Artwork of the Month, November 2019: Slovak Lourdes by Anna Lesznai (1924)

Framed by soft hills and picturesque huts, November’s Artwork of the Month transports us to the countryside of eastern Czechoslovakia in a painting by Anna Lesznai (1885-1967).  Born and raised as the daughter of an ennobled Hungarian-Jewish family in Körtvélyes, then Upper Hungary, Anna Lesznai was one of the core female members of the Hungarian pre-war avant-garde. In the context of the Arts and Crafts revival at the turn of the twentieth century, which found enthusiastic reception in late-Habsburg Hungary, her craftwork gained much attention, alongside her poetry and fairy-tales for children. However, Lesznai also produced graphic designs, painted, taught at Dezső Orbán’s Atelier art school in Budapest in the 1930s and successfully participated in a number of exhibitions. Forced to emigrate after the rise of the Horthy regime because of her involvement in the Hungarian Republic of Councils in 1919, Lesznai lived between Vienna and the family estate in Körtvélyes (from 1920 Hrušov, Czechoslovakia; part of Slovakia since 1993). Based on an interest in folk art and peasant culture from the region, which she had begun to study in the early 1900s, Lesznai produced numerous watercolours in the 1920s and 30s which focused on life in the villages surrounding her estate and received enthusiastic reception when exhibited in Vienna.

Despite her manifold activities in the interwar years, the reception of Lesznai’s work now is most closely tied to the pre-war era, when she was involved with central representatives of Hungarian modernism: the Sunday Circle, A Nyolcak (‘The Eight’), and the literary magazine Nyugat (‘West’, 1908-1941). Another reason for her dominant positioning in the pre-war years is that her continuous reliance on folk art in painting and craftwork makes it difficult to place her amid an increasingly nationalising interwar Central Europe: as an exiled Hungarian Jew living between Austria and Czechoslovakia, painting quaint watercolours of a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional countryside, Lesznai – and her work – escape easy categorisation.

The naïve and pared-down approach to form, the reliance on bright fields of colour and the  rich, ornamental content of Lesznai’s watercolours were strongly informed by her embroidery practice, a medium that formed a central component in her work and which she particularly celebrated for its use of abstraction and simplification to form ornamented patterns. The resulting pictorial forms in her painting, celebrated as ‘Breughelesque’ and ‘authentic’ renderings of the Slovak countryside by contemporaries, showed a world between an idealised reality and the supernatural and portrayed eastern Czechoslovakia as a blissful, innocent land.

Slovak Lourdes

Anna Lesznai: Slovak Lourdes, 1924, Lajos Hatvany Museum, Hatvan – photo © Integrated Library and Museum Collection – Lajos Hatvany Museum

Building on a romanticism that was caught between an idealised homeland (Lesznai would even refer to Hrušov as ‘my native village’) and, given the artist’s position as estate owner, the preservation of the feudal traditions that had dominated in the region since Habsburg times, Lesznai’s depictions of the region maintain an uneasy balance between modernist primitivism and the rural as antidote to the metropolis. The young American art historian Stanton Lewis Caitlin, who stayed at the Hrušov estate for several weeks in the 1930s, recalled a place lost in time: ‘They [Lesznai’s family] were still the leading family and the lords of the village manor in a peasant society, where they grew flax and tended cattle. But the folk traditions of Hapsburg Imperial Slovakia, eastern Slovakia at that time were still very much alive.’[1]

In relation to Lesznai’s theories about ancient image-magic and its uses in modern art, on which she would lecture in the United States in the 1930s and 40s, the scenes she painted often represented a nostalgic longing for this land of folk traditions, which Lesznai simultaneously remodelled as a utopian vision for a harmonious future. Showing busy village life within the notably multi-ethnic and multi-confessional environment that defined eastern Slovakia, Slovak Lourdes contains some of the core features of Lesznai’s painterly practice. Yet it also slightly differs from other works in a similar style, because its contents can be dated and located: August 1924 in Dlhé Klčovo, a small town near Hrušov. On this day, Greek Catholic clergymen consecrated a new church built in honour of the Blessed Virgin of Lourdes, which elevated the town to an official place of pilgrimage. This story and its broader context not only harboured many features that reverberated with Lesznai’s interest in folk culture and primitivism: its rendering also reveals some more socio-critical aspects in Lesznai’s painting, which have yet to be explored.

