When we look at an artist’s work, we see it through a glass, darkly: whether we like it or not, we are influenced by its previous interpretations. After they die, some artists are turned into icons of artistic, social, or political movements and become entangled with them to such an extent that it profoundly affects the way their works are seen. The Hungarian artist Gyula Derkovits (1894–1934) is an especially complex case. Derkovits was the son of a cabinetmaker and began training in that profession before taking up painting; after finishing three years of primary school, he never gained a formal education. Despite making a name as an artist and finding a number of patrons, he struggled to make a living from his art and had dire money problems by the last years of his life. Furthermore, as a committed left-winger, he was involved with the Communist movement – illegal in the interwar period – and depicted the struggles of the working class in his paintings, while satirising the bourgeoisie. Thanks to all this, Derkovits was easily appropriated by the Communist regime from the 1960s onwards. His pictures were everywhere, and so was his name: among other things, a state-run art gallery, a housing estate in the town of Szombathely, as well as a grant for young artists were named after him.
Vernacular modernisms, nostalgia and the avant-garde
CRAACE workshop, 6–7 December 2019
East Slovak Gallery, Košice (Slovakia)
In the decades before 1918 there was a vibrant debate over the nature of ‘national art’ in Central Europe. For many this was embodied in folk art and culture. By 1914, this idea was increasingly challenged by avant-garde interests in the metropolis. After the War, however, a return to folk art and regionalism was revisited and gained increasing importance in the decades leading up the Second World War. Within a broad artistic landscape, folk art and culture was used to search for a fundamental essence of human culture, as in the case of the Hungarian painters Lajos Vajda and Dezső Korniss; to create a ‘national style’ with reinterpretations of folk art, as in 1920s Czechoslovakia; and to seek renewal outside a lost imperial capital, like in Austria.
On 6 May 1928 the ceremonial unveiling took place of a monument to Ferdinand Lasalle in Vienna. Located in the north-eastern suburb of Brigittenau, and placed in front of the recently built Winarsky Hof, a communal housing project built by the municipality, the monument commemorated Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864). A native of the German city of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), Lassalle had no obvious connection to Austria. He was, however, a leading figure in Socialist politics in the 1840s and 1850s, having been imprisoned for his support for the 1848 revolution. It was in recognition of his commitment to socialist politics that in 1863 he was appointed the first president of the General German Worker’s Association, forerunner of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). It was for this reason that the monument was erected to him in Vienna some 60 years later, for Vienna city council was dominated by Social Democrats, whose social and cultural policies earned the capital the name of ‘Red Vienna.’
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.