Dušan Jurkovič, The Monument to Milan Rastislav Štefánik, Bradlo Hill (1928)

Artwork of the Month, January 2023: Monument to Milan Rastislav Štefánik by Dušan Jurkovič (1928)

The casual hiker, walking through the hills of western Slovakia, will be astonished if they walk to the top of Bradlo Hill, 543 metres above sea level, to encounter a large, terraced, stone structure, consisting of a square platform, measuring 93 by 62 metres, supporting a second platform, 45 by 32 metres, on top of which is a pyramidal form, topped by sarcophagus, with 12 metre-tall obelisks on each corner. Its monumental scale and the rusticated nature of the stonework might lead the uninformed visitor to imagine they had stumbled across some ancient temple, except for the lettering around the sarcophagus, which reads: ‘The liberated Czechoslovak nation to a great son / Czechoslovak minister and general Dr. Milan R. Štefánik, 21 July 1880 – 4 May 1919 / He perished in an aircrash on 4 May 1919 near Bratislava / With him [were] the royal Italian sergeant U[mberto] Merlino and private. G[abriel] Aggiunti’ (Veľkému synovi oslobodený národ československý / Čs. minister a generál Dr. Milan R. Štefánik + 21. júla 1880 4. mája 1919 / S ním kráľ. taliansky serg. U. Merlino a Sol. G. Aggiunti / Zahynul pádom lietadla dňa 4. mája 1919 pri Bratislave).

Dušan Jurkovič, The Monument to Milan Rastislav Štefánik, Bradlo Hill (1928)

Dušan Jurkovič: Monument to Milan Rastislav Štefánik, Bradlo Hill, 1928 – photo: Wikimedia Commons / Baca12 CC BY-SA 3.0

The scale of the memorial, designed and built by the architect Dušan Jurkovič, conveys a sense of the importance of Štefánik, yet until recently he was a forgotten figure outside of Slovakia. So who was he? Why was such a huge structure built in his memory? And how might we interpret Jurkovič’s design?

Aerial view of the Štefánik memorial. Photograph: Dušan Jurkovič, Mohyla M.R. Štefánika na Bradle (Prague, 1929)

Aerial view of the Štefánik memorial, illustration from Dušan Jurkovič, Mohyla M. R. Štefánika na Bradle (Prague, 1929)

The history of Czechoslovakia is dominated by the memory of Tomáš G. Masaryk (1850–1937), the university professor, leader of the Czech Progressive Party (Česká strana pokroková) in the final decade of the Habsburg Empire, and founder and first president of the Czechoslovak Republic that emerged out of the wreckage of Austria-Hungary. His name is ubiquitous in the Czech Republic, not only in history books (starting with school textbooks) but also in civic society and public spaces. Numerous institutions are named after him, and almost every town has a Masaryk Square, usually adorned with monuments to Masaryk. This is the case not only in the Czech Republic. A Masaryk Monument, a Masaryk bridge and a Masaryk Park can also be found in Uzhhorod in Ukraine, a reminder of the time when the city was part of the First Czechoslovak Republic (it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945). It is not to diminish his importance, however, if the contribution of others to the formation of the new republic is also recognised. Štefánik, though not a member of the Prague social and political establishment, was one of the key figures involved in the political campaign that led to its creation. Together with Edvard Beneš (1884–1948) and Masaryk, he set up the Czechoslovak National Council in 1916 in Paris, which advocated the establishment of an independent state for Czechs and Slovaks, and served as its vice-president. Štefánik was a Slovak, and was born in Košariská, a village by the town of Myjava, in what is now western Slovakia. His involvement gave credibility to the very idea of Czechs and Slovaks having a shared state, for, until then, they had had completely different histories. Indeed, it was Štefánik who had first introduced Beneš and Masaryk to each other. Czechs remember the achievements of Masaryk in garnering American backing for the project, but Štefánik was no less significant for his cultivation of support in France, where he was already a recognised scientist and had numerous professional contacts. With his fluency in French, he became a crucial voice for the Czechoslovak cause in Paris, especially as Masaryk could only speak English.

