The Story of the Arthur Fleischmann Museum

Before the fall of the Iron Curtain in November 1989, the name of the sculptor Arthur Fleischmann (1896–1990) was virtually unheard of in his native city of Bratislava. Known as Pressburg or Pozsony when it formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bratislava is the present-day capital of Slovakia. Even the curators of the museums where some of Fleischmann’s early work was housed, were only aware that he had been active as a sculptor in Vienna in the 1930s and had left Bratislava before the outbreak of World War I.

The visit of the sculptor’s son, Dominique, to Bratislava in 1990, however, on a mission to try to trace the early period of his father’s life and career, prompted renewed interest and led to serious research being undertaken into Fleischmann. As a result, step by step, many new facts about his career and fascinating life story came to light. This culminated in 1996 in the exhibition, ‘Arthur Fleischmann 1896-1990: a centennial celebration’, which was held at the Mestské múzeum (Bratislava City Museum), a complex of historic buildings with a medieval core, which had once been the Town Hall. This was a ground-breaking event, because for the first time, Fleischmann’s early ceramic works were assembled from the three different public collections where they were held in Bratislava – the Mestské múzeum, Slovenské národné múzeum (the Slovak National Museum) and the Bratislava City Gallery. It was also the first time that the sculptor´s early ceramics works were seen displayed together with his later sculptures dating from the 1940s onwards. These later exhibits kindly loaned by the Arthur Fleischmann Foundation in London were made from a variety of materials – wood, terracotta, wax and bronze. They also included some works in Perspex, a medium which Fleischmann had pioneered carving and which became one of his materials of choice.

The 1996 exhibition, opened to great acclaim in the Slovak media and proved most popular with visitors. This was to become the catalyst for the idea of opening a permanent museum of Fleischmann’s work in Bratislava. The exciting project found support with the city authorities, but nonetheless the Bratislava City Museum had to overcome a series of challenging funding issues and find a suitable location for the new museum, which took time and effort to negotiate.

Finally, however, a most appropriate space became available, an attractive historic former burgher’s house with a façade decorated with Renaissance murals at 6, Biela Street in the city centre. This was an incredible stroke of luck, because it was the house which Fleischmann’s mother had bought in 1917 and where the family lived between two World Wars (main image).

It took six years, however, before the Arthur Fleischmann Museum, the only museum in the world devoted to the sculptor’s work, was finally opened in November 2002, under the auspices of the Bratislava City Museum. The establishment and installation of the museum having been generously supported by the Henkel Company in Slovakia.

The new museum assembled the 23 works by Fleischmann from the three public collections across Bratislava. This core collection mainly comprised glazed ceramics from Fleischmann’s early period in the 1930s. He taught ceramics at the Women´s Academy in Vienna at this time and the majority of his output during the interwar years was in this medium. Other works from the Slovak collections were a wax portrait of the German-Austrian actress, Julia Jansen (1900-1982), who from 1927 was a member of the Viennese Burgtheater ensemble, and the only known oil painting by Fleischmann, entitled, Lady in Brown, dating from c.1920, depicting Štefánia Páneková, the wife of the Prague Deputy Pánek. A further 37 sculptures were given to the museum on long-term loan from the Arthur Fleischmann Foundation in London.

Since the museum opened several additional ceramic works have been acquired by the City Museum from local antique shops. All these pieces would have originally belonged to old Bratislavan families, who would have known Fleischmann personally. The earliest of these is a figurative double-branched ceramic candelabra, which is signed and dated 1931. The U-shaped branches are supported by an almost nude figure standing on an integral oval base. This base has a similar shape to those which Fleischmann used for the series of 12 larger ceramic apostle figures which he created in 1930 for church of St. Elisabeth at Hagen, Westphalia, North Germany. The smoothly modelled style of the vertical candelabra figure also has stylistic affinities with these apostles, although the expressive hair is a total contrast.

Another purchase was a ceramic portrait head of a woman with an impressive blue-glaze which covers the entire surface of the piece and enhances the modelling by means of a subtle change of tone. This work gives the impression of being a stylised ideal portrait. According to documentation in the sculptor´s archives in London, however, this undated sculpture is the portrait of an actress in Vienna created in 1930. Fleischmann quite often portrayed actresses and the museum has three different models of the actress, Julia Jansen, on display.

In 2010 the museum bought a smoothly modelled ceramic sculpture, a standing Mother and Child. Another version of this composition with reddish-orange glaze, which is on display at the Fleischmann Museum has been in the Slovak collections since 1974.

The museum made its most recent acquisition of a ceramic work by Fleischmann in 2013. From the category of applied arts, this attractive conical jardinière has an unusual cut shape in its lower part and is decorated over its entire surface with reliefs of wild animals – rock goats, deer and large birds. The composition is completed by small details of vegetation – flowers of different colours and foliage. This work, which is dated 1936, seems to be unique among Fleischmann´s ceramics in terms of his choice of motifs. Wild animals, however, do feature from time to time in his later work as for example, an Antelopes panel in Perspex (1965), which is on display in the Museum. The lively composition of this relief was inspired by the artist’s visits to game reserves in Africa.

