Prague

In this four-part work, Van Genk establishes a link between Czechoslovakia and Sweden. Across the seam joining the two panels he sketched a route from...

Willem van Genk, Praag, Outsider Art Museum

In this four-part work, Van Genk establishes a link between Czechoslovakia and Sweden. Across the seam joining the two panels he sketched a route from the luxury health spa of Karlsbad via Prague and Berlin to Trelleborg in Sweden. He must have been excited to discover there was a passenger train for Sweden that would ride onto a ferry with rails in the north German port of Rostock and rode off again in Trelleborg, continuing its journey from there on the normal Swedish rail network. Perhaps he undertook this journey himself at some time, or perhaps he just read about it in a brochure from Cedok travel agency.

On the two upper panels, Van Genk has painted a view of one of Prague’s main open spaces, Wenceslas Square, from the roof of a building. The roof is edged with red flags, and several people are watching the spectacle taking place in the street below. Two of them are dressed in transparent plastic raincoats, while a man with large ears is wearing a blue shirt and brown trousers. Van Genk drew sketches of the buildings adjoining the square in an effort to make an exact representation; the sketches were subsequently affixed to the rear of the painting. He knew exactly which businesses occupied each building, so the slogans displayed on the frontages are correct. The equestrian statue on its tall pedestal portrays St Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia. The occasion is the First of May, International Labour Day, which was celebrated in the former Eastern Bloc countries with much flag-waving, processions and military parades. However, what Van Genk painted seems more like a parade of trams. They drive up from the adjoining streets, tram after tram, circling the equestrian statue while hundreds of pedestrians stroll along the leafy boulevard.

On the lower panels, Van Genk depicts a busy street with trams, cars, buses and a motorized wheelchair. Two girls with pigtails from the Communist youth organization, dressed in blue skirts and red neckerchiefs, are standing on the pavement next to a kiosk with magazines from Poland, China, Egypt and Indonesia. A woman with a baby progresses with the support of a sturdy walking-stick. There are also a soldier, a policeman and a pipe-smoking figure wearing an exotic hat. The man in a green jacket with a sword and a baton looks like a cut-out that Van Genk has simply pasted into the picture. A conductress in a heavy uniform is standing in the doorway of the tram, and a single passenger can be seen seated behind her. The same large-eared man who was observing the traffic from the building roof now scurries hastily between two trolleybuses. One of the buses, both evidently belonging to the city’s public transport service, is decorated with a portrait of Lenin.