Štefánik was never forgotten in Slovakia, but in the historical memory of Czechs he was, until recently, overshadowed by Masaryk, Beneš and others. The centenary of Štefánik’s death in 2019 prompted a renewed interest in his achievements, with a wave of publications, including a novel about his time in Tahiti and a graphic novel about his life.[1]

Cover of Václav Šlajch, Gabriela Kyselová and Michal Baláž, Štefánik: komiksový román (Prague, 2021)

Cover of Václav Šlajch, Gabriela Kyselová and Michal Baláž, Štefánik: komiksový román (Prague, 2021)

Milan Štefánik (1880–1919) studied engineering, astronomy, physics and philosophy in Prague between 1898-1904, where he first encountered Masaryk who was one of his professors. He concluded his studies with a doctorate in astronomy, and then moved to Paris, where he gained a position at the Paris Observatory the same year. He quickly gained academic recognition from his French peers and was involved in numerous formal expeditions to undertake meteorological and astrological observations all over the world, including Tahiti, where he set up an observatory. He had already been politically engaged when a student in Prague, and he took advantage of his location in France to cultivate influential contacts to garner international interest in the condition of Slovaks in a Hungary that had embarked on the project of magyarisation of all its subject peoples. On the outbreak of the First World War, having already gained French citizenship, he joined the French army and became a distinguished aviator. When the new Czechoslovak Republic was created, he was due to be appointed Minister for War. He was returning from a diplomatic mission in Padua in May 1919 when the Italian military aeroplane on which he was flying crashed just outside of Bratislava, killing him and the crew.

Funeral of M. R. Stefanik

The funeral ceremony of Štefánik in Košariská, 11 May 1919, illustration from Dušan Jurkovič, Mohyla M. R. Štefánika na Bradle (Prague, 1929)

A funeral ceremony for Štefánik was held in Bratislava, but then a second ceremony was held in Košariská and his body was then taken in a formal procession to Bradlo Hill, not far from his place of birth, where he was buried. It was, Jurkovič later noted, a place where Štefánik had often hiked in his youth, and it seemed only appropriate for this to be his final resting place, and the architect then launched a campaign for a monument to be built there, as a fitting tribute to him.[2] Eventually, Jurkovič managed to raise the necessary funds and official permission, and work on the memorial started in 1924, five years after his death. It was completed in 1927 and the memorial was formally consecrated in September 1928. It is by far the largest monument to Štefánik, but it was not the first, and only one of many. Almost immediately after his death Štefánik began to be memorialised. In 1919, an anthology of texts was published to The National Hero General Dr. M. R. Štefánik, with reminiscences, obituaries and commemorative poems.[3]

Jan Srba, Memorial to Milan Štefánik and the members of the Czechoslovak Legion, Mnichovice (1919).

Jan Srba: Memorial to Milan Štefánik and the members of the Czechoslovak Legion, Mnichovice, 1919 – photo courtesy of vets.cz

Monuments also began to be set up. One of the earliest was in the small town of Mnichovice, just south-east of Prague, where a modest memorial to Štefánik and the members of the Czechoslovak Legion was installed by the Sokol sporting association in June 1919. Two years later a more substantial memorial was installed in Myjava, Designed by Čeněk Vořech (1887–1976), an architect based in Brno involved in Catholic intellectual circles, it offers an almost sacralised image of Štefánik, his bust occupying the central part of a sculptural triptych.[4]

Memorial to Stefanik, Myjava

Čeněk Vořech: Memorial to Milan Štefánik, Myjava, 1921 – photo: Wikimedia Commons / Peter Zelizňak CC BY-SA 3.0

Many more were erected afterwards; the Czech Society for War Memorials has so far documented 111 memorial plaques and sculptures.[5] More than half can be found in Slovakia, but others can be found in Paris, Cleveland Ohio, Passo Quatro in Brazil, Pape’ete in Tahiti, and Sáenz Peña in Argentina. Under communist rule, most memorials in Czechoslovakia were pulled down, but Slovak independence in 1993 saw a flurry of activity in which old memorials were restored and new ones set up. Five can also be found in Ukraine, the most recent of which was installed in 2016 in Masaryk Park in Uzhhorod. The memorial plaques abroad have tended to celebrate his achievements as an astronomer, whereas those in Slovakia and the Czech Republic have, for understandable reasons, marked his political role.

