Imrich Weiner-Král, Zidovska Street III, detail

Artwork of the Month December 2021: Židovská Street III (1935–36) by Imrich Weiner-Kráľ

Nowadays, Židovská ulica (Jewish Street), wedged between Bratislava castle and the historic city centre, is only a meagre leftover of what it used to be. Forming one of the central locations of the city’s Jewish quarter, a large stretch of the street was destroyed in 1972 during the construction of the New Bridge (officially called ‘The Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising’), as was a large part of the Jewish quarter with it. Even though more recent years have seen efforts to resuscitate the Jewish heritage of the city, including the opening of the Museum of Jewish Culture in 1993, the destruction of the community’s built environment as late as the 1970s underlines a difficult, near erased heritage. With a focus on the painting Židovská Street III (1935–1936), this article seeks to redraw a connection between interwar Jewish life in the eastern part of Czechoslovakia (Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia) and a prominent representative of Slovak modernism: the Jewish-Hungarian-Slovak painter and graphic artist Imrich/Imre/Imro Weiner (later Weiner-Kráľ , 1901–1978).[1] Ultimately, it argues that if we interpret Weiner-Kráľ s work in the light of his Jewish identity, we might also question traditional interpretations of Slovak modernism that have seen it primarily as an expression of national identity.

Imrich Weiner-Král, Zidovska Street III

Imrich Weiner-Kráľ: Židovská Street III, 1935–36, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava – photo © Slovak National Gallery

As the number in the title indicates, Židovská Street III is one of a series of works depicting Bratislava’s Jewish quarter in the 1930s. The painting shows two aged, haggard adults and a young, plump, half-dressed child, clinging on to her mother’s lap. The family is placed on a stair way leading up to a crumbling old building, with streets leading further down both ways beside it. The building structure appears to be dissolving amid the dusky blue sky that surrounds it, while, to the right, sketches of empty street signs and billowing clouds hang over a miniature set of tenement buildings.

The man, standing upright, dressed in a black suit and tie, holds on to the doorway, as if emerging from the dark void behind him, which contrasts with his pale skin. The woman is seated next to him on a chair. Pale and frail, she wears an old-fashioned, high-cut dress in dark blue, a mottled green blanket thrown over her shoulder. Both adult figures look toward the right, revealing empty, black sockets instead of eyes. The emptiness of their gaze disrupts the scene by adding a sense of disconnectedness between the figures and their environment. From the small open window above the family, the torso of a female figure emerges, her hand resting on the windowsill, her head covered by the frame and a white veil attached to the window’s upper edge.

Combining all these different elements into a melancholic painting, Židovská Street III underlines the idiosyncratic mixture of surrealist references that fall within Weiner-Kráľ s most prolific period as a painter and graphic artist (1933–1936).[2] The artist’s work from this time contains a deep sense of nostalgia connected to a local context, which can be unravelled with closer attention to the complexities of Jewish identity in eastern Czechoslovakia. Weiner-Kráľ  merged local specifics and individuals with wider themes, held together by a carefully placed symbolism to blur the boundaries between dreams and reality.[3] Yet, there have been no closer analyses of these Jewish-themed works.[4]

In an exhibition marking the centenary of the artist’s birthday, the curator Ján Ábelovský suggested that Weiner-Kráľ s wide-ranging approach and heritage might have been responsible for his complicated position in Slovak art history: ‘Maybe it was because he was Jewish, or maybe it was because he was influenced by the French, Hungarian and German cultures rather than focusing on Slovak art styles that he was so unappreciated. […] Simply speaking, he was a lonely runner of Surrealism in Slovak art history. He was left with no contemporaries nor followers.’[5] Indeed, while the artist has increasingly been incorporated into Slovak art history, this has also led to a simplified categorisation of his work as ‘village surrealism’, which positions the artist as a distinct representative of Slovak, rural modernism.[6] Yet, these interpretations not only omit the fact that he was also involved in Hungarian art associations in Czechoslovakia, but also that his work closely dealt with his Jewish heritage.[7] This essay puts Židovská Street III into that other context, therefore highlighting a blindspot that is symptomatic of the monolithic presentation of ‘Slovak modernist painting’ itself.

