For eleven years, from 1928 to 1939, the School of Arts and Crafts in Bratislava (Škola umeleckých remesiel – ŠUR) was the hub of a budding Slovak modernism. Founded amid an economic crisis in a small city, the conditions for the ŠUR were not favourable – and yet, supported by the sheer determination of its director Jozef Vydra, it thrived as a public school that was, pronouncedly, not concerned with modern art but modern life. The first international exhibition about the ŠUR in the post-socialist era was shown at the city museums of Zwickau and Leverkusen and at the Bauhaus Dessau foundation in 1998, accompanied by a rich catalogue. While presenting an important initiative in unearthing the history of the ŠUR, the exhibition and catalogue, bearing the title Das Bauhaus im Osten (‘The Bauhaus in the East’), was conceptualised in close relation to Germany’s most legendary art school, over-emphasising the link between the two, at the cost of ignoring others. Twenty years on and in time for the ŠUR’s 90th birthday (as well as the Bauhaus centenary), the Slovak Design Museum puts a corrective lens on the school’s history with an exhibition in the spaces of the Historical Museum in Bratislava Castle.
Up until a few years ago, most of the information unearthed about the ŠUR was due to the work of one art historian, Iva Mojžišová (1939-2014), who published the monograph Škola moderného videnia (‘The School of a Modern Vision’) in 2013. Researching the school almost single-handedly since the 1960s, Mojžišová collected a range of materials about it, which are now housed in the Slovak Design Museum. Building on this collection, Have No Fear of Modernism! – the titled is a reference to a text by Vydra – is very much a showcase of Mojžišová’s work, even though it builds on new research to present a carefully conceived retrospective of the ŠUR. Spread across three large rooms and one smaller space, the exhibition is divided into several categories, which correlate with the school’s different departments: window-dressing, photography, ceramics, graphics, general drawing, metal working, textile and fashion, film, painting, woodwork, and art classes for children.
Each of these departments is represented by a well-chosen selection of works, which barely makes visible one of the main issues of researching the ŠUR: the lack of works, especially student works, many of which were lost. As a result, many of the pieces
exhibited are by the school’s teachers. This includes drawings and paintings by Ľudovít Fulla and Mikuláš Galanda, ceramics by Julie Kováčiková-Horová, photographs by Jaromír Funke, typographic work by Zdeněk Rossmann, and scenes from the filmographic work of Karol Plicka. A significant number of the student works on show, meanwhile, are by Martin Brezina, including paintings, drafts for woodwork and interior design sketches. Barely known today, this pedagogue and scenographer kept a personal archive that included his student work from the ŠUR, which saved it from falling into oblivion.
Especially noteworthy here is Brezina’s painting Muž s palicou (‘Man with a rake’): shown as both a draft and as the finished work, the process from classical sketch to modernist painting with abstracted folklore elements unfolds, revealing not only what ŠUR modernism could look like, but also the process of achieving it. Given that such works related to the school are rare, ‘Man with a rake’ is an important document, because it shows how students at the painting department learned their craft.
While photographs have helped to preserve at least some images of the lost works, a particularly nice exhibition feature is also the reproduction of designs by young contemporary designers, based on preserved sketches from ŠUR students. This includes a lorry by Rita Koszorús and the collective Creater which is based on Brezina’s technical sketches of the children’s toy. As the ŠUR was a place of practical education, linked to industry, as well as a space for creative experiments by young artist-teachers and their students, the link between Bratislava’s young designers and artists then and now implies a sense of continuation, facilitated by the Slovak Design Museum and Centre as a connecting point.
In addition to the sections provided by the ŠUR’s different departments, each of which is accompanied by a brief historical overview and a citation by its leading teacher, the exhibition includes three further topics, which pinpoint the school’s modernist outlook: magazine culture, a manifesto, and international relations.
As an important instrument for gathering and disseminating information, magazines such as Slovenská Grafia, Revue Devětsil, Horizont and Le Jardin des Modes not only offered opportunities to advertise the ŠUR on a national and international level, but also made it possible for its students and teachers to stay in touch with cultural developments across Europe. International contacts also aided this cause, of course, but they also make another important point in the exhibition: while links to the Bauhaus were undoubtedly given through personal relations, and not least because Bauhaus figures such as László Moholy-Nagy and Hannes Meyer came to lecture at the school, connections to other institutions and personalities like Franz Cižek, who taught at Vienna’s School of Applied Arts, were just as important. Without explicitly pointing it out, therefore, Have No Fear of Modernism! confidently argues that the ŠUR may have been related to the Bauhaus (which can hardly be denied in light of the objects on display), but that it was by no means fully reliant on it, nor a straightforward copy of it. This point is also stressed by the artistic programme outlined in Súkromné listy (‘Private letters’), published by ŠUR-teachers Fulla and Galanda. Using an international typographic design, the publication emphasises how local artists paired and adjusted the language of the avant-garde to devise their own ‘instructions’ on modernity.
To some extent, most of the artists exhibited represent are fairly well-known, ‘classical’ Czech and Slovak modernists, whose works are shown in a traditional manner, divided by medium and framed within a historical narrative. And yet, set within a calming, dark exhibition environment, Have no Fear of Modernism! is, in many ways, an understated argument about the ground-breaking significance of the ŠUR in the context of interwar Czechoslovakia. The school is not overly glorified as the ‘most important development’ of Slovak modernism, in the way that the significance of regional phenomena can sometimes be blown out of proportion. Rather, the exhibition allows – as it should – the objects on display to speak for themselves, set against a thoroughly researched background. Precisely because of this modest presentation, Have no Fear of Modernism! manifests the ŠUR’s significance in Czechoslovakia between the wars. Away from established centres of art and artistic education in the country, Bratislava appears to have fostered an environment where young artists and pedagogues had room to explore and to create something new. The ŠUR, the exhibition shows convincingly, was a centre for these developments, representing a ‘regional’ modernism that was bound by local and global forces alike.
Have No Fear of Modernism! 90th Anniversary of the Establishment of the School of Arts and Crafts (organised by the Slovak Design Museum in Bratislava Castle, SNM – Museum of History, 14 December 2018 to 29 September 2019)
Catalogue: L’ubomír Longauer and Klára Prešnajderová, eds., Nebát’ sa sprievodcu. Sprievodca výstavou (Bratislava: Slovak Design Museum, 2018)
Monograph: Iva Mojžišová, Škola moderného videnia bratislavská ŠUR 1928-1939 (Bratislava: Artforum, 2013)