These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Modern art masters making an impression in Slovakia

By Howard Swains

    The Danubiana Art museum, including its outdoor sculpture garden, stands on an island in the Danube.
 The Danubiana Art museum, including its outdoor sculpture garden, stands on an island in the Danube.
 Photo by Jana Liptáková

Of the countless tourist attractions in Slovakia, a disproportionate amount of attention is generated by what, on the surface, is one of the most incongruous. The Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce is a wonderful anomaly: the notion that the very king of capitalist iconography is celebrated deep behind the former iron curtain is irresistible to commentators across the globe.

But spend any amount of time observing the art scene in Slovakia and gradually some of the apparent unlikelihood of this union recedes. This is a country with a long and varied artistic heritage, and one that emerged from the restrictive political era of the mid-20th century boasting a clutch of impassioned artists with a bundle of ideas, if not always unrealised, then widely unseen.

Slovakia entered the modern era with a rare appetite for art, as well as the eager talent to sate it. The painters and sculptors forced underground by mistrustful communists embraced the new opportunity for exhibition, often of works that shared much with the recent conceptual art movements of the west and was created in defiance of the regime's taste for bland socialist realism.

Furthermore, a younger generation of artists coming of age after 1989 discovered a blank canvass, so to speak, for their youthful artistic innovations, now freely influenced by global tastes of the previous 50 years. Computer-assisted graphic design was relatively fresh in all countries, and Slovak artists enjoyed similar opportunities as their peers worldwide in the marketing and advertising fields.

These days, Slovakia continues to find its feet in the global market of contemporary art. There are galleries in many of the provincial cities – Žilina, Banská Bystrica, and Medzilaborce, of course – which display both permanent and temporary exhibitions of living Slovak artists, abstract or otherwise in taste. Meanwhile, there are well-respected art colleges in both Košice and Bratislava, and the output of 20th and 21st century artists regularly draws some of the largest crowds to both the city and national galleries in the capital, where it hangs alongside the work of more traditional masters.

In September 2000, a Sk500 million ($20 million) investment resulted in the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum, a purpose-built showcase for the work of contemporary artists that provides a stopping point in Slovakia for the finest modern art exhibitions travelling across Europe. More than 20,000 people visit the gallery each year, despite its out-of-town location on a island in the middle of the Danube, a number that has been increasing approximately 15 percent year on year since its opening.

"We knew it would be popular," said Vincent Polakovič, the co-founder and director of Danubiana, even as he lamented the lack of commercial sponsorship. "We knew that the people would come here."

In November 2007, I met the young Slovak painter Robert Hromec in the cafe of Danubiana for the kind of conversation that might easily have occurred between artist and reporter in London's Tate Modern or MoMA in New York, but which might seem unlikely in Slovakia. The setting – an airy, modern gallery, with two large, whitewashed exhibition spaces, and a sculpture garden outside – hardly suggested a country lagging behind in its facilities or appreciation for modern art. And while Hromec is able to note differences between working in his home country and periods spent abroad, he believes that sufficient opportunities exist in the modern Slovakia for an artist to prosper.

"Surprisingly, here in Bratislava there are probably 50 artists who can live very comfortably from selling art," he said.

    Michal Kern: Double Mirroring (Dvojité zrkadlenie).
 Michal Kern: Double Mirroring (Dvojité zrkadlenie).
 Courtesy of GMB

The conversation touched briefly on the subject of politics, and Hromec also revealed that he has to leave Slovakia in order to visit the best art supply shop in the area, which is over the border in Austria. However, Hromec does not feel any imperative to create work specifically commenting on the upheavals in his country, and his main preoccupations concern the business side of the profession, similar to any successful artist in the western markets.

We discussed the interests of gallery owners and collectors, the relative sales price of his art and how younger artists "are much more eager for the money. They want to be millionaires now. They are much more commercially oriented." It is impossible to think that such subjects would have concerned a Slovak artist 20 years ago.

"The artist is being forced into being a businessman," Hromec said. "What is the artistic ideal? To paint for yourself, or to paint for someone who finds something in your art? Painting is your job. You have to sell your art because you need to buy paints, you need to feed your family. This is a business."

