Artwork of the Month, December 2019: Hričov by Ferdiš Duša (1933)

Our December Artwork of the Month features a haunted castle: the castle of Hričov (Hricsó, Ricsó; today in Slovakia) as represented by the artist Ferdiš Duša (1888–1958). Born in Frýdlant nad Ostravicí in Moravia-Silesia, Duša undertook a number of study trips to Slovakia in the 1920s and 1930s, producing, amongst many other things, a series of wood engravings narrating a journey along the river Váh. In doing so, he drew on a pictorial and literary tradition that reached back to the early nineteenth century and encapsulated the multi-ethnic character of the region. His prints transferred the spectres of this past into the interwar period, a time defined by new national borders and the idea of modern, exclusive national identities.

Tomas Pochmarsky

Ferdiš Duša, Hričov, 1933, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava – photo: Webumenia

Travelling around Europe in the years before the First World War, Duša had studied printmaking in the workshop of Max Slevogt (1868–1932) in Berlin. Having also perfected his skills in ceramics, he set up ceramics workshops in Rožnov pod Radhoštěm and Frýdland nad Ostravicí upon his return. After the war, he was a co-founder of the artists’ group Koliba in 1919, a member of SVU in Brno between 1922–1926 and of the Umělecké beseda (Artists’ Association) in Prague from 1925. Around 1924 he switched from ceramics to painting and printmaking. His first series of prints showed the lives of miners and steelworkers in the Ostrava region, but from the 1920s Slovak subject matter became increasingly dominant in his output. In 1936 he published a series of prints showing the Tatras, in 1938 one entitled Slovensko; in the same year he depicted the life of the Slovak folk hero Jánošík in a series of monumental glass paintings. The image we are focusing on today, a view of the castle of Hričov, belongs to the series Dolu Váhom (Down the Váh) produced by Duša around 1927–1933.

The publication history of Down the Váh is complicated and somewhat confusing. In 1933, the Bratislava-based publisher K. Jaroň published some of the pictures with a text by the Swiss writer William Ritter.[1] In 1934, fifteen prints were republished by Jaroň with some additional text.[2] The second volume in this edition – which would have included Hričov – was never published, but multiple copies of the print can be found in museum collections in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. These publications offer valuable clues when it comes to examining Duša’s work in its cultural and political context, especially given the relative obscurity of the artist in art history writing today. According to the first page of the 1934 edition, Down the Váh “originated from a love for Slovakia and Slovak schools,” and its purpose was to provide the latter with an “artistic educational aid” in teaching the geography and history of the homeland. The same Slovak patriotism can be discerned in Ritter’s accompanying text, which bears the title Roman slovenskej rieky (Novel of a Slovak river). Ritter, a Slavophile who spent long periods of time in Prague and Slovakia, championed the idea that identity was a product of rootedness in a certain place. His cultural conservatism made him oppose not only liberal internationalism, but also the efforts of the Czechoslovak state to construct a new Czechoslovak national identity based on ideas of modernity and industrial and social progress.

The prints in Down the Váh can easily be read as visualisations of this conservative outlook. The human figures who appear in the prints are all Slovaks, identified by their traditional garments. They are all peasants and appear to be living a rural idyll while tending to their crops or animals. This exoticisation of Slovakia as rural and primitive, as opposed to industrialised Bohemia and Moravia, was part of the official Czechoslovak ideology promoted by the state, but – as exemplified by Down the Váh – it also formed an important part in constructions of a separate Slovak national identity. Slovakia, as depicted in these prints, could be characterised by three main elements: its dramatic, mountainous, yet fertile landscape, its undefined ancientness, embodied by the ruined castles, and its people, whose lives, minds and identities are inseparable from the land they inhabit. In many of the prints ruined castles can be seen in the background, while the Slovak peasants going about their day in the foreground seem to receive more emphasis, as if to say that the past – the historical past when the region had belonged to Hungary and the castles to Hungarian aristocrats – has now been overwritten by the blissful Slovak present. It is, however, precisely here that the ghosts of the past emerge. This feature of the prints derived from the models Duša used, and those models predated Czechoslovakia by more than a century. We will come back to this soon; first, however, let us take a closer look at Hričov.

Although no humans are visible in Hričov, the print juxtaposes past and present in much the same manner as what was described above. In the background, in the centre, the ruined castle of Hričov stands ominously on the top of a cliff. Below it, pine forests are evoked by the thin white outlines of trees interrupting the blackness that swallows the mountainous landscape. At the base of the mountain, a tower, a church and a mansion signal the presence of human inhabitants. In the foreground to the left, an almost abstract tree provides a counterpoint to the castle, while to the right we see a well, a signifier of everyday human labour, which is more prominent than anything else in the picture. The River Váh glimmers peacefully between these two pictorial planes, separating the castle and the village from the foreground.

