foreign exhibitions of Czechoslovak art. At one of these, in 1925, he was awarded the gold and silver medals at a Decorative Arts exhibition in Paris.

Following in the footsteps of the tutors he trained with, the realisations of Břetislav Benda are firmly neo-classical, which partly explains the reasons for the inspiration and motives of his work:
"I do not know the motif more precious than the human body, and above all the female form".

During this inter-war period, Břetislav Benda created a number of important bronze sculptures as well as many statues in marble, often publicly displayed in municipal parks, public buildings or churches. His first important commission was a 'Relief of the Virgin Mary' at the chapel in his home village of Líšnice. Other significant works from this inter-war period include 'Božena' (1922, marble), 'Noc' / 'Night' (1931, bronze), 'Žena s jablkem' / 'Woman with apple' (1932 - 1934, bronze) and 'Příchod jara' / 'Spring is coming' (1937, bronze).

Living and working in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s then became a turbulent time due to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in neighbouring Germany. In particular, Hitler's increasingly hostile demands for the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to be united to Germany led to the Munich Agreement in September 1938 and Germany being allowed to take over the Sudetenland. The following year the rest of Czechoslovakia was dismembered and the part of the country where Břetislav Benda was living came under the control of Nazi Germany as the 'Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia'. It would also influence Břetislav Benda's works in the years to come.

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Dismemberment and occupation of Czechoslovakia

After Britain, France, Germany and Italy signed the Munich Agreement on 30 September 1938, Czechoslovakia was forced to accept the terms of this 'Agreement'. On 1 October 1938 Germany annexed the northern and western part of Czechoslovakia. Effectively this made what remained of the country powerless to resist any subsequent occupation. Thus, on 15 March 1939 the German Wehrmacht marched unopposed into what remained of Czechoslovakia. At Prague, Adolf Hitler declared what remained of the western part of Czechoslovakia would become the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Part of Czechoslovakian territory became the Slovak Republic and Carpathian Ukraine was overrun by Hungary.

Nevertheless, there remained Czech resistance to the German occupation. A Czechoslovak government-in-exile was set up in London and remained there during WW2. It was led by Edvard Beneš. A number of Czechoslovakians left the country to fight in Czechoslovak units with the British and French against the Germans.

Throughout the war there remained active co-operation between London and occupied Czechoslovakia. With this continued support from London a resistance movement was able to operate. The best known action of the Czechoslovak resistance, supported from London, was the assassination in Prague of the leading Nazi Reinhard Heydrich (Operation Anthropoid). Heydrich was wounded in the attack on 27 May 1942 and died a few days later, on 4 June 1942. His death led to widespread reprisals including the massacres of the inhabitants of Lidice and Ležáky.

The effects of the occupation and the development of the war elsewhere would influence the work of Břetislav Benda, still living and working in Prague, during the war and for many years afterwards. Let us now consider three of his sculptures of war.

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

The Battle of Stalingrad 1942 - 1943

The first war sculpture to be considered is 'Victory at Stalingrad' [Photograph No. 3]. To begin with, let us look at the historical context of the work.

On Sunday 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany launched 'Operation Barbarossa', the invasion of the Soviet Union. Driven by the Nazi ideology of creating 'Lebensraum' to the east of Germany so that the land could be repopulated by so-called ethnic Germans. A successful conquest of this land would also give the Nazis a larger slave labour force from the Russian, Slavic and other 'non-Aryan' ethnic groups inhabiting this part of Central and Eastern Europe. German success in the East would also give access to additional oil reserves in the Caucasus and agricultural resources to feed the population of the German Fatherland. This, at least was the background and the thinking behind this invasion ...

In spite of initial German success in the East, eventually the offensive stalled, most notably with the Battle of Moscow (October 1941 - January 1942). However, although the German invaders were pushed back by the Soviet winter counter-offensive (December 1941 - May 1942) the German army was far from beaten and was still able to mount another offensive in the summer of 1942, which concentrated on southern Russia. In July 1942, Adolf Hitler expanded the operational objectives for the campaign which included the conquest and occupation of Stalingrad (renamed Volgograd in 1961).

By 23 August 1942 the German advance had reached the outskirts of Stalingrad. The Battle of Stalingrad was about to begin. Day after day, week after week, month after month the battle for Stalingrad continued with heavy casualties on both sides. For Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin the Battle of Stalingrad became a matter of prestige. Both sides pushed more resources in material and manpower into the battle.

