Exhibition Review: The Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938: Czechoslovak Footprint

In response to current broader reconsiderations about how art, design and architecture in the First Czechoslovak Republic should be represented, the East Slovak Gallery in Košice is currently exhibiting The Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938 ­– Czechoslovak Footprint, which showcases paintings, prints and sculptures from the First Republic’s easternmost region. Built on the premise that artistic life in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, as the region is dominantly referred to in English, proliferated under Czechoslovak administration after 1918, the exhibition, curated by Miroslav Kleban, ties the region’s cultural development to the modernization efforts of the First Republic’s eastern regions.

With little wall-text to go by, the exhibition narrative is almost entirely object-led, represented by a classical arrangement of paintings and few sculptures, grouped in broad topics and covering both works produced in Subcarpathian Ruthenia and eastern Slovakia, particularly within the context of Košice modernism. The focus on traditional fine arts sets a hard task for the exhibition’s goal to show the region’s drive for modern culture and could perhaps have been broadened with the inclusion of other media – photography, such as Roman Vishniac’s documents of the region, come to mind here.

The most striking image in the first room is a larger-than-life portrait of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk by the Uzhhorod-born painter Július Bukovinský (1903-1975). Painted between 1930 and 1940 from a photograph, the image sets out the importance of Ruthenia’s inclusion into Czechoslovakia as the exhibition’s guiding principle, resurfacing again in the sculptural models by Helena/Olena Mondičová (1902-1975). A Czech-born sculptor living in Košice, Mondičová produced a bronze statue of Masaryk for Uzhhorod’s main square in 1928. Publicly affirming the city’s allegiance to Masaryk, the sculpture’s political importance, its removal in 1938 and reinstatement (albeit in an altered version) in 2002, has already been discussed on this blog in a previous post.

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Installation view of the exhibition The Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938: Czechoslovak Footprint               photo: Milan Bobula, https://vsg.sk

Even without closer contextual framing, the exhibition continuously implies the pivotal role of Czech modernisation efforts in Subcarpathian Ruthenia – so much so, in fact, that more critical accounts of the Prague administration’s involvement in this eastern part of the First Republic, which would suggest that the dominant role of the Czechs in new state was a form of colonialism, are absent.[1] Works by Czech, Slovak and Ruthenian artists are presented side by side, leaving one to guess, at least initially, who represented the “local” and who the “visitors”. One of the most interesting displays in the exhibition focuses on what might be termed ‘people types,’ placed in a long and narrow walk-through room. Showing women, men and children in varying types of folk costume and religious dress, most notably Emmanuel Mane-Katz’s Young Jew studying the Talmud (1924), the display offers an image of a heterogenous society. While this rural “multi-culturalism” is not picked up on elsewhere in the exhibition, it represented one of the main points of fascination for visitors to eastern Czechoslovakia at the time. Mostly showing classical frontal portraits of anonymous, figures defined by their professions rather than as individuals, the artists’ ethnographic fascination with the inhabitants of Subcarpathian Ruthenia comes to the fore, subtly implying the exoticisation of the region that played a major role in its popular reception, but not commenting on it any further.

Offering a counterpoint to local ‘people types’, the strongest theme by far is landscape painting. Impressionist and post-impressionist in style with Cézanne as the dominant model, the works include domestic scenes, such as Pavlo Antonovič Hromnický’s The painter’s family (1933), village scenes like Vojtech Erdélyi’s Pilgrimage to Užoka (1920-1930), and uninhabited, wild landscapes such as Jozef Bokšay’s Early spring (1929). While a notable number of paintings by Erdélyi and Bokšaj  are included in this section (and in the exhibition overall), it is left to the catalogue to contextualise their particular importance to the region: in 1927, they founded the Public School of Drawing at the Teacher’s Institute in Uzhhorod, the first institution to offer artistic training in the region – and one that was established so late that it barely affected the education of the artists on display.

While several of them had trained in Paris, Munich, Budapest or Prague before, and while the Nagybánya artists’ colony also played a formative role for artists like Erdélyi, Košice remained one of the most important points of reference for artists from Subcarpathian Ruthenia. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the exhibition draws strongly on this connection, especially because major representatives of Košice modernism, such as Gejza Schiller (1895-1927) and František Foltýn (1891-1976), took regular trips there – alongside many other artists, ethnographers and writers at the time, who were drawn to the region by its reputation as a “wild” and “exotic” land.