Like the rest of Duša’s prints, Hričov exhibits the typical characteristics of interwar wood engravings: robust contrasts, well-defined contours, and simplified forms that nevertheless possess an evocative strength. These are all features of the formal language of Expressionism, and the popularity of wood engraving in interwar Central Europe was closely connected to the prevalence of this modernist trend. At the same time, it was also a technique that evoked the past: the “primitivism” of medieval and early modern printmaking was embraced not only by Expressionists, but also by more conservative artists looking for traditional sources to renew the art of their time.[3] In Duša’s case, the technique and the formal language it created fitted perfectly with the overall aims of the Down the Váh project: to strengthen Slovak identity and prepare it for a glorious Slovak future by rooting it in historical tradition and the timeless Slovak soil.

The technique was not the only feature borrowed from the past. In journeying down the Váh (Vág in Hungarian, Waag in German), Duša followed countless other travellers who had, throughout the last hundred or two hundred years, drifted downstream and taken in the stunning sights as the river flowed past majestic mountains, ruined castles and pleasant green fields. One of them, the Austrian artist Joseph Fischer (1769–1822) had depicted these sights in a series of prints in 1818. Another, the Hungarian writer and historian Baron Alajos Mednyánszky (1784–1844) wrote a series of essays about castles by the Váh, combining facts gleaned from historical sources with legends and local lore. In 1826 he rewrote these to create a travelogue, which was published alongside a new edition of Fischer’s prints. The title of this new book was Malerische Reise auf dem Waagflusse in Ungern – A Picturesque Journey along the River Vág in Hungary.[4]


Josef Fischer: Betzkó (Beckov, Beckó), 1818, published in Alajos Mednyánszky, Malerische Reise auf dem Waagflusse in Ungern, 1826

In the early nineteenth century, the word picturesque was not simply a synonym for “pretty”, but had a more specific meaning that identified the genre text and image both adhered to. As an aesthetic ideal, the “picturesque” lay between the great, awe-inspiring, immeasurable and terrifying sublime and the sweet, pleasant, easily enjoyable beautiful. It denoted landscapes that were rugged and irregular enough to be interesting, but not scary enough to inspire terror. Fischer’s picturesque images of the Váh region showed sublime mountains and ruined castles with cows grazing peacefully on the other side of the river; they showed towns with church spires settled in the shadow of the mountains; they showed the river by moonlight; they showed fishermen steering their boat between scary cliffs. Variety, too, was a crucial element of the picturesque.

When combining the awe-inspiring forms of the castle with traces of peaceful, everyday human existence, the cliffs and dark forests with a calm river, the past with the present, Duša drew on this pictorial tradition. In some of his images, past and present coexist just as peacefully as in Fischer’s pictures. In others, such as Hričov, the harmony is broken. Instead of allowing the eye to gradually take in the vista and its varied elements, this image simultaneously demands our attention for three prominent motifs – the tree, the castle and the well – while obstructing the trajectory of our gaze with strong contours and pitch black shapes. In its forcefulness, it fits better into the category of the sublime, than that of the picturesque.

ciernom váhu

Ferdiš Duša: At the Black Váh, 1933, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava – photo: Webumenia

This push for a sublime monumentality, an emphasis on motifs from the Slovak present – best exemplified by one of the first images in the series, the towering figure of a Slovak shepherd sitting on the top of a hill – can certainly be connected to Duša’s political agenda. It was, however, also a feature of the genre – the picturesque journey –, which tended to oscillate between sublime and beautiful, terrifying and pleasant, erudite and entertaining, in order to capture the reader’s attention. The narrative built by Mednyánszky around Fischer’s images operated in the same way, merging economic and demographic data with historical facts and legends, geographical information with tidbits from folklore. As a member of the circle congregating around the historian Joseph Hormayr in Vienna, Mednyánszky was a representative of so-called “imperial patriotism” and as such had his own political agenda: he aimed to show that the nations of the multi-national Habsburg Empire belonged together, inextricably connected by a shared history and intertwined traditions. To this end, he interspersed what history had preserved about the one-time owners of the castles – mostly Hungarian-, Polish- or German-speaking aristocrats – with legends told and retold by the Slovak population of nearby villages. These tales were exciting, fantastic, and often gruesome. One of the most chilling was told about the castle of Hričov (in Hungarian Hricsó or Ricsó).

