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0066 Marta Filipová, National treasure or a redundant relic: the roles of the vernacular in Czech art

RIHA Journal 0066 | 26 February 2013

National treasure or a redundant relic: the roles of the vernacular in Czech art

Marta Filipová

Editing and peer review managed by:

Iain Boyd Whyte, Visual Arts Research Institute Edinburgh (VARIE)


Christopher Long, Tomáš Winter


The article examines the reception of folk art in the visual culture of Bohemia and Czechoslovakia and focuses on the shift in the meaning of folk art in the period of early twentieth-century modernism. It examines closely the main attitudes and approaches to folk art in examples drawn from painting, sculpture and architecture as well as art theory in the Czech-speaking regions from the end of the nineteenth century until the early 1930s. This politically important period that saw the transformation of the Habsburg monarchy into new independent states, including Czechoslovakia, was also marked by the establishment of modernism in Central Europe. Many Czech artists were turning to more cosmopolitan ideas, while simultaneously they retained some of the ideas and ideals from the nineteenth century national revival. These shifts were reflected in the various roles folk art was given, ranging from its association with a nostalgic return to pre-industrial society, to an ideological tool of national revival, and to a redundant relic of the past. Folk art, therefore, is understood as a complex phenomenon, which disrupts the reading of modernism in Central Europe as a straightforward embrace of cosmopolitan ideas in the visual arts and art theory and that challenges the historical opposition between folk art and high art. Simultaneously, its central role in the formation of Central European modernism is emphasized as crucial to our understanding of Central European art in this period.


If our art should become an organic outpour of national originality, national peculiarity, I do not know of any other departure point for us other than trying to build on what our people has already created and continue in the interrupted development of their art.1

The new art, the revolutionary, proletarian, folk [art] cannot be associated with the exclusivity and self-sufficiency of the existing art. No snobbery. No academicism. Foreign to partiality for artistic esoterism, it will stand in the centre of the drama of realities […] it will be a part of life like cinema or a magazine, it will not be a relic in a museum or a redundant ornament.2


  1. In 1902, the year of his exhibition in Prague, Auguste Rodin was invited by Czech artists to visit Moravian Slovakia, a predominantly rural region in southeast Moravia.3 Accompanied by Alfons Mucha, the female artist and folk art enthusiast Zdenka Braunerová, and a number of other members of the Prague-based Mánes Association of Artists, Rodin went to an exhibition of Moravian and Slovak artists in the town Hodonín and the next day visited a house of the painter Joža Uprka in the village of Hroznová Lhota. (Fig. 1) During his stay, the spectacle of local folk culture and arts was presented to him in a series of staged encounters. The exotic element of the village was reinforced by the almost permanent presence of "comely" girls dancing and boys in costume singing, traditional folk musicians, and decorated horses. 4 (Fig. 2) In the villages on the way to Uprka's house, Rodin was welcomed by cheering crowds of peasants who offered him traditional bread, salt and wine.5 According to the recollections of Uprka's daughter and of Braunerová, the sculptor admired the local culture, including costumes, embroidery, pottery and songs, and his visit – following another tradition – also involved wine tasting and dancing long into the night.6

1 Anonymous, August Rodin visiting Moravian Slovakia in 1902 (Rodin and Alfons Mucha, followed by the artists Miloš Jiránek, Josef Mařatka, and Joža Uprka), reproduction from 1954, photograph. The Fotoarchiv Fund, The Museum of Czech Literature, Prague (photograph provided by The Museum of Czech Literature)

2 Anonymous, Dancers in Hroznová Lhota, 1902, photograph. The Fotoarchiv Fund, The Museum of Czech Literature, Prague (photograph provided by The Museum of Czech Literature)

  1. The excitement of the locals over the visit of a French artist (of whom many of them had probably never heard) accompanied by intellectuals from Prague is understandable. Village life in rural areas of Austro-Hungary at the turn of the century was very much dictated by the seasons and not by attention from the outside. The whole visit was therefore understood as a confirmation of the increasing international importance of regional cultural and art – and indeed, Jan Hudeček, a local geometer, in a speech of welcome addressed to Rodin, emphasized that after years of following the models of French art, French artists were now coming to see the work of their former students.7 Such acknowledgement of folk art and of modern art inspired by folk art was, in the eyes of the Czechs, a significant step in the dialogue between the modern and the traditional in the Czech lands.

