Meda Mládková is a Czech art collector who spent more than half of her life in exile, mostly in the United States. In 1968 she established a collection of Czech art which she brought to the US from behind the Iron Curtain. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Meda Mládková returned to Czechoslovakia and donated her entire collection to the country. I met Mrs Mládková in her museum on Prague’s Kampa Island and started by asking how she became involved in art collecting in the first place:
“My husband was a great Czech patriot and he believed that if the culture remains, the country will too. I studied art for years but I never had a job. My husband enabled me to travel. In 1967 I came from exile to Prague and what I saw made me really happy.
“I visited many studios and theatres and it was just an extraordinary time. I think the best time in maybe a hundred years of Czech culture. Everybody believed things were getting better and they were creating in every field, in the arts, in film and in theatre. It was just extraordinary. And then, one year later of course, the Russians came and that was a terrible disappointment; a terrible tragedy for the country.
“I persuaded the Ford Foundation to establish a special grant for the Czech humanities. I am very proud that I chose well. Among the students were for example Václav Havel or Jindřich Chalupecký, the best Czech critic of his time. However, it stopped a few months after the occupation.”
Was it difficult to get in touch with artists behind the Iron Curtain?
“No. When I came to Czechoslovakia, I visited three people. One was Jiří Kotalík, the director of the National Gallery, the other was the minister of culture and the third was the education minister. And I told them: Look I am Czech, I am against your regime and my husband is too. But we are not spies, we want to help you. If you let me visit anyone I want, I promise I will never ask who is in the Communist Party and who is not. It doesn’t matter to me. The only thing I am interested in is the artistic quality of the person. And all three of them were absolutely enthusiastic about the idea.”
Who were the artists you visited at the time?
“Everybody! Around fifty artists. I cannot tell you every single one of them. One was of course Jiří Kolář and also Jindřich Chalupecký, the critic who would direct me to other studios. It was an incredible time for me. And then I organized my first show in Washington in 1968.”
I assume that for many Czech artists it was the first opportunity to exhibit their art abroad…
“Actually it was the beginning of our collection. There was a new organization called Artcentrum in Prague and you could only have an exhibition organized through this organization or the National Gallery. There was no other possibility. Nobody wanted this, because they knew it wouldn’t be an independent event. So a whole delegation from Prague came to me and told me: Look, Mrs Mládek, we are in trouble, would you buy the whole collection? We would reduce the price for you… Because our organization will probably be closed.
“So we had to buy the whole show and that’s how it all started. It was cheap but still very expensive for us, because we weren’t rich. I remember my husband had to take a loan from a bank. In any case, we bought it and that was the beginning of our collection.”
But as far as I know one of the very first pictures you acquired for your collection was by František Kupka.
“No, that was another collection. Kupka I collected when I lived in Paris in the late 1950s. It’s a collection that emerged out of my love for Kupka. He changed my life because he taught me to understand and feel art. We have two collections. One is the Kupka collection and the other is the collection of the Central European art. Funnily, I never wanted to become a collector…”
So why did you become one?
“I was trying to help Czech artists, then the Poles and the Hungarians. Afterwards George Soros helped me to travel to Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia.”
How did you get to the US in the first place?
“Because I got married. I met my husband in 1960. In 1948 I was studying in Switzerland. I came back to Prague but somebody told me leave, there will be a problem. So I left and a few days later in 1948 the Communists came to power.”
And in 1967 you returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time.
“Yes, after 19 years…”
What did you think of the Czech art world?
“I though it was absolutely unbelievable. It was the best period in Czech culture in maybe a hundred years, because it was full of enthusiasm and joy. It was just unbelievable.”
Do you think that this was because of the isolation?
“Yes. They lived in a horrible period of their lives. They couldn’t exhibit, they couldn’t sell, but they still created. But you see, to create at such a time requires physical strength… But I think I have the best that was created at that time, because nobody was interested.
“Today there are more galleries and museum and I am more and more proud about what I did. People come to our museum from all around the world and they say: We didn’t know that this existed.”
Would the Czech collection stand a comparison with world art?
“I think it was -at that time- better than those in the West. Because people here really created with their heart and emotions, just like Henri Mattise always wanted. Today, there are millions of artists, hundreds of thousand of galleries… It’s such a mess in the world.”
Is art an investment for you?
“Not for me. Today young people buy art because they are hoping that it is a good investment or because they want to decorate their house. It is a totally different world.”
“No. Not really. My husband, as I told you, was a great patriot and he understood that we had to help. And I think we did help, because today the whole world comes to see our museum. It’s fantastic.”
What led you to the decision to donate your art collection to the Czech Republic?
“This was very easy. My husband died a few months before the 1989 revolution. I came back - I think – in December. For me it was clear. I have a great collection which was created in this region, I don’t have any children, and this is the American spirit, no? I decided to give it to this country.”
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