Časopis ARS 30 (1997) 1-3


Fenomén secesie a moderné maliarstvo Slovenska (rámcový náčrt problematiky)
[The Phenomenon of Secession and Modern Slovak Painting (An Outline of the Question)]


The introduction to the study, The Phenomenon of Sezession and Modern Slovak Painting by Ján Abelovský deals with the problem common to all Central European cultures at the turn of the twentieth century: the questions of delayed and contradictory reception of Impressionism. Later Upper Hungarian painting displayed greater familiarity with Impressionism, roughly defined as the 1908-1914 period, culminating in 1910. The Slovak variant of Impressionism can be traced in the works of leading artists of two older pre-1918 generations of Upper Hungary's nationally uncrystallized plein air painters - Dominik Skutecký (1849 - 1921), Elemír Halász-Hradil (1973 - 1948), Ľudovít Čordák (1864 - 1937), Maximilián Schurmann (1890 - 1960) and others. However, their painting was more concerned with mood and impression than with a radical application of Impressionist technique, of the vibrating colour spot. The only exception to this development was the initiative of Ladislav Medňanský (1852 - 1919) who worked on the borders of Impressionism from 1889 on during his long stays in Paris in 1889 - 1892 and again in 1896-1897. He overcame the restrictive realistic presentation of this style in favour of moods of paysage intime, which mirrored the psychic state of the painter, his momentary spiritual stirrings and meditative frame of mind. Non-Slovak practitioners of Impressionism accepted and comprehended its Central European form, first on the level of the language of style they learnt during their stays in the Hungarian painters' colonies in Nagybánya and Szolnok, and later in accordance with its additional metaphysical aspirations. Thus, universal contemplations were antithetically confronted with thematic particularization, often a life-long interest in the folklore character of the landscape and human existence in a particular region of Upper Hungary. Following this trend, "Non-Slovak" Impressionists, created genuine conditions for the birth of modern Slovak painting. Holding this view, the author of this study polemicizes with the hitherto concept which has ascribed such a role to folk-genre painting of The Hungarian-Slovak Painters' Group who had Slovakism in their programme. The broader circle of this group, established in 1903, also included the Czech painters Jozef Uprka (1861 - 1940), Jaroslav Augusta (1878 - 1970) and Emil Pacovský (1879 - 1948) and their nationally oriented, Upper Hungarian contemporaries - Jozef Hanula (1863 - 1944), Gustáv Mallý (1879 - 1952) and others.

The evolutional productivity lay in the stylistic and national pluralism of Slovak painting in 1890 - 1952, its marginal, interrupted and partial character. At that time, Upper Hungarian fine arts illustrated an almost textbook example of what came to be called the "crossroads of cultures". If art historians engaged in this period speak about the "Sezessionist form of Impressionism", then it can be increasingly perceived as a reaction to the Central European "spirit of the period" with its contradictory interlinking of the national and the supranational, of the romanticism of self-awareness of new ethnicities and individualistic sophistication, of strictly rational thinking and decadent esoterism. The mysticism found in Ladislav Medňanský's later and greatest figurative paintings, or the national symbolism displayed in the work of Milan T. Mitrovský (1875 - 1943), Tomáš Andraškovič (1871 - 1944) and Ivan Žabota (1878 - 1939), and in the art of Michal Teodor Csontváry-Kostka (1853 - 1919) can be regarded as the most remarkable examples of this period tendency. This autodidact, considered to be a painter of European renown, was among the most original artists of the turn of the century.

The main part of this study focuses on the import of Czech, German and mainly Hungarian Sezessionist Symbolism which integrated artistic movements from the early twentieth century. Sezession attracted and transformed all adopted stylistic dogmas - traditional Luminism and naturalist genre painting as well as modern Impressionism. Chiefly due to its permeation with literary Symbolism, Sezession enabled the mediation of certain "extra-visual" connotations which greatly interested contemporary artists. Even Martin Benka (1888 - 1971), the protagonist of Slovak national painting, came under the influence of Sezessionist morphology and its spiritual principles. In his large-format paintings of the western Slovak and Moravian landscapes from 1914 - 1918, he displayed stylistic clarity and symbolic fullness, a definite distancing from his moodier early landscapes. Benka apparently drew inspiration from G. Segantini, von Hofmann, Hodler, Egger-Lienz and other painters on the border of Sezession and Symbolism.