  2. Apart from being an interesting (and somewhat amusing) anecdote in Rodin's life, the visit signified the complex and changing role folk art had in relation to modern art at the turn of the twentieth century. For a long time, the development of modernist art and design in Central Europe had been linked to the region's embrace of internationalist and cosmopolitan ideas in politics and the visual arts. Such interpretations commonly dismissed the contribution of folk art and culture to the development of modernism because of the associations between the vernacular and the forces of anti-modernism that were identified by the Central European avant-gardes. The close affiliation of folk art with the recovery of national consciousness and reinvention of the historical roots of nations, nevertheless, played a significant part in the formulation of modernism in Central Europe.

  3. The turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw lively discussions on the role of folk arts and design in modernist artistic practice, and many practitioners and theorists tried to use folk art as a source of renewal of modern art. The peasant art of the villages and the countryside in the Czech-speaking lands of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia was discovered as a source of primitivist innocence and served as an exotic reference to a reality outside the urban milieu of the artist. The notions of "primitive art", and primitivism in art, and their relationship to the modern artistic idiom were explored by a number of contemporary artists in Central Europe.8 As elsewhere, primitivism served to confirm the dominant position of urban modernity and in many cases was found close to the cities – in the folk art and material culture created by those who lived in nearby villages.

  4. In the Czech context discussed in this article, folk art has been assigned many roles and has often been discussed in relation to Czech national identity. These roles and the understanding of the entire phenomenon have also been largely dependent on the linguistic definitions and associations of the basic terminology that links it to concepts of nation and people. The Czech term for folk art, lidové umění, indicates its root in "lid" – the people, but also reflects its attribute of being lidové, which can be translated to English as folk, vernacular and popular. Moreover, in Czech "lid" has often been linked with the concept of nation, národ, which contributed to the close associations between folk art and national art.9 This link was challenged, however, at the beginning of the twentieth century, when many artists and art historians started turning their attention to urban folklore – the art of the people (umění lidu) or proletarian art, which they saw as a specific type of primitive art in towns and cities. Such popular art, the art of amateurs, was favoured by the avant-gardes because, in contrast to traditionally conceived folk art, they saw it as devoid of academicism, nationalism, or historicism. For all of these associations, folk art became a contested, yet unavoidable concept, linked to the construction, advancement or denial of Czech national identity.

  5. This article focuses on the shift in the meaning of folk – people's art and examines closely the main attitudes and approaches to folk art in examples drawn from painting, sculpture and architecture as well as art theory in the Czech-speaking regions from the end of the nineteenth century until the early 1930s. This was an important time, when the Czech nation after 1918 was being politically transformed from several regions of the Habsburg monarchy and consolidated into the independent state of Czechoslovakia. Importantly, too, modernism was establishing itself in Central Europe at the time and artists were turning to more cosmopolitan ideas, while simultaneously retaining ideas and ideals from the nineteenth century national revival in a period of continuing nationalism.10 This transformation was reflected in the various roles folk art was given at the time, ranging from its association with a nostalgic return to pre-industrial society, to an ideological tool of national revival and to a redundant relic of the past. Folk art, therefore, is presented here as a complex phenomenon, which disrupts the reading of modernism in Central Europe as a straightforward embrace of cosmopolitan ideas in the visual arts and art theory and challenges the historical opposition between folk art and high art. Simultaneously, its central role in the formation of Central European modernism is emphasized as crucial to our understanding of Central European art in this period.


