Czech battle over art nouveau epic by Alphonse Mucha
A fierce legal struggle is under way in the Czech Republic over the fate of 20 enormous paintings by Alphonse Mucha, creator of the style known as art nouveau.
The paintings - entitled the Slav Epic - have spent the last half a century hanging in a chateau in the Moravian town of Moravsky Krumlov. But officials in Prague now want them moved to the capital, prompting angry protests from the rest of the country.
"The Slav Epic is the soul of Moravsky Krumlov," says town mayor Jaroslav Mokry.
"And Krumlov," he says, placing his hands squarely on his desk, "Krumlov is the Epic's saviour."
It's a big desk, almost hidden under piles of official-looking papers. The piles are neat and orderly, just like their owner. A bust of Czechoslovakia's first president Tomas Garrigue Masaryk glares down from a shelf.
"Krumlov saved the Epic from rotting away to nothing," he says, stroking an immaculately clipped beard.
"Krumlov saved the Epic from the ravages of fate, from the Communists... Krumlov saved the Epic from destruction."
Alphonse Mucha's masterpiece hangs in the crumbling chateau, a few minutes' walk from the mayor's office.
A thematic cycle of 20 enormous paintings, up to six metres tall and eight metres wide, the Slav Epic is Mucha's tribute to his people.
The dreamy, almost supernatural pictures show the historical trials and tribulations of the Czech nation and the Slavs.
In one haunting image, a young woman, clutching an infant to her breast, kneels over a row of ghostly corpses as her village burns in the distance.
In another, Jan Amos Komensky, the "teacher of nations", sits slumped in a chair looking out over a cold, grey sea. Komensky, better known to the world as Comenius, was banished from his homeland after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 and died in exile.
"We have to know about these moments in our history in order for us to live happily and in peace," says the gallery's English-speaking guide, a young woman named Pavla Hemerkova.
"These are important paintings, and I think they should stay here," she continues. "I think Mucha would also have preferred them to stay here in the end."
Mucha painted the Slav Epic over two decades, finally completing the work in 1928.
The artist bequeathed the paintings to Prague, as the capital of Masaryk's new republic, but on one condition - Prague, he said, must build a special pavilion for them.
It never did.
The story of how they ended up instead hanging in a dilapidated chateau in South Moravia, 200 kilometres from the capital, is itself epic.
Mucha died of pneumonia in 1939, after being arrested and interrogated, at the age of 78, by the Gestapo. The paintings were wrapped up and hidden away in storerooms - or even, according to some rumours, in a tomb - to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Nazis.
After the war they were moved as a provisional measure to Moravsky Krumlov, and first went on display at the chateau in 1963. They have been there ever since.
But now Prague wants them back, and the anger on the streets of Krumlov is palpable.
"The Epic is well looked after here," said local hairdresser Jana Kralova, shutting up her one-room salon for the day.
"I don't understand why Prague has to have everything, and we get nothing. Prague is chock full of artwork already. For God's sake, why can't we have some of our own here in Krumlov?"
Mayor Mokry tries to untangle the complex legal wrangling which has lasted for at least a decade, but which has now intensified.
Earlier this year, the City of Prague demanded the paintings' return, based on Alphonse Mucha's original wish.
The Mucha family, who run the Mucha Foundation, intervened, appealing to the state authorities in Moravsky Krumlov to block the move.
The Foundation is in talks with Prague on building a permanent home for the Epic, and argued that moving it now would simply be another provisional solution.
A thousand angry art students demonstrated outside the chateau. Even President Vaclav Klaus added his voice, offering Moravsky Krumlov his support.
The authorities later granted the Mucha family wish, blocking the move on legal grounds. Prague has vowed to appeal.
"It's an absolutely absurd situation and an infringement of Prague's ownership rights," said Prague City Councillor Ondrej Pecha, who is spearheading the initiative to bring the paintings back to the capital.
Mr Pecha said Prague had already paid for the technical preparations to instal the Epic at the city's Veletrzni Palace gallery for a planned exhibition.
The capital will demand that Moravsky Krumlov pays the bill if the exhibition does not go ahead, he told the Czech News Agency.
The Epic itself, meanwhile, is in legal limbo. Technically it is the property of the capital. But it cannot leave its "temporary" home in Moravia until the dispute is resolved.
"Prague has made itself look very bad, in the eyes of the whole country, not just Moravians," says Jaroslav Mokry.
"We've received hundreds of letters. Many of them are from Praguers saying how disgusted they are with their elected officials," he goes on.
"They're disgusted with how the capital is treating a little town in Moravia which has saved a valuable work of art. It is, pure and simple, a disgrace."