After several decades, Prague will host again a large-scale exhibition of Slovenian Impressionism and other styles that defined Slovenian cultural sphere between 1870 and 1930.
The exhibition Impressionism from Dawn to Dusk: Slovenian Art 1870–1930, staged at Prague Castle, features 474 exhibits which together speak of one of the most crucial periods in Slovenian history, when art in our country was trying to catch up with Europe not just stylistically but also institutionally – established were the first market gallery, the University, and the National Gallery, all in the capital city, Ljubljana.
In 1883, Vojtěch Hynais painted the curtain for the big stage of the Czech National Theatre. In the historical allegory featuring joint efforts in the construction of the Czech national shrine of the Muses he included portraits of his fellow painters and friends who helped him in the project, while in the aesthetic sense he established the Paris-Prague axis. The curtain, which he finished in mere ninety days, also tells the story of friendship between Hynais and the Slovene painter Jurij Šubic (1855–1890). The two were acquaintances from their study years in Vienna, they later collaborated in Paris, and both of them ardently followed the Slavic idea. Collaboration of the two Šubic painters – also Jurij’s elder brother Janez (1850–1889) – with Hynais, Václav Brožík, František Ženíšek, and Mikoláš Aleš was so intense that in several cases it is impossible to differentiate between the idiom of individual participants and it is impossible even today to safely attribute several small-scale oil sketches to this or that artist. The friends exchanged these tiny works among themselves, gave them as gifts, copied them, etc. Regarded as one of the particularly valuable items in the National Gallery of Slovenia’s collection is one of these – Hynais’ oil sketch Study for the painting The Death of Samson which is at present the only known document about the missing canvas by this painter.
In the early decades of the 20thcentury Hynais was academy professor of Slovenian artists who, in the spirit of enhanced national self-confidence, chose Prague for study instead of German or Italian centres. Among these students were Ivan Vavpotič (1877–1943), Rihard Jakopič (1869–1943), and Peter Žmitek (1874–1935). Sculptor Alojz Gangl (1859–1935) settled in Prague for good and a great part of his oeuvre remains in the Czech Republic until today. Before this, at the turn of the century, the private painting school of the Slovenian painter Anton Ažbe (1862–1905) in Munich was attended by Czech painters Emil Pacovský, Antonín Hudeček, Emanuel Zamrazil, and Ludvík Kuba; the latter even made a picture of the interior of Ažbe’s school. In 1910, a group of twenty-three Czech painters exhibited in Ljubljana in the newly built art pavilion. The National Gallery of Slovenia realized its first visiting exhibition abroad in the autumn of 1927 – in Prague; five years earlier the Slovenian capital hosted an exhibition of the Manés Society members and the following year also an exhibition of Czech architecture. Such events carried on the connections that had been established much earlier, for example by means of several medieval manuscripts, Parleresque sculpture, music by Jacobus Gallus (1550–1591) and literature of Romanticism, which can all be regarded as a continuous line, enhanced by the so-called “tabor” movement in the latter half of the 19th century and in visual art by the long span from Realism to the New Objectivity. Systematic efforts for cultural contacts undoubtedly culminated in the work of architect Jože Plečnik (1872–1957). He was professor and project designer in Prague from 1911 to 1921, and until the second half of the 1920s he was considered the spiritual guide of the young generation of Czech architects. Affinity between the Slovenes and the Czechs could be found in literature, theatre, authorial music and musical performance, applied arts, the Sokol movement, Slavic linguistics, and other scientific and scholarly disciplines.
The Czech-Slovenian mutuality sprang from the need for a change of similar political circumstances in the two lands within the frame of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, whereas the contacts and exchange were encouraged by Slovenian graduates of Prague schools. Ivan Zorman (1889–1969), the first head of the National Gallery of Slovenia, studied at the polytechnic; generations of Slovenian Slavic scholars had been students of the Prague university; composer and tenorist Fran Gerbič (1840–1917) graduated from the conservatoire in Prague; Ivan Hribar (1851–1941), the renowned mayor of Ljubljana and one of the initiators of the Neo-Slavic movement, was the first ambassador of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in the capital by the Vltava. The Czechs supported the Slovenes in establishing national institutions, including the university, which celebrates its centenary this year. The central statehood-sustaining buildings in Ljubljana were designed by Czech architects. The palace of the National Gallery of Slovenia, the former National Hall (Narodni dom), was designed and completed in 1896 by the Czech František Edmund Škabrout. Among the architects who were invited to Ljubljana, particularly by Hribar, were Jan Vladimír Hráský, Anton Hruby, Josip Hudetz, and Vojtĕch Dvořák. A little less known remains the fact that the Czech Adolf Liebscher executed the ceiling painting in the Provincial Theatre, the present Opera House, in Ljubljana, and in 1892 he also designed the stage curtain which is only known by an oil sketch kept in the National Gallery in Prague. In memory of those times a number of streets in Ljubljana are named after Czech patriots, artists and scientists.