And Hromec does sell his art, profiting from a talent that was by no means inhibited by the country of his birth. Born in 1970, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava from 1989-1990, precisely as the Velvet Revolution was clearing a path for him to continue his artistic education overseas. In various spells throughout the 1990s, Hromec studied at the Pratt Institute, City College and Hunter College in New York, as well as the Slade School of Art in London, earning numerous prizes and financial grants along the way.

Hromec describes his art as "a mixture of printmaking, engraving, painting and drawing" and says it is influenced by some prehistoric and medieval art from the central European tradition. He also used as inspiration some artefacts on display in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as well as travels elsewhere. But he remains a keen cheerleader for the intricate handicrafts of previous generations of visual artists in Slovakia, especially in comparison with recent trends.

"Slovakia has a very strong print-making tradition that is being destroyed by conceptual art," he said. "It is easier to put two books on the floor than to do engraving. This print-making tradition should not be thrown away."

Political influence on the work of Hromec and his immediate peers might be minimal – there are no longer any restrictions on what he can depict, where it might be exhibited, nor to whom it is sold – but such luxury was not afforded the generation of artists working under the communist regime in the then-Czechoslovakia. After a relatively lenient period at the end of the 1960s, when Slovak artists were often permitted to travel for their work, the regime enforced close control over artistic expression during the 1970s and 80s and artists could expect heavy censorship or the outright prohibition of legitimate exhibition.

    Passage by Matej Kern was permanently installed in the Pálffy Palace.
 Passage by Matej Kern was permanently installed in the Pálffy Palace.
 Howard Swains

The American art historian Lee Karpiscak interviewed 17 Slovak artists working through these years for a book entitled "Dreams Intersect Reality: Slovak Visual Artists in Their Own Words", published in 2007. Karpiscak heard countless tales of the persecution of artists by the secret service: there were manhunts for the supposedly subversive thinkers rebelling against the accepted social realist artistic doctrines, and art teachers could expect to be interrogated about their methods and influences. Some work was destroyed – dynamite was used to blow up sculptures, for example – while exhibitions were driven underground and into unlikely locations away from prying eyes.

But, according to Karpiscak's book: "Despite numerous obstacles, they [the artists] never waived ethics or their passion for art in search of another vocation that would give them a better life. All held in common their artistic commitments and self-imposed solidarity despite the regime."

In a recent e-mail, she continued: "I like the term to 'fly under the radar' because this is how they survived as artists. [They] were able to produce paintings, sculpture, etc. in their studios or in friends' studios outside the cities and exhibit them in underground (secret) exhibitions... They were given, or somehow had access, to art publications through which they knew about the art trends on the other side of the walls that defined their borders."

The Galéria mesta Bratislavy's (City Gallery) "Out of the City" exhibition of late 2007 documented the ways in which artists continued to express themselves despite the restrictions, in particular the conscious shifting of locale. The exhibition celebrated the "land art" movement of the 1970s and 80s, in which traditional canvasses and city-based studios were replaced by natural, countryside landscapes.

"Nature was a secret place where they could display art," explained Daniela Čarná, the curator of "Out of the City".

    Dezider Tóth: Trace (Stopa). Artists utilised natural resources.
 Dezider Tóth: Trace (Stopa). Artists utilised natural resources.
 Courtesy of GMB

Artists began to substitute earth, snow, grass, sand, rocks or even spiders' webs for paints, and produced works that were necessarily ephemeral. There were also "gatherings" or artistic "events", which took the place of any more traditional, and more permanent, output. Photographs or personal recollections are often all that now remain.

"One of the biggest difficulties for us was how to present this art," said Čarná. "At the time, the artists didn't know they would be exhibited, so their photos were small or poor quality. That's if we have anything at all."

Photographic evidence that has endured presents a varied series of artistic happenings reflecting universal conceptual themes alongside era- and country-specific political commentary. Artists "alluded to environmental hazards, depleted resources and the general destruction of nature and its inhabitants," wrote Karpiscak.

Some work, such as that of the public action trio Artprospekt POP, involved the artist's body – hanging from trees, playing musical instruments naked in the snow, for example – which, according to the exhibition catalogue, showed the artists testing "the boundaries of physical and mental capabilities in confrontation with natural elements".