Bohumil Kafka, Statue of Stefanik

Bohumil Kafka, Statue of Milan Rastislav Štefánik, Prague, 1937 – photo: Wikimedia Commons / Carolinet19 CC BY-SA 4.0

Apart from a few exceptions, such as Vořech’s design in Myjava, the memorials are mostly rather conventional, featuring either a full-length sculpture of him or a bust on a plinth. They tend to fall into two groups – although, again, there are one or two deviations, such as a bust in Martin that inexplicably ages him (he was only 38 at the time of his death) and turns him into an elder statesman. They depict Štefánik either in the outfit of an aviator or wearing a kepis in his French officer’s uniform. Each of these emphasise different aspects of his identity, either as the heroic warrior or as the establishment figure. A full-length sculpture, executed by Bohumil Kafka (1878–1942) in 1937 and standing in the grounds of the Štefánik Observatory in Prague, provided a template for the image of Štefánik as pilot and it was reused several times. This included a 7-metre-tall version of the sculpture, first installed in 1938 in Bratislava. Removed by the Communists in the 1950s, it was reinstalled in 2009 in front of the Slovak National Theatre, set in front of travertine column some 30 metres tall that was topped with the figure of a Czechoslovak lion that had been part of the original memorial of 1938. The Štefánik statues in Trnava (1925–26) and in Košice, unveiled in 1929, typify the second type of memorial figure.

Jozef Pospíšil, Memorial to Štefánik, Košice (1929). Removed in 1949.

Jozef Pospíšil: Memorial to M. R. Štefánik, Košice, 1929, removed in 1949 – photo: historic postcard

The memorial by Jurkovič belongs in a category of its own, both in terms of its scale and its abstract design. It was, in fact, not the first monument to Štefánik he designed, for he was also responsible for a 1923 memorial to the Slovak in Ivanka pri Dunaji, where the aeroplane crashed. It consisted of a stone pyramid and its abstract form anticipated, in certain respects, the later structure on Bradlo Hill, but it was on a much smaller scale.

Dušan Jurkovič, Memorial to Milan Rastislav Štefánik, Ivanka pri Dunaji (1923)

Dušan Jurkovič: Memorial to Milan Rastislav Štefánik, Ivanka pri Dunaji, 1923 – photo: Wikimedia Commons / Plepo, public domain

Both the pyramid of 1923 and the ziggurat-like edifice of 1928 are striking designs, for they stand in stark contrast to other contemporaneous Štefánik monuments and to other monuments more generally. Even while he was still alive Masaryk was the subject of numerous memorial statues, but they were all utterly conventional academic sculptures. The Bradlo Hill memorial is all the more unusual if we consider it in the context of Jurkovič’s oeuvre until then. Jurkovič considered it to be his greatest work but it was strikingly different from his others.[6] For he was known above all as a representative of the folk art revivalism prevalent in central European art and design around the turn of the century. Born in Turá Lúka in 1868 (today in northwestern Slovakia, then in Hungary), he was educated, first, at a gymnasium in Sopron, Hungary, and then, between 1884 to 1889, studied architecture in Vienna at the state design school. Although he was a product of the educational system of the Habsburg capital, he was not drawn to its cosmopolitan values and, instead, endorsed the nationalist sentiment of many in architecture and the arts at the time. Jurkovič was more enthused by the arts and crafts movement in Britain and, as a result, turned to folk art as an alternative to the high culture of Vienna. The first fruit of this was construction of a number of buildings for the Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition in Prague in 1895. A string of designs followed, including large-scale mountain lodges in Pustevny in the Beskyd Mountains (in the border territory between the Czech and Slovak Republics) and villas and hotels in the spa town of Luhačovice.

