A Tradition One Century Old

Katarína Trnovská

The original wooden toy traces its art-craft tradition in Slovakia roughly from 1890. Craftsmen specializing in the manufacture of furniture, kitchenware and other domestic equipment began also producing, mainly for their own children, simple objects for play, which they later began offering for sale at the regular fairs or the seasonal Christmas and Easter markets. With demand growing, the master craftsman was no longer able to meet the required production himself, and this led to the establishment of local centres of toy manufacture. Among the most important of these workshops were those in the districts round Stará Turá, Kunešov and Kyjatice. Toymakers in Stará Turá began from the traditional manufacture of kitchenware and turned objects. They produced mainly mobile toys (pecking hens) and simple musical instruments (rattles, clappers, whistles) in the natural colour of the wood. The popular assortment from the Kunešov toymakers included richly-painted ponies and carts on wheels, cradles and dolls. Kyjatice toys originated as a by-product of the local manufacture of beech furniture. These workshops functioned at varying levels of intensity up to the mid-20th century, until in postwar Czechoslovakia the pressure of Czech cultural and artistic potential made itself felt. With the emergence of national manufacturing enterprises in the 1950s these tendencies were further intensified, which in practice meant that it was almost exclusively designs by Czech industrial artists/designers which were committed to mass production. The Slovak wooden toy thus was thus forced to a temporary standstill, unless we count the original works, numbering only a few signed copies, which were created on a voluntary, once-off basis by leading Slovak artists. Among these the most notable contributor was Václav Kautman (1922 – 1981). This sculptor, by origin Czech, spent his entire working life in Slovakia as a visual artist and subsequently a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, where he founded the Department of Industrial Product Formation in 1966. Kautman gradually made his own of all the techniques of the manual processing of wood (he took courses with folk producers at their workshops – mortising, cleaving, turning, cooperage) and subsequently used them in new figural contexts. He has a unique series of hand-turned toys and lathe-formed chess pieces, completed with a slight touch of woodcarving. From the start Kautman was fascinated above all by Nature; in his work he proceeded more and more towards formal reduction in the interests of the object’s function. These efforts of his culminated in the 1960s, when he managed to express the dynamics of his beloved animals in a number of essential lines. Further proof of this is the collection of souvenir objects (elephant, rhinoceros, porcupine, heron, wild boar, etc.), which Kautman proposed for the Bratislava Zoo (1962), or the objects of birds and fish of all sorts which later became the artist’s principal theme. The largest series – 1500 Owlets – was produced for the occasion of the Czechoslovak display at the World Exhibition in Montreal (1967).

In the 1970s the toy made its appearance also in the work of a number of Slovak visual artists, of whom it could be said that they were close to, and had frequently taken inspiration from, Slovak folk realia. A notable case is Ľudovít Fulla (1902 – 1980), who applied his mature painting programme to his wooden toys. The construction set Little Town (Mestečko, 1972) furthermore points to what the artist had learned from Sutnar’s toys in the period of early modernism. Vladimír Kompánek (1927 – 2011) in similar fashion stamped his painter’s signature on a set of carved animals and figurines with a Fasching theme. Works by these artists are included also in the Slovak National Gallery collection, which has maintained a department of applied art and industrial art since the 1960s. During the years 1979 – 1985 the collection was extended by the acquisition of a number of works from exhibitions by creators of free art who were of a younger generation. Joining forces here with the central objects by Václav Kautman were original wooden toys by Alojz Klima, Marián Huba and Katarína Kissoczyová.

With the relaxation of the regime, there was a feeling of great opportunities for design. However, very few Slovak designers were able to translate their designs into local mass production. In the field of toys success came only to Tibor Uhrín, who had been pursuing this line from the early 1990s. At that time he designed a set of wooden rattles and the construction set Gringo, which is produced to this day.

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