Commercial Art in Slovakia after 1918

Ľubomír Longauer, Modernosť tradície/Modernity of Traditions. Úžitková grafika na Slovensku po roku 1918/Graphic Design in Slovakia after 1918
Slovart, Bratislava 2012

Ľubomír Longauer, Vyzliekanie z kroja/Taking Off Traditional Clothes. Úžitková grafika na Slovensku po roku 1918/Graphic Design in Slovakia after 1918
Slovart, Bratislava 2014

The series of publications “Commercial Art in Slovakia after 1918” (Slovart Publishing House) covers the development of this discipline between the end of the First World War (the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic) and the period of ideological “normalisation” in the 1970s. This unique publication, however, arose from the silence that is a typical response to the question of what we mean by the history of Slovak graphic design (now also referred to as commercial art). For Professor Ľubomír Longauer – a teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava (Vysoká škola výtvarných umení, VŠVU) – this was enough to start promoting knowledge in this field. The reason for the silence, which students, as well as many teachers of art schools, have found difficult to break, was quite obvious: there had been no literature devoted to the discipline whatsoever. After 1989, there were very few publications discussing crucial moments in the history of Slovak commercial design. In fact, the author of the most significant of them – for example, the monograph Martin Benka, prvý dizajnér slovenského národného mýtu(Martin Benka, the first designer of the Slovak national myth)– was the very same Ľubomír Longauer. However, other than a lack of a major critical/synthetic study, there was a lack of something fundamental, namely, systematic collections comprising sufficient scientific material to reconstruct the history of Slovak commercial art. It was clear from the word go that, due to the lack of historical continuity, such collections could only cover specific periods of time and areas/places, thereby making them incomplete, let alone the fact that scholars would find preparing them extremely laborious. Therefore, the making of the series was inevitably coupled with the arduous task of collecting, identifying, classifying and even reconstructing the items. Professor Longauer single-handedly collected a large number of posters, illustrations, books and periodicals, bookplates, postage stamps and banknotes (initially, his collection comprised over 6,000 works), which became the starting point for the series, but also for the future collection of the Slovak Centre for Design. Blank pages in the history of Slovak commercial art were often filled on the basis of the artists’ memoirs and correspondence. Everything I have outlined above can be described most simply: a project that would normally involve research teams of dozens of scholars is the work of just one person, who has invested a great deal of time and strenuous effort in it. Two of a planned seven volumes were published. The volume entitled Modernity of Traditionsis devoted to commercial artists who made it big during the first years of Czechoslovakia, such as Martin Benka, Jaroslav Vodrážka, Karol Ondreička, Štefán Bednár and Rudolf Fabry. They pioneered styles that were to define the country’s visual character, which initially had been dominated by national symbols and references to the folk heritage. The conservatism of Slovak commercial art, however, was being subverted by increasingly progressive and avant-garde movements, especially the independent artists grouped around the School of Arts and Crafts (Škola umeleckých remesiel, ŠUR),a reform-minded art institute established in 1928 in Bratislava. The main representatives of this circle (whose members included such important figures in modern Slovak art as Mikuláš Galanda and Ľudovít Fulla) were discussed in the second volume of the series. Taking Off Traditional Clothesdeals with a difficult period in the history of Slovakia, when it began to question its rural identity, chiefly by rejecting the belief that culture is exclusively rooted in folklore. In a period which has not yet been covered, namely the Second World War and the Stalinist 1950s, the artist’s dilemma of whether he/she should collaborate with the regime was expressed in the most powerful manner. The 1960s gave new impulses to Slovak visual culture – the discussion of which will undoubtedly be interesting, because the graphic designer Ľubomír Longauer will appear as both its author and one of the artists it is planned to cover. Judging by the content of the first two volumes, rather than a comprehensive study we can expect something focused on Longauer’s personal preferences. Hence reading the book will again be like having an expert to guide us through a large exhibition. No wonder, because the project was meant to be open and reader-friendly. As demonstrated by the two volumes available in bookshops, the series fulfils its promise, enabling us to discover a fascinating and largely unexplored period of the history of commercial design in Central Europe. The boldness of this undertaking does not, however, lie in its size. Considering the fact that information about the history of Slovak commercial design has been rather dispersed, the series is a pioneering project. Due to the lack of reference material, turning such ideas into reality is like walking through a vast expanse of darkness. Langauer has been bold and confident in his work and, at the same time, somewhat uncertain of whether he can see his ambitious project through. This scepticism does not leave him when he discusses the development of Slovak commercial design – just like when we try to follow the social and political history of Slovakia, we cannot indicate a continuity to enable us to accurately determine influences, schools, tendencies, key references, epigones, and manifestations of rebellion. There seems to be a touch of optimism about the graphic design of the book, however, as the publication information given at the end incorporates the Fedra Sans typeface designed by the Slovak designer Petr Biľak, one of the world’s leading typesetters.

Peter Michalík

Translated from the Polish by Paweł Łopatka