Artwork of the Month, April 2020: Columbus in der Slovakei by Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski (1936)

In times of travel bans and with a tourism industry at standstill, one is forced to look for alternative ways of discovery. April’s Artwork of the Month relates to this issue: Columbus in der Slovakei is a cultural travel guide to Slovakia, written for a German-speaking audience yearning to ‘discover and to unearth, to carry back home unlosable treasures of joy’ (9). Almost six hundred pages strong and including over four hundred illustrations and photographs, the publication was instigated, arranged and designed by the Viennese writer, artist and publisher Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski (1888-1961), and published in 1936 by the German-language publisher Eos in Bratislava. Though widely advertised in the Austrian and Prague German radio and press, including praise by Heinrich Mann, it should be noted in advance that the commercial success of the publication was disastrous and almost led its publisher into financial ruin, not least due to the high price caused by the design specifications.[1]

Columbus in der Slovakei by Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski - front cover

Of a broad, rectangular format, the book used a simple serif type font in large print on lightly textured paper. Most pages contain small illustrations and folk ornaments between the paragraphs, as well as maps, and ink drawings by Jaromír Jindra (1895-1984), a Czech painter and illustrator who lived in Vienna. Some pages even included lines of music, which were based on recordings by Karel Plicka (1894-1987), a musicologist, photographer and film maker, who taught at the School of Arts and Crafts (ŠUR) in Bratislava and produced highly popular images of Slovakia in the service of the national organisation Matica slovenská (‘Slovak Foundation’). Every twenty-five pages or so, an illustration section, printed on finer, glossy paper, shows prints of modern painting, engravings and photographs of objects from museum collections, including two colour photographs of embroidery designs. Most of these images were provided by local museum collections, especially the city collection of Bratislava. An extensive section of the image pages also shows photographs by Plicka and selected works by other contemporary photographers such as Irena Blühová (1904-1991), which resemble Plicka’s both in format and style. The effect is a harmonious view of Slovakia and its inhabitants, who are pictured both in individual portraits and following communal activities. In both cases, they remain anonymous types, strengthening the impression that this is an ethnographic survey, particularly in allusion to the title.

Within the book on the whole, the pages of illustrations are set in such a way that they allow the reader to gain an overview of the book’s narrative content. Even though the narrator comments on some of the photographs and prints, and they are arranged to follow the narrative, they also work independently from the text and thus offer a visual journey through Slovakia in parallel to the textual narration. In so doing, the content of the visual narrative supports an account of Slovakia as an agrarian country steeped in folk art, where selected modern buildings and artworks form a strong contrast to an abundance of images of a rural population in folk dress.

In a light, informal narrative, the narrator travels with an anonymous ‘famous natural scientist’ from a ‘foreign country’ (p. 13). This ‘foreign guest’, as he is called throughout, helps readers view Slovakia through the eyes of the completely naive visitor, who sets foot there for the first time. He already arrives in confusion, having bought a train ticket from Vienna to Pressburg and, after a short while, is told to get off in Bratislava by the conductor – a misunderstanding which the first-person narrator quickly resolves: located in the Hungarian-ruled part of the Habsburg Empire until 1918, and home to a large German-speaking population, Bratislava had only received its new Slovak/Czech name in 1919. Thus, the journey starts in a city of three names (Bratislava, Pozsony, Pressburg), in a pub described as a ‘polyglot family table’ (p. 17), where, late at night, everyone can join in each other’s songs, be they Slovak, Czech, German, or Hungarian.

Modern architecture in Bratislava, as featured in Columbus in der Slovakei

Modern architecture in Bratislava, Columbus in der Slovakei, pp. 98-99

Starting out as a kind of travel diary, attention soon shifts towards Slovak arts, crafts and architecture in reference to a medley of objects, featuring excavations next to functionalist architecture, and folk embroidery alongside surrealist painting. However, rather than simply representing an idiosyncratic collection put together by Rochowanski, a ‘lover of Slovakia’, as the press portrayed him, Columbus in der Slovakei was realised with the support of the Czechoslovak government, promoting Slovakia as a craft-filled, idyllic land, perfectly suited to the cultured, urban adventurer. Aside from Rochowanski, two further figures were pivotal in communicating this idea through the project: Plicka, and Josef Vydra, an ethnographer and theoretician who founded the Bratislava School of Arts and Crafts in 1928.