Between the local and the universal: making a Slovak (Jewish-Hungarian) avant-gardist

Jewish communities lived all across Slovakia’s cities and smaller towns in the interwar years. Since the majority were orthodox, they had a visible presence in everyday life. With approximately 15,000 members in 1930, Bratislava was home to Slovakia’s biggest Jewish community, divided between the predominantly Orthodox, Status Quo and Neolog (reformed) groups.[8] While the Orthodox community quickly declared loyalty to the Czechoslovak state after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Neolog Jews had assimilated to Hungarian language and culture under Habsburg rule, and after 1918 they were consequently subjected to public accusations of disloyalty to the new state.

Born in 1901 into a Jewish family in Považská Bystrica/Vágbeszterce, today in northwestern Slovakia, Weiner-Kráľ  was only seventeen when his hometown was subjected to anti-Jewish pogroms in the ‘November pillages’ of 1918. These bursts of violence accompanied Slovakia’s integration into the Czechoslovak state and took the form of lootings by Slovak soldiers, where ‘hardly a Jewish community in Slovakia was spared,’ as they were accused of representing old Hungarian rule over Slovakia.[9] Since Weiner-Kráľ attended school in nearby Žilina/Zsolna at the time, he must have been aware of these events.[10]

In fact, implicit references to Jewish life occur in most accounts of his life and work, both by the artist himself and by others. They include mentions of loss during the Holocaust, pointing to the murder of his parents and sister in Nazi concentration camps, and of the artist’s fascination with the painter Marc Chagall’s images of rural life, but do not devote closer attention to the central importance of the Jewish shtetl in Chagall’s work and Weiner-Kráľ’s visual references to it.[11] Thus, while a Jewish-Hungarian background is implicit in discussions of Weiner-Kráľ, it is never set in direct relation to his work. Instead, studies of the artist tend to position him exclusively as an important Slovak painter.[12] Given the subject of works such as Židovská Street III, it is evident that the label of ‘Slovak painter’ does not capture the breadth of his work. Even though Weiner-Kráľ  predominantly had an internationalist outlook, based on his leftist political convictions, his focus on Jewish themes in the 1930s emphasises that he was interested in exploring his Jewish roots at a time when simultaneously ‘being Jewish’ and ‘being Slovak’ became an increasingly contested.

Initially expected to follow into his father’s footsteps as a butcher, Weiner-Kráľ  enrolled into the architecture course at the School of Applied Arts in Prague, before switching to fine art, which he studied between 1922 and 1926 in Düsseldorf, Berlin and Paris. According to his memoirs, he became closely involved with artists from the School of Paris where ‘everyone knew everyone’. [13] At this point, he encountered the work of Chagall, whose work left a particular impression on the young artist. The floating couple in Nighttime (1928–1930), for example, recalls Chagall’s luftmentshen. This Yiddish term, referred to both ‘a key image of self-criticism of the Jewish diaspora’, as well as in more concrete terms ‘people who “lived off air”’ in reference to the rural poverty of orthodox communities.[14] Beyond the singular reference to Chagall, the 1920s saw a much wider engagement with traditional Jewish culture by central European Jewish intellectuals. Samuel Spinner has recently defined this ‘Jewish primitivism’ as a ‘continuous triangulation between the Jewish European self, the Jewish other, and the European other.’[15] Rather than fascination for a different, distant, culture, Jewish primitivism stemmed from a fascination with a distanced form of one’s own cultural heritage. While, in stylistic terms, Weiner-Kráľ  ’s paintings give little evidence of a fascination on his part in naïve or primitivist art, closer consideration of his Jewish-themed work nonetheless suggests a confrontation with the sense of nostalgia so central to this form of self-othering.