In November 1942 a Soviet offensive to from the north and south of Stalingrad successfully linked up to the west of the city. The German Sixth Army under General Friedrich Paulus was cut off and surrounded, numbering significantly more than a quarter of a million troops. Adolf Hitler ordered the Sixth Army to remain at Stalingrad and make no attempt to break out.

Attempts to supply the German Sixth Army by air were massively insufficient and it the situation became increasingly more critical for the German troops at Stalingrad. On 30 January Adolf Hitler promoted General Paulus to the rank of Field Marshal with the expectation that he would either fight to the last man or commit suicide. The following day, Field Marshal Paulus was taken by surprise and captured by Soviet troops. Fighting continued for another two days until the final German surrender on 2 February, although small pockets of Germans continued fighting until early March 1943.

If this was the biggest defeat of the German army in the war, at least on the Eastern Front, it was also a great victory and turning point for all those opposed to Nazi Germany. This then, is the historical background of Břetislav Benda's "Victory at Stalingrad".

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

"Victory at Stalingrad" / "Vítězství Stalingradu"
(1943 - 1944) Photograph No. 3

Photograph No. 3 shows Břetislav Benda's initial sketch of how the work should look, on the left, while on the right is the completed sculpture in bronze. It is interesting to see how the imagery in the mind of the master sculptor was put to paper before the realisation of the final figure in bronze.

Břetislav Benda, known for his many studies of the female form especially in the neo-classical style has created 'Victory at Stalingrad' using these these themes. His figure of 'Victory' naturally calls to mind the Greek goddess Nike, the personification of victory. Most statues of Nike in Classical Greek Art show her with wings although the ones in Athens have her wingless so that she would never fly away from the city. Benda's personification of Victory follows the Classical Athenian model. Just as the Athenian Nike was wingless and would not leave Athens, Břetislav Benda's Victory remained at Stalingrad and the enemy at the gates was eventually defeated.

In her right hand, the figure of Nike, or Victory, wields a sword to defend her honour and that of the city of Stalingrad to repel her enemies. This sword of 'Victory at Stalingrad' also calls to mind the 'Sword of Damocles'. It epitomises the imminent and ever-present sense of impending doom that now faced Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

'Victory at Stalingrad' is an allegorical work of a skilled artist at the peak of his powers working in an occupied land. It also reflects the sculptor's firm belief in the defeat of Nazism.

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

The Lidice massacre (9 - 10 June 1942)

The next work of Břetislav Benda's to be considered is 'Lidice Girl' [Photograph No. 4]. Let us look at the historical background that led to the creation of this sculpture.

Until June 1942 Lidice was a small village about 20 Kms (c. 12 miles) west of Prague with most of its economically active population involved either in coal mining or agriculture. In early June 1942, in the aftermath of the assassination of the leading Nazi Reinhard Heydrich at Prague, Lidice was wrongly identified by the Nazi occupying authorities as having sheltered those who had planned and carried out the killing. Although the Germans then discovered Lidice had no connection with those involved in the Heydrich assassination nevertheless the village and its population would be subject to the severest of reprisals.

On the morning of 9 June 1942, the German Security Police arrived at Lidice. All the adult men were rounded up and taken to the farm of the family who had incorrectly believed to have sheltered Heydrich's assassins. The men of Lidice were lined up in groups of five against a wall and were shot. The SS felt it was taking too long to shoot all the men so the numbers were increased to ten at a time.

All men of the village were rounded up and taken to the farmstead of the Horák family on the edge of the village. Mattresses were taken from neighbouring houses where they were stood up against the wall of the Horáks' barn. Shooting of the men commenced at about 7 a.m. At first the men shot in groups of five, but the SS commanders thought the executions were proceeding too slowly and ordered that the men be shot ten at a time.

Later in the evening of 9 June the Gestapo agents from Prague were joined by two companies of police in battle dress and a squad of Security Police commanded by SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Max Rostock. They would complete the remaining executions of the men from the village. While this was going on other gangs went round the village with jerry cans of petrol and set fire to the buildings. Meanwhile, the village was sealed off. By Noon on 10 June 1942 the bodies of 173 men from the village were left lying where they had fell after being gunned down. Another 19 men who had been working down the nearby coal mine were subsequently rounded up and sent to Prague with 7 women. They too were executed, which is believed to have been on 16 June.

