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.
In the 1920s new concepts became prominent across Europe that mingled technology with the idea of the human. The Czech novelist Karel Čapek (upon the suggestion by his brother Josef) was the first to use the word ‘robot’ for artificial lifeforms modelled after humans, in his famous play R.U.R. (1920). Čapek was in fact referring to an old system of forced labour in Central Europe, where the peasantry had to provide the local lords with a certain amount of unpaid labour every year, the so-called robota (work). The pivotal moment of Čapek’s play is the robots’ uprising against their creators, which leads to the extinction of mankind. In the epilogue, however, the robots Primus and Helena develop human feelings for each other, and the former engineer Alquist, one of the last humans alive, declares them the new Adam and Eve.
A detail camera shot examines rubber being mixed and moulded by heavy machinery. ‘Finished. You’re beautiful. Alas, it took me a while but you have been made properly.’ A young man sings as he is taking a rubber tyre off the machine. Walking through the factory yard and wheeling the tyre alongside, he carries on: ‘And now, off you go on your own, find your master and serve him well, I’m telling you.’ The camera focuses on the tyre with large lettering that reads Baťa and Superb. ‘It’s no easy task as every one of your masters entrusts his life to you,’ the young man warns. And as he starts running with the tyre over a field and down the road leading away from the factory, he cheers up.
In the small town of Nymburk, some 55 kilometres to the East of Prague, sits one of the more unusual examples of interwar architecture in Czechoslovakia: the town crematorium. Built between 1922 and 1924, it is a plain rectangular main building – the ceremonial hall – with cylindrical front and back. Thanks to its plain unornamented forms, its low rectangular base, and a flat overhanging rectangular roof, it strikes the viewer like an exercise in the exploration of elementary geometry. This impression is reinforced by the portico around the sides and front, consisting of squat, plain columns. Everything about the building appears mis-proportioned. The portico columns seem too wide for their height, and the height (and that of the ground storey) appears to be out of proportion to the rest of the building. The upper part of the ceremonial hall thus looms over the storey below. In addition, the distance of the columns from the rest of the building gives it a squat appearance, as if it had in some sense been compressed by some enormous weight. We might dismiss this unprepossessing structure as a misconceived design, except that it is highly revealing not only about developments in architecture in Czechoslovakia, but also about social and cultural developments in Czechoslovak society.
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.