Dušan Jurkovič, Mountain lodges ‘Libušín’ and ‘Maměnka’ (1899), Pustevny. From: Dušan Jurkovič, Pustevně na Radhošti turistické útulny Pohorské jednoty "Radhošť" ve Frenštátě (Brno, 1900)

Dušan Jurkovič: Mountain lodges ‘Libušín’ and ‘Maměnka,’ Pustevny, 1899, page from Dušan Jurkovič, Pustevně na Radhošti turistické útulny Pohorské jednoty ‘Radhošť’ ve Frenštátě (Brno, 1900)

In 1899 Jurkovič was invited by František Mareš to work at the women’s craft and vocational school Vesna in Brno, which he directed.[7] Brno was a congenial location for Jurkovič. Although there were significant tensions with the German-speaking population of the city, the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire was a considerably more pluralistic environment than Hungary, where Jurkovič had been born, and it was close both to Vienna and to the Slovak lands, including his birthplace. Consequently, in 1899, he built a significant villa of his own in the town, and it has turned out to be one of his best-known designs.[8]

A recurrent and characteristic feature of his designs was the use of rusticated stonework in combination with elaborate woodwork using stylised decorative motifs from folk art, and he continued in this vein up to the First World War. When the war broke out, he was already too old to serve in the army, but he was enlisted by the Austro-Hungarian Department of Military Cemeteries, and designed a number of graveyards and memorials to the fallen in Polish Galicia, which proved to be the epicentre of the conflict with Tsarist Russia. They are an eclectic range of designs, and they are all the more striking when compared with the better known stone cemeteries on the western Front in France. For Jurkovič’s designs continued with the folk vernacular motifs, in which wooden structures, ranging from grave markers to necropolises, were predominant. Rather than designing memorials to heroic warriors, he sought to give the impression that the cemeteries ‘had been made by the invisible hands of local tradition.’[9]

Dušan Jurkovič, Cemetery No. 51, Regietów, Poland (1915).

Dušan Jurkovič: Cemetery No. 51, Regietów, Poland, 1915 – photo: Wikimedia Commons / Henryk Bielamowicz CC BY-SA 4.0

His memorials to Štefánik continue this ethos. Although the chosen material is stone rather than wood, it appears to the unsuspecting visitor as if it were a structure from some ancient civilisation. An early draft for the Ivanka memorial placed the pyramid in a large, ramped enclosure, as if it was a temple precinct. The crude, rusticated stonework of the Bradlo Hill monument conveys the sense of it being an archaic ruin.[10] Jurkovič spoke of the archaic Slavic god Svantovít, and he envisaged the monument, too, as a pagan temple.[11]

Dušan Jurkovič, Design for a memorial to Milan Štefánik, Vajnory / Ivanka pir Dunaji (1923). From: Jurkovič, Mohyla M.R. Štefánika na Bradle (Brno, 1900)

Dušan Jurkovič: Design for a memorial to Milan Štefánik, Vajnory / Ivanka pir Dunaji, 1923, illustration from Jurkovič, Mohyla M. R. Štefánika na Bradle (Brno, 1900)

Yet the choice of idiom is curious, and prompts two observations. First, after 1918, Jurkovič settled in Bratislava, where he would stay for the rest of his life, and he embarked on the final phase of his career. Abandoning the folk revivalism of his work until then, he explored other possibilities, including the so-called ‘national style.’ Often erroneously referred to as ‘rondo-cubism,’ the national style was a short-lived project pursued by architects across the new state to devise an architectural idiom that signified the modernity of Czechoslovak culture, but which displayed unmistakeably national qualities.[12]

The national style still relied on traditional stone and brick construction, and often, too with pitched or mansard roofs, yet it was rendered in a stripped-down language, with minimal ornamentation or with ornamental decoration consisted of simplified geometric forms. The tenement blocks in Bratislava (1923–24) designed by Jurkovič for veterans of the Czechoslovak Legion typifies this approach to design. The ‘national style’ was short-lived and came under criticism from within Czechoslovakia. Critics complained that it was out of step with functionalism and international modernism, although, arguably, it being out of step was a sign of its success as a specifically national style, since it still counts as the most distinctive example of Czechoslovak architecture in the twentieth century.

Jurkovič’s exploration of this new idiom was a significant departure from his earlier preoccupations, for it was a symbol of his support for the project of cultural and social modernisation in Czechoslovakia. In comparison with this, the Bradlo Hill monument, with its reference to ancient pagan origins, seems like a strange throwback. Even though Vořech had opted for a variation of the national style for his own monument in Myjava, Jurkovič evidently felt that using the idiom of the archaic temple was more appropriate as a means of memorialising his compatriot.