The other women and the children of the village were rounded up, with most of the women being deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. At least four of the women of Lidice women were with child at the time they were deported. They were allowed to give birth but their babies were killed almost immediately. Concentration camps tended not to be places where babies survived for any length of time.

Of the children under the age of 16 living at Lidice in June 1942 most, about 88, were sent to the Gestapo office at Lodz. Of these, 7 were selected at random to be 'Germanised' and the rest sent on to Chelmo concentration camp for almost immediate execution. Another 6 of the Lidice children died in German orphanages. The atrocity perpetrated on the Lidice children was related at the post-war Nuremberg trials on 22 February 1946:

"Lidice's children were sent to families in Germany and elsewhere to be 'Germanised'. Of 104, only sixteen were ever traced. In the days that followed, Lidice was erased from the face of the earth. Even its cemetery was desecrated, its 400 graves dug up. Jewish prisoners from the camp at Terezin were brought in to shift the rubble. New roads were built and sheep set down to graze. No trace of the village remained."

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

"Lidice shall live"

The Nazis filmed the destruction of the village and deemed that its existence and name should be wiped from all maps. However, in occupied Czechoslovakia, the rest of occupied Europe and among the people in the Allied countries still opposing the Nazis, there was a determination that the events at Lidice and those who had been killed or deported should not be forgotten.

For example, in Britain the "Lidice Shall Live" organisation was formed. It was led by a doctor, Sir Barnett Stross and supported by the British mining unions. Also in Britain, the celebrated film maker Humphrey Jennings from the Crown Film Unit directed and produced a film about the massacre, 'The Silent Village'.

Shortly after the war had ended and the rebuilding of a new Lidice had begun, Břetislav Benda created the sculpture 'Lidice Girl' which we shall now consider.

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

"Lidice Girl" / "Lidické děvčátko"
(1948) Photograph No. 4

As with the majority of Břetislav Benda's sculptures, this work about the events at Lidice is a study of the female form. However, this work varies in a number of respects from the artist's style.

This is a work of life and death ... and suffering. The figure is much younger than the majority of Břetislav Benda's creations. There is no beauty or joy in this haunting figure. Yet it is an important representation of real suffering and a tragedy that foreign invaders have brought to the people and the homeland of the artist.

The sculptor and those looking at this young girl of Lidice feel her suffering. There may be no sound coming from her lips yet the look on her face conveys the cry of despair. Her outstretched arms seek in vain the comforting touch of her mother and father. 'Lidice Girl' may be a troubling work but it is an important one about Nazi oppression. It portrays the horror and inhumane brutality of war.

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp

The final work of Břetislav Benda to be considered is the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Deportation Memorial [Photograph No. 5]. Once again, let us look at the historical background.

After the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, the Gestapo took over Terezin and created a prison. Initially inmates were mainly political prisoners. However, in November 1941, the Nazis adapted the main fortress as a Jewish Ghetto. A few weeks later, Terezin, in German Theresienstadt, became an internment centre, partly as a transit camp for Jews sent onward to other concentration camps, partly for elderly (over 65) Jews, those of 'special merit' from elsewhere in the German Reich and partly to house Jews from the occupied lands of the Netherlands and Denmark. It was also a "model Jewish settlement" used for propaganda purposes to the International Red Cross and for which there is some surviving archive film footage.

As already noted when looking at the massacre of the men of Lidice, Jews from Terezin concentration camp were taken to Lidice and forced to clear up rubble and body parts strewn over what remained of the village. This was just one distasteful task that Jewish slave labour at Terezin was forced to endure. Other prisoners were forced to sort and re-distribute baggage, underwear and clothing confiscated from the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

In 1944 Terezin (Theresienstadt) began liquidating the ghetto. More prisoners than ever were deported to Auschwitz and other large concentration camps. Over a matter of about four weeks about 24,000 victims were deported from Terezin.

