Josef Svoboda was born on 19 May 1920 in the East Bohemian town of Čáslav. His father owned a carpentry workshop, and this significantly influenced not only Svoboda’s professional skill to theoretically define how a used material would function but also his ability to personally implement his designs down to the smallest detail. In 1938, he went to Prague, where he attended the two-year School of Master Carpentry in Žižkov. Later, at the Specialised School of Interior Architecture, he studied under a number of university professors, including the scenographer František Tröster (1904–1968). During this time, Svoboda also followed the artistically progressive Theatre D34. From Svoboda’s later designs, as well as from the photographs of their realisation, it is apparent that he was significantly influenced by the inter-war avant-garde, Bauhaus, and the Theatregraph developed by E. F. Burian (1904–1959) and Miroslav Kouřil (1911–1984).
Josef Svoboda became a professional scenographer after World War II, specifically at the 5th of May Theatre. At the time, it was housed in what is today the Prague State Opera building but was then the Neues Deutsches Theater (New German Theatre), which was taken over by the young theatrical followers of the composer Alois Hába (1893–1973), the conductor Václav Kašlík (1917–1989), and the stage director Antonín Kurš (1901–1960). In 1946, Svoboda’s inspirational collaboration with the director Alfréd Radok (1914-1976) started with a staging of Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffman. It was also with Radok that Svoboda staged Josef Kainar’s Operation Aibiš, and the scenography for this production combined live stage action with film projections. It became the prototype for the subsequent Laterna Magika project, which was originally commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Education and represented Czechoslovakia at the international EXPO 58 in Brussels.
The productions that Josef Svoboda participated in at the National Theatre during the 1960s rank among the most illustrious Czech theatre productions of the second half of the twentieth century. They chiefly consist of those that were staged in collaboration with the director Otomar Krejča (1921–2009) and the dramaturg Karel Krause (1920–2014), such as, to name but a few, The Seagull, Drahomíra and Her Sons, The Owners of the Keys, and Romeo and Juliet. In addition to his work at the National Theatre, Svoboda also collaborated on productions at the Theatre beyond the Gate as well as at theatres abroad, including the Slovakian National Theatre and the Salzburger Festspiele Landestheatrer in Salzburg.
Another important chapter of Svoboda’s professional biography consists of his productions realised abroad on the world’s most famous – chiefly opera – stages. From the artistic perspective, they represent what were experimental projects not only with respect to technology (laser) that was not available in Czechoslovakia at that time, but also because of the oversized spaces and even budgets. Of these, the main ones include the staging of Wagner’s operas at Covent Garden in London and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
In 1974, Josef Svoboda became the director of Laterna Magika. From the period spanning the next twenty years, it is possible to compare both the parallels and the differences in the Laterna Magika productions – starting with The Magic Circus (which remains on the theatre’s repertoire to date), including the production of Odysseus and ending with Graffiti. In 1996, Svoboda returned once more to the historical National Theatre building, where he and Krejča staged Goethe’s Faust.
Josef Svoboda was not only a much-recognised scenographer, but also a teacher, chiefly at the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design in Prague, which he himself had attended. Individuals such as Jindřich Smetana, Daniel Dvořák, Šimon Caban, Vladimír Soukenka, and many others can claim to have studied under his guidance.
The Arts and Theatre Institute has long been involved in a collaborative effort to present the work of Josef Svoboda – not only through several unique international exhibitions and publications, but also through its Virtual Study website, where it has published and made accessible to both the professional and the lay public a number of his designs, models, and original photographs.
“Josef Svoboda has raised technology to the level of an artistic means of expression: with its help, he creates a metaphorical stage environment, whose structure is tangible, architectural, and philosophical. He has incorporated all artistic as well as technical operations into the term ‘scenography’: artistic prerequisites and education, a sense for stage direction, and skill using auxiliary fields – lighting, mathematics, physics, and optics. Detailed knowledge of these matters allows the scenographer to control the space of the entire theatre, both the stage and the auditorium.”
– Věra Ptáčková: Josef Svoboda, Theatre Institute, 1983