Vincent Hložník: Between War and Dream

 Vincent Hložník: Between War and Dream

On view from March 29–July 26, 2015
Text by Emily O’Leary, Associate Curator

Vincent Hložník was born in 1919 in the small Slovak town of Svederník and studied drawing in secondary school. He went on to attend the School of Applied Arts in Prague in 1937. Just two years later, on March 15, 1939, German troops occupied the city. Hložník remained in Prague, and was profoundly affected by the daily atrocities that were occurring around him, including deportations, beatings and executions perpetrated by the Nazi authorities (Petránsky 116). In his works of the period, along with overt depictions of the effects of war, such as isolated figures and scenes of refugees, he drew and painted horses, circus people, clowns and musicians. Such motifs suggest, ironically, an anxious presence, set within a grim, anonymous world. Many of these same subjects continued to appear in later works. For example, in the color linocuts on view in the present exhibition, which represent a turning point in Hložník’s career, these figurative motifs—always related to exploration of the human condition—begin to take on more symbolic and metaphorical meaning (Horváthová 13). One of his most explicit references to the Nazi atrocities is in a postwar etching, entitled Incarcerated (Concentration Camp) of 1946 (Petránsky 77).

For Surrealists and other artists of the period, realistic styles were inadequate to express the devastation and humanitarian crises brought on by war. The Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was perhaps the era’s most influential work to address this theme. An abstract work in stark black and white, it was painted in response to the German bombing of the Basque town of Guernica and became a widely recognized antiwar and antifascist icon after it was exhibited at the Paris International Exposition in 1937. The painting’s influence is visible in linocuts and other works by Hložník that convey this same message of protest.

Around 1940, Hložník met Ján Mudroch (1909-1968), who was a prominent figure in “Generation 1909,” a group of modernist Slovak artists all born around that year. “Generation World War II,” of which Hložník was a part, is considered to be a direct continuation of the modernist approaches to art and humanistic social themes that were of concern to “Generation 1909.” At Mudroch’s studio in Bratislava, Hložník was introduced to a group of young artists with whom he discussed Surrealism. Hložník credited this encounter as being a pivotal moment when Surrealism opened a completely new set of artistic possibilities that allowed him to explore the realm of the purely imaginative (Petránsky 138–139).

Following his graduation from the School of Applied Arts in 1942, Hložník went on to work in the medium for which he is best known: the graphic arts. Although his initial focus was on painting, beginning in 1945, he began experimenting with woodblock printing, most likely turning his attention in this direction as the medium moved to the fore of modern Slovak art. This was the result of the achievements of a few key artists working in the late 1930s, who had begun to approach graphic art from a new, modernist perspective, including placing an emphasis on the reduction of form to its essential geometry and exploiting the potential of the medium’s inherent expressive power. Their explorations resulted in the creation of modern art that maintained a link with earlier styles and traditions, such as Slovak woodcuts and German Expressionism (Petránsky 130). Hložník worked in almost every printmaking technique in existence, including woodcut, engraving, linocut, etching, drypoint, aquatint, lithography, monotype, autography and algraphy (Horváthová 14). In addition to being a fine artist, he also was lauded as a book illustrator, and from the early 1940s collaborated with avant-garde typographer Dušan Šulc (1912-1996), a creative relationship that lasted for more than 40 years (Peterajová 5).

In linocut printmaking, the artist creates a relief template by carving an image into a sheet of linoleum that is then inked and pressed against a piece of paper, either by hand or press. Linoleum and other materials used to create plates, such as wood, can be used multiple times and are usually limited to a particular number. For ex­ample, the prints on view are all from an edition of 20. Before 1962, the majority of Hložník’s graphics were in black and white until he became interested in painting again. The linocuts demonstrate this renewed interest with their unique incorporation of red, green, yellow and blue geometric planes of color. During this period he utilized the same semi-figurative imagery—horses, human limbs, contorted figures—that appear in his vividly colored and often large-scale oil and tempera paintings.

The animals in Hložník’s prints and paintings are often contorted into semi-abstract shapes or shown mounted by ominous riders. In the color linocuts, among other works, horses reference Cervantes’s 17th-century novel Don Quixote and its protagonist’s farcical quest to right the world’s wrongs according to an out­moded code of chivalry. In a dystopic universe, detached human limbs, tangled corpses, monstrous figures assembled from eyes and teeth, the Angel of Death, threatening flanks of silhouetted and stylized archaic warriors holding spears and shields rendered as tiny distant figures signal unspecified danger. Angles and voids activate the space and create an instability marking the very real threat of annihilation, whether from war or nuclear arms. Three other series of prints also dating from 1962 incorporate similar motifs, entitled Dreams, The Lost Generals and Majesty of the Void. The latter two address emptiness and such existential questions as humanity’s place in the universe, and were exhibited in Bratislava at what was then the Municipal Gallery of Bratislava (now Bratislava City Gallery). Other major cycles of prints created from the late 1950s to the mid-60s address displacement, loss, destruction and death using the same symbolism.

