Discovering Slovak arts and crafts in Bratislava
Wandering through the centre of Bratislava, it's easy to feel surrounded by the old; palaces dating back to the 18th century line the cobblestone streets that are lorded over by a castle whose first incarnation dates back to the 15th century. Celts, Romans, Slavs and more have combined to make the Slovak capital rich in cuture and heritage.
This mix of heritage and history can be seen in the city's architecture and cuisine, but is more uniquely experienced in the country's arts and crafts. In these times of mass-produced items found in nearly every corner of the global marketplace, Slovak craftspeople are working hard to keep their traditions alive, and finding a public interested in, and buying these authentic goods.
“Our main aim is to continue the traditions, not let them die out, and keeping the crafts in their purest forms,” says Helena Haberernova, general director of the Centre for Folk Art Production (ÚLUV) (uluv.sk/en/web/home). “Craftspeople today are taking inspiration in the traditional but using their own creativity to develop something new.”
While woodcarving, lace-making or egg-painting doesn't sound so modern, the field remains popular with both young people and the general public.
“Many schools try to attract young people with traditional materials – wood, wire, metal – but challenge them to find new ways to use it, based on their ideas,”Haberernova says. “The courses we organise are filled – people enjoy learning woodcarving, blacksmithing, leather making. Ceramics are the most popular, but we see people interested in egg decorating, gingerbread decorating, basket weaving – people are coming back to crafts where the available material is natural.”
This is how it has always been. Looking at a few of the most popular crafts; woodcarving, lace-making, egg decorating – the materials are cheap and easy to find. Haberernova says craftspeople still have a large interest in woodcarving and a big reason is the abundance of material in the country's many forests.
“Today, we see a lot of self-realisation in wood carving, craftspeople are trying to put themselves in their products, their personalities,” she says.
Two excellent examples of traditional pieces include the valaska, an elaborate cane made from wood and decorated with carvings and metal as well as the fujara, an instrument similar to a bassoon traditionally played by shepherds.
“Ceramics holds a fascination for craftspeople; from unformed clay they can create something that has purpose,” Haberernova says. “There is a deep tradition here and schools in which one can study, which is very important as graduates know how to handle the material and the possibilities of it.”
Lace is another product that has been created throughout the country and is still appealing to younger craftspeople today.
“It's becoming more interesting for young people, to see something made almost out of nothing and today it is used in many ways, clothes, art, cards,” says Heberernova. Historically lace first appeared on dresses, then began to decorate blankets and other household items. The material was easy to obtain and no special place was needed to produce the fine work.
No matter what time of year you visit Bratislava, in shops around the city you'll find Easter eggs. These were originally decorated by women to give to men and used naturally based colours, from onion or garlic, or leaves as decoration.
“Today, many decorating techniques include painting the egg and etching through to create a relief, also decorating it with wax or straw, textiles, wire, painting,” says Haberernova. “In some regions, wood or glass eggs are popular, depending if wood working is prevalent in the region, or there's a glass factory nearby.”
ÚLUV runs two galleries and a shop in Bratislava. The products they sell are chosen by a professional art commission. In their main branch (Obchodná 64), a gallery showcases temporary exhibits featuring a sole material, artist or group show. Glass, shoes, ceramics, mixed media and more have all been displayed in the gallery, along with details about their history.
The Centre's newest shop (Námestie Slovenského národného povstania 12) opened last November and is dedicated to highlighting the variety of arts and crafts developed in the regions. The space is half gallery/half shop. The right side is given over to showing typical crafts and folk dress from a region of Slovakia. You'll discover customary garments, household items, wall hangings and more. The left side is a modern shop, offering items carefully crafted from wood, metal, glass and more like wooden spoons, cloth dolls, woven rugs, ceramic jugs, leather bags and walking sticks.
But tradition must move on and that's where the burgeoning craft scene of today comes in. The Dizajn Studio (Dobrovicova 1) highlights the up-and-coming, displaying the work of young designers who are inspired by folk art. Temporary exhibitions showcase talented jewellery designers and artists who work with felt, ceramics and more. Rona (rona.sk), is a glass producer with a 120-year history, and the main square of Hlvane Nameste is home to Folk Folk (folkfolk.sk), which offers a variety of products ranging from wood to ceramics, Easter eggs and embroidery. The main square also often has stalls selling different goods like cornhusk dolls, glass items and textiles.
Bratislava isn't stuck in a past century, as evidenced by her shopping malls and chain shops, but the crafts heritage remains an important one.
“We are here to keep Slovak crafts alive,” says Heberernova. “It's worthwhile to do the crafts, the artists are proud of their family traditions, and business opportunities combined with family tradition motivates them to create.”