Conference report: Multiplying Modernity: Vernacular Modernisms, Nostalgia and the Avant-Garde

The second CRAACE conference, ‘Multiplying Modernity: Vernacular Modernisms, Nostalgia and the Avant-Garde’, took place in the East Slovak Gallery, Košice, from 6 to 7 December 2019 and examined the roles of folk art, the vernacular and regionalism in interwar East/Central European modernism. The conference programme can be accessed here.

The overarching concern of the speakers was with the way modern art, design and architecture engaged with vernacular revivals in this period. Although the papers examined individual case studies from a variety of Central European countries – Poland, Czechoslovakia (including Subcarpathian Ruthenia), Romania, Hungary, and Austria – they addressed wider and recurring topics that indicate an important shift in studies of the broad and entangled field encompassing regionalism, the vernacular (including both popular urban and rural) and folk culture, and its links to modern art. One important aspect of this is that national boundaries of particular states no longer serve as the dominant framework for assessments of folk and vernacular art. Rather, they are perceived as complex artistic phenomena, which not only encompass an array of definitions that elude straightforward categorisation. In addition, folk art and the vernacular were adopted to serve various artistic and political purposes and were heavily embedded in questions of class and gender.


The presented papers emphasised that the relationship between folk and vernacular culture, on the one hand, and modern art, on the other, took many forms in the interwar years and experienced an upturn. Part of the discussion was also an attempt to distinguish between folk art as embedded in the countryside and vernacular art as a more general concept referring to popular culture and amateur tendencies.

With this in mind, one of the key themes the workshop addressed was the relationship between regional styles, national rule and international influences in the interwar years. A number of papers underlined the difficulties in defining representations of the peasantry and rural life within an overarching framework. Folk art and depictions of rural life were often reduced to formal features and this topic was opened by Gábor Pataki (Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest). He offered an overview of variations on vernacular modernism in painting across central Europe, all negotiating between international modernist form and regional tradition. Artists in the region often maintained a postimpressionistic style and emphasised flatness in their depictions of rural landscapes and the peasantry. In both style and subject matter, therefore, a continuity of pre-war practices often prevailed.


Gábor Pataki presenting his paper

Jeremy Howard (University of St Andrews) examined notions of subject and style in Karel Čapek’s (1980-1938) illustrations to his travelogues. Considering them as works in their own right, which accompanied his travelogues from the mid-1920s onward, Howard delved deeper into the representation of rural zones outside of central Europe, including locations in Spain, England, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. In his critical accounts of England (which in Čapek’s world also included Scotland), Čapek mostly went against the flaws of modernity, found in London’s concrete jungle full of advertisements and industrial zones. Howard juxtaposed the rash criticism of the modern world with Čapek’s impressions of the rural landscapes in, for instance, Norway and Sweden. There, his devotion to ‘pure’ and simple life was emphasised in serene depictions of folk culture and landscapes.

Examining how artists handled folk-art forms from various geographical locations opened up a range of questions related to transnational and transregional exchanges and networks in a shifting political landscape. Dana Bořutová’s (Comenius University, Bratislava) paper on the architect Dušan Jurkovič (1868-1947) outlined different stages of his uses of folk art before and after the crucial year of 1918. While Jurkovič used an ornate interpretation of Slovak folk art styles in the pre-war years, his work after 1918 was much more concerned with social issues, focusing on social housing and affordable living. This shift was partially ignited through the plethora of war cemeteries and monuments he built during the war, when local styles would be used for a common interest and were only considered ‘national’ much later. Bořutová’s presentation also raised the question of trans-regional connections between vernacular architecture in Poland and Czechoslovakia, offering a link between regions independent from architectural ‘centres’ such as Vienna.

Jurkovič’s architecture nevertheless appealed to national sentiments that related national art and architecture to folk heritage. Yet not everywhere did folk art have the same role of informing the national style. As Alina-Ruxandra Mircea (Muzeul Brăilei ‘Carol I’, Brăila) showed, with a focus on the Romanian painter Gheorghe Naum (1907-1968), folk art was also combined with newer trends in painting, such as the New Objectivity, which Mircea traced back to German painters like Conrad Felixmüller (1897-1977). In times when people were in desperate need for a positive identity, folk art could offer a sense of community and shared heritage much better than the neo-classicist style supported by the national government. By extension, Mircea showed that regionalism in Romanian interwar art incorporated a more heterogeneous reality than national styles ever could.