"Discovering" folk art

  1. Throughout the nineteenth century, folk culture – including handicraft, decorative objects, music, or tales – had been a popular resource for many national revivalists in Bohemia and coincided with a more general interest in the topic around Europe.11 The attention that was given to folk art in the visual arts also came out of a broader movement in other art forms. Following the example of the Grimm brothers, who saw folk traditions and language as a common identifier of "Germanness" in the fractured Germany of the first half of the nineteenth century, Czech writers and poets started collecting folk tales, poems and stories in the Czech-speaking regions in an effort to revive national consciousness. They based their own prose or poetry on folk resources, which they considered "a pure folk art untainted by urban and upper-class 'Germanisation'", and therefore as a national art.12 Perhaps the two most prominent representatives of this trend were Karel Jaromír Erben (1811-1870), the author of collections of narrative poems, ballads and fairy tales, such as Kytice (The Garland, 1853), and Božena Němcová (1820-1862), the author of the novel Babička (The Grandmother, 1855), which celebrated rural life. Němcová collected fairy tales from villages and remote parts of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia and reworked them into a literary genre that has been popular with the Czechs ever since.

  2. Following the success of literature based on folk culture, a similar tendency emerged in music, in which compositions drawing on motifs from folk music enjoyed considerable popularity. Well known examples included the symphonic poem Má vlast (My Country, 1878) by Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884) and Antonín Dvořák's (1841-1904) Slovanské tance (Slavonic Dances, 1878) or his romantic lyric opera Rusalka (1900). Folk motifs continued to inspire composers well into the twentieth century, including Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) and his opera Jenůfa (1904) or Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) who, for instance, in 1937 composed a ballet Kytice inspired by Erben's text. As the latter commented, "[...] I use Czech folk songs as themes, but more often I create thematic material coloured by the style and spirit of Czech folk idiom."13 Motifs from folk songs and tales were thus selectively reworked for contemporary audiences and used as a source of inspiration.

  3. The search for folk motifs in all art forms and their subsequent adaptation for modern audiences therefore became an important part of the national revival in Bohemia not only in the nineteenth, but also in the twentieth century. The Czech peasant commonly emerged in the writings, songs and images of patriotic artists as a symbol of Czech national identity and as the keeper of ancient traditions, and as such became the focus of nationalistic sentiment in the arts.

  4. Alongside the national interests of the local authors and consumers in the vernacular forms of expression, folk culture became an object of fascination for visitors from abroad (hence Rodin's trip) and provided a wealth of material for foreign scholars, too, who either studied it as an interesting phenomenon in its own right, or used it as a source for the revival of arts and crafts in Europe. One of the first scholars to become interested in Central European vernacular art was the French-Swiss art critic William Ritter (1867-1955) who travelled throughout Central and Eastern Europe, including Romania, Hungary and Poland, and saw in these regions what he regarded as an authentic heritage that had been preserved unaffected by European modernism, of which he disapproved.14

  5. Ritter had also been concerned with art in Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia, and at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century published a number of articles on the topic, in which he expressed his attachment to Slavic folk culture.15 He had visited the Prague Ethnographic Exhibition in 1895, a showcase of Czech, Moravian and Slovak folk culture, and since he believed that an artist's work should be analysed in the context of its ethnic or cultural background, he travelled to Moravian Slovakia several times to study and collect artefacts.16 The same part of Moravia that Rodin visited around the same time represented, in Ritter's view, another example of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the "natural, unspoilt, rural life", where authentic popular art flourished.17 Ritter became particularly fascinated by the work of Joža Uprka, a "painter of colourful village festivities", whom he regarded as continuing this tradition, "a surviving witness of the ancient Slavonic world".18 He saw his work as a form of "barbarism", understood in a positive sense as imbued with moral health, and counterposed the "authentic" artists of villages against those of the "tragic, black" city of Prague.19 For Ritter, therefore, the folklore of the village was an exotic paradise, which had been lost in many urbanized places but retained in the work of a few artists.

  6. Another approach to Central European vernacular culture arose with the attention to arts and crafts that originated in Great Britain. Charles Holme (1848-1923), the English writer and magazine editor founded The Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Arts in 1892 to promote "good design". From 1894 onwards, the journal published issues written by specialists on topics such as crafts, etching, architecture, and photography.20 A series of special volumes were also devoted to peasant art in Europe – Peasant Art in Sweden, Lapland and Iceland (1910) was followed by a volume on Austria and Hungary (1911), Russia (1912) and Italy (1913). "Peasant" in these volumes stood for the "primitive" inhabitant of rural areas who expressed "naive charm in the spontaneous designs and quaintness of thought shown in the work of unschooled daughters of the soil".21

