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Košice Modernism

Košice modernism[1] is a general term referring to art production and artistic life in Košice in the 1920s. This extraordinary period created room for the emergence of modern and avant-garde art. Košice became one of the Central European centres of modern art. The art scene in the town was shaped by unprecedented number of new art tendencies and by the activities of extraordinary figures. The town became a temporary home to – mostly leftist – artists who were forced to leave Hungary after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The migration of artists also brought about the alternation and lively symbiosis of various art tendencies.

     Among the most significant characteristics of Košice modernism are openness and multinational and urban character. The phenomenon encompasses different tendencies of modern and avant-garde art, which came together at the particular place at the particular time. In the 1920s the conditions for the emergence of modern art in Košice were extremely favourable: authentic artistic events in the town with a long and important tradition offered excellent background for new art movements and styles. The local tradition mixed together with a positive contribution of migrating artists. The historic events prepared a ground for a healthy multicultural transmission of artistic thoughts and works of art. The tolerance, freedom and individual thinking brought about not only art discussion about the number of brand new issues but also the communication about taboo subjects.

     The place of Košice modernism in Slovak, Hungarian, Central European, or European context is defined by a network of contacts among artists and by artistic paralells. The representatives of Košice modernism – visual artists (Antal/Anton Jaszusch, Jenő/Eugen Krón, Szilárd/Konštantín Bauer, representatives of Czech and Hungarian avant-garde: František Foltýn, Sándor/Alexander Bortnyik, Géza/Gejza Schiller), architects (Lajos/Ľudovít Oelschläger, Lajos Kozma, Bohumír Kozák), philosophers (János/Ján Mácza), writers (Sándor Márai) as well as the director of the East Slovakian Museum, Josef Polák – introduced, for the first time in modern history of Slovakia, the independence of visual reality in this spiritual space. Even more important was the transformation in the perception of art as an autonomous phenomenon.


Town and the art scene

   Košice probably possessed such a powerful awareness of urbanism, with its specific characteristics, that it retained its own countenance, so to speak. In other words, a personification of the town took place; if we apply the term ‘a portrait of the landscape’ (which was coined in the 19th century thanks to the artists of the Barbizon school) to the events of the 20th century, we can state that ‘a portrait of the town’ was created – a picture with its own specificities.

     The basic conditions for the emergence of such a phenomenon as Košice modernism are a decisively continuous history, coupled with the town’s artistic inheritance and riches; namely, the domestic potential and environment. In Košice, there were private art schools in first two decades of the 20th century that established plein air and impressionist painting here and thus took a step towards the modern scene. Eugen Krón’s private art school functioned from 1921 to 1927. The work and personality of Konštantín/Szilárd Kővári-Kačmarik represented a significant step forward; with his determination and realisation of an individual artistic programme in the spirit of post-impressionism, he became an example – not only to artists – in the 1920s. The activities of Josef Polák, director of the East Slovakian Museum with a 50-year-long tradition, who managed to put into practise an international exhibition programme and the cycle of lectures is another well-known and thoroughly examined source of inspiration. Conditions were created for an artistic upsurge in the town, oxygenated by the flow of fresh stimulation from migrating artists and the geographical location of the town as a crossroads, which in favourable circumstances affords natural multicultural development in parallel with mutual inspiration and spontaneous movement.  

     Portrait of the town

In the history of art, the modern and urban character of the artwork has been mostly determined based on the theme. In Slovakia the urban subject was enough to classify the work as a modern art. The art in Košice is characterised by scenes from everyday life taking place in the streets and on public spaces (Géza/Gejza Schiller: Urban Motif, 1924, VSG). Among the best examples are works of Július/Gyula Jakoby from the 1930s (e.g. Over the Advert, 1934, VSG). Other themes include labour and its results (J. Jakoby: Lamp Cleaning, 1935, SNG; Salesmen, 1934, VSG), or symbols of industrial development and construction, such as bridges, factories, etc. (G. Schiller: Landscape with a Bridge, 1922, VSG; F. Foltýn: At the Construction Site, 1924, Brno, Galerie Antona Procházky). They often represent a new interpretation of genre scenes that are closer to real life. A brand new theme was sport, which can be interpreted as a strictly leisure time hobby, however, it is definitively no accident that some artists in Košice were avid sportsmen (Anton Jaszusch, for instance, was fond of football) and incorporated sport motifs into their works. It should be noted that the new themes and motifs stem from the differentiation of society, from the differentiation of urban community in everyday life, from different strata of population (compared to the rural ones), and from a basic different characteristics of labour and entertainment. To put it simply, the theme stems from a new way of life and that from a new thinking of people.  