Marta Filipová chairing the session Creating a National Art with Maria Anna Rogucka, Miroslav Kleban and Dana Bořutová

In stark contrast, the examination of the Polish painter Zofia Stryjeńska (1891-1976) by Maria Anna Rogucka (Humboldt University, Berlin) shifted the focus from regional to state and national representation. Stryjeńska’s design for the Polish Pavilion at the 1925 world’s fair in Paris served as a primary example for the representation of nation identity through folk art. Trained at the art academy in Munich, where she could only get in dressed up as a boy, and with influences from the reform school in Hellerau, Stryjeńska focused on musicality and dynamic movement in her depictions of people from the countryside in folk costume. Given that Stryjeńska came from a bourgeois background, Rogucka’s presentation raised another recurring question in the workshop – who the target audiences of the works presented were, and whom they represented. The tight association of folk-art imagery with notions of ‘authenticity’ that defined Stryjeńska’s highly stylized paintings thereby suggested comparison with Anna Lesznai (1885-1966), whose almost universally positive reception in Vienna during the 1920s was the focus of Julia Secklehner’s (Masaryk University, Brno) paper. Lesznai is now little known, but she was a far from marginal painter in her time and was a privileged artist whose point of reference lay in regional cultural forms and practices. In this respect her work was similar to that of Austrian artists such as Alfons Walde (1891-1958) or Herbert Gurschner (1901-1975); her image of rural life conveyed the longing for regionalism so strongly sought after in interwar Austria. Yet it offered a welcome counterpart to the presentation of Walde’s work et al as a ‘strong’, masculine, local regionalism. This twist and Lesznai’s position as a successful female painter and a member of the educated Jewish upper class make her reception in Vienna a heterogeneous and intriguing topic.

The regional did not only animate modern artists but also collectors of modern art. Marcela Rusinko (Masaryk University, Brno) analysed the collecting activities of Vincenc Kramář, Jindřich Waldes and Oto Resch, who were the most prominent art collectors in interwar Czechoslovakia. Their habits and preferences revealed that Kramář, often celebrated as a collector of modernism, only touched upon the most contemporary avantgarde, whereas his palate in general was much more devoted to traditional art forms, included folk art and craft. In keeping with the other papers of this session, Rusinko showed that the desire to construct simplified images of national identity led to a conservative and essentialist depiction of the nation, which left little room for diversity within a linear narrative.


The simplification of identities for specific audiences was a topic that was also addressed in ‘Modes of Representation: Fairs, exhibitions, collections’ by Marta Filipová (Masaryk University, Brno). Filipová assessed the political significance of vernacular art at international exhibitions. Examining the etymological origins of the frequently used but rarely conceptualised term ‘folk art’ and its different nuances in Czech, English and German, Filipová showed that the terms were strongly tied to both class as well as nationality. Since Czechoslovakia was a nationalizing state in search of its identity, this meant that smaller national groups such as the Slovaks were marginalised and accorded a lower status than the Czechs. Indeed, the World’s fairs provided the perfect opportunity to showcase such hierarchical classification of peoples and cultures.

The topic of the patronising attitude of the Czechoslovak authorities in Prague towards Slovakia as well as Subcarpathian Ruthenia appeared again in two other papers that examined fine art and exhibition practices respectively. Miroslav Kleban’s (East Slovak Gallery, Košice) talk about the Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938 gave new insights into the art of an often-neglected territory of interwar Czechoslovakia, where elements of rural and folk culture were incorporated into modern painting particularly strongly. As the eastern-most part of the First Republic, Subcarpathian Ruthenia was exoticized in contemporary culture, triggering the wish of the ruling elites to ‘cultivate’ the region, which, ironically, prolonged its image as a belated region, where one could find the ‘true’ essence of the people.

Petra Skarupsky (University of Warsaw) examined the representation of Slovak art in exhibitions of Czechoslovak art in Poland with particular reference to the 1927 exhibition at Warsaw’s Galeria Zachęta. Skarupsky showed that Polish-Slovak newspapers in particular were rather critical about the scarce representation of the Slovak lands in Czechoslovak exhibitions. By pointing out weaker national qualities of Czech modernist painters influenced by France, the Polish-Slovak press singled out Slovak folk art for its ‘authenticity’. It was only in the 1930s that the Polish press adopted the usual narrative of ‘Czechoslovakism’, a concept that soon revealed cracks after 1945.


Petra Skarupsky presenting her paper

The discussion of collecting, exhibiting, and class brought up the topic of audiences; who was modernist art referencing folk art for? This was one of the focal points in Paul Stirton’s (Bard Graduate Centre, New York) keynote lecture, which placed the work of the Hungarian architects Károly Kós (1883-1977) and Lajos Kozma (1884-1948) at its centre, guided by the notion of continuity and rupture after 1918. Both architects had strongly relied on Transylvanian folk motifs before the war and mourned the loss of the region in post-Trianon Hungary. Kós left Budapest and moved to Transylvania, and since it did not belong to Hungary any more, he intensified his focus on regionalism, becoming involved in local minor projects and community works. These stood in, marked contrast to his Budapest building designs before the war, yet they remained within a similar language of vernacular architecture. Kozma adopted the international style in the 1920s after developing a decorative style of design, the so-called ‘Kozma Baroque’, which revived the Hungarian ‘folk / gentry Baroque’ style of the 17th century. With this style, Kozma contributed to an interwar Baroque revival in design and architecture, which was widespread in all the successor states of the Habsburg Empire and showed just how heterogeneous the reception of older styles was. While the supposedly ‘timeless’ folk art style led to the essentialising of a lost region, the gentry Baroque could cater more easily to contemporary needs and provided a distinguishable, but much less essentializing interpretation of a historical style.