In 1922, the Blessed Virgin of Lourdes first appeared to the peasant woman Anna Šaffa, who raised her disabled daughter alone and managed the family’s plot of land while her husband worked in the United States to send money back home. According to Šaffa, the virgin decided to relocate to Dlhé Klčovo from Lourdes since the people there had fallen from faith and she was looking for a new place of devout believers. The rural countryside of Eastern Czechoslovakia appeared to be just right. After several villagers and a clergyman gave evidence of the miracles that took place in the following months, including a tree imprinted with the virgin’s face rising from a newly discovered well and the sudden convalescence of disabled members of the town community, it was decided that a church had to be built in the virgin’s honour.

The event did not go unnoticed by a broader public sphere, especially as the Hungarian sociologist and politician Oszkár Jászi, Lesznai’s former husband, attended the consecration and felt so compelled by the story that he published a sociological analysis of it, first in German in the Prager Tagblatt and some months later in English in The Slavonic Review. A report of Jászi’s findings was also reprinted in the Viennese press, with the title ‘The nationalised miracle’ in the daily Die Stunde.

Jászi rooted the cause of the miracle in two main factors: First, he located a critique of modernity in ‘a distrust of the prevalent materialistic culture of to-day’ which led to ‘an unquenchable thirst for spiritual values’. Second, Jászi suggested, the miracle offered an alternative place of pilgrimage, as the traditional location Máriapócs, now in Hungary, had become out of reach for the non-passport-holding peasantry since the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. Arising from the peasant’s desperation that their traditional place of pilgrimage was out of reach, the miracle helped the local population to accept new political realities.

Drawing an image of a backwards forgotten land for an international urban readership, Jászi described the region as ‘the Cinderella of the old Hungary [that] has caused the new Czechoslovak Republic many anxieties, for it is surrounded by a thicket of misery, illiteracy and superstition’. Jászi’s quasi-scientific analysis thus formed the image of a mythical country, which even bore the potential to provide ‘admirable data for re-constructing the early Middle Ages’ for sociological research projects. Even he, as an educated, modern, rational man of science, Jászi reported, ‘found it hard to resist the charm of the truly biblical atmosphere which surrounds these people’. Jászi’s widely circulated image of eastern Czechoslovakia thus affirmed the wider fascination for the region as an exotic remnant of an otherwise lost world, where religion and superstition still regulated people’s lives. While he mentioned the dire social conditions of the population in passing, he firmly emphasised the region’s sociological value of a place lost in time – suggesting that it should be studied, preserved even, as a cradle for ‘the beginning of an idealistic movement, though it may often assume naive and fantastic forms’.

Lesznai’s visualisation of Dlhé Klčovo in Slovak Lourdes corresponds with Jászi’s commentary, in that it commemorates the consecration of the church in a paradisiacal rural idyll, populated by an overabundance of women in colourful folk costumes. Flowing into each other like an elaborate embroidery pattern, the multiple scenes on display centre around the two churches in the village, as the altar with the virgin is transported towards the Greek Catholic Church in the back. Flattening the perspective and abstracting the figures, Slovak Lourdes replicates the town’s ‘rural innocence’ in formal terms and thus implicitly precipitates Jászi’s analyses of the region in pictorial terms.

In conjunction, painting and text implied a coherent image of the miracle of Dlhé Klčovo for an urban audience, dominated by a fascination for the ‘primitive’. Even the reception of Lesznai’s work in Vienna, where she dominantly exhibited in the 1920s, was dependent on these terms. A review in the Austrian daily Der Tag, for example, described Lesznai’s paintings as originating in ‘the spirit of the gingerbread’, striking of a ‘soft, dough-like mass, closely set-together […] to a colourful rug of village paradise’. In line with these interpretations, Slovak Lourdes responded to expectations of country life ‘in the east’ by an urban audience, filtered through Lesznai’s position as a mediator between the city and the countryside.