Weiner-Kráľ  returned from Paris to Czechoslovakia in 1926 and worked in different jobs in Prague and around his home region near Žilina – a modernising town with a strong Jewish population, as has been discussed in an earlier article on this blog by Matthew Rampley. Following his first exhibition in Žilina in 1930, Weiner-Kráľ briefly returned to Paris, but, realising that he could hardly ‘catch up’ with artistic changes there, he decided that it was more important to explore what he knew – (rural) life in Slovakia.[16] Settling in Bratislava, Weiner-Kráľ  began to work as a lithographer and illustrator. Already a member of the Communist party at this time, the artist’s work began to merge social realist and symbolist scenes. His woodcut series Bratislava, for example, shows the high life of fancy cafes in a modernising city, such as Café Boon (1937), as well as scenes of poverty, homelessness and social despair – often wrapped in a lyrical symbolism, as in Pouličná pesnička (‘Song of the Streets,’ 1936).

At the same time, Weiner-Kráľ  also developed a new visual language in his painting – ‘village surrealism’. The artist himself referred to this style as ‘poetism’, a free, lyrical expression of the imagination, which has most often been associated with the Czechoslovak avant-garde.[17] Today, he is widely known as Slovakia’s most important surrealist painter, based not least on a 1936 exhibition he held in Bratislava with his friend, the painter František Malý (1900–1980), that was the first show of surrealist art in Slovakia.[18] In contrast to Malý, whose work fully embraced international surrealism, Weiner-Kráľ s work maintained a strong connection to local contexts. Like many other artists of his generation, he would frequently travel to his home region and to Czechoslovakia’s eastern province, Subcarpathian Ruthenia, where he drew and painted nostalgic scenes of rural life, heightened by a lyrical, highly symbolic visual language.

Rachovo (1935) exemplifies this construction of symbolist scenes based on folk motifs, which include rural landscapes, vernacular building structures and erotically charged images of female figures. Often semi-nude and wearing items of folk dress or related ornaments, these figures always retain a sense of the woman as a national body, particularly in the village setting of Weiner-Kráľ s paintings.[19] While the artist’s leftist political convictions mean that we should not align his work with nationalism but rather emphasise the ‘simple charm’ of rural life that he himself experienced during his upbringing, his ‘village paintings’ have nonetheless been interpreted within a national framework on the basis of their folk content, standing alongside first generation ‘Slovak modernists’, such as  Miloš Alexander Bazovsky (1899–1968) and Ľudovít Fulla (1902–1980). However, even these ‘Slovak village’ themes in Weiner-Kráľ’s work are accompanied by references to Czechoslovakia as a space of ethnic diversity.

A new visual language for a changing environment

The undated sketch Z Volové  (‘From Volova’) for example, uses the vernacular structures of a Subcarpathian village as the background to a portrait of Jewish figures: a little boy with payot (sidelocks) smiles at the viewer. Perhaps this is Samuel Weingarten, from Volova, as an inscription by Weiner-Kráľ  at the bottom of the drawing indicates. Nothing more is known about the boy. As a spontaneous glimpse of life in Czechoslovakia’s borderlands, the sketch and its title emphasise the artist’s engagement with traditional Jewish life at the peripheries – a feature that also translates in the dark symbolism of Židovská Street III.

Behind the boy, an older rabbi, suitcase in hand, walks off, his head stuck in large billowing clouds, which also loom over the village behind him. The clouds resemble the overcast tenement houses in Židovská Street III, indicating an overcast mood. The rabbi with his packed suitcase, moreover, recalls the figure of the ‘Wandering Jew’. A mythological figure originating in the thirteenth century, the Wandering Jew became a prominent symbol for the homelessness and displacement of Jewish figures across central Europe after the collapse of the Habsburg and the Russian Empires, featuring widely in interwar culture.[20] Merging references to a shtetl-inspired international avant-garde with concrete references to Czechoslovakia, Z Volové, like Weiner-Kráľ s other Jewish paintings, shows a world in which local specificities collide with much broader themes.

