In 2016, the International Cultural Centre Kraków presented the exhibition Koszycka moderna / Košice Modernism in cooperation with the East Slovak Gallery in the town of Košice. Its catalogue, reviewed here, remains the most recent analysis of Košice Modernism: a term coined by curator Zsófia Kiss-Szemán, and referring to the cultural upsurge in the 1920s Košice, today in eastern Slovakia. Part of Hungary in the Habsburg Empire, the town was an important centre for commerce, located at the intersections of ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Carpathian Ruthenia. With the collapse of the empire, Košice became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918 as an approximately 50,000-strong border town with a mixed Slovak, Hungarian, Jewish, German and Czech population. As the exhibition argues, these socio-political and geographical particularities shaped Košice’s cultural development: while its strategic position on a trading route meant that Košice’s multi-ethnic community could flourish, its incorporation into Czechoslovakia introduced a democratic form of government, which allowed a degree of political freedom that was especially significant for leftist artists seeking refuge from the Horthy regime in Hungary in 1919.
The catalogue introduces these historical origins with an essay by Radoslav Passia, offering a solid foundation for the developments of Košice Modernism to the general reader. In neat transition, Kiss-Szemán then provides a narrowed focus with the aptly titled section ‘Košice, City of Artists’. With the establishment of an art school led by Eugen (Jenő) Krón, and Josef Polák’s remodelling of the East Slovak Museum, Košice became home to a prolific cultural scene, which, Kiss-Szemán argues, was bound to its specificity of place and concurrently stands in for a number of small cultural centres in Central Europe that began to flourish in the early 20th century. Focusing on a selection of artists (Anton Jasusch, Konštantín Bauer, Eugen Krón, Géza Schiller, Sándor Bortnyik, František Foltýn, Julius Jakoby, and Konštantín Kővári-Kačmarik), who played a crucial role in Košice’s growing artistic life, the catalogue then traces Košice’s development as an artistic hub, largely determined by the efforts of Polák, with brief essays by Gyula Ernyey, Michał Burdziński and Natalia Żak.
In ‘Premonitions of Modernism’, the visual origins of Košice Modernism are rooted in a series of paintings and ink-on-paper drawings by Kövári-Kačmarik and the symbolist landscapes of Jasusch, who drew inspiration from the Nabis. Jasusch clearly emerges as one of the exhibition’s most important artists with eerie paintings that focus on universal human values and morals. He represents the ‘local’ artist, who lived in Košice for his entire life, except during military service and his subsequent imprisonment in Russia. The catalogue devotes a whole section to his work with ‘Anton Jasusch, the Migration of the Soul’.
Jasusch’s counterparts are referred to as ‘nomads’ in ‘The Nomad Artist. The Geography of Creative Migrations’: arriving in Košice upon invitation by Polák, artists like Schiller, Bortnyik, and Foltýn stayed for a limited period – Bortnyik for less than six months, Schiller and Foltýn for over a year. Bringing, among others, Constructivist and Cubist influences with them, the ‘nomads’ helped to reinvigorate the local cultural scene and, in turn, found a place for experimentation in Košice. Bortnyik’s portrait of Polák, for example, reworked Italian Pittura Metaphisica painting in a monumental style, which was a dominant feature of Košice painting at the time.
Across the works in the catalogue, we find that the art of 1920s Košice was largely figurative with large, sculptural bodies, focused on painting and the graphic arts, and embraced a diversity in formal language that would make it difficult to define a ‘Košice style’. Košice Modernism, in this sense, infers an artistic plurality, which was more traditional than the avant-garde, yet decidedly modern in its celebration of contemporary life and openness to formal experimentation. Yet while the works convey this pluralism through formal variety, the catalogue has faced difficulties in finding a tight structure for the deeper grounding of the significance of Košice Modernism.
The diversity of the works chosen to represent Košice Modernism emphasises that the city’s cultural scene did not consist of one coherent group, but of many different artists, some of whom were more closely connected than others. The pluralism this model emphasises, however, seems disconnected from the multi-cultural cityscape it is said to represent. How were these Slovak, Hungarian, Jewish and German influences visible in the works? Did they determine particular styles? Did artists comment on the town’s pluralism, in visual terms or other? Given that many, if not most, Central European cities and towns remained home to multi-ethnic populations after 1918, it would be important to set Košice’s significance either as an exceptional phenomenon, or as a model for investigation into the cultural developments in similar towns. While some of the essays in the catalogue suggest that this is the approach taken in the exhibition, it does not emerge clearly how this was manifested.
Moreover, the catalogue emphasises that one of the main features of Košice Modernism was its embracing of ‘the urban’ and its celebration of a modern lifestyle. This celebration of urban life – an important feature of modern visual culture – is, however, only marginally represented in the works included in the catalogue. Bauer’s many quaint street views, for example, maintain a decidedly small-town character, reminding us that Košice was still a far cry from a buzzing metropolis. While modern life, in the form of electricity masts, phone lines and factory chimneys, is quietly integrated into many of the works, they seem to convince us that Košice was still a small town, not an overwhelming, modern city.
Finally, even though an increasing political openness and modernisation of life continued to call into question traditional gender roles and sexuality after 1918, these themes are left almost entirely untouched in the catalogue essays. Despite the inclusion of highly contentious paintings and graphic works such as Eugen Krón’s Eros series and Konštantín Bauer’s Condemned, gender and sexuality are only mentioned in relation to the scandal these images evoked among conservatives. An analysis of the ways the artists engaged with gender and sexuality – and what this meant within the context of the time – would have greatly enhanced the analysis. Additionally, female artists seem to have been omitted from the exhibition, which gives the impression that Košice Modernism was a ‘boys club’, where women’s only place was within staunchly patriarchal stereotypes of mother, virgin and whore.
Košice Modernism was a significant exhibition, because it introduced the phenomenon of regional modernism in Central European art to an international audience. Its catalogue also proves that its representatives produced engaged work of high artistic quality. Yet, one would have wished for more critical engagement with what this development meant for the local context and within wider considerations of Czechoslovakia in order to broaden our understanding of modernism in Central Europe. Košice Modernism certainly offers a starting point in opening the debate on regional modernisms, which now needs to be continued.
Zsófia Kiss-Szemán and Natalia Żak, eds., Koszycka moderna = Košice modernism (Kraków: Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury, 2016)