Slovak Lourdes detail

Anna Lesznai: Slovak Lourdes, 1924, detail – photo © Integrated Library and Museum Collection – Lajos Hatvany Museum

But there is another dimension to Slovak Lourdes which merits attention: the dominance of women in the image, who, in their colourful costumes, pray, dance, chat, sell products at the market fair and complete all other kinds of work around the town. Outnumbering their male counterparts by far, the women’s voluminous skirts become a repeated pattern, of which each encapsulates Lesznai’s attention to detail in miniature form. Together with black boots and the headscarf, the skirts allude to representations of the ‘Slovak woman’ as a recurring type in the painting of artists working in the region like Elemír Halász-Hradil, Anton Jasusch and Martin Benka. However, within the broader framework of Lesznai’s practice, the women – specifically, the Slovak peasant women – take on a more complex position, especially since their real counterparts represented Lesznai’s major point of access to the village life she portrayed.

Her first in-depth engagement with folk culture around Hrušov took place around 1910, when she began to lead a woman’s organisation that produced embroidery designs. As the basis for her subsequent art and design theory and practice, Lesznai positioned embroidery as universal woman’s work, which she used in order to teach the breaking down of form and colour. Bound to this interest in embroidery as a pre-step to modern artistic production was also Lesznai’s engagement with the women who produced it.[2] In the lectures she later delivered in the United States, where she was forced to emigrate to in 1938, Lesznai thus not only based her theories of developing modern artistic form on abstraction derived from embroidery, her talks also emphasised the plight of peasant women in eastern Slovakia. Most notably, she describes their position as a ‘primitive kind of savings bank’ for men who married just before moving abroad so that the ‘women were compelled to save the arriving dollars to buy a modest little bit of land, and to build up on it the future of the family’.[3]

Despite the patronising attitude towards the peasant community in this text, which can hardly be overlooked, Lesznai also explicitly declares her sympathy for these women, at times even gives them a direct voice in first-person narratives from their perspective. Turning back to Slovak Lourdes, the woman in the story behind the miracle, Anna Šaffa, clearly exemplifies the fate of the women in Lesznai’s focus. By extension, the many peasant women in the painting at once indicate the artist’s particular focus on women’s lives and, in light of a Slovak history of emigration to the United States, also represent a social reality, which, in the usual manner of Lesznai’s practice, is paired with elements of the supernatural and fantastic. In this light, just as Jászi’s analysis of the ‘national miracle’ implies the wider social consequences of post-Trianon borders, Lesznai’s painting harbours implicit social commentary, which links the story of Anna Šaffa to the wider issue of ‘grass widows’ in eastern Slovakia. It is also worth noting here that Šaffa earned a significant amount of money by admitting pilgrims to her house, where the Virgin first appeared. In the context of Slovak Lourdes, the ‘miracle’ thus also helped Šaffa to gain financial independence – a cause that Lesznai had supported early on by employing women in her embroidery manufacture.

On the surface, the naïve image form and content of Slovak Lourdes not only harbour elements of primitivist appropriation by a modern artist but also characterised Lesznai as ‘a childishly pure soul […], non-judgmental, having little to do with principles, ideals or politics’ (still a surprisingly stubborn interpretation of her persona and artwork).[4] Yet looking beyond the gloss of ‘naïve art’, the image also includes implicit social commentary, which manifests Lesznai’s interest and sympathy for eastern Slovakia and its inhabitants. While it does not take away the elements of primitivism by which Lesznai stylised a local population as ‘child-like’ and ’pure’, Slovak Lourdes indicates that Lesznai’s work harboured more than just idealising depictions of the countryside and suggests that evocations of the rural idyll and social critique were hardly mutually exclusive.

Julia Secklehner

[1] Oral history interview with Stanton L. Catlin, 1 July – 14 September 1989, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_215546

[2] Anna Lesznai, ‘Embroidery’, Talk given in the ‘Needleworker’s Club’ in Boston, 1940. Archives of the Petőfi Literary Museum, Budapest.

[3] Anna Lesznai, ‘Lecture Mdme Lesznai’, Archives of the Petőfi Literary Museum, Budapest.

[4] György Litván, A Twentieth-century Prophet: Oscar Jászi, 1875-1957, (New York: Central European University Press, 2006), p. 88.

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