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

The Terezin (Theresienstadt) Deportation Memorial
(1968) Photograph No. 5

In early 1968 the Czechoslovak Jewish Representative Committee (CJRC) commissioned Břetislav Benda to create a memorial sculpture for the Jews forcibly deported from Prague. It was intended to be sited at the former Prague Trade Fair building (later a Gallery of Modern Art) near the traditional Jewish quarter of Prague. Jewish families were told to report to the Trade Fair building and held there before being taken to the nearby Holešovice railway station for deportation initially to Terezin (Theresienstadt) and, in many cases, onward to other concentration camps.

Břetislav Benda's visualised creating a memorial of three distinct panels to be placed on the wall of the former Prague Trade Fair building. However, 1968 was the year of the Prague Spring and a turbulent time in the political and social life of Czechoslovakia. Consequently, Government officials opposed the siting of the deportation memorial at what became the Gallery of Modern Art despite most groups being in favour. Eventually, two of the three panels were sited on one of the walls of the former Terezin concentration camp, as seen in photograph No. 5. The missing panel, which would have been on the left of the two seen in the photograph, had an inscription recalling the use of the Trade Fair building during the Nazi occupation.

Of the two panels that make up the present day memorial, the one on the left shows the grim acceptance an despair of the Jewish families of Prague being forced to walk to the transit station: men, women and children, young and old, lame or able-bodied. What meagre possessions they have, they carry with them. On the right, the second panel shows a weeping willow with its powerful symbolism rooted in spirituality and cultural traditions. One of the metaphors of the willow tree is that it bends and adjusts to life without breaking and will survive, just as the Jews of Prague will not surrender in spite of the extremely challenging situation they are facing with deportation.

Břetislav Benda's depiction of the weeping willow also calls to mind the Hebrew Matriarch Rachel weeping for her children. Yet, the willow also symbolises hope, a sense of family rooted to the land, a sense of belonging and the ability to overcome the pain and suffering of the present moment. Yes, let the world never the suffering grief, sadness, tears, love and loss of Rachel's children yet some will be able to overcome the adversity to grow again.

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...


Although this has not been a comprehensive study of the works of Břetislav Benda, it has been a consideration of some of his work influenced by the Second World War. From the selected examples it can be seen that he felt and shared with his nation its suffering, deprivations, atrocities, its final victory and its postwar rebuilding. His art came out of what he saw and felt. This was as true for his interpretations of the Second World War as well as his better known studies of the female form.

It was fate that meant Břetislav Benda was at the peak of his creative mastery during the German occupation of his homeland. This was the reason for the change in his artistic creation and the reason this artist has left an important legacy in his interpretations about war, occupation and the horrors of war.

While the majority of Břetislav Benda's works remain in his homeland, which is now the Czech Republic, but he is also represented in galleries and museums around the world: the USA, Indonesia, France, Italy, Russia and Britain. Although it has been more than 30 years since the passing of the artist his sculptures of war stand the test of time for the modern audience.

In 1973 Břetislav Benda was awarded the exceptional national honour of 'Národní Umělec' (National Artist) of Czechoslovakia. The national government of post-war Czechoslovakia awarded this title to its citizens whose artistic influence had reached the highest level and an outstanding significance to enrich the Czech national culture. Between 1945 and the 'Velvet Divorce' in Czechoslovakia in 1989, 315 artists in all disciplines were awarded the honour of 'National Artist', with Břetislav Benda being the 159th recipient.

When Břetislav Benda died in 1983 he was laid to rest in Vysehradsky Cemetery, Prague. The sculpture on his grave is one of his own creations. His wife, Bohumila Bendova, who died in 2001, is buried in the same grave.

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Further reading

Kotalík, Jiří (1982), 'Břetislav Benda', Oden, Prague (225 pages)
[This is in Czech but has a synopsis in Russian and German]

Heitlinger, Alena (2011), 'In the Shadows of the Holocaust and Communism: Czech and Slovak Jews since 1945', (paperback), Transaction Publishers, New York and London (211 pages)

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...


Thanks to the following for information and assistance in preparing this article:

Mr Ondřej Hovádek,
Embassy of the Czech Republic,
Kensington Palace Gardens,

National Gallery in Prague
(Národní galerie v Praze)
Link to website in English:
National Gallery in Prague (website)

Jewish Museum in Prague
(Židovské muzeum v Praze)
Link to website in English:
Jewish Museum in Prague (website)

Lidice Memorial Museum, Czech Republic
(Památník Lidice)
Link to website in English:
Lidice Memorial Museum (website)

Tuesday, 30 May, 2017  

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