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.
In response to current broader reconsiderations about how art, design and architecture in the First Czechoslovak Republic should be represented, the East Slovak Gallery in Košice is currently exhibiting The Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938 – Czechoslovak Footprint, which showcases paintings, prints and sculptures from the First Republic’s easternmost region. Built on the premise that artistic life in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, as the region is dominantly referred to in English, proliferated under Czechoslovak administration after 1918, the exhibition, curated by Miroslav Kleban, ties the region’s cultural development to the modernization efforts of the First Republic’s eastern regions.
Framed by soft hills and picturesque huts, November’s Artwork of the Month transports us to the countryside of eastern Czechoslovakia in a painting by Anna Lesznai (1885-1967). Born and raised as the daughter of an ennobled Hungarian-Jewish family in Körtvélyes, then Upper Hungary, Anna Lesznai was one of the core female members of the Hungarian pre-war avant-garde. In the context of the Arts and Crafts revival at the turn of the twentieth century, which found enthusiastic reception in late-Habsburg Hungary, her craftwork gained much attention, alongside her poetry and fairy-tales for children. However, Lesznai also produced graphic designs, painted, taught at Dezső Orbán’s Atelier art school in Budapest in the 1930s and successfully participated in a number of exhibitions. Forced to emigrate after the rise of the Horthy regime because of her involvement in the Hungarian Republic of Councils in 1919, Lesznai lived between Vienna and the family estate in Körtvélyes (from 1920 Hrušov, Czechoslovakia; part of Slovakia since 1993). Based on an interest in folk art and peasant culture from the region, which she had begun to study in the early 1900s, Lesznai produced numerous watercolours in the 1920s and 30s which focused on life in the villages surrounding her estate and received enthusiastic reception when exhibited in 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.
In 2016, the International Cultural Centre Kraków presented the exhibition Koszycka moderna / Košice Modernism in cooperation with the East Slovak Gallery in the town of Košice. Its catalogue, reviewed here, remains the most recent analysis of Košice Modernism: a term coined by curator Zsófia Kiss-Szemán, and referring to the cultural upsurge in the 1920s Košice, today in eastern Slovakia. Part of Hungary in the Habsburg Empire, the town was an important centre for commerce, located at the intersections of ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Carpathian Ruthenia. With the collapse of the empire, Košice became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918 as an approximately 50,000-strong border town with a mixed Slovak, Hungarian, Jewish, German and Czech population. As the exhibition argues, these socio-political and geographical particularities shaped Košice’s cultural development: while its strategic position on a trading route meant that Košice’s multi-ethnic community could flourish, its incorporation into Czechoslovakia introduced a democratic form of government, which allowed a degree of political freedom that was especially significant for leftist artists seeking refuge from the Horthy regime in Hungary in 1919.