The noted curator and art historian Tetyana Dugaeva has been attempting to call global attention to the unthinkable threats posed to the artistic treasures, cultural heritage, and peoples of her beloved city of Czernowitz (Chernivtsi) in southwestern Ukraine, in the face of the unfolding Russian invasion. She recently updated her Facebook home page image to display a striking art work designed by the Art Nouveau artist Joseph Adolph Lang (1873-1936), displayed as a ceramic glazed “majolika panel” on the outer wall of the imperiled Chernivtsi Art Museum.
I find myself speculating why Tetyana has chosen this particular image, of all the wonderful works of art in Czernowitz, to represent the city and the Bukovina region at this moment of supreme danger. (It is difficult to be in touch at the moment with all our Czernowitz friends and colleagues; I would of course welcome corrections and further interpretations from those who are able to reach out at this terrible time.)
The image is drawn from the large ceramic Majolika glazed mural on the outer facade of the former Bukowiner Sparkasse, the head office of the Bukovina Savings Bank, now the city’s beloved art museum. The building, constructed 1900-1901, is considered a masterpiece of Austro-Hungarian architecture, and is closely associated with the Vienna Secession movement. Tetyana’s persistent “detective work” some years ago identified Lang as the artist of this famous composition. The majolica panel itself was produced, she notes, at the Zsolnay Ceramic factory in Hungary. (See: http://versii.cv.ua/kultura/mystetskyj-detektyv-chernivetska-majolika-hto-jiji-tvorets/6846.html). The title of the panel, installed above the third floor windows of the building, is “Allegory of honoring Bukovina on the occasion of the anniversary of the adoption of the constitution and receiving the coat of arms of the region.”
A dozen classical gods, depicted in the Art Nouveau/Secession style, allegorically evoke the twelve provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (at times referenced at the Dual Monarchy).
The female figure, fourth from the left, in white and bearing green branches, signifies the province of Bukovina, for which Czernowitz served as capital. (The southern section of Bukovina now fall within Romania.) Appropriately, she wears at her breast Bukovina’s Coat of Arms. She is partially sheltered by the left wing of a great angel in an orange robe, who, Iosif Vaisman explain, allegorically represents the Hapsburg monarchy. The angel grasps a gleaming metal broadsword, referencing the monarchy’s maintenance of order throughout the Empire.
The appropriateness of the front facade of the art museum for symbolizing the art and cultural heritage of the entire city is clear. The Secession movement, especially in hindsight, evokes the genius of fin de siecle Vienna, and by extension the cultural sophistication of Czernowitz, which was closely linked to Vienna in the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Joseph Lang, who practiced as an artist in Germany and Austria, exemplifies Czernowitz’s cosmopolitanism in history and memory.
It is noteworthy that the detail selected by Tetyana depicts a nymph-like nude female figure, who has draped over her arm a blue cloth with interlinked yellow heraldic shields, and holds in her hand a golden ball, on which is balanced a blue statuette of a winged Nike, under the sheltering expanse of the angel’s great wing. Although these motifs presumably meant something very different at the dawn of Twentieth Century, at the current moment of crisis it is hard not to think of Ukraine herself, symbolized by the colors of blue and gold, uplifted by the visage of Nike, goddess of victory. At this time of mortal peril for the peoples of Ukraine, as missiles and massed artillery fire rain down mercilessly upon the nation’s civilians, who among us cannot pray for the sheltering protection of an angel’s wing?
As I write this, Joseph Lang’s outdoor lyrical mosaic mural is unbearably vulnerable, easy prey for a single tank round or strafing run from the air. Its twelve beautiful figures, redolent of a lost golden age, are emblematic of this venerable, endangered city, of its stunning art treasures, and of millions of Ukrainians now at risk. As impossible as it now seems, may this striking image, now glimpsed on line around the world, help awaken humanity’s better angels, and urgently call forth the forces of compassion and rescue.
Many thanks to Iosif Vaisman and Tetyana Dugaeva for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post. A higher resolution of the mural panel is visible at: https://art.nouveau.world/sites/default/files/ArtefactPictures/Ukraine/Chernivtsi/Panno.jpg
For those who read Ukranian, Tetyana Dugaeva’s detailed articles on Joseph Lang’s work and career are accessible via: https://sites.google.com/view/tdugaeva/articles?authuser=0&fbclid=IwAR3__-dthUMaAmbgUQg5-AMknAPo3CEoCXsR2EhAMXQAZy4qzkfz7xtffgc
—For more on the arts of Czernowitz, see the Czernowitz art album by Tetyana Dugaeva and Sergij Osatschuk: http://ehpes.com/blog1/?p=10364