     As the artists focused their attention on ordinary people, the environment these people lived in turned from a mere background into the real setting familiar to everyone. Modernism in Košice also changed the landscapes and pictures of urban vedute: mountains and meadows with people working in the field were replaced by beautiful natural sceneries of Bankov, a favourite vacation spot above Košice, and the outskirts of the town with picturesque spots became a hot subject (some artists, however, depicted them even before war, such as Kővári-Kačmarik, Jaszsuch, or Konštantín/Szilárd Bauer: On the Outskirts of Košice, 1927, VSG). Many scenes take place in the urban environment, where the city inhabitants spend their free time at bars, restaurants and theatres (J. Jakoby: At a Bar, 1929, VSG; G. Schiller: At a Café, 1924, VSG; A. Jaszsuch: Before Performance, 1930–1935, Šarišská galéria, Prešov). But the most important are the motifs which are directly related to a new thinking and new value orientation of the community, which, in turn, is directly related to the freedom and modernity.


Modern and avant-garde art in Košice

     The most appropriate terms to define the way of formation of modern art in Slovakia include the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. This dilemma significantly marked the development of art in Slovakia in the given period. Artists´ attitudes to these issues, usually implicitly or explicitly present in their works, can be easily traced. Naturally, the relationship to the traditional or to the modern was created on many levels. Sometimes it included the general attitude of revolt or resignation, other times it only concerned the issues of fine art, or individual elements (e.g. subject, form, means of expression, etc.). The characteristic feature of the art, artists and individual works of this period became the symbiosis of the traditional subject (rural or landscape scenes with the motif of mountains) and the modern expression (application of formal achievements of world modern art). The connection of a wide range of artists in a broader space of Central Europe with the world of people (or so-called primitive peoples), its visual tradition on the one hand and the effort to create a unique, more or less purely visual world on the other hand, is also intrinsic to the world modern art.


Anton Jaszusch – work before WWI

Jaszuch´s extensive, diverse and multilayered oeuvre, spanning over a half-century creates integral part of Slovak art history and belongs to the best examples of inter-war art in Slovakia.   

     In the period of 1910–1914 the artist focused on paintings trying to capture the mood and feeling of the landscape. Gradually he moved towards expressive painting with decorative surface lacking any perspective, and delicate colours.


Anton Jaszusch – works after WWI

The First World War, which the artist spent at the Italian and Russian front lines and later in prisoner of war camps in the Far East shattered his spiritual world and essentially changed his way of thinking, inner conviction as well as his artistic mission and programme. Between 1920 and 1924, he created a big cycle of paintings with a subject relating to existential questions, the meaning of life and man´s place on Earth and in the universe. During three or four years, which can be marked as the artist´s most significant creative period, he created his stunning pictorial cycles, which aroused the biggest discussion on art in Slovakia in the first half of the twentieth century.

     The artist permanently returned to the subject of a wanderer, a man forced to wander over the world. He depicted him either in a total harmony and unity with the universe (Symphony), or riding a horse (Nirvana). In the pursuit of happiness and truth, he arrives at the destination of his journey, which is the nothingness – nirvana. Here, a dreamlike horseman, perhaps a hidden self-portrait, turns into a symbol of a vain human quest.

     Jaszusch had always been a prolific and creative painter, and after his return, he threw himself into work. He painted a number of new pictures, including the cycle of 20 to 24 paintings (c. 150 x 172 cm each[2]) and the cycle of ten paintings (c. 3 x 3 m each). The works can be referred to as the cycle of freely connected paintings. The most striking is the motif, which is man´s mission and place in the universe. It is represented through different subjects, such as satirical and ironical subjects, scenes with didactical, moral and educational undertones, or visions of natural, historical or social disasters. The themes of his paintings were also determined by a strong moralizing aspect of his art. After the end of the war, the ethical questions became a frequent subject of considerations; the horrors and suffering experienced during the war aroused the feeling of entitlement to morality and justice, which was naturally unrealistic. Jaszusch unmercifully exposed human weaknesses, such as hypocrisy (Hypocrisy), jealousy (Jealousy), curiosity in the negative sense of the word (On the Women´s Market), helplessness (At the Customs House), lust for power, etc. His irony extended to the violation of pictorial conventions, traditional imagery and iconography.

     Jaszusch´s peculiar view of the world, which is typical of his works, was shaped by his deep moral conviction and his moral principles. His attitude, stemming largely from a sarcastic approach to life and scepticism, influenced mainly the works inspired by everyday life. The ambiguous works depicting deformed forms and grotesque scenes resembled the scenes from absurd drama. ‘The role of a writer [and of a painter – author´s note] is not to write heroic tales, but to help people to get to know themselves, their own destiny, and based on this understanding to show them the direction of their actions,’ wrote Jaszusch in 1924. Apart from human weaknesses and vices, Jaszusch also depicted, based on his conviction and experience, his personal version of a historical picture of the mankind, for instance as a metaphor of a mill, or of a gigantic figure chasing after the huge wheel (the wheel of history, the wheel of fortune, the wheel of destiny). An individual is only a small drip of water in the seas of history, and helplessly, without human dignity, submits to the move of masses in the whirl of a large wheel. People unable to control their destiny, deprived of their rights, certainty and self-confidence are forced to put their heads under the wheel, symbolised by the mill-wheel (Yellow Mill I, Yellow Mill). Here, a man appears as a victim deprived of freedom and rights, exposed to the forces of avalanche, mill, roller, which sweep everything away.