  7. It is important to note, however, that the contributors to the volume on Austria and Hungary, including the Austrian ethnographer Michael Haberlandt and the Anglo-Austrian art historian Amelia Levetus, considered the Austrian peasant, following the official position of Austrian ethnography, as a generic type that represented all races subject to Austrian rule. Although there were regional differences between the three main groups comprising the population of Austria (German speakers, Slavs, and speakers of Romance languages), Levetus, for example, saw "no fine line of demarcation [that] can be drawn to indicate where the peasant art of one nation begins and another ends".22 In fact, both Haberlandt and Levetus argued that despite its varied forms, which could be put down to geographical and cultural differences, folk art had an underlying universal quality that transcended national divisions.

  8. Such a view, of course, was not accepted in the individual regions of Austria and Hungary, where folk art was seen as a distinctive and original form of national expression. Haberlandt and Levetus acknowledged "racial" differences and variations in the method of executing folk art but insisted on using the term "Austrian peasant" to encompass all ethnic groups of Austria. Haberlandt, author of a chapter on Austrian peasant art in the volume, nevertheless recognized the "national character" of peasant artefacts and, in the case of embroidery in Bohemia and Moravia, related it to "national pride".23 Yet both Levetus and Haberlandt approach peasant art as a form of primitivism. For instance the latter claimed that Moravian embroidery had a "naïve charm" but at the same time stood above that of the Carpathian region, which was "much more primitive".24 Primitive expression in this sense equalled with crude execution and unrefined and simple ornament, detail or colour.

  9. In Bohemia, interest in local folk culture and its allegedly primitive character was evident in the work of artists as well as theoretical writings by art critics. Artistic examples date back to the early nineteenth century and were linked to the growing popularity of excursions to the countryside. The work of artists, most prominently the painters Josef Mánes (1820-1871) and Mikoláš Aleš (1853-1913), was usually embedded in sentimental and romantic ideas about the peasant art and culture of Bohemia, Moravia and, to a lesser extent, what is now Slovakia.

3 Josef Mánes, Sketch of October for the astronomical clock, 1865, drawing (from František Kovárna, Mánesův odkaz národu, Prague 1939, plate 24)

  1. Mánes's studies of folk costumes, his illustrations of Czech songs or his decorations of the astronomical clock on the Old Town Hall in Prague in many ways respond to the romantic mood of the Czech national revival, which identified the village with the nation's history and traditions. The clock of 1865, for instance, consists of twelve circular allegorical depictions of seasonal work and life in the countryside and the twelve signs of the zodiac, executed against a golden background. Similarly, the peasants ploughing the fields in the February medallion, or the depiction of them collecting grapes in the October medallion, represented a generic image of villagers at work in clothes that were regionally undistinguishable.25 (Fig. 3) They were depicted in this way to fit the decorative purpose of the clock and such stylization and sentimentality was typical of many of Mánes's other works from mid-nineteenth century onwards. Representative of this approach are the drawing Slovenská rodina (A Slovak Family) or the cycle of illustrations Česká píseň (Czech songs) from 1855, in which he tried to provide an idealized image of life in the countryside. In A Slovak Family (Fig. 4), he depicted a couple seated outside a hut, surrounded by their three children. The family is placed against a landscape backdrop that completes the image of a rural idyll. Similarly, the ink drawings illustrating the Czech Songs also depict contented peasants in various domestic situations or working in the field, with the emphasis on the black outline and ornament serving as a decorative addition to the scores and lyrics of the songs.

4 Josef Mánes, A Slovak Family, no date (from František Kovárna, Mánesův odkaz národu, Prague 1939, plate 117)

  1. Many Czech nationalist art historians of the nineteenth and twentieth century saw the subject matter of both Mánes and Aleš, as the key to their "greatness and Czechness" as painters.26 They identified their ability to capture the true character of the "Czech soul" through depiction of the peasant and the local countryside.27 According to Miroslav Tyrš (1832-84), one of the first Czech art historians, Mánes preferred to depict the inhabitants of the eastern parts of the Czech speaking lands (and this included Slovakia at the time), on account of the fact that they "retained greater purity" than those in the Western regions.28 The allegedly smoother facial features of the Moravians and Slovaks as well as "greater tenderness and softness" of the former, he argued, were suitable for Mánes's idealization and lyrical epical style.29