Based on the close and regular exchange between Subcarpathian Ruthenia and eastern Slovakia in particular, little distinction is made in the exhibition between local and visiting artists from either of the two locations, and the depictions of both regions clearly drew on a similar visual language, sitting between folk art, regionalism and modern forms of painting. This connection is further explored in the exhibition with the thematic focus on Slovakia’s patron saint, the Lady of the Seven Sorrows, which includes one of the exhibition’s most treasured paintings, Foltýn’s Blue Madonna (1922-1924). Not only does this work stand out for its size, its luminous blues also lift it from the neighbouring paintings – and opens up another issue: the wide-ranging quality of the artworks on display.

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Installation view of the exhibition The Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938: Czechoslovak Footprint              photo: Milan Bobula, https://vsg.sk

While it is not really possible to draw a distinction between artists local to Subcarpathian Ruthenia and Košice and those who visited, sometimes for prolonged periods, in terms of subject matter and style, a difference is apparent when it comes to their artistic quality. There are several examples that shine in the comparison (Foltýn, Kulec, Weiner-Král), but other works pale as rough drafts (Andrej Kocka, Andrej Doboš, Milada Špálová-Benešová). This is not to say that there are curatorial flaws with regards to the selection of paintings, however. Rather, the display seems to suggest that there simply were limits to the artistic education of local painters and sculptors who found themselves unable to venture to places where professional training was offered.

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Installation view of the exhibition The Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938: Czechoslovak Footprint           photo: Milan Bobula, https://vsg.sk

With artistic quality varying widely throughout the exhibition, apart from Foltýn, two artists stand out in particular – and positively so: Jan Ivan Kulec (1880-1952) and Imro Weiner-Král (1901-1978). Born near L’viv, Kulec first trained in Cracow and travelled to France before settling in Prague in 1914. Adopting cubist, expressionist and futurist elements in his work, as evident in Christ (1925-1930) and Blind man (1930-1940) for example, Kulec’s work stands out in the exhibition for its decisive application of modernist styles and his idiosyncratic choice of colour. Teaching at the Ukrainian Fine Arts Seminar in Prague from 1923 until his death, Kulec’ inclusion in the exhibition not least subtly subverts the dominant notion of Czech influence in Subcarpathian Rus with a successful artist from the “east” in the Czechoslovak capital.

Meanwhile, Imro Weiner-Král’s representation in the exhibition is limited to two small paintings, hung inconspicuously on a side-wall next to a section on Madonna allegories. Despite this humble positioning, Rachov (Rachovo/Rachiv/Рахово, 1935) and Wedding headdress ceremony in Rachov (1935) stand out as the most accomplished works in the exhibition. Merging surrealist imagery with scenes from rural life in Ruthenia (here, the eve before a wedding) and strikingly executed in oil on board, Weiner-Král appears to have engaged most closely with the wielding together of rural subject matter and modernist form across the whole exhibition.

In many ways, the fact that this point is made by an artist who spent comparably little time in the region is telling, quietly confirming that the image of Subcarpathian Ruthenia was dominantly shaped by outsiders, while local artists who could compete in the larger cultural field of interwar Czechoslovakia or abroad were the exception. Though never addressed directly, the dominating image of Ruthenia as an exoticized periphery, created in the imagination of far-away yet dominant artistic centres, is striking. Rather than challenging this assumption, the exhibition shows that this imbalance was, indeed, a reality because of the lack of infrastructure, even though the region’s inclusion into the First Republic slowly yielded progress. In cultural terms such progress was most visible in a medium absent from the display, although featured in one of three contextualising essays in the exhibition catalogue: the functionalist architecture of Uzhhorod Modernism. Taking this into account, the most visible process of cultural modernisation took place in a much more visible, public space, while classical fine arts media were rather more conservative. Nonetheless, the present exhibition is an important one. The Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938 puts the region on the artistic map, offering new perspectives that, perhaps, could not be seen from Prague.

Julia Secklehner

The Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938 ­– Czechoslovak Footprint (East Slovak Gallery, Košice, 3 October 2019 to 23 February 2020)

[1] On Czech colonialism see John Connolly, From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton and Oxford, 2020), p. 775.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/UBMA3

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