Yet while the book was presented as a celebration of Slovakia, described in the introduction as ‘a wonderful old chest filled with precious goods’ (p. 10), the project could, indeed, be seen to entail as much the idea of Columbus the conqueror, as of Columbus the romantic adventurer alluded to on the book’s first pages. The further east the narrative moves, the further we appear to be removed from modern civilisation, entering, it seems, an untouched land of noble savages. While Czechoslovakia, or the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia to the west, are rarely mentioned in the publication, the book nonetheless implies that they represent the civilised and modern part of the country, while the east is a place lost in time.

Rochowanski and Austro-Czechoslovak cultural relations

Though he has largely fallen into oblivion today, Rochowanski, who set up the project and wrote its narrative, was a well-known journalist and writer in interwar Vienna. Born in Silesian Zuckermantel / Zlaté hory, he had moved to Vienna for university study like so many other aspiring young men from the Habsburg provinces of his generation. Even though he initially studied law, his interest soon turned to culture. Starting out as a writer for the Illustrirtes Wiener Extrablatt in 1913, Rochowanski forged contacts at Vienna’s School of Applied Arts, where he took art lessons from Franz Cižek (1865-1946), and exhibited paintings as part of the Viennese Kineticist movement. He also became the group’s main theoretician, publishing The Will to Shape Time in the Applied Arts in 1922, which was the first extensive survey of contemporary works from the School of Applied Art in the new republic.

In line with the Kineticist group’s focus on the depiction of movement, Rochowanski developed an interest in modern dance, film and photography, which he discussed and reviewed for society magazines like Die Bühne, and as Vienna correspondent for the Prager Presse, a progressive German-language publication in the Czechoslovak capital. Rochowanski’s interest in modern architecture also led his attention to Brno, where he was in contact with the architects Bohuslav Fuchs (1895-1972) and Ernst Wiesner (1890-1971) in the late 1920s. In 1928, he also organised an exhibition of modern Austrian arts in Bratislava, in the process of which he first developed his intentions of writing about modern Czechoslovak culture.[2]

Title page of Columbus in der Slovakei

The idea of creating a publication that promoted Slovakia was born in 1932. It emerged out of discussions with Vydra and Plicka, and was motivated, not least, by their links to the Chamber of Commerce and the Matica slovenská. In this respect, the commercial aspects of the publication were two-fold: aside from its aim of bringing foreign tourists to the region, Columbus in der Slovakei also advertised the quality of Slovak art and craftwork, for which the book itself served as an example. Bound, as the reader is told, in linen from the northern region of Orava, known for its linen-industry, the bookmarks are decorated with Slovak ornament and the cover adorned by a busy woodcut by Alfred Soulek, a Bratislava architect working in Vienna. Even before the title page, a quotation and photograph of Tomáš G. Masaryk in conversation with women in traditional dress open the journey: ‘In its primitive forms, the Slovak people has shown much inventiveness, in song and in architecture, in painting, in wood carving and ceramics… we can expect great things from it.’

Exploring with Columbus

Even though the initial focus on Bratislava offers a different image at first, including a section in which the narrator takes a walk along newly-built family homes, admiring the modern architecture, attention soon turns towards rural folk art. Coincidentally, it does so at one of Slovakia’s most modern institutions, the ŠUR, where the narrator and his ‘foreign guest’ visit Vydra. Portrayed as an ethnologist, pedagogue, and expert on Slovakia, Vydra takes a map and explains, ‘soon you will feel that Slovak art is under the influence of eastern Europe. This is why it is so different from Czech art, which is much more western European’ (p. 107). With Vydra’s elaborations as a guideline, the travellers set out to see the country. While moving from town to town, the narrator follows and observes different people going about their daily lives, including Sunday festivities in Svatý Jur, a ‘gypsy looking for a wedding suit’ in Košice, a little boy carrying bread ‘bigger than himself’ in Horvatský Grob. Occasionally, the travellers engage in chats with villagers, and Rochowanski links the different locations of the journey through their myths, folk tales and legends. Slovak country folk, who make up almost all of the Slovaks encountered on the journey, are thus presented as kind and simple people and the interactions with them often resemble those of a benevolent father (the narrator) with an enthusiastic child. Thus, while the book’s title is explained in reference to the traveller’s quest for discovery in the introduction, the presentation of Slovakia’s rural population, their costumes, festivities and lifestyle inevitably also evokes comparison to ethnographic surveys of native people in overseas explorations.