In Židovská Street III, a similar approach emerges, starting with the setting of the family portrait. Even though the building is only sketched schematically, its position at a street corner forking out into two refers to a Bratislava landmark: the House of the Good Shepherd (1760–1765), a Rococo-style town house at the corner Židovská and Mikulášska Street. A prominent motif among Bratislava artists in the early twentieth century, the building would be easily recognisable, serving as a shorthand location for the Jewish quarter. While most of the other depictions at the time show the building’s architecture in a polished state, photographs by Pavol Poljak (1911–1983) taken around the same time that Weiner-Kráľ painted his series show that, in the 1930s, the building was run-down, matching its environment as an old, poor and crumbling part of the city. On the one hand, the crumbling building in Židovská Street III recalls the poverty and poor living conditions of many living in the Jewish quarter, tying in with Weiner-Kráľ s leftist political commitment and his excursions into social realism.[21] Yet, on the other hand, the building is not only crumbling, it is also fading away, as the signs attached to its right side indicate. In line with the empty eye sockets of the adult figures, the image thereby points to an environment that the elderly have no connection to any longer – suggesting changing times and a dark nostalgia for the past.

Židovská Street III (1935–36) by Imrich Weiner-Kráľ - detail

Imrich Weiner-Kráľ: Židovská Street III, 1935–36, detail, Slovak National Gallery. Bratislava – photo © Slovak National Gallery

Indeed, this sense of nostalgia is a recurring feature in the whole series of Weiner-Kráľ’s Židovská Street paintings from the mid-1930s. Židovská Street II also shows a threshold moment, with an old woman standing at the back of an alleyway, which leads to the open sea in a variation on the open window theme. At the front, a schematic sketch of an orthodox family is visible through a window, one quarter of it covered by a newspaper clipping. Aside from the old woman, no one is out on the streets, making a deserted environment, in which broken windows and crooked pipes indicate poverty and decay.

Briefly mentioning the painting, Varóss identifies the depicted figures as the Bidov family (‘Bidovská rodina’).[22] While there is no further indication of who this family was or whether the work might have been commissioned by them, as with Z Volové, this information indicates the painter’s engagement with his sitters. Moreover, the Russian-sounding name ‘Bidov’ suggests that the family might have migrated from the new borderlands to Bratislava – which was not unusual among shtetl inhabitants, fleeing from war and persecution in the east after the First World War. Countering this dark nostalgia, however, are the figure of the child and the woman standing at the window. Representing childhood, innocence but also hopefulness, the pink colour of the child’s dress gives the indication of a brighter future, which, by the child’s gaze towards the open window, is directly related to the woman visible there. Her bright blue dress, in turn recalls the blue Madonna, Slovakia’s patron saint, prominent in paintings such as František Foltyn’s Blue Madonna (1922–1924). In fact, both the blue and the pink colour regularly appear in Weiner-Kráľ  ’s paintings from the 1930s until the 1960s, often in relation to youthful female figures as allegories of Slovak folk culture. In contrast to the isolated aging figures, which in some sense imply a shadow of the past, the child in Židovská Street III suggests a hopeful-looking future, intrinsically tied to life in the new republic.

In the light of such references, Židovská Street III offers an interpretation of Jewish life in interwar Slovakia, employing a surrealist visual language to embed Jewish visual traditions in the context of new socio-political realities. Weiner-Kráľ s merging of modernism and tradition, in this light, goes much beyond that of a ‘village surrealist’ and closely engaged not only with Slovak folk culture, but also his Jewish roots and the shifting situation of Slovakia’s Jewish population. Painted at a point in time when Jewish identity was to be recalibrated – or, indeed, manifested – in line with Czechoslovak citizenship, Židovská Street III reminds is that the ethnic diversity of the new state was also to be found in the visual arts. If we pay closer attention to these aspects in their work, we learn about the much more complex identity politics of Slovak modernism and, as such, may develop ways to reframe narratives that have long sought to emphasise national singularity rather than the diversity that such traditional emphasis tends to occlude.

