Freddie Mercury’s statue in Montreux
Irena Sedlecká was born in Pilsen 1928. When she was 17 years old she was accepted as a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague which had been left completely empty after World War 2. Her professors initially suggested that she focus on small scale figurines and portraits but thanks to her remarkable talent she quickly started winning anonymous state sponsored competitions to realise full scale sculptures in Bronze and Stone depicting communist heroes, working people and of mythological characters from the October revolution, becoming one of the most celebrated Stars of the socialist realist era.
In 1964, disillusioned with politics, she left everything behind and escaped to the west under the guise of a holiday to Bulgaria, smuggling her children out in a Skoda.
Arriving to London as an unknown 40-year old artist and a single mother of three while refusing social benefits, she supported herself for many years with menial jobs in window dressing and by making souvenir for the British Museum. She never stopped working as a sculptor and set up a small studio in her garage. Eventually she became a member of the British Society of Sculptors and found new clients in the theatre world who would sit for a portrait bust.
Excerpt from an interview with Irena Sedleká by Aleksandra Mir, Didcot, 2011
...All of this lead up to the Freddie Mercury commission. He was already dead and you were asked to do a memorial statue of him. How did it happen ?
The way I got to do Freddie Mercury is that I was working with Dave Clark on a show and it was with Laurence Olivier and he wanted a portrait of Olivier so I did this mask for this big show. "TIME" it was called. Olivier was still alive, he was seventy eight or something. He was quite happy posing for me, he wasn’t bored stiff. Dave Clark organized it and so I met these people from his area, pop music. Dave Clark, he was the big man in it, Dave Clark Five or I don’t know how all these people they call themselves. It was the first time I got in touch with such a group of people, with pop music.
What did you feel, meeting up with Pop ?
Well, I never fell for pop. I was only into classic music before. I liked certain American musicals, very old, you know, the old version with Ginette McDonald, Deanna Durbin and such, but that was my youth. My interest in pop ended at Fred Astaire ! I loved that, but this kind of pop, I heard it for the first time when I came to England and The Beatles had just started, so well, it was ok for me but I wasn’t mad. I could listen to it, the music was fine, but I didn’t buy records or collect. I went to my classical concerts.
When we emigrated here and these were really hard years, I still went to concerts at the Festival Hall probably twice a week to survive culturally. I would get a one pound ticket in the orchestra.
Classical music helped you to survive artistically ?
Oh yes! With these horrible things that I was doing, you know, for the British Museum, It was important for me to survive, to keep my standards.
Was Pop music low standards ?
Well, long before I got the Freddie Mercury commission, there was this big thing, help for Africa.
Live Aid ?
Live Aid, yes. I wanted to hear what these pop singers were doing. I said, Are you crazy ? It makes me feel like somebody is taking my nerves and pulling them, pulling them, all my nerves. It’s not relaxing, is it ? I wasn’t so keen on this Baroque music because of the steady rhythms, this tst tst tst and when I hear that, I just can’t listen.
Ok, but you listened to Live Aid because you were curious and then you saw Freddie Mercury.
Yes, and then I saw him and I said he was so manly …
He was so manly ?
… such a good voice, such a communication with the audience. I said at least a man between the rest, they were all such pussies, but he was a man !
Yes, he was a discovery for me. I was just impressed by his personality, his voice, his songs and from that whole programme lasting twenty four hours, I remember him perfectly.
And how much later did you get the commission, how many years later ?
It must have be fifteen years ago or seventeen years ago. Yes, when I met this Dave Clark, and he first just asked if I could make the bust, so I did and they said that’s it, we want that. So I got the commission to do Freddie. I also met his girlfriend and she took me through his house which she inherited. It was really touching, everything was so touching. I started to like him as a person of really big quality because he was also a great artist.
You connected with Freddie as a great artist. So this was not a competition ? Were there any other sculptors involved ?
I don’t know, I didn’t ask. No, they just trusted me. They just said that’s it. I passed it, I came through it. I was living in a different time. I had to work to get through, I couldn’t have any other chances. So I really had to produce some work and I am too old to start anything else so that was it. I am quite happy all right, I don’t put my address anywhere, I don’t tell local people around here that I am working as a sculptor, that I signed it Sedlecka, you know. So I am quite happy with this lovely anonymity which is good.
Maybe not for long.
I think I will remain anonymous for long. I like to be. I will not be not around. I don’t know.
(walking in the studio …) Oh, here is Freddie’s head.
It is a plaster cast from the statue. It was a present from the foundry. When they cast the bronze they still had the mould so they made the plaster from that mould. They were so happy to do it and I was very grateful that they did it for me. This is all some people, this is a minister, this one a doctor. That is my husband, these three are my husbands. This is a maquette for Emily Dickinson and this is some lady, that is a Czech singer from the beginning of the century. This is the head of a man who brought me in auction. They asked if I would do a sculpture for charity so he brought me at the auction and I did his portrait. I have hundreds and hundreds of heads, not hundreds but a lot. So yes, I am living with portraits.
Amazing, to live with all of this. Does it make you happy to be here ?
Oh yes, oh yes. I can sit here and look at the books all day, not working !
Look. I brought you a present. It is a present for me but it is a present for you as well. I received these photographs from Richard, do you remember Richard Gray, the Art Director of Queen who photographed your work ?
Yes, of course !
So I met him and I did an interview with him as well.