Flat embroidery from Čata, as featured in Columbus in der Slovakei

Flat embroidery from Čata, Columbus in der Slovakei, p. 121

Nowhere is this relationship between the explorer and the ‘natives’ more evident than in the leg of the journey the travellers complete with Plicka, set along an extensive selection of stills and photographs related to Plicka’s award-winning film Zem spieva (The Earth sings, 1933). With Plicka, the travellers seem to be accompanying the ‘real’ Columbus of Slovakia. Showing a ‘hands-on’ approach to exploration, Plicka’s journeys and difficulties in collecting songs are described, and he features in several photographs behind the camera and in conversation with his ‘actors’. Though always distinguished from them by way of dress and different camera installations, Plicka represents the friend of the ordinary people, who all too gladly tell him their long-preserved songs, and let themselves be photographed after overcoming their initial shyness: as the reader is told, ‘simple people have a strong distrust of machines’ (p. 308). Even though Slovakia’s rural population is allowed to speak occasionally, therefore, their framing as ‘noble savages’ dominates.

Bolstered by extensive use of photographs (illustrations make up a sixth of the six-hundred-page-strong volume) the journey through Slovakia shows a healthy peasant population, who almost appear like another attraction for the cultural explorer. Living symbiotically with nature and in midst of a homely environment of carefully ornamented bliss, they represent ‘happy natives’, easily fitting into an entertaining narrative of Slovakia’s turbulent history.

‘An island of patriarchal peace’

Despite the references to modern art and architecture, Columbus in der Slovakei presents Slovakia as a land of idyllic village communities. Though the illustrations include several reproductions by modern artists, including Imro Weiner-Král (1901-1978), Emil Filla (1882-1953), and Ferdiš Duša (whose series Down the Váh has been discussed on this blog), their artworks are not further commented upon in the narrative, in contrast to folk arts and crafts. In effect, the book implies that modern art builds on these rural traditions, which, as both the narrator and Vydra note, incorporate the ‘spirit of the people’. This is particularly evident in reference to Weiner: walking up to the ruins Biely Kameň north of Bratislava, the narrator looks down at the village below and notes that only now does he truly understand the painting of the village that he saw in Weiner’s Bratislava studio.

This seemingly inherent connection between Slovakia, Slovaks and folk art that guides through the narrative underpins several other aspects beyond simple romanticisation. The presentation of rural Slovakia as a native land supported the narrative of harmonious union between Czechs and Slovaks within Czechoslovakia, in which Slovakia was often presented as the younger, less experienced sibling. Simultaneously, however, the attachment to the vernacular also supported the creation of a separate Slovak identity, and thus played an important role in the tensions between Czechs and Slovaks in the First Republic. The rural harmony emphasised in Columbus in der Slovakei was well received in Austria. The authoritarian regime of Kurt Schuschnigg at the time had turned to a rural nationalism. The sense of idyll portrayed in the book thus offered a welcome escape, as Der Tag remarked: ‘We gratefully enjoy Rochowanski’s diligent and precise guide through Slovakia, as he conveys an island of patriarchal peace in the midst of our bellicose and industrialised Europe.’[3] Thus, while the focus of Columbus in der Slovakei most obviously relates to the efforts of the Czechoslovak government to portray Slovakia in a certain light, it resonated elsewhere. In a Europe that was increasingly divided, the ‘discovery’ of Slovakia through cultural tourism served as reaffirmation of the search for harmony, in which the projections of a peaceful and natural land and people offered a sense of escape as much as an affirmation of the national spirit.

Julia Secklehner

Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski, Columbus in der Slovakei (Bratislava: Eos 1936)

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/FRE7J

[1] Klára Prešnajderová, ‘Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski – rakúsky objavitel’ moderného Slovenska’, Designum 2 (2019), p. 42. (summary here)

[2] Prešnajderová, ‘Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski’, p. 40.

[3] ‘Columbus in der Slowakei’, Der Tag, 29 December 1935, p. 4.

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