Memories of Crafts

Another recurring theme of the art we see -- or at least, of the art we remember -- is the strong tradition of decoration. Or, more generally, the Eastern Europeans take seriously the "crafts" half of "arts and crafts."

For us, it started in Vienna with Klimt and his Secession (think Art Nouveau, but without quite so many elongated drapey women). Budapest has an Applied Arts museum, mixing an astonishing collection of Seccessionist pieces with illustrative dioramas explaining the technical aspects of the various artistic crafts. Don't show annotated weaving and laceworking samples to a computer person; at least, don't, if you want to have any hope of pulling him away. Only the museum's closing time saved me. Prague's Museum of Decorative Arts is a little less geeky, but has some samples of glassblowing that will blow your mind, along with some Josef Sudek photographs of unearthly beauty and other treasures.

Bratislava's contribution is, in proper style, a little more rough and ready: a crafts exhibition, showing the tools and handiwork of strapmakers and coopers and the other usual crafty suspects. Something about the approach sinks in: material culture of the 16th century starts to take on a reality for me.

I think it's in the connections: those tools on the goldsmith's table came from the blacksmith's forge over there; the letter from the travelling cobbler to his wife about the finances back home refers to a large pot he's bought for her from Mister Pewterer over here. The feel of daily life starts to cohere, and so does the texture of the emerging urban economies.

Something Willard once said to me surfaces in my mind: he wanted to know how more stuff was constructed. A car, say, or a refrigerator: what do they have to do to make one? At the time, I had a ready quip about the pounding machines, the chopping machines, and the extruding machines, but now I'm seeing what a perceptive question "How'd they make that?" is. Klimt got it.