Book review: Art in the Czech Lands 800-2000

In 1984 the Czech Institute of Art History commenced publication of a multi-volume history of Czech art from prehistory to the present. It was a massive undertaking, a comprehensive survey that was not completed until 2007, when the final two volumes on art since 1958 appeared. It represented a particular central European tradition in academic publishing, but as with many other such projects, its drawbacks were all too evident. During the 23 years of its gestation, art historical methods had changed considerably, especially given the ideological shifts brought about by the collapse of Communism. In addition, the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993 meant that the meaning of ‘Czech art’ was no longer the same, and the later volumes could be seen as part of the self-redefinition of the new Czech Republic. Despite such caveats, it was still a major work of reference, but it was hampered by one single factor: it was only published in Czech. For linguistic reasons alone, therefore, its potential impact was limited.

In order to counter this, the Institute has published Art in the Czech Lands 800-2000 in English translation. It is not on the same scale as the earlier work, but it is similarly impressive in scope. Coming to nearly 1000 pages, and with hundreds of colour illustrations, it is destined to be a major point of reference, not least because it covers entire centuries where the art is barely known outside of the Czech Republic. The ‘Czech Lands’ may be an odd and unfamiliar term to many anglophone readers, but as the editors state, it has gained fairly widespread currency and is an attempt to avoid the connotations of nationalism associated with talk of ‘Czech art.’ Currently, ‘Czech Lands’ refers to Bohemia, Moravia and Silesian Moravia, but in the past, it had a much wider scope in keeping with the fortunes of the old Bohemian Kingdom.

The earlier multi-volume work was distinctly conservative in its approach, with separate chapters on painting, sculpture, applied arts, architecture, fashion and so forth. This work has deliberately distanced itself from that traditional model. While it is divided into three broad historical periods, it is thematically subdivided; there are discussions of, for example, collecting and travelling, of urbanism, scientific illustration, synagogues and Jewish emancipation, gardens, the myth of the Czechoslovak Legions and Americanization, as well as profiles of significant individual works and figures, such as the Waldstein Palace in Prague, Peter Brandl, Charles Bridge, the Nazarenes, Antonín Chittussi, František Kupka, Oskar Kokoschka and Karel Teige. It is an imposing work and the contributors should be congratulated for the range of topics and works covered. On the one hand, the ‘canon’ of Czech art is well represented but, equally, this is only a small proportion of what is discussed; German and Slovak artists are represented, for example, as is the work of other ‘foreign architects,’ a slightly clumsy formulation that lets slip a potential weakness of the book discussed later.

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Josef Gočár (1880-1945) : The Building of the Legiobanka (Bank of the Czechoslovak Legions) in Prague – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The comprehensive nature of the book is a reflection of its status as a survey text, but alongside its many positive qualities, it also exhibits the disadvantages of the genre. It addresses 260 topics, and even in a work of this length, this means that it mostly offers brief sketches rather than extensive analyses. This would be less a matter of regret were it not for the fact that the most of the recommended further reading is in Czech, and will thus be, for the anglophone reader, inaccessible. Each of the three main sections has a general introduction, which provides valuable points of orientation, but comprehensiveness has been achieved at the expense of focus and narrative coherence. Modernism, for example, is presented as a montage of different practices and ideas. Perhaps this might itself be a self-consciously modernist mode of presentation, but we do not gain a sense of how this diversity of themes might be framed. Given that the bedrock of so much writing on modern art is a broader theory of modernity, modernisation and modernism, this is a curious omission. What was distinctive about the Czech experience of modernity? Knowing the answer to that might help us gain a sense of how the various practices are to be interpreted. There are one or two other lacunae that one might wish to have been filled; while there is a concerted effort to include women artists for the period after 1945, the question of gender more generally is not addressed. In addition, with the exception of the Stalin memorial in Prague, socialist realism is also invisible. It may bring back unwelcome memories of how artists colluded with an oppressive regime, but, it, too, was part of the art of the Czech lands.

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Růžena Zátková (1885-1923): The Sensibility, Noises and Rhythmic Forces of a Pile Driver, 1916 – artwork now lost, photo in the Getty Research Institute, reproduced in Art in the Czech Lands 800-2000

The introduction offers a summary of the ‘constants’ of modern Czech art. This seems at odds with the editors’ wish to avoid discourses of national identity; for anglophone readers this may recall Pevsner’s effort to define the Englishness of English art, while for those more versed in the subject, it is reminiscent of the attempts by Prague art historians of the late nineteenth century to identify ‘Czechness’ in art. It also seems to run against the grain of much of the rest of the book, in which the multi-cultural nature of society in the Czech lands before 1945 is taken as a given. It unfortunately makes the discussion of German and Slovak artists in Czechoslovakia seem tokenistic, for they end up being bit players in what is an essentially Czech drama. Hence, while the Czech lands were, for most of the twentieth century, part of Czechoslovakia, the book would have undoubtedly benefitted from discussion of their place within that wider cultural, social and political context. Indeed, the story of art in the twentieth century would have gained, too, if it had been a little less focused on Prague.

One can therefore identify a few places where the book stumbles, but these are undoubtedly linked to the difficult terrain the editors and the authors have to cross. Yet despite such issues, this remains a major contribution to knowledge and understanding of the history of art and architecture in the lands that now comprise the Czech Republic. As such, it should admirably meet its aim, namely, to act as a key source for those interested in the topic.

Matthew Rampley

Taťána Petrasová and Rostislav Švácha, eds., Art in the Czech Lands 800-2000 (Prague: Institute of Art History, Czech Academy of Sciences, 2017)

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/8PK59

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