At the Museum of Art in Olomouc there is currently an exhibition on central European modernism that anyone with an interest in the topic should attend. The Museum is not a major stop on the network of galleries in central Europe, but it should be, since it has built up a track record of imaginative and engaging exhibitions on twentieth-century art, with a particular emphasis on the exploration of international connections. This event is no exception. As the title suggests, the twenty years between 1908 and 1928 were a period of social and cultural tumult, when traditional ideas and values were either subject to massive revision or outright rejection. The title also indicates an important aspect of the exhibition: that while political events lead us to view 1918 as an artistic and cultural caesura, most of the major innovations in art after the First World War were prefigured by practices set in motion beforehand. It therefore explores the decades either side of the end of the War.
The exhibition is organised thematically. There are some familiar themes from standard accounts of modernism of the time: such as technology (‘Man, City, Machine’), Constructivism (‘Open Project’), text and the written word (‘Visual Speech’) and the deconstruction of the language of representation (‘The Order of Forms’). Equally, however, some are framed in less familiar ways, such as ‘People of the Sun,’ exploring the preoccupation with ideas of spiritual as well as technological rebirth and redemption, ‘Catharsis,’ which highlights the male nude as a recurrent subject, and ‘A Shared World,’ which examines the concern artists had with creating alternative societies – ranging from idealistic artists’ communities to the networks of committed leftists and Marxists with utopian visions of a new order.
There is an attempt, therefore, to avoid the usual, teleological succession of, for example, Expressionism, Cubism, Purism, Constructivism, Surrealism, to tell the story in a different way, so as to highlight the continuities over the twenty years of the show, without diminishing the fact that much, of course, did change. It also emphasises that themes and practices crossed national boundaries. The theme of the ‘Lonely Self,’ for example, which highlights modernity as a crisis of (masculine) subjectivity, is illustrated with examples of work by Bohumil Kubišta, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), János Kmetty, Victor Brauner and Lajos Tihanyi. A concern with technology and mechanisation, as a source both of exhilaration and fearful anxiety is evident from works by artists as diverse as Warsaw-based Henryk Streng, the Prague artist Josef Čapek, František Foltýn working in Košice, and the Slovene Avgust Černigoj.
Accounts of modern central European art often only pay lip service to the idea that it functioned as a shared transnational cultural space. Even when it comes to the final years of the Habsburg Empire, national narratives dominate, despite the fact that artistic life in the Empire was shaped by trans-national networks for which the political boundaries of early twenty-first century Europe had no relevance. This exhibition therefore questions the tendency to view art through the lens of subsequent nation states. It opens with an extensive display of the magazines that were an essential part of modernism in central Europe; what is striking about this is not only the similarity of visual language used in the design, but also the extent to which artists and writers from different centres, Prague, Zagreb, Warsaw, Brno, Vienna, published work by each other and in each other’s magazines. The Habsburg Empire may have disappeared in 1918, but there was still an implicit sense of a common space.
The exhibition is also impressive in the range of artists it presents. Hence, while there are the major and, perhaps, predictable figures such as Emil Filla, Oto Gutfreund, János Mattis-Teutsch, Béla Uitz, the Čapek brothers and Witkacy, there are many striking works by others who are often relegated to the footnotes of accounts of art of the time, if they feature at all. This included, for example, an impressive sequence of lithographs from the 1920s by Eugen Kron on the themes of The Creative Spirit and Man of the Sun, or Marianne (My) Ullmann’s series of paintings of the Apocalypse. The selection of artists also highlighted other issues, such as the rise of cities such as Košice and Novi Sad as artistic centres, alongside the dominant capital cities. It was notable that Vienna was represented almost entirely by female artists: Ullmann and Erika Klien, but this also draws attention to a curious omission. At the end of the useful Guide that can be purchased at the exhibition is a map, in which the borders of Austria-Hungary are outlined in red. This is the primary territorial limit of the exhibition, with the addition of Yugoslavia and Poland. Yet Vienna is almost completely absent. This may be due to purely contingent reasons of cost. This would be an understandable problem for the organisers, but it would benefit from at least some kind of explanation, especially as there is a positive aspect to this gap. It means that the exhibition was refreshingly free of the clichés associated with dominant Viennese pre-war modernism. The minimal presence of Austrian artists might also be seen as an indication of the changing status of Vienna itself. After 1918, political disorientation, the collapse of traditional forms of patronage and of the art market meant that artists looked to pursue their fortunes elsewhere. Yet this might at least need addressing; indeed it could have been an important aspect of the exhibition. Changing configurations of masculinity are visible across various themes, but the exhibition would have been strengthened with a focused exploration of the shifting gender and sexual identities of the time.
The exhibition is on display in Olomouc until late January 2019. After then it will move to the International Centre in Cracow (March to June 2019), Bratislava City Art Gallery (June to September) and the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs (November 2019 – April 2020). The exhibition space in Olomouc is not particularly capacious, and at times it appeared a little cramped, but it still merits a visit, since it is here that the exhibition is at its most extensive. The range of venues is innovative and to be welcomed and, suggests, too, a desire to tell a different story from that usually associated with the focus just on artistic life of the capital cities. At present a useful and very inexpensive guide is available at the exhibition, with an excellent range of illustrations but with limited text. A more substantial catalogue with more extensive essays is due to be published in early 2019.
Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe / Rozlomená Doba 1908-1928: Avantgardy v střední Evropě (Museum of Art / Muzeum Uměni, Olomouc, 21 September 2018 to 27 January 2019)