Big cycle

The cycle consisting of ten large-format canvases (c. 3 x 3 m each). Today we know five works from the cycle. The cycle begins with subjects like the history of universe (Planet Extinction, Flood), the story of man (Human Life, Source of Life, The Tragedy of Man) and the history of mankind (War, Revolution, Golgotha), and ends with the Judgement Day, followed by a coalescence of universe and man (Wandering of Souls).

     The artist´s life and work had been affected by a social catastrophe. After experiencing the horrors of WWI, Jaszusch´s view of the art changed. Instead of the form of individual expression, the art became his journey to find himself, his own identity. 


1924 art discussion on Jaszusch´s work and exhibition

During artist´s 1924 exhibition in Košice it became apparent that Jaszusch´s works are positively perceived, however, widely misunderstood. The perception of viewers and art critics differed. The press published several articles, which explained the real depth of artist´s works. The debate sharpened and became increasingly schematic. The dialogue full of passions unfolded at different levels: artistic, ideological, and thematic. The participants also focused on the artist’s nationality and the occurrence of morality and erotic in his work. Naturally, the verbal attacks occurred as well.  

     Initially the debate focused mainly on originality: Jaszusch´s adherents emphasised his innovative approach and extraordinary painting technique, while his opponents regarded him as an epigone of German Expressionism, the art movement which they believed to be over-the-hill.

     Jaszusch´s opponents questioned his Slovak nationality (in part rightfully) as well as his painting, which they rejected as an explanatory example of “German art”, characterising his culture as being “strange” to Slovak culture. Koza-Matejov defended him, arguing that being a Slovak is not an advantage as the members of larger nations do not have to fight against so many prejudices. In the intensifying debate he did not hesitate to refer to the opponents of Jaszusch´s work as to the executioners: “The artist appears. [...] But he has a strength and energy to push Slovak painting to the foreground of contemporary art. [...] And right away, a moral execution of a Slovak begins! The articles rain down; one attack after another.´ However, he agreed with the assertion that in terms of the subject, Jaszusch´s works are not Slovak: ´He is the European in the real sense of the word.´

     And last but not least, the opponents reproached Jaszusch for being immoral. Humoristic magazine Jež brough a rudimentary caricature of Jaszusch´s painting On the Canon. Around half the viewers were shocked and left the exhibition without actually understanding the artist´s irony and sarcasm.  

     Jaszusch´s exhibition aroused multifaceted and extensive debate about art and artistic life in Slovakia, which was sometimes comical and petty, other times serious and current, and occasionally even timeless. It dealt with a number of current and taboo themes. Universalism and spirituality of art, its supranational or European character were not commonplace. The topicality of art that asked questions such as appearance of new themes in a new spirit, artist´s role and mission in society, fashion and imitation, or legitimacy of untraditional perception of visual imagery, provoked an unheard-of reaction, which is the evidence of a very bold and creative way of the painter´s artistic thinking.

   The artist lets his inner feelings and instincts run away with him, while he does not hesitate to use the tools such as deformation or exaggeration to reach the desired expression. Though the form is very original and interesting too, the avant-garde nature of his works lies mainly in the subject: revolt and rebellion can be found mainly in keynotes of his paintings as well as in the disruption of traditional iconography and introduction of new, innovative themes rendered in an original manner.  


[1] The term has only been established recently, between 2010 and 2013, as part of the international research project led by Zsófia Kiss-Szemán. The research findings have been published in Lena Lešková and Zsófia Kiss-Szemán (eds.), Košická moderna. Umenie Košíc v dvadsiatych rokoch 20. storočia / Košice modernism. Košice Art in the Nineteen-Twenties, Košice, East Slovakia Gallery, 2013. The book was publihed on the occassion of the title Košice – European Capital of Culture 2013.

[2] Today we know 20 paintings, which might well be the complete number: Woman, On the Canon, Love, Big Composition, Golgotha, Sketch of Love, At the Custom House, On the Marketplace, Music, Big Composition III, Jealousy, Artist´s Confession (My Predecessors), Admiration, Adam and Eve, Big Composition II, Free Composition II (East Slovakian Gallery), Yellow Mill II (Slovak National Gallery), Painter and a Model, Power of the Sun, Curiosity (private collection). 


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