Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Bratislava : Danubiana

Danubiana Museum from the Sculpture Garden
It's been a sultry couple of days in the capital of Slovakia. A mere two hours from Brno, Bratislava is a very intriguing place. On the whole, I have found it to be a little like a cross between Tallinn and Warsaw; it has the brash commercialism and sense of constant, urgent change of the former, and the high-rise architecture and very small old town of the latter.

Town Hall, Hlavni Namesti, Bratislava. This square and a few old town streets around it are all that remain of Habsburg Pressburg

This city has been squabbled over for centuries, between Austrians, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs and Russians. It was Pressburg in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire; the Hungarians called it Pozsony; it became the second city in the former Czechoslovakia, devoutly Roman Catholic in contrast to the sturdy indifference many Czechs feel for organised religion. Painfully, it briefly became the main city of "independent" Slovakia in late 1938, a German vassal state from then until May 1945; its architecture was altered completely as the Red Air Force bombed the place relentlessly, then their army counterparts smashed their way in in the last days of the war. With that, Slovakia once again became part of the Czechoslovak state, and remained so until the "Velvet Divorce" saw it re-emerge as a legitimately independent country in 1993.

Communist-era statue commemorating nineteenth century Slovak hero and codifier of modern Slovak, Ludovit Stur

If this frantic contracting and releasing of the historical slinky spring isn't enough, it could be argued that the changes that the city has undergone since that point have exceeded any in the previous ninety years. Since the renowned Slovak dissident Alexander Dubcek emerged from twenty years of internal exile, to give his first speech in Bratislava, this place has transformed itself from being a rather drab provincial city into today's "Little Big City".

New shopping centres have sprouted as quickly as athlete's foot in an old trainer. Conspicuous extremes of wealth and poverty are visible; from old men raking the bins for anything sellable, to footballer's wives sweeping past in gleaming new BMWs, chihuahua precariously perched on the lap. Big business has taken over; Bratislava is now an engineering city, old smokestack factories left to fall down whilst the likes of VW, and Kia, further north in Zilna, have established hugely profitable new facilities. Wealthier Slovaks now find land cheaper on the Austrian side of the border than in their own capital; opera buffs go to the opera in Vienna on the Danube boat, just as would have happened a hundred and twenty years ago.

Everyone seems in a hurry, much more so than next door in the Czech Republic; Bratislava is ranked in the fifty most expensive cities in the world, and it seems like the locals have to work very hard in an attempt to keep up with the frantic pace of economic change in their city. For all the pressure they seem to be under, the average Slovak in the street is very friendly and helpful, although noticeably less English is spoken here, even by younger people. It seems almost comical, now,  that there are still streets named after Soviet republics (Armenia, Kazhakstan, Uzbekistan); bar these lingering remnants of nomenclature, and the architecture, it's now hard to envisage how this place could have been so very different, very recently.

Sculpture Park, Danubiana
Today I took a little drive, 20kms south of Bratislava, to visit the Danubiana art gallery. This is a space set up and financed by the Dutch electronics magnate and cultural entrepreneur, GW Meulensteen. One of Meulensteen's interests is in Slovak art and culture, and this space has been established by him on a little spur in the Danube, to show an ambitious range of Slovak and Eastern European contemporary artists. The gallery, an ovoid sliver, nestles amidst trees and a very well put together sculpture park featuring work by Slovak, Czech, Dutch and American artists. Works from both the Communist era, and after, are visible, the show ending in the gaudy focal point of a giant coloured toucan (a corner of which can be seen in the first photo in this entry).

Rudolf Sikora, Czechoslovakia 1969, 1969
Inside, there were two monographic shows. On the ground floor, there was a very impressive retrospective of Rudolf Sikora's work. Sikora has been at work since the late 60s, since finishing at art school in Bratislava, and is an artist of extensive interests; from trying to navigate a way through the then dangerous territory of Utopian modernism, and in particular Kazimir Malevich, to reflections of the fate of Slovakia during the "normalisation" period of c. 1968-89. Sikora also seems very interested in the relationship between art and science, and how the two can combine in exploring and imagining the outer galaxies. These days, Sikora is still teaching (in Kosice) and maintains the same critical distance from present-day neo-liberal politics in Slovakia, as he did as a dissident during the Communist period. In many ways, his work reminded me of the long and varied career of the Estonian printmaker and text artist, Raul Meel; both men are of a similar age, had similar difficult experiences under the Communist system, and both use idioms from cartography, modernism and science in developing their imagery.

Rudolf Sikora, From the cycle Grave for Malevich (Forward!), 2005-6
I had the briefest look upstairs at the work of Milos Sobaic. This was a show of recent work, featuring thickly wrought, heavily worked paintings; the paint stood off the canvas like a Leon Kossoff, whislt bedsheets and fabric were included in many of his canvases, calling to mind Robert Rauschenberg's Bed series of the late 1950s. Sobaic trained in Belgrade, but left the then Yugoslavia permanently in 1972, becoming a naturalised Parisian. His paintings were interesting, but I didn't manage to respond to them in the same way as I had to the work of Sikora.

Annoyingly, I missed out on what looked like two interesting shows at the Slovak National Gallery; one show in particular, a mixture of paintings, photographs and posters from 1918-49, looks fantastic. there is also a show of Polish painting c. 1900 on. Sadly, also, the HiT Gallery, the first artists-run space in Bratislava which has been building a real reputation for a few years now, is closed for the summer.

I had dallied too long today at Danubiana, but will try and nip into town and see the National Gallery shows tomorrow, before heading for Klagenfurt in the afternoon. I have just a night in Carinthia, before taking my first steps on former Yugoslav soil; I am spending four days in Rijeka, from Friday to Tuesday, so expect a few more updates from there. I had toyed with the idea of staying a couple of days more here, as it really is quite a unique city; I also looked into pushing on much further East, to Kosice in the east of Slovakia, near to the border with Ukraine, then unfurling a savage pincer movement down through Hungary and straight into Serbia. But, Klagenfurt was already booked, and couldn't be changed, so in a frankly shameful exhibition of mediocre conservatism, I went with Plan "A" afterall.

Pisspoor Facebook self-portrait compositions no. 174: your humble correspondent in Danubiana's mirror glass
The student trip that I had planned, featuring a week between Bratislava and Vienna, would have been a belter- it's a shame that I didn't have time to do it. I had hoped that a group of us could stay here and commute on the boat to the Austrian capital: to stay in Vienna would probably have been too much for even the most generous of student overdrafts. That said, there is more than enough to see and think about in Bratislava, to make one forget that Vienna is only thirty miles or so across the border. I shall certainly be back here, and hope to see more of the rest of the country, another time.

No comments:

Post a Comment