The Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod is little known internationally. A provincial centre with a population of some 115,000, it is located to the east of interwar Czechoslovakia in Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, a region that briefly enjoyed a higher profile in 1939 as the short-lived Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, one of the many ‘vanished kingdoms’ of which Norman Davies has so eloquently written. Yet while it may, for many, merely be a footnote in the history books, consideration of the past of Uzhhorod throws an illuminating light on political events in central Europe, their intertwining with art and architecture, and their continuing significance for the present.
In 2008, the city of Cedar Rapids in Iowa was hit by a terrible flood caused by heavy rainfall and overflown local river. The water reached unprecedented 31 feet above the normal level and flooded nearly 8,000 properties. In financial terms, the losses to property were calculated at $6 billion. But how is a flooded city in the American Midwest linked to an idyllic rural scene by a Czech artist?
Krásná jizba, translated as “The Beautiful Room”, was a Prague based institution which advanced modern design in interwar Czechoslovakia. Founded in 1927, it was behind the promotion and sale of homeware products, such as dining and tea sets, glassware, furniture, and textiles, which put emphasis on functionality and aesthetic appearance together with their affordability. The newly refurbished Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague recently focused on this organisation in an extensive exhibition titled Krásná jizba dp 1927-1948: Design for Democracy, which closed on 3 March 2019. The curator, Lucie Vlčková, and her team presented the work of many designers, photographers and artists, including Ladislav Sutnar, Josef Sudek, Ludvika Smrčková, Toyen, or Antonín Kybal, indicating the extensive range of production of this key institution.
For eleven years, from 1928 to 1939, the School of Arts and Crafts in Bratislava (Škola umeleckých remesiel – ŠUR) was the hub of a budding Slovak modernism. Founded amid an economic crisis in a small city, the conditions for the ŠUR were not favourable – and yet, supported by the sheer determination of its director Jozef Vydra, it thrived as a public school that was, pronouncedly, not concerned with modern art but modern life. The first international exhibition about the ŠUR in the post-socialist era was shown at the city museums of Zwickau and Leverkusen and at the Bauhaus Dessau foundation in 1998, accompanied by a rich catalogue. While presenting an important initiative in unearthing the history of the ŠUR, the exhibition and catalogue, bearing the title Das Bauhaus im Osten (‘The Bauhaus in the East’), was conceptualised in close relation to Germany’s most legendary art school, over-emphasising the link between the two, at the cost of ignoring others. Twenty years on and in time for the ŠUR’s 90th birthday (as well as the Bauhaus centenary), the Slovak Design Museum puts a corrective lens on the school’s history with an exhibition in the spaces of the Historical Museum in Bratislava Castle.
The important year of anniversaries related to the history of Czechoslovakia is nearly over. Many art galleries and museums in the Czech Republic have commemorated them by a variety of exhibitions and accompanying events. The foundation of Czechoslovakia one hundred years ago in October 1918 is the most referred to date, as it is portrayed as the beginning of a new, democratic era. In the visual arts, this period is also easily linked to the rise of new modernist language framed in the official progressive and internationally oriented narrative of the Czechoslovak state.