One of Hložník’s most notable accomplishments was establishing the highly influential Department of Graphic Art and Illustration at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava after he joined the faculty in 1952. From this department emerged what is referred to as The Hložník School—a generation of Slovak graphic artists who approached art with a “deeply humanist experiencing of the world, on the border of reality and dream, of drama and poetry,” as described by L’udovít Petránsky, author of a monograph on Hložník. They often exhibited together as a group under the same name (Petránsky 383). Some of the most important figures in Slovak art in the latter half of the 20th century emerged from this school.

After 1948 when the country fell under Communist authority as a satellite state of the Soviet Union, modernist styles in all the arts were officially banned. All art had to adhere to the tenets of Socialist Realism, a figurative style that glorified Soviet ideals. Also described as “official art,” it was the only style allowed in Eastern Bloc countries. However, some modernist artists, including Hložník, for most of his career, managed to innovate and find success even within the confines of official art, surviving the tug-of-war over cultural policies between hardline Stalinists and reform-minded liberals.

In 1962—the same year the prints on view were created—Hložník was serving as chancellor at the Academy and exhibiting at major venues both domestically and abroad. Although his work drew from modernist styles that were banned or shunned in Czechoslovakia at the time, his subjects were well received and he was a highly-respected artist and teacher. However, in 1972, during the process of “normalization” when new, hardline policies were implemented, Hložník was forced to give up his position. Many other intellectuals suffered similar fates, including art historian and critic Radislav Matuštík (1929-2006), who wrote frequently about Hložník, including the introduction to the catalogue for the artist’s one-person show at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1965.

Hložník subsequently turned more of his attention to painting after 1972. His work has been widely exhibited and collected throughout the Slovak Republic and in other countries. An essential figure in modern Slovak art as both a teacher and artist, Hložník had an immeasurable influence on its direction, particularly in the graphic arts. His ongoing commitment to social justice is evidenced by his participation as one of 24 signatories representing important Slovak cultural figures who endorsed the “Declaration on the Deportation of the Jews,” a proclamation published in 1987, which denounced antisemitic measures against Slovak Jews during World War II. Hložník died in Bratislava in 1997.

The Hebrew Home acquired the linocuts in this exhibition following their inclusion in the 1965 London exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery. Founded in 1960 by eminent art collector Eric Estorick (1913-1993) and his wife, Salome (1920-1989), the gallery was a premier venue for Eastern European artists to exhibit in the West. Estorick was born in New York City in 1913, his family having emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1905 to escape anti-Semitism. He became a political writer and lecturer in sociology at New York University before settling in London. Jacob Reingold (1915-1999), the Hebrew Home’s executive director for almost four decades, met Estorick through a family connection. In the mid-1970s, with the assistance of donors and Estorick’s support, Reingold, an art lover who established the Home’s renowned art program, was able to acquire many works by artists who were mostly unknown in the West. These works have been “rediscovered” in the Hebrew Home’s collection in recent years.

Further reading:

 Brier, Pavel. Vincent Hložník (v mojich fotografiách a spomienkach). Bratislava: Petrus, 2005.

Habšudová, Zuzana. “Intersections of Three Artists.” The Slovak Spectator, 03 Apr. 2006. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.

Horváthová, Mária. Introduction. Continuum Ars Et Vita: Vincent Hložník, Ľubo Zelina, Zuzana Hložník. Exh. cat. Bratislava: FO ART, s.r.o., 2007.

Jaloviarová, Renáta. “Predstavili Nepublikované Kresby a Grafiky Vincenta Hložníka.” Pravda, 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.

Matuštík, Radislav. Introduction. Vincent Hložník. Stratení generáli. Majestát ničoty. Protivojnové cykly 1961–62. Exh. cat. Bratislava: Mestská Galéria, 1962.

Matuštík, Radislav. Introduction. Vincent Hložník: Paintings and Graphics. Exh. cat. London: Grosvenor Gallery, 1965.

Peterajová, Ľudmila. Introduction. Vincent Hložník, Dušan Šulc: Zakladatel̓ské Osobnosti Slovenského Knižného Umenia: Výber z Knižnej Tvorby 1942–1992. Exh. cat. Martin, Slovak Republic: Turčianska Galéria, 1993.

Peterajová, Ľudmila and Viliam Turčány. Rozhovor s veršami Viliama Turčányho. Bratislava: Tatran, 1984.

Petránsky, Ľudovít. Vincent Hložník. Bratislava: Tatran, 1997.

Prokeš, Jakub. “V Žiline Vystavia Kresby a Grafiky Vincenta Hložníka. ” Pravda, 26 Oct. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.

Prokeš, Jakub. “Maliar Hložník.” Pravda, 06 Nov. 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.

Saučin, Ladislav. Introduction. Vincent Hložník: Grafika. Prague: Galerie Václava Špály, 1979.

Svašek, Maruška. “The Czech Art World in the 1950s and 1960s.” Contemporary European History 6.3 (1997): 383-403. Print.

This brochure has been produced in conjunction with the exhibition Vincent Hložník: Between War and Dream on view in the Derfner Judaica Museum from March 29–July 26, 2015.

All works in the exhibition are from The Art Collection at Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, Hebrew Home at Riverdale is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provide educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families, and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere. The Home is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 11,000 elderly persons in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

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Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
Tel. 718.581.1596

This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.