Subotica: a town of Art Nouveau wonders and fantastic dreams yet also irrational events. It is a place where the atmosphere of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy lingers on – it disappeared only during the wars of the 1990s – as a result of its rich Art Nouveau architectural heritage. A heritage that is again, slowly yet surely, regaining centre stage: In May 2011, the town hosted an international symposium in which experts from Serbia and other parts of Europe called the authorities’ attention to the importance and complexities of restoration and preservation policies.
Subotica can boast top-ranking Art Nouveau works, such as its world-famous Synagogue, unique in the Hungarian National Style, built by Komor and Jakab in 1902-04, or the fairy-tale palace that the architect Raichl built for himself in 1903-04. Even the Town Hall, also by Komor and Jakab (1908-10), is a striking example of the elaborate decoration of the Hungarian National Style. These and dozens of other Art Nouveau buildings have determined the common consciousness of the local people till today. But not all of Subotica’s Art Nouveau originates from the Austro-Hungarian period: in close proximity to all of the aforementioned masterpieces stands an exceptional Art Nouveau work... from the late eighties!
Café Papillon, with its beautifully carved wooden decoration and its unique ambience, could well pass for original, authentic Art Nouveau to many a candid eye. Yet it is in fact a contemporary creation inspired by its owner Carlo Letich. Letich was a jazz pianist who worked for seventeen years in Germany while he cultivated his personal dream for the future: to open an Art Nouveau café in the best European tradition. After returning home to Subotica, Letich set about making his dream come true. It was a long, fruitless search until he finally met Károly Gyömbér, a graphic artist who understood Letich’s vision and was able to produce “real” Art Nouveau sketches. Using these artistic drawings as a guide, Letich worked on the project for three years, directing a team of woodcarvers and sculptors, among them the Szkala brothers and Franjo Radić, to which he also contributed his own self-taught craftsmanship. Letich found a suitable space on the ground floor of a building owned at that time by the city. Finally, in 1989, he was able to make his dream come true and open the Café Papillon as it can still be seen today, with its fantastic volumetric carvings inspired by butterfly motifs. The use of the quintessential Art Nouveau whiplash form is so vigorous yet light and delicate that the figures often seem to tease the eye with apparent movement. The Café, a lively bar with a certain Bohemian air, became immediately popular and the talk of the town among artists and cultural circles, even attracting visitors from abroad. In 1993, local authorities declared it a listed architectural monument. However, the consequences of the war and the effect of changes in tax policies made things increasingly difficult during the nineties, until in 1998, Letich was forced to close the business. However, since it is a listed monument, Letich as tenant of the space has the legal obligation to keep it open to the public even if he cannot pursue his business. So now he opens the premises in the evenings, and with friends and visitors enjoys jazz music and conversation – coffees are on the house.
The Papillon’s present situation is complex and its future, unknown. After the fall of communism, the building was reclaimed by its original owners, the Subotica Jewish Community, who had been stripped of their possessions during the Nazi occupation in World War Two (including the Synagogue in the same neighbourhood). Municipal authorities have recently returned it to them. In dire need of funds to rebuild the Community, the present owners would prefer a well-paying tenant as opposed to a boho
hangout for Art Nouveau and jazz mavericks. Meanwhile, the City Council and Carlo Letich have an agreement by which he will receive financial compensation if he has to leave the site. Yet what value should be placed on the Papillon’s beautiful decoration? After many differing evaluations, the latest experts’ committee estimated the value of the interior decorations at 3.3 million euros. The Council, obviously unable to satisfy such astronomical compensations, began litigation which is still ongoing. Another proposal which has received support from within the Council is to re-install the whole interior of the Papillon into one of the spaces of the Town Hall itself. This, however, would be technically impracticable and also stylistically unacceptable since the Papillon’s decor – directly inspired by French and Belgian Art Nouveau – is totally at odds with the Hungarian National Style of the Town Hall building.
So why not reopen Café Papillon to the public as a bar? The difficulty lies in establishing a rental price that satisfies both the present owners’ legitimate economic aspirations and a realistic appraisal of the income that such a business, geared towards a minority public and with high maintenance costs, can actually raise. So in the end, this venue’s story echoes the fate of many authentic Art Nouveau works. While it could be disputed whether the Papillon can be considered Art Nouveau at all, one cannot deny the fact that it is true art. Its authenticity has been proven – independently over time and through academic perception in different artistic periods – by the purity of conceptualisation of its forms and by the superior craftsmanship and perfection of its realization.