  2. Although Mánes continued to attract the praise of Czech art historians well into the twentieth century, his work started to be subject to reconsideration at the beginning of the century. Its sentimentality and bourgeois naivety were criticized by Ritter, for instance, who in 1921 compared what he saw as the artist's search for ancient Slavdom in drawing and painting to the musical interpretation of the Scottish Ossian by Mendelssohn and Niels Gade.30 He also pointed to the similarities between his work and that of German Romantics, a comparison not usually favoured by Czech nationalists. Already in 1904, Max Dvořák found similarities between German artists and Mánes, who in his view "interpreted national history and the present, was a poet of fairy tales and myths like [Moritz von] Schwind or [Alfred] Rethel, and illustrator of national songs like [Adrian Ludwig] Richter".31 Dvořák's aim was, however, not to contest Mánes's "Czechness", but rather to demonstrate how his work fitted into a wider European context of the history of art.

5 Dušan Jurkovič, Touristic houses at Pustevny, 1897 (photograph provided by Christopher Long)

  1. In contrast to Mánes, Aleš, the author of many decorative illustrations of national literature and historical murals, did not travel to villages to capture the romantic idyll and based his images of peasants on contemporary photographs, postcards or descriptions.32 Nevertheless, his work, such as the ornamentation and wall decorations in the tourist resort of Pustevny in eastern Moravia (Fig. 5) or his designs of the "Homeland" series for lunettes in the National Theatre, 1877-81, depicting historically important places and myths of Bohemia, were seen as embodying Czech national identity. The wall paintings in the refuge of the Pustevny resort, designed in 1898 by the architect Dušan Jurkovič (1867-1947), who will be mentioned shortly, show figures from Slavic legend, such as the highway robber Jánošík (1688-1713) or the bandit Stavinoha, as well as idealized peasants who are all executed in an illustrative style, which puts emphasis on the decorative quality of the outline. (Fig. 6) The resort, set on a hilly range associated with ancient Slavic legends, became a popular hiking destination at the end of the nineteenth century and both Jurkovič's architecture and Aleš's interior paintings were to provide the visitors with a suitable setting replete with folk and ancient Slavic references.

6 Mikoláš Aleš, The interior mural, 1897, mural, Libušín, Pustevny (photograph provided by the author)

  1. Many of Aleš's other works link him with places that were of historical importance for the Czechs. Apart from his work for the National Theatre in Prague (Fig. 7), he was also the author of sgraffiti on various houses in Prague and other Bohemian towns. His linear approach proved suitable for this purpose while thematically he remained faithful to the depictions of peasants and ancient Slavic myths. In places with a large German minority, such as the Western Bohemian town of Plzeň, they had a special ideological significance for the local Czech community.33 The designs that Aleš executed for fifteen town houses in Plzeň between 1894 and 1898, for example, depicted historical events, allegories and genre subjects that emphasized Slavic connections. For instance, the sgraffito of a local market is full of peasants arriving at the municipal market in traditional costumes, while the allegorical and historical depictions feature real or mythical figures either in an idyllic landscape or on a golden background. All have an accentuated line and are often surrounded by floral, Secession-like ornament in sharp colours.

7 Mikoláš Aleš, St George and the Dragon, undated sketch for murals in the National Theatre, Prague (from Antonín Matějček and Zdeněk Wirth, Modern and Contemporary Czech Art, London 1924, plate 53)

  1. Contemporary art historians believed that it was Aleš's subject matter, together with the references to folk motives in ornament that captured the typical "Czechness" of the soul, character, and nature of the Czech people.34 The art historian Karel Boromejský Mádl (1859-1932), who promoted the work of Czech artists inspired by folklore, noted that Aleš personified the Czech soul and character and also the strengths and faults of the people that distinguish it from other races and tribes.35 References to the Czech soul and the specific character especially of the country folk were not uncommon among Czech art historians and visual artists. In many cases they were inspired by a short but influential text by Johann Gottfried Herder, published in Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas upon Philosophy and the History of Mankind) about the traits of the Slavs, which continued to be fundamental in the national revival.36 Herder saw the Slavs as people with a love for agriculture, domestic arts, commerce and music, who "were charitable, hospitable to excess, lovers of free country ways, yet submissive and obedient, averse to pillage and robbery".37 It was therefore the domestic and agricultural orientation as well as the skills in craftsmanship that were often used to describe the authentic Czech society and culture, found predominantly in the countryside.


