Artwork of the Month, March 2021: The Gate of Heroes in Szeged (1936)

One sweltering Budapest summer, many years ago, I was a university student taking an exam in twentieth-century Hungarian art. The friendly visiting lecturer smiled encouragingly as I summarised the career of the painter Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894–1941).[1] Soon after starting to train as an artist, Aba-Novák was drafted into the army. After the war, he resumed his studies in printmaking, while also practising painting. Around this time he belonged to the circle of István Szőnyi (1894–1960), a group known for their idyllic compositions of nudes outdoors.[2] Also interested in rural subjects, he frequented artists’ colonies such as the one in Nagybánya (Baia Mare) and – more importantly – in Szolnok. For 1928–30 he received a scholarship from the Hungarian state to study in Rome. The purpose of the Rome scholarships introduced by Minister of Religion and Education Kuno Klebelsberg (1875–1932) was to encourage artists to develop a new monumental style fusing tradition and modernity, so they would be well equipped to fulfil state and ecclesiastical commissions.[3] Returning from Rome, Aba-Novák painted a number of frescoes, but these, I blurted out, are rather clumsy compared to his other work.

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Artwork of the Month, February 2021: Experiment with Two Negatives at the Bauhaus by Irena Blühová (1932)

A portrait of a man and a woman, overlapping in one image through the merging of two negatives. She, looking pensive and serious, he, excited and happy. Dissecting the images, thin white lines add an additional layer to the composition, splitting it into six uneven parts.

With all these different elements, which overlap and interrupt each other, and create a lively impression of two portraits, February’s Artwork of the Month is quite a playful image – despite its rather prescriptive title: Experiment with Two Negatives at the Bauhaus. Indeed, the photograph is one of the most experimental works by its author, the Slovak photographer Irena Blühová (1904–1991). It not only gives us a glimpse into student photography at the Bauhaus but also relates to less explored aspects of the school’s history – social photography and student activism – and the role in it of one of Slovakia’s best-known interwar photographers.

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Artwork of the Month, January 2021: Japan – The Land of Contrasts by Alice Schalek (1925)

‘How much does the Austrian President Masaryk receive as his salary?’[1] Alice Schalek (1874–1956) was asked this question by a Japanese reporter in Tokyo during her journey there in 1923–24. Perceptions changed a lot after the First World War. The enterprising and renowned traveller Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937) had evidently been more successful with his countless diplomatic trips and obtained more publicity than the actual leaders of the first Austrian Republic, such as Karl Renner (1870–1950) or, later, Ignaz Seipel (1876–1932). And this might as well describe Schalek’s mission and the purpose of her trips: venturing into political affairs and social events in foreign countries and utilising them to promote herself (and, to a lesser extent, the interests of Austria). For this, the journalist and photographer Schalek literally had to explore new ways of entrepreneurship, especially as a woman travelling the world on her own.

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Milada Marešová, A Bride with a Cigarette

Artwork of the Month, December 2020: Bride with a Cigarette by Milada Marešová (1933)

Sitting in a full, white dress in front of a brick wall and a grove of cypress trees, a bride is looking straight out of the painting at the viewer. At first glance, she is not a typical bride. Although she wears more traditional long gloves, and clutches a fan in one hand, her veil is falling slightly from her head and reveals prominent red hair which contrasts with her greenish skin. We can only imagine that under the veil she has a bubikopf, a haircut typical for the ‘new woman’ look. Her face and expression dominate the painting. Her remarkable, raised eyebrows and bright red lips add to the defiant look she is casting. Yet most striking of all is the cigarette the bride is holding in her right hand.

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Žilina synagogue designed by Peter Behrens

Artwork of the Month, November 2020: The Neolog Synagogue in Žilina by Peter Behrens (1928–31)

In May 2017 a new art exhibition and concert venue opened in the Slovak town of Žilina. The result of a six-year restoration project that had been partly crowd-funded and also partly funded by the EU, the Slovak government and the town council, the building won a number of awards on the basis not only of the quality of the restoration but also for its mobilisation of grass-roots support and funding. Just around the corner from the Puppet Theatre and the substantial municipal theatre, the new centre provided a valuable addition to the cultural life of the provincial town, located some 200 kilometres northeast of Bratislava. The organisation that manages the centre, Truc Sphérique, also organises cultural events in the Stanica Žilina-Záriečie, in the town’s still operational railway station, and provides an instructive example of the productive regeneration of sites as cultural venues.[1]

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