Why I’m okay with Černý’s butterflies on Máj

Published: 21. 05. 2024

Now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I have even less patience with the outrage over David Černý’s installation on the Maj building. I’m tired of architectural purists lecturing me about why I should appreciate the buildings pure lines, its unity of purpose, etc. etc. They tell me if I had architectural training, or at least better taste, I would stand in awe of the author’s unity of purpose. Maybe. But in all my years in Prague, I’ve never, ever seen someone standing in front of Maj, gazing up in wonder.

Until yesterday. In the morning, crowds of people were staring up at the two colorful Spitfire butterflies, and it wasn’t just tourists. Locals were taking pictures, pointing at the building and talking about it. I actually got yelled at by a cop for staring at it from the crosswalk.I’ve just never understood what made the depressing old building so sacred, so untouchable. Do I just need to squint harder? To be fair, the nearly-completed reconstruction has helped a lot, at least on the Narodni street side. But the massive blank wall that glares down on Spalena street could still beat the main train station in an ugly contest. Until the intervention, that is.

I actually think Černý’s pulled off an inspired installation this time: the butterfly wings take the militaristic edge off the Spitfires, but they recall a rare act of Czech wartime heroism — all on “National” street. With the sculptures added, the building is suddenly as lively as it was mundane without them. As horrifying as this may sound to some people, they’re genuinely fun.

Maybe the old Maj building is like jazz. You’re “supposed” to like it, but the people who tell you this tend to be boring, elitist, or both. Definitely not fun…What bothers me about Prague’s cultural gatekeepers is their enormous power to block new things on principle alone. I gave up listening to their ‘arguments’ when I realized they somehow always lead to the same conclusion.

Speaking on national television, the Club for Old Prague accused the investor of using the new sculpture as a marketing gimmick. That’s as good an example of the pot calling the kettle black as I’ve seen in a while. How about praising the investor for putting millions into an un-loved building and bringing it back to life?

Černý is perhaps a victim of his own success. So many developers have now employed him that it feels repetitive, rather than edgy. I’m certain there are other sculptors in town whose aesthetic vision could help bring new life to Prague’s beautiful old streets.

But let’s not detract from this latest work, which is visually attractive rather than nakedly provocative. Very un-Černý, in other words. So, objecting to it because “it’s Černý again” doesn’t really work. Hundreds of thousands more people will now actually look at the building than would have otherwise. I’m willing to bet many will even come to appreciate its artistic merits as a result.

Daring art and architecture can provide at least some of the vibrancy that downtown Prague so badly needs. I find Maj easier to like now that it’s been decorated with the butterfly-planes. Should they be taken down in a year, as is being suggested? That seems too soon.

The truth is, it’s only been a day, but already I can’t imagine Maj without its new mascots. I don’t think you could remove them without leaving a hole.


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