Painting the folk

  1. The peasant, understood in this romanticized and nationalized way, continued to be a popular subject in the work of a number of other artists well into the twentieth century. Whereas Aleš and Mánes were primarily based and schooled in Prague and ventured to the regions to look for inspiration (at least in the case of Mánes), the beginning of the twentieth century saw an increase in the number of artists based in the rural areas, in closer proximity to the allegedly unspoilt culture of the peasants. This rise of interest in the local folk culture may partly be ascribed to the impact of the preparatory activities of the Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition of 1895, which took place in Prague, but also to the revival of arts and crafts and traditional skills in fine art.

  2. The revival prompted artists to settle in regional centres or to visit them regularly in order to explore and depict rural culture, and many of them provide a good example of how folk art was promoted and understood at a regional level, but with national, even international, ambitions. In 1907, one group of artists, comprising Joža Uprka (1861-1940), his brother, the sculptor Franta Uprka (1868-1929), the painters František Ondrúšek (1861-1932), Bohumír Jaroněk (1866-1933) and Zdenka Braunerová (who accompanied Rodin on his ventures into the Moravian countryside), the ethnographer Josef Klvaňa as well as the dramatists Vilém and Alois Mrštík (1863-1912, 1861-1925) founded the Association of Moravian Visual Artists in the provincial town of Hodonín in southern Moravia, which Rodin had visited five years earlier. Hodonín was consciously selected as a more Moravian and Slavonic (and therefore more national) alternative to the administrative centre of Moravia, Brno (Brünn), which had a strongly Germanized culture and close ties to Vienna.38 In their proclamation of 1907, the members argued that they wanted "to live from our art, to work with our themes, to avoid all harmful alien influences – retain, preserve and nourish the principle of nationality in art".39 Vilém Mrštík was an especially ardent defender of the idea of the untainted nature and beauty of Moravian peasant art in his dramas, novels, newspaper articles and art criticism.40 His most famous drama, Maryša, 1894, was set in a village, involved detailed descriptions of folk costumes, included folk songs, and made use of local dialects. Mrštík believed Moravian peasant culture capable of reviving the art of the entire Czech nation, and he argued that artists should try to "employ various means to increase the artistic quality and cultivate nationality in art, and art in nationality".41

8 Joža Uprka, The Pilgrimage to St Anthony, 1894, oil on canvas, Moravian Gallery in Brno (image provided by the Moravian Gallery in Brno)

  1. Despite their claims about the need to combat alien influences, the artists associated with the Moravian Group were aware of international contexts. Joža Uprka, whose studio and house were on the itinerary of Rodin's 1902 visit, is perhaps the most prominent example of this effort to combine regionalism and nationalism with international modernism. Born in the village of Kněždub in south east Moravia, he studied at the art academies in Prague and Munich and exhibited his work in solo exhibitions in Vienna (1897) and Prague (1904), at the Venice Biennale (1907), and at the Parisian Salon in 1894, where he was awarded an honourable mention (mention honourable) for his painting Pouť u svatého Antonínka (The Pilgrimage to St. Anthony) of the previous year. The work depicts a field full of young women and girls in festive dresses resting on their way to a pilgrim church. (Fig. 8) The painting is executed in vivid contrasting colours of green, red and white, and its treatment of light and patchy quality of the colours reveal Uprka's debt to Impressionism, which he encountered in Paris. Another painting under the influence of Impressionism, Jízda králů (Ride of the Kings) from 1897 (Fig. 9), is often seen as the peak in his career. It depicts an annual custom, the origins of which remain obscure and with many interpretations as to its meaning. In this event held in villages in eastern Moravia, and most famously in Vlčnov, a boy from the village is selected to ride a decorated horse at the head of a procession of other young men, women and children. It is a prestigious event, giving pride to the whole village and providing the occasion for the participants to dress up in traditional clothes.42 Uprka's interpretation of the custom focuses on a group of young men in regional festive costumes on decorated horses and tries to capture the ceremonial character of this event in a traditional composition using bright colours, dominated by reds, whites and blacks.