A direct source of the arrival of Sezession in Upper Hungary after 1910 was not only Prague, Munich, Vienna or Dresden, but mainly Budapest. The Hungarian form, however, did not come stylistically pure, containing historical links to the Pre-Raphaelites and Neo-Romanticism in its symbolist form. One of the key places where this Upper Hungarian Sezession dominated was the southern Slovak town of Komárno, where the painter and draughtsman Karol Harmos (1879 - 1956) founded the Komárno Circle. Harmos' activities did not remain within the borders of a regional initiative, through his influence on his immediate disciples B. Bazilides, A. Bazilides, M. Nagy, A. Nagy, J. Raucher, V. Ráfael, G. Szóbel, J. Pleidel. The paintings and drawings of Hungarian artists from the eastern Slovak town of Rožňava - Július Tichý (1879 - 1920) and his brother Koloman Tichý (1888 - 1968), perhaps the most orthodox Sezessionists representing Slovak Moderna, also corresponds with the themes and styles of Harmos and the artists of the Komárno Circle. Finally, the work of the Bratislava painter Július Schubert (1888 - 1947) can be loosely ranked to the Sezessionist painting of the Komárno Circle. It can therefore be maintained that the painting of southern and south-western Slovak centres, Komárno, Rožňava and Bratislava, did not remain only a provincial reflection of the Budapest Sezession. The spiritually exclusive Sezessionist orthodoxy, by nature self-referential, was essentially transformed in the face of influences from wider sources of contemporary painting. Through thematic, stylistic and conceptual blendings, mainly the interest in the life of modern people, the town periphery and the social sentiment of small-scale figurative or folk genre, the art from centres in southern and western Slovakia appears as a coherent predecessor and a source of the significant stream of interwar Slovak art. Taking roots in the late twenties, this art was marked by an interpretation of Central European urban sensualism, a deeper concern for socially engaged art and Neue Sachlichkeit.

Thanks to the individual struggle of Konštantín Kövári-Kačmarik (1882 - 1916), the eastern Slovak city of Košice became the most important centre of the Sezession in Upper Hungary. In a relatively brief period of artistic creation between 1908 and 1914, he succeeded in achieving what his contemporaries had attempted in vain - to cross the threshold of modern art in a "Western European" sense. Apart from the painting, drawing and graphics of Eugen Krón (1882 - 1974) and the prematurely accomplished work of Konštantín Bauer (1893 - 1928), the work of Anton Jasusch (1882 - 1965) became the most typical example of the avant-garde approach of the Košice Moderna. In 1921 - 1924, Orphism in Jasusch's painting changed into an original variant of its conventional contemporary form. Instead of an independent structure of the picture, a metaphysical image of the eternal polarity between good and evil, a pre-determined tragedy of the individual and mankind, became more apparent. It is maintained that the art of Košice modernists created in 1919 - 1928, ranging from Sezessionist Expressionism and Symbolism (Synthetism) to the primitivist Cézanneism of socially engaged art, was the first expression of authentic Slovak Moderna. In the 1930s, a multi- generational stream continuing the tradition of the Košice Moderna was represented by the eclectic sensual urban painting of Edmund Gwerk (1895 - 1956), František Reichentál (1895 - 1971), Štefan Prohászka (1896 - 1965), Zoltán Palugay (1898 - 1935), Július Koreszka (1895 - 1958), Július Flache (1892 - 1967), Arnold Weisz-Kubínčan (1898 - 1944), Peter Pálffy (1899 - 1987), Bertalan Pór (1880 - 1964) and Aurel Bernáth (1895 - 1982).

Július Jakoby and Imrich Weiner-Kráľ can be considered the most distinguished artists of the Sezessionist Symbolist sentiment at the turn of the century. The most important inheritor of the Košice Moderna, the painter Július Jakoby (1903 - 1985) rejected social sentiment and left-wing schematicism of his models. Jakoby's intentionally primitivist handling of figures in the spirit of a compromised Cézanneism, Synthetism and Symbolism, characterized the visual and conceptual nature of his best works from the 1930s and 1940s, translated through "social grotesque". These paintings expressed a different alternative of the life of Košice periphery. The work of Imrich Weiner-Kráľ (1901 - 1978) was also a product of non-Slovak communities - Hungarian, German and mainly Jewish. He shared his interest in the folk genre with other painters of his generation. However, Weiner strove to introduce a new element into the Slovak myth - the radical, left-wing overview on conventional romanticism as well as the authentic grasp of the mental dimensions of rural existence.

The final part of this study focuses on the Sezessionist-Symbolist inspirations of the leading representatives of the "national" stream of Slovak Moderna. The analysis of the painting of continuators of Martin Benka's art - Jan Hála (1890 - 1959), Štefan Polkoráb (1896 - 1951), Štefan Straka (1898 - 1932), Karol Ondreička (1898 - 1961), the major part of the work of the modernist Janko Alexy (1894 - 1970), or his companion Miloš A. Bazovský (1899 - 1968), but also the oeuvre of the most progressive modernists Ľudovít Fulla (1922 - 1980) and Mikuláš Galanda (1895 - 1938) - illustrates that modern Slovak painting cannot even theoretically be differentiated into individual national streams as from the turn of the 1930s on. The major representatives eventually united their goals. Although they painted in diverse styles, within the lines of Central European Sezessionist Impressionism, they did not paint the same; their differences stemmed from their socio-cultural background. While Slovaks, the members of the majority nation, made allusions to anachronistic schematism, artists representing minorities of mostly Hungarian origin were restricted by the cultural indefiniteness of their position. Yet, both attitudes reflected the provincial character of the Slovak environment, its turning to the mythical Slovak past and to the more real Hungarian bygone times.