Other artists were also moved to collective action. Alex Mlynárcik, Miloš Urbásek and Robert Cyprich, for example, arranged a "Festival of Snow" at the 1970 World Skiing Championships held in the High Tatras. Among other stunts, the artists challenged one another to interpret a popular work of art in the snow, prompting Urbásek to lay out a reproduction of Da Vinci's "Last Supper" for a table of snowmen, introducing art to a wide and unwitting audience of sports fans, before it melted away.

In 1980, the installation artist Peter Meluzin made an overtly political statement in his "Attempt for Working Analysis of One's Own Shadow", which parodied the instruction manuals handed out by the communists for supposedly voluntary extra-curricular work. Alongside immaculate mathematical calculations, Meluzin is photographed digging an ever-deeper trench defined by the boundaries of his shadow on the earth as it shifted during the day. "The action can be considered a depersonalised, ironic working event," explains Daniela Čarná in the book published in support of the exhibition. "Meluzin perceives shadow not as an archetypal symbol, but as an impersonalised object of rearranged absurd activity, referring to often meaningless activities and 'voluntary' works organised by the former regime."

The land art movement ended with the fall of communism – "This is a historical exhibition," said Ćarná of "Out of the City" – but many of the artists had honed talents that could earn recognition on the international art scene, provided they could adjust to working in a free market after several decades of restriction.

"The break between the regime of 41 years and the new democracy was not a clean one," Karpiscak wrote. "Instead, the situation continued in a state of flux for years before privatisation and a market economy could even begin to be more fully established."

    Alex Mlynárčik, Milos Urbásek and Robert Cyprich hosted a Festival of Snow.
 Alex Mlynárčik, Milos Urbásek and Robert Cyprich hosted a Festival of Snow.
 Courtesy of GMB

In some ways, the prohibition had been beneficial to the cultivation of art as it had given artists something to rebel against and a set of rules that was valuable if only as something to stretch. The uneasy freedom of the immediate post-revolution years was, on the other hand, not ideal. In theory, the opportunity now existed for travel and exhibition, but there was little funding and few artists, if any, had personal wealth.

Meanwhile a a fleeting flurry of interest from the west soon disappeared. "Immediately following the Velvet Revolution, the work of contemporary Slovak artists was 'discovered' and exhibited in galleries and museums in Europe and the United States, along with that of other former Eastern bloc countries," Karpiscak said. "By the turn of the century, these 'discoveries' has subsided."

Nevertheless, Karpiscak arranged for the work of some Slovak artists to be displayed in the Arizona Museum of Art in Tuscon, where she was curator and assistant director. Karpiscak said that she was able to find work from Slovak artists that "befitted the quality of the works in the museum's exceptional permanent collection" – a collection that includes work by Pollock, Rothko and Rembrandt, among others.

Now, 19 years after the Velvet Revolution and with the likes of Danubiana well established, it will be the quality of the work alone that will ultimately determine Slovakia's acceptance into the international art market. Contemporary – that is, 21st century – Slovak artists, such as Hromec, are now required to compete as equals on the global art scene, rather than recently-discovered novelty acts.

"The commentaries on Slovak art that have appeared in journals, museum catalogues and reviews have been favourable overall," Karpiscak said. "However, the visibility of Slovak art on the world stage, most especially in the States, remains extremely limited."

While much artistic talent is sucked towards the lucrative commercial, marketing and advertising fields, as is the case in many countries, there are clear efforts in Slovakia to cultivate emerging artists and seek out the country's next big hitters.

    The Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce now has 160 original pieces.
 The Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce now has 160 original pieces.
 Photo by Jana Liptáková

At Medzilaborce, a first-floor gallery in the Andy Warhol museum is given over to work from the students of the Faculty of Arts at the Technical University of Košice, offering the young artists the chance to share the walls with one of the godfathers of modern art, for example. Meanwhile, artistic symposiums are cropping up across the country, offering a cultured environment designed specifically for artists to visit, discuss and create.

"It seems more young artists are destined to live, study and work beyond the borders of Slovakia," said Karpiscak. "Since they now have this option that the former generation did not, they are enthusiastically embracing it."

But, Karpiscak continues, the outlook for innovation within Slovakia is bright:

"From the work I have seen of these younger artists, creativity is alive and well," she said.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2008, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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