Second, a question can be raised as to whether either monument, but especially that on Bradlo Hill, does justice to its subject. For, apart from his political achievements, Štefánik was a noted scientist, a regular correspondent of the Académie française, a participant in international conferences in astronomy, awarded the Prix Jules Janssen, the highest award of the French Astronomical Society. It was on account of this that the main observatory in Prague was named after him, and a novel about Štefánik was published at the same time the Bradlo Hill memorial was completed, celebrating his scientific work, in particular, expeditions he undertook in the Alps.[13] We might view Štefánik’s decision to join the airforce in this light, for it was an indication of his embrace of the latest technology.

Jurkovič’s memorial, immersed in pagan myth and allusions to distant imagined origins, seems completely at odds with the character of the man it was supposed to celebrate. We might understand it, however, if we consider it in a wider context. For throughout the 1920s and 1930s, a fascination with the archaic persisted in European culture; primitivism remained a central component of modernist art and literature, Surrealism was based on an interest in basic psychological drives and instincts, anthropologists were interested in ideas of race, primitive culture and ancient religions. Czechs and Slovaks were no exception to this.[14] Moreover, many interpreted recent events, in particular, the First World War, not as a political struggle between competing states and ideologies, but as a titanic conflict between primeval forces. It was a view that may also have shaped Jurkovič’s conception of the monument and of the significance of Štefánik: a representative of Czechoslovak modernity, but rooted in a deeper sense of place and identity, whose memory would transcend history.

Matthew Rampley

[1] Michael Kšiňan, Milan Rastislav Štefánik: Slovak National Hero and Co-Founder of Czechoslovakia (London, 2021); Slavomír Michálek, Milan Rastislav Štefánik and Those Who Followed Him (New York, 2021). See, too, Pavel Kosatík, ‘Štefánik, ten třetí vzadu’ [Štefánik, the third one in the back], in Slovenské století (Prague, 2021) pp. 47-68, and Michal Hvorecký, Tahiti Utópia (Bratislava, 2018), translated into Czech in 2021. The graphic novel is Václav Šlajch, Gabriela Kyselová and Michal Baláž, Štefánik: komiksový román (Prague, 2021).

[2] Dušan Jurkovič, Mohyla M. R. Štefánika na Bradle [The mound of M. R. Štefánik in Bradlo] (Prague, 1929).

[3] Karel Zákoucký, ed., Národní hrdina Generál Dr. M. R. Štefánik [National hero General Dr. M.R. Štefánik] (České Budějovíce, 1919).

[4] Vořech was a close associate of the Catholic author Jakub Deml, whose house in Tasov was the subject of a previous Artwork of the Month blog in February 2022.

[5] Spolek pro vojenská pietní místa (URL: https://www.vets.cz/vpm/milan-rastislav-stefanik-184/)

[6] Jurkovič, Mohyla M. R. Štefánika na Bradle, p. 14.

[7] Milena Flodrová, Jurkovič, Brno a Vesna (Brno, 2019).

[8] Dana Bořutová, Dušan Jurkovič: The Architect and His House (Brno, 2011).

[9] Jurkovič, cited by Dana Bořutová, ‘War Cemeteries Built by the K. u. K. Militärkommando Krakau, with Special Regard to Dušan Jurkovič´s Contribution,’ RIHA Journal 0150-0176 (2017). DOI: https://doi.org/10.11588/riha.2017.1 A detailed survey of the various cemeteries is provided in Bořutová, Architekt Dušan Samuel Jurkovič (Bratislava, 2009) pp. 159–93.

[10] The history of the designs is described in Bořutová, Architekt Dušan Samuel Jurkovič, pp. 286–300.

[11] Jurkovič, Mohyla M. R. Štefánika na Bradle, p. 19.

[12] Vendula Hnídková, Narodní styl, kultura a politika [National style, culture and politics] (Prague, 2013).

[13] Ladislav Narcis Zvěřina, Milan Rastislav Štefánik: román československého hrdiny [Novel about a Czechoslovak hero] (Prague, 1928).

[14] See, for example, Jaroslav Nauman, Umění člověka primitivního (Prague, 1926); Josef Čapek, Umění přírodních národů (Prague, 1938).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/JAX7V

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