Revivals in art and design were often motivated by the search for an alternative to what the modern world provided. Universally valid values that would renew art as well as society were found in many vernacular forms of art, often within a spiritual or religious context. Jana Antalová (University of Padova) developed this idea in her paper on Anton Jasusch (1882-1965) and his experiences abroad. As a member of the Czechoslovak Legion that became entangled in the Russian civil war, Jasusch ended up making his way back home via Vladivostok and South East Asia. His experience of Buddhism and spiritualism in Asia infused his search for universal human values and strongly informed the visual language of his paintings. At the same time, regional elements, expressed, for example, in peasant scenes, represented a strong focus in Jasusch’s work, whereby he interpreted vernacular forms as signs of a universal culture, rather than local particularism.


The East Slovak Gallery in Košice – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lili Boros’ (Károly Eszterházy University, Eger & Ferenczy Museum Centre, Szentendre) paper showed how the Hungarian painter Lajos Vajda (1908-1941) conducted a personal search for spiritual renewal. Vajda’s Icon self-portrait of 1936 revealed a complex interaction of influences. His interest in Nikolai Berdyaev’s philosophy suggested that the choice to paint himself in the form of an Icon was derived from Byzantine tradition, combined with an interest in the local vernacular, as well as influences by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. A further look into Berdyaev’s philosophy showed Christian existentialism as a new way of defining belief in interwar art. This was a rare case of self-centred and reflected use of religious imagery within vernacular art.

A sense of loss, despair even, was prominent in the work of many artists discussed throughout the workshop, perhaps most visibly in the late work of Josef Čapek (1887-1945). In ‘The Search for Comfort: Folk Art and Nostalgia’, Erin Dusza (Indiana University, Bloomington) linked Josef Čapek’s pre-war interest in primitivism with his works of the 1930s. His series of paintings Fire and Desire was shown as a direct reaction to the rising political heat in central Europe, depicting peasant women either in poses of defiance or in melancholic retreat. References to folk art and primitivized forms could be seen as an expression of nostalgia and sentiment for a world that was lost in an increasingly nationalised Europe, a topic of continued relevance for artists and their audiences.

In her response to the papers, Brigitte Fuchs (University of Vienna) examined the anthropological origins of folk art. In trying to dissect Hegelian tropes of narrating history, she drew attention to the argument that levels of morality accompanied the condition of a country from the morally superior modern state down to lawless ‘primitive’ tribes. This sense of moral superiority legitimated all the colonial frontiers by the European nations. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Austrian journals such as Heimgarten prolonged those narratives of morally inferior older ethnicities that eventually would be used as an excuse for pan-German reactionary politics in in Central Europe.


St Elisabeth’s Cathedral, Košice – photo: Deodáth Zuh

Overall, the richness and diversity of the papers showed that folk and vernacular art hardly lost significance after 1918. Rather, they played an important role in diversifying the development of modern art across central Europe, combining engagement with international modernist practices with an interest in local elements. Having said this, the latter often also resembled each other across the region, which undermined notions of local and national identity as well as a ‘authenticity’ that artists and critics often claimed for folk and vernacular art. Rather, it supports the search for universalism, which was central to the work of several artists discussed, including Vajda, Lesznai and Jasusch. The inclusion of vernacular and folk art was almost always a political issue. It took on many forms and served the creation of regional identities as much as a pronounced escapism, support for nationalist politics or claims for a universal culture. Far from having ended its reach with the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, folk and vernacular art thus continued to shape modern culture in the interwar years and were strikingly diverse in their impact on art and architecture alike. The concluding discussion also identified issues that still need to be addressed more closely. One of the most pressing themes here was that of gender, tied to the materiality of objects and the inclusion of design practices and popular media into future assessments, which to date have dominantly focused on ‘high art’ and male-dominated media like painting. Taking this into account, the two days of papers, contributions and discussions without any doubt contributed to the advancement of the study of folk art and vernacular modernisms by actively starting to re-evaluate the politicised role they played in interwar central and east central Europe.

The photographs here are from the workshop and a guided tour of historical Košice with Local Nomad and a visit to the exhibition The Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938 in the East Slovak Gallery led by Miroslav. Photos from the tour and the exhibition visit courtesy of Deodáth Zuh.

Header image: Anton Jasusch: From the First World War, 1920–1924, East Slovak Gallery, Košice


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