Yes, because he was so impressed when he was going to the foundry and he gave me four photographs as well. Oh, that’s wonderful !
He gave me all of these .... he gave me a whole CD and I printed them out for you. I am so excited about these, they have never been published, never been seen, archive only. For me, these are the best things that has happened all year.
Oh nice, oh, that’s lovely! Thank you, I don’t have that one …
I love this one of you working on the sculpture, this is my favourite.
Yes, that was in the studio.
And here it is finished. This is Freddie in Montreux on his birthday. Look, look what’s going on around him, the craziness on his birthday, the fans are still celebrating every year.
Isn’t he lovely ?
And here you are working from behind.
Yes, that’s wonderful !
Look at the sexy ass you made ! And you are so small.
Yes, here inside is the structure, and you leave it a little bit empty, so that way you can put clay around the armature but it is not full clay.
You also made smaller studies ?
Oh yes, when I have to do bigger stuff I first have to do a study of the body.
This is another Freddie study, without the clothes. What material is it ?
It is resin. It is only a study for the body because you have to understand what is under the clothes, then when you dress it, you know the body. And then I first made the small size, I think one third or a half ? I can’t remember. I think it was a half, yes it was a half, it was over a metre. So from that you enlarge it.
Who helped you with the armature then ?
I had a friend coming from Prague, because you will not believe me, I couldn’t get the right support for the statue here. I asked them to produce it for me, but no, they were doing it differently here and I was working the Czech way, you know. So I asked my friend, he was older, he just recently died now, if he would make me the stand and the armature for Freddie and I would pay him. I said, Come if you wish to come, and so he made these things in Czechoslovakia. He brought them over and he helped me to build it. He stayed about, I think for forty days and then he said goodbye. I paid him for the armature and then I carried on with the sculpture.
Freddie was dead, so did you model him from a photograph ?
I made it from photographs, from videos, from everything they gave me that was important. Seeing him singing and moving was important.
How did seeing the moving images help you to make it in bronze ?
Well, I had to live it really. I had to do it like if I knew him so well, like I had him in front of me.
Did you have to become him in order to understand him and to depict his form ?
I always say that it is a little bit like acting with the person. You try to find what they feel, and if you are the actor, you feel it. When I do the statues, I always imagine being the person. When I was doing Conan Doyle, the writer who wrote Sherlock Holmes, I just relaxed into imagining Conan Doyle writing and talking in his mind with Sherlock Holmes. Then I was doing the Beau Brummell who was this beautiful dandy, he knew that he was perfect, he was so proud. And when I was doing it, so I felt like that too, I am so beautiful, I am so proud, you know.
I am going to ask you …
I am a perfectionist, you know!
Irena, you are sitting in front of me right now, you are closing your eyes and you are making the gestures of these bodies that you have sculpted. I am going to ask you a very personal question. When you sculpted the Freddie Mercury, did you ever strike this rock star pose in front of a mirror, to feel what it is like to stand in front of this mass of people at Wembley Stadium? Did you ever raise your arm and strike that gesture ?
Listen, we were raising so many arms in the Socialist period.
You mimed it ?
Yeah, I usually use mirrors, yes.
And that is completely natural for you to do, there is nothing strange about doing that?
No, it’s nothing strange. If you wish to sculpt even a hand, it is also your duty as an artist to show something more, the strength for example, so you try it out with your own hand.
You use your own body a lot.
Both as a vehicle and as a model.
I have to get into the person, feel him, yes of course. You’re right, I do it, I do this acting sort of to get into the person.
And do you think this is what separates you from other contemporary sculptors who…
I don’t know what they do.
Because a lot of these pieces by others that I see around that you mentioned are completely dead to me in that, you know, it seems like the artist has not really lived it.
Well, that is possible, yes, because to my surprise, they are quite quick. I am not quick, I am slow. If you are quick you end up just making a figure without resolving any of the problems.
Do the commissioners and the public accept it because they can’t tell the difference you think ?
They are only focused on the photographic likeness, if they can identify the person or not.
One of the reasons why I wanted to come and meet you is because I think you represent an approach to art that is completely lost on my generation.
Yeah, I am old-fashioned. I am passé. I am passé but my problem is that I came here too late. I should by now have been on the map, that’s what I wanted, but now it’s too late.
How long time did you spend on Freddie ?
About two years.
Your statue is incredibly loved in Montreux.
They were very happy to get it there because there is a tradition of this light music they have for this festival every year.
(note from Montreux Celebration : Irena means, of course, the Montreux Jazz Festival...)
Jim, Queen’s manager told me a funny story about the legs. He said that you made the legs shorter with the intention of looking up on them, which is how you normally would look at a statue of this importance. But now it is placed nearly on street level, which is the wrong perspective to see it from and so the legs simply read short ?
They are long, I made them longer because to look shorter when you look up, so they’re longer now. They should probably be shorter. I never thought that it would be placed so low.
This excerpt is published with permission by Aleksandra Mir.
Note from Montreux Celebration
Check the video of the unveiling of the statue which shows that it was indeed fixed on the ground in 1996.
Our friends the dogs appreciated this ideal spot to lift a leg and "pee" on the statue. As a result, Queen Management asked the Montreux Municipality to move it and place it on a base about 60cm high. This solved the "problem" of "peeing" but especially the perspective that Aleksandra and Irena emphasize.
Freddie Mercury Statue by artist Irena Sedlecka
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