The castle was, so goes the story, once owned by a beautiful and wealthy widow. Fundamentally suspicious of the intentions of her numerous suitors, she nevertheless eventually succumbed to the advances of a much younger nobleman, Ferenc Thurzó. Still somewhat wary, she refused to marry him and adopted him as her son instead, thinking that this way she could avoid losing her fortune to a ravenous husband. She was wrong. As soon as he had his foot in the door, Thurzó had her locked up in a chamber in the castle, claiming that she had lost her mind, and proceeded to make the castle his own. The desperate woman put a terrible curse on the building, which was, from then on, haunted by all kinds of terrifying apparitions. One day, a monk came to the castle to remind Thurzó of his sins. The nobleman threw him out, but he stayed in front of the castle, reciting his terrifying speech. Thurzó imprisoned the monk. Yet, he continued to see the shape of the terrifying figure in one of the ominous cliffs visible from his window. His guilt drove him into madness. The castle was taken over by ghosts that scared away all living beings. Finally, it burst into flames, never to be rebuilt.

Although Hričov had been owned by some fairly prominent families, it never featured in the grand narrative of history. Nothing politically remarkable had happened there; the castle’s main claim to fame was this gruesome tale. Castles such as Hričov symbolised the past as sublime, intriguing, yet terrifying and not wholly knowable – a diametric opposite of the instructive, glorious, national past romantic nationalists were aiming to construct. In nineteenth century Hungary, nationalist narratives were promoted in countless history books, novels, paintings and fresco cycles, but the more ambiguous approach embodied by the ruined castle survived in the background all along, quietly maintaining that folk tales and exciting legends are just as important to our image of history as “great” political and military events. In 1867–1870 the romantic landscapist Antal Ligeti (1823–1890) painted four castles for the lecture hall of the Academy of Sciences in Budapest. One of them was Hričov, and Ligeti depicted it in the shadow of an approaching storm, as a powerful metaphor of history as a mysterious collection of fragments accessible not as much via the intellect, as through feelings, empathy and the artistic imagination.

In Down the Váh, Duša took an artistic and literary tradition of multiethnicity and an ambiguous, nuanced, open-ended approach to the past and turned it into a proclamation of Slovak patriotism. In doing so, he was not alone: in the last hundred years, writers and artists of various ethnicities – most prominently Hungarians – had cherry picked Mednyánszky’s tales to build their national narratives. What is remarkable in Duša’s series is how, while retracing and reimagining the nineteenth-century precedent, it also, in many ways, faithfully preserved it. This makes it easy to place it back into that old context. The image of Hričov is disturbing because there is no balance between the foreground and the background, the past and the present. The tree and the well seem to be taking over, but the castle is too prominent, too threatening to let that happen. It is still haunted by ghosts. When published in the 1930s, the print must still have made those who knew the story of the stone monk shudder. But there are other ghosts present too: ghosts of the multi-ethnic past of the region. To Slovak nationalists, they were ghosts of a Hungarian past that had to be overcome. To Hungarian nationalists, they offered consolation and the hope of a Hungarian future. And to those of us who believe in peaceful coexistence, they serve as reminders that the region was always diverse. Ruined castles allow the imagination to roam and different interpretations to emerge. The lingering remnants of an old artistic tradition can open up new meanings in images even if their artists and publishers intend those meanings to be fixed.

Nóra Veszprémi

The author is grateful to Michaela Hojdysz for her help with research for this article.

[1] Ferdiš Duša, Dolu Váhom / William Ritter, Román slovenskej rieky (Bratislava, 1933).

[2] Ferdiš Duša, Dolu Váhom I. diel, introduction by Rudolf Kratochvíl (Bratislava, 1934).

[3] On these meanings of wood engraving see Katalin Bakos, “Fametszet és illusztráció: könyv, album, mappa, sorozat 1920–1940” [Wood engraving and illustration: book, album, folder, series], in Enikő Róka ed., A modern magyar fa- és linóleummetszés (1890–1950) [Modern Hungarian wood and linoleum engraving] (Miskolc, 2005), pp. 71–72.

[4] On Fischer, Mednyánszky and the picturesque see Nóra Veszprémi, “Kísértetek a végtelen rónán. A magyar romantika rettenetes hagyományáról” [Ghosts on the Endless Plain. On the Tradition of Terror in Hungarian Romanticism],” in XIX. Nemzet és művészet. Kép és önkép [The 19th Century. Art and Nation: Image and Self-Image], eds. Erzsébet Király, Enikő Róka and Nóra Veszprémi (Budapest, 2010), pp. 139–166.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/4F62G

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