9 Joža Uprka, Ride of the Kings, 1897, oil on canvas, Moravian Gallery in Brno (image provided by the Moravian Gallery in Brno)

  1. In his sympathy with the peasants, Uprka differed from many other Czech artists who were based in towns and cities and treated the countryside as a faraway, but intriguing, region. The occasional ventures of painters from Prague, including Miloš Jiránek (1875-1911), Braunerová and František Kupka (1871-1957) seemed to be more the observations of an outsider in comparison with the studies of Uprka, his younger brother Franta, an academically trained sculptor, or other Moravian and Slovak artists from and around Hodonín who saw themselves as preserving and not just documenting or depicting folk life and traditions in their art. Born and settled in a village, Joža Uprka combined an academic approach to his subject with an in-situ experience of rural life and a descriptive attention to detail. Moreover, this descriptiveness, prominent mainly in his late work, brought his paintings of various female headwear and scarfs or peasant fur coats into the service of ethnography.43

  2. The reception of Joža Uprka's work in his time was, nevertheless, mixed. His paintings, with their emphasis on atmosphere, the use of vivid colours especially their strong tonal contrast between reds and whites, and linear treatment of the subject, were well received abroad as a form of exoticism and orientalism. According to Elizabeth Clegg, they were "painted in the knowledge that they would be 'consumed' […] by a refined Viennese public whose pleasure in them was superficial in the extreme".44 Indeed, in contrast to, for example, Courbet's and Millet's works, most of Uprka's paintings provided little social commentary, because the Czech painter depicted an idealized village life devoid of the social or economic hardship. Uprka's figures were often clad in occasional, fancy costumes and were depicted during festive events, such as weddings, processions and church services. As such they were more participants in staged pageants than examples of laborious everyday life in the countryside. Uprka, nevertheless, did occasionally depict peasants at work in the field in paintings and sketches, in which he tried to convey a similar message to French realism, with which he was familiar from his trip to Paris. Although once called "our Czech Millet", he conveyed apolitical pictorial and descriptive observations rather than critical observation.45 Observers soon noticed that where Millet seemed pessimistic, serious and philosophical, Uprka was optimistic, upbeat, and spontaneous.46

  3. Despite, or perhaps because of the lack of a critical approach to the village reality, Uprka, who has often been marketed as a folk painter, became a successful artist aware of contemporary artistic trends who turned them into his own, localized, visual language.47 His search for the rural idyll was a part of a more general tendency to find inspiration in local, allegedly authentic culture in terms of his techniques, material and colour, and this can be traced in the work of a number of other artists or artists' colonies across Europe. Yet, whereas Uprka was born and lived most of his life in the village, artists in colonies at Worpswede in Germany, Collioure in France or Skagen in Denmark, as well as individuals such as Gauguin in Brittany, Kandinsky in Old Russia or the aforementioned Millet in Barbizon sought to escape the city, attracted by local folklore and landscape.48

  4. In their case, but also in that of Uprka, the revival of folk traditions, including their visual forms, was an instance of deliberate myth-making, and folk culture was seen as the carrier of residual knowledge of the past that was also, crucially, necessary for the present and future life of the nation.49 Many revivalists saw traditions as having the potential to mobilize social change or enhance national awareness.50 In the national revival movements in Central Europe of the nineteenth century, national traditions became capable of creating a sense of unity and historic connectedness of a certain group of people by reminding them of their common, ancient past, in this case embedded in the peasantry.