Cooperation with the Czechs in the spheres of culture in general and art specifically was of utmost importance for the Slovenes and, as far as reliance on the Slavic world is concerned, it goes farther back into the 19th century, to the time of national awakening and the romantic drawing on the autochthonous, the folklore, which mainly holds true of literature. At the time of Biedermeier, landscapist and portraitist Pavel Künl (1817–1971) of Mladá Boleslav settled in Carniola; he occupied an important role in the preservation of Edward von Strahl’s collection, one of the prominent aristocratic art collections in the Slovenian lands.
The art covered by the present exhibition extends from realistic portrait and genre, through modernism, which corresponds to Slovenian Impressionism, and Art Nouveau, to the socially critical New Objectivity. The stated years mark off the era of Slavic mutuality and the most intense contacts between the Czechs and the Slovenes, in which visual art had a major role. The intermediate time meant much more for the Slovenes than just a period of expansion of visual art because, on the basis of rapid technological and economic development, circumstances were ultimately formed for cultural identification of the Slovenes as an independent ethnic community. Between the beginning of the timeline with the Šubic brothers, Janez and Jurij, and their tie to the Czech “National Theatre generation”, and its other end with the contemporaries Ivan Vavpotič, Stane Kregar (1905–1973), France Kralj (1895–1960) and Tone Kralj (1900–1975), who defined the third decade, artistic careers intertwined which cannot be discussed without taking account of the two-way exchange between the Czech and the Slovenian art scene.
Soon after 1870 Jurij Šubic met Hynais in Vienna for the first time; in 1930 the declaration was issued on the cultural-educational cooperation between the Czechs and the Slovenes. Between these two years the events were focused on Ljubljana and its surroundings. Changes in terms of form and content brought modern art to the forefront in all fields of creativity. In the sphere of visual art, modernity meant an alternative to the rigid academic practice from which modernists all over Europe turned away in a number of secessionist movements. Soon after 1900 a group of Slovenian impressionists under the lead of Rihard Jakopič set up a programme for achieving Slovenian artistic idiom which was identified as the characteristic Slovenian landscape, while in terms of painting technique they leaned on the Impressionist style. They also reorganized artistic life in Ljubljana. The local milieu, however, did not warmly welcome the first appearances of our impressionists; on the other hand, they were fervently supported by the members of Slovenian literary Moderna, with the dramatist and prose-writer Ivan Cankar and the poet Oton Župančič at the head. After the successful 1904 exhibition in the Miethke Salon inVienna their reputation grew also in their homeland. The notion of Slovenian Impressionism got anchored so firmly that it became a synonym for Slovenian art and for artistic quality, hence in spite of its often insufficiently adequate stylistic characterization the syntagm continues to be used as a technical notion. It contains a wider palette of terms and an unusual range of visual expressions which co-existed: pleinairism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Divisionism, symbolism, Intimism, Art Nouveau, early colour expressionism.
Several Slovenian artists, slightly younger than our impressionists, linked up in a group named Vesna (Spring). They were particularly successful in the fields of illustration, book design, and caricature. Outstanding among them is Hinko Smrekar (1883–1942) with his socially critical note and stylistic perfection.
The overview ends with the generation of expressionists who consolidated in the years after the Great War and outlined a new direction of development. This period was marked by the tragic war experiences, the rise of fascism and the threat of a new clash as well as increasing national friction on the Slovenian western and northern border.
In the six decades that are covered by the present exhibition and its catalogue the response area of Slovenian visual culture was created, and the painters – the Slovenian impressionists, their fellow artists, forerunners and followers – ensured greater visibility of Slovenian art. The exhibition features visual art, but it also tells about the real environment, the spiritual, political and social situation of the society in the period between 1870 and 1930, about the nation’s identity, cultural charge and artists of the time when a certain period was coming to an end and a new world was arising. The national cultural identity of an individual is not a constant but it varies through history. Today, it is shaped by globalization processes, information flow, reduced distances. The cultural identity of Slovenes is undoubtedly based on the period presented at the current exhibition: on the painters Ivan Grohar (1867–1911), Jakopič, Matej Sternen (1870–1949), Matija Jama (1872–1947), Maksim Gaspari (1883–1980), Smrekar; on architects Ivan Vurnik (1884–1971) and Plečnik; on writers France Prešeren, Cankar, Župančič – with them we even nowadays, within the European community, justify our otherness and our connectedness with the fellow citizens of the Union. However, part of the cultural identity of a present-day inhabitant of Slovenia is also occupied by their contemporaries Monet, Sisley, Hynais, Zuloaga, Brožik, Klimt, Baudelaire, Zolà, and numerous other artists. We sincerely believe that the universal language of art can be the strongest bond between the nations and the best way to know and understand each other. For this reason, dear visitors to the exhibition and readers of the catalogue, we are presenting you in the city, which is – and was – one of the world’s capitals, the best selection of our heritage and we kindly invite you to accept it as part of your world and your cultural identity, too.