There have also been a number of donations to the Museum. In 2002, a most original ceramic mask portrait of the beautiful socialite and hostess, Lilly Sigall, dated 1937, entered the collection in a most serendipitous way. Fleischmann had met Hungarian born, Lilly Sigall, on a ship travelling to South Africa when she was on her honeymoon. She had been brought up in Vienna, they fell into conversation and soon Fleischmann, had arranged to make a portrait of her. Over sixty years later and, a decade after her husband’s death, Joy Fleischmann happened to be introduced to Lilly, who was then nearly ninety years of age, at a party in London. She heard the story of how Lilly had met her husband and discovered that she still owned the mask. As a result of the encounter and learning about the Fleischmann Museum, Lilly kindly donated it to the collection.

Further donations include a small bronze figure, La Baigneuse (the Bather), which was modelled in Sydney, Australia and later cast in London c. 1970, given by Joanna Barnes, a founder Trustee of the Arthur Fleischmann Foundation, and a small ceramic torso of a Balinese girl signed ‘A. Fleischmann 1981’, which was donated by Keir McGuinness, London. Purchased on the English art-market, this piece is interesting, since it is a later ceramic by Fleischmann, who occasionally returned to this medium, but never again produced the larger ceramic pieces he had made in Vienna in the 1930s.

The sculptor’s widow, Joy, and his son, Dominique, also donated a bronze bust of Pope John Paul II which had been commissioned by the English College in Rome in 1979. They presented this bust to the Museum in commemoration of the Pope’s visit to Bratislava in September 2003. Fleischmann sculpted a total of four popes during his lifetime. Born into a Jewish family, he converted to Catholicism on the island of Bali in the late 1930s and religious sculpture became an important part of his oeuvre, particularly after he settled in London.

A further religious work was donated to the Museum in 2007 by Gervase Hood, also a founder Trustee of the Arthur Fleischmann Foundation. This was a lost wax bronze relief created by Arthur Fleischmann in 1964 and commissioned by Gervase Hood’s father, Sir Harold, who was a patron of Fleischmann and a great supporter of his religious sculpture. Sir Harold Hood, who worked in Roman Catholic publishing and was himself a devout Catholic, had succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his father, Sir Joseph, in 1931.

The diamond-shaped relief was designed for the rear garden wall of the Hood family’s London residence and was unveiled on 10 September 1964. It depicts the Madonna and Child in the centre, surrounded by two saints on each side and accompanied by four angel heads. All the figures were modelled on members of the Hood and Fleischmann families in a way which is rather reminiscent, although more integrated in terms of hierarchy, of the portraits of patrons and artists introduced into religious commissions during the Renaissance. The relief has now been installed on the wall opposite the arcade of the balcony overlooking the inner courtyard, adjacent to the entrance of the Arthur Fleischmann Museum in Biela Street, Bratislava (main image).

The newest acquisition of the Bratislava City Museum dates from 2015 and was made possible thanks to the financial support of the Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Republic. This, the only piece of furniture in the Fleischmann Museum, is a wooden coffee table with Perspex top purchased from a private collection in the U.S.A., and it is the first work in Perspex to be acquired by the Museum. 

The table has an interesting provenance, having been commissioned by John and Greta Hochhauser in the 1960s. Austrian born, John (then known as Hanns) was Fleischmann’s closest friend, ever since they met in the army during the First World War. While living in Vienna, the artist frequently visited the Hochhauser house. When the family, who admired Fleischmann’s work, later emigrated to the USA, their contact with the artist continued. They would visit London and the Fleischmann family would pay return visits to the Hochhauser’s home in Larchmont, NY. In the 1960s, John Hochhauser commissioned a portrait of his wife Greta from Fleischmann, who carved it in Perspex. Apart from his son Dominique, Greta is the only person Fleischmann is known to have portrayed in a Perspex carving. John Hochhauser also purchased a sculpture of a Merboy in Perspex from Fleischmann.

A few years later the Hochhausers commissioned the above coffee table from the sculptor. Its etched top depicts a man and a woman protectively hovering over a crab which represents Cancer, the zodiac sign of their daughter, who was born in July. The table top is illuminated by hidden lights and has similarities with a full-sized dining table with the signs of the zodiac which Fleischmann made for his own family and which may have prompted the Hochhauser’s commission. This work was put on display in the Arthur Fleischmann Museum in 2016, the year which marked what would have been the 120th birthday of the artist and the 20 years since the landmark centennial exhibition of his work in Bratislava. To celebrate these events, Joy Fleischmann donated her ‘Cancer ring’ to the Museum. Carved from black Perspex, this is a unique piece of jewellery created by Arthur Fleischmann in the early 1970s for his wife and is engraved with her zodiac sign. It is mounted on a silver band made by silversmith, Ray Crisp.

The Arthur Fleischmann Museum reflects the sculptor’s fascinating career in Austria, Indonesia, Australia and England. As the Museum approaches its fifteenth year and word about it spreads, we look forward to welcoming an increasing number of international visitors.

Main image: 5. Arthur Fleischmann, Mask of Lilly Sigall, 1937, glazed ceramic h.25cm. w.27 cm. (photo: Ľudmila Mišurová, Bratislava City Museum, Bratislava)

more on Arthur Fleischmann 
Arthur Fleischmann Museum, Bratislava
Life with Sculptor Arthur Fleischmann,  interview with Joy Fleischmann.

Aurora Corio