Finding a new language in folk architecture

  1. The work of these Czech painters was often based on their highly romanticized views of village life. A more rigorous, but equally idealized, approach to folk art can be seen in the work of many architects. Architecture, too, was often understood as capable of strengthening the sense of collective (national) identity, and folk culture provided a rich source of inspiration. The Zakopane style is an often-cited example of how architects used vernacular motifs to revive contemporary craft and design, enrich their own practice and recreate a national art.51 In the remote Podhale region in the Tatra mountains of southern Poland, Stanisław Witkiewicz (1851-1915) "discovered" in the 1880s what he called the "genuine style" of the highlanders, which he believed was unspoilt by European influences and historicism. His goal was to promote the architecture and applied arts of the remote town as "a recipe for Polish national art", and to produce designs in this style both in Zakopane and outside.52

  2. Witkiewicz's idealized view of the local visual and material culture was shared in many other parts of Austria Hungary. In the Czech lands, folk architecture and ornament were crucial from around the end of the nineteenth century, for example, in the work of Jan Kotěra (1871-1923) or Dušan Jurkovič, who both developed a distinctive language informed by folk architecture.

  3. Kotěra, a student of Otto Wagner, and influenced by the theories of John Ruskin, found the sources of organic decoration in nature and combined them with a more austere modernist language.53 While most of his public commissions, such as the pavilion for the artistic group Mánes in Prague from 1902, which hosted the Rodin exhibition, were accomplished with a Secessionist approach to the architectonic detail and decoration, his private villas in Prague and elsewhere from the beginning of the twentieth century drew more explicitly on vernacular models not only of villages but also of small, provincial towns. Informed by the writings of his German counterpart, Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927), especially Das englische Haus (The English House, 1903), Kotěra adapted the country cottage to modern, urban purposes.54 In villas such as Trmal in Prague or Mácha in Bechyně (both 1902-1903), he combined the aesthetic principles of the Arts and Crafts movement with motifs from vernacular architecture (both local and English), which he saw as "a refreshing spring" of new architecture not just for him but also for his students.55 (Fig. 10) The result was a new type of house consisting of half-timbered gables, overhanging roofs, large chimneys, sloping corners of the exterior walls and restrained Art Nouveau ornamentation, which, as he held, came second to the function of the building.56

10 Jan Kotěra, Villa Trmal in Prague, 1902-1903, photograph, (image provided by FOIBOS)

  1. The work of the Slovak architect Jurkovič, who studied in Vienna with Camillo Sitte, found inspiration in both the structural and decorative features of folk art.57 Making his first appearance as the designer of a number of buildings and exhibits at the Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition, Jurkovič's subsequent practice and theory drew on his research into the visual language of Moravian and Slovak folk culture. (Although what is now Slovakia was part of Hungary, it was often considered a part of the Czech lands). He authored a number of articles on vernacular architecture and made a collection of photographs from his field trips in which he criticized slavish architectural imitations of historical, "classical" styles, and the lack of independence of contemporary architects in searching for inspiration.58 Instead of using foreign forms which are incomprehensible to local audiences, he called for a return to local folk architecture because it "corresponds with the spirit of the people for whom we are building"; it grows out of the local climate, environment, circumstances and needs.59

  2. Jurkovič used the "typology of vernacular wooden structures" which in many cases tried to relate the function of the buildings (spa pavilions, tourist hotels, etc.) to the allegedly unspoilt quality of rural life and remoteness from urban civilization that he found during his research trips to northern Slovakia.60 His buildings, however, and those of Witkiewicz too, were primarily constructed for urban dwellers. It was the cottages for the Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition, the touristic mountain resort of Pustevny, or the spa buildings and hotels in the town of Luhačovice, as well as villas for the wealthy and reconstructions of castles dominated his work before 1918. (Fig. 11)

11 Dušan Jurkovič, View of Luhačovice, postcard (image provided by the author)

  1. The spa town of Luhačovice in eastern Moravia is a pertinent example of his use of vernacular forms, which was successfully incorporated into commissions for the middle and upper classes. Approached by František Veselý, a doctor from Brno, and financed by a local aristocrat, Otto Serényi, who owned most of the property Jurkovič carried out several reconstructions, designed new spa buildings in the valley and built a number of villas for the local middle classes in the Prague Quarter, just outside of Luhačovice, between 1902 and 1915. Among the most notable interventions were his reconstructions of the hotel Janův dům (Jan's House, which is known today as Jurkovič's House), the cultural centre, Slovenská búda (The Slovak Hut), a restaurant, a bandstand and a number of family houses. (Fig. 12)