Artwork of the Month: Women Husking Corn by Joža Uprka (1926)

In 2008, the city of Cedar Rapids in Iowa was hit by a terrible flood caused by heavy rainfall and overflown local river. The water reached unprecedented 31 feet above the normal level and flooded nearly 8,000 properties. In financial terms, the losses to property were calculated at $6 billion. But how is a flooded city in the American Midwest linked to an idyllic rural scene by a Czech artist?

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Joža Uprka: Women husking corn, 1926, oil on panel. George T. Drost collection

 

A pocket of Czech culture

Cedar Rapids is also the home of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (NCSML), which was severely affected by the flood. Many artefacts as well as the building were damaged or destroyed and the institution closed down for several months. The museum is located in the district known as the Czech Village and New Bohemia. While NewBo, as New Bohemia is often affectionately called, may produce more contemporary hipster associations, the Czech Village is firmly rooted in the historic community built up by migrants from Bohemia. They started settling there in the 1870s and the influx continued well into the 20th century, working first in the slaughterhouse and, later, in other businesses. A Czech social hall, known as the ‘Sokol’ (the name means ‘Falcon’ and future president T. G. Masaryk gave a lecture there in 1907), and several theatres grew up there amongst the various homes and shops by Czech settlers.

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The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa during the flood of 2008 – photo: Baculis1, Wikimedia Commons

In 1974 a group of second and third generation descendants established the Czech Fine Arts Foundation which aimed at preserving culture and heritage from their ancestral home. The museum and its collection gradually grew and finally were housed in a permanent building, which was opened in 1995 by Presidents Václav Havel of the Czech Republic, Michal Kováč of Slovakia and the US President Bill Clinton. By this time, the museum also embraced Slovak art and culture.

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Catalogue of the exhibition The National Treasure: The Art of Joža Uprka from the George T. Drost Collection (Art Advisory Ltd, 2018)

In 2011 the entire museum and library building was moved away from the Cedar River to protect the collections – ranging from furniture to jewellery most often donated to the institution by individuals – from future flooding and the museum reopened a year later with an exhibition of Alfons Mucha’s works. The most recent exhibition, The National Treasure: The Art of Joža Uprka from the George T. Drost Collection, showed the works by the artist collected by George T. Drost, a lawyer from Illinois. Drost was born in Brno shortly after the end of WWII, to a father who had served during the war in the Czechoslovak army and, as a lawyer himself, represented mainly Jewish clients, while managing to escape the Gestapo. The Communist coup of 1948 prompted the family to move to Austria first and to the US later where they settled in Illinois. Today Drost’s collection consists of some 120 paintings by Uprka which have served the collector as a reminder of the homeland. As much as the NCSML collects and exhibits reminders of Czech identity for those distance from their homeland, Drost’s collection can be seen as a personal tribute to a culture which he for a long time only experienced from afar. As he himself noted, the works of Uprka are “bucolic and traditional, displaying a nostalgia for simpler times in the face of the disruptive forces of urbanization and industrialization.”[1]

Uprka’s idealised village

Born in the village of Kněždub in eastern Moravia in 1861, Uprka can in many respects be seen as someone who tried to escape the continued modernisation of the Czech lands who thus provides a symbol of continuity between Austria Hungary and interwar Czechoslovakia. He followed the trajectory of many Czech painters at the end of the 19th century: he studied in Prague, at the Academy in Munich, and for a short while in Paris. Yet unlike many others, he also ventured to the Balkans, Italy, Egypt, and Russia, and eventually settled back in rural Moravia. Here, he built around himself a community of artists interested in folk art and customs, which they depicted in their paintings, drawings, sculptures and crafts. Uprka was also quite well networked with artists in Prague. In 1902, some of them organized a trip of Moravian sights for Auguste Rodin who was exhibiting in Prague at the time, and made Uprka’s house and studio an unforgettable stop which was accompanied by a fair degree of dancing and drinking.

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Joža Uprka: Pilgrimage to St. Anthony, 1894, Moravian Gallery, Brno

Uprka cultivated his original technique – partly derived from French Impressionism – and choice of subjects in the 1890s and became quite successful in exhibiting and selling his work in major European art centres, including Prague, Vienna and Paris. Here, he was awarded a mention honorable for his painting Pilgrimage to St. Anthony from 1894. This painting was somewhat typical of his approach to folk culture. A focus on seasonal traditions and rituals allowed him to explore the vibrant colours of the various regional costumes. He often located his subjects in the open air, either in a village setting or in the fields. The latter is the case of the painting of Women Husking Corn, which depicts three young women sitting on the ground and husking corn.

Dressing up for labour

The use of primary colours of reds, blues and yellows gives contrast to the painting, yet the scene is one of calm without much dialogue or interaction between the figures, which leaves them looking like participants in a theatrical set. The triangular composition places two women in the background and one in the foreground. Her figure and especially her head scarf are treated in most detail, which emphasises the elaborate way of tying the scarf up and its abstract ornament. Uprka was quite skilful in depicting how regional costumes were worn and head scarfs tied to the extent that he collaborated with the ethnographer František Kretz (1859-1929) on several ethnographic albums documenting female and male folk garments and headwear as a disappearing phenomenon.[2]

Yet by the time Uprka painted this work, he had left his Moravian base and moved further east to the Slovak village of Klobušice (roughly 150 kilometres north-east of Bratislava) in search for the remnants of authentic folk culture which was, in his view, disappearing from Moravia. By 1926, when the painting was completed, regional costumes were hardly worn and especially not for everyday work like corn husking. Costumes and elaborate folk dresses had always been spared for special occasions like seasonal festivals, important life events and Sunday worship. Ironically, too, the red scarfs the women in the painting have on their heads were known as Turkish scarfs – they were manufactured imports from Turkey which were already being criticised around the turn of the century as a sign of modernisation and loss of vernacular authenticity among peasants.

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Erwin Raupp: Bringing Hay, photograph, ca 1904, National Museum, Prague

Despite these contradictions, Uprka carried on with the idealised vision of folk life and culture he constructed at the end of the 19th century. As many of his paintings were based on his memory or combined experiences of different aspects of folk life from before the Great War, he dwells on this nostalgic picture of the village as it existed several decades ago. Coming back to the efforts of the Czech descendants in America, memory becomes an important carrier of such attempts to preserve cultural heritage. From this point of view, Uprka’s vision of the village as a colourful, idyllic place retains, to paraphrase George T. Drost, an image of the simpler times, which can survive in spite of the disruptive forces of modernisation or, more generally, natural disasters and geographical distances.

Marta Filipová

[1] George T. Drost, ‘A Personal Journey into Art Collecting: A Note by George Drost,’ National Treassure: The Art of Joža Uprka from the George T. Drost Collection, 2.

[2] Šatky a šátky (Dresses and scarfs, 1918), Vázání šátků (Tying scarfs, 1910), Ženské kožuchy (Women’s fur coats, 1927), Mužské kožuchy (Men’s fur coats, 1920).

Literature

Musilová, Helena, ed., Joža Uprka (1861–1940). Evropan slováckého venkova (Prague: National Gallery, 2011).

The National Treasure: The Art of Joža Uprka from the George T. Drost Collection (Art Advisory Ltd, 2018).

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