Julia Secklehner

[1] The artist gained his second surname Kráľ  (King) in honour of his bravery when fighting in the French resistance during the Second World War.

[2] Marian Varóss, Weiner-Kráľ (Bratislava, 1963), p. 32.

[3] See Dagmar Srnenská Kudoláni and Elise Weiner Kral, Imro Weiner-Kráľ Medzi snom a skutočnosťou / Entre Reve et Réalité (Bratislava, 2019).

[4] Varóss, Weiner-Kráľ , p. 37. See also Omar Mirza, ‘Imrich Weiner-Kráľ — Jún (z cyklu Drevo)’, Blog Nitrianska galéria, June 2017.

[5] Ján Ábelovský quoted in Zuzana Habšudová, ‘Top Pick: Imrich Weiner-Kráľ: Painting exhibition,’ The Slovak Spectator, 1 September 2001. Catalogue to the exhibition: Ján Ábelovský, Imrich Weiner-Kráľ 1901–1978 (Bratislava: Slovak National Galery – Budapest: Slovak Institute, 2001).

[6] Alexandra Kusá, ‘Okno, Imrich Weiner-Kráľ’ [Window by IWK], 111 diel zo zbierok [111 works from the collection], eds. Dušan Buran, Katarína Müllerová and Katarína Bajcurová (Bratislava: Slovak National Gallery, 2008).

[7] Edgár Balogh, ‘Valóság és kultúra a csehszlovákiai magyarság életében’ [Reality and culture in the life of the Hungarian minority in Czechoslovakia], Korunk, 10.7–8 (1935), pp. 505–515.

[8] Ezra Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars (Bloomington, 1983), p. 140.

[9] Rebekah Klein-Pejšová, Mapping Jewish Loyalties in Interwar Slovakia, (Bloomington, 2015), pp. 22–23.

[10] Imro Weiner-Kráľ , ‘O sebe’ [About himself], in Varóss, Weiner-Kráľ , p. 11.

[11] Varóss, Weiner-Kráľ , p. 37.

[12] Jiří Olič, ‘Samotár Weiner-Kráľ, [Recluse WK]‘ SME Kultúra (25 October 2001).

[13] Imro Weiner-Kráľ , ‘O sebe,’ p. 11.

[14] Benjamin Harshav, Language in Time of Revolution. (Los Angeles, 1993.), p. 58. Ezra Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1983), p. 145. MC Koch, ‘Chagall’s Green and Yellow Jews: Painting Race in Russia and Post-Dreyfus France,’ View: Theories and Practices of Visual Culture 29 (2021).

[15] Samuel J. Spinner, ‘Plausible Primitives: Kafka and Jewish Primitivism,’ The German Quarterly 89 (2016), p. 30.

[16] Weiner-Kráľ , ‘O sebe’, p. 12.

[17] The same exhibition was also shown in Brno in the same year. Jaroslav B. Svrček, František Malý a Imro Weiner (Červený Kostelec, 1936).

[18] Prúdy 1 (1936), p. 47.

[19] Stacie Allan, ‘Female Bodies of (Inter)National Significance: Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Germaine de Staël, and Claire de Duras,’ Dix-Neuf, 23.1 (2019), pp. 43–57.

[20] Richard I Cohen, ‘The “Wandering Jew’’ from Medieval Legend to Modern Metaphor,’ in The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times, eds Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jonathan Karp (Philadelphia, 2013), pp. 147–175.

[21] See Ivo Habán, ‘Nová věcnost v Československu: K východiskům současného výzkumu,‘ Opuscula Historae Artium 65.1 (2018), pp. 4–13.

[22] Erich Kulka and Yeshayahu Jelinek, ‘Bratislava,‘ Jewish Virtual Library

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