The important year of anniversaries related to the history of Czechoslovakia is nearly over. Many art galleries and museums in the Czech Republic have commemorated them by a variety of exhibitions and accompanying events. The foundation of Czechoslovakia one hundred years ago in October 1918 is the most referred to date, as it is portrayed as the beginning of a new, democratic era. In the visual arts, this period is also easily linked to the rise of new modernist language framed in the official progressive and internationally oriented narrative of the Czechoslovak state.
Anniversaries around the country
Exhibitions showcasing historic and visual material have been held across the country. In a nod to the national motto which appears on the Presidential standard, the National Gallery in Prague’s exhibition Truth (usually) prevails! Images not only from Czech history has focused on the stereotypical depiction of historical events. Their artistic interpretations on paper can be seen here until 2 February 2019. Outside of Prague, a number of institutions have taken this opportunity to reflect on its collections and to commemorate the one hundred years since the creation of Czechoslovakia. Reminiscent of the idea of A History of the World in 100 Objects run the British Museum in 2010, the Gallery of Art in Karlovy Vary, a spa town in western Bohemia, shows Czech and Slovak art in 100 years – 100 works / 100 artists – 100 fates until December 2019. In Olomouc, the Museum of Modern Art put on a large project Years of Disarray 1908-1928. Avant-Gardes in the Central Europe. What is common to these exhibitions is their effort to extend the interwar period by either covering the last one hundred years or the period running up to WWI.
This is the case with an exhibition at the Museum of Western Bohemia located in Plzeň which has also been the host of a number of anniversary exhibitions this year. As 2018 was also a commemoration of the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies to Czechoslovakia that crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, the aftermath of this traumatic episode in the visual arts was shown in the exhibition The Year 1968 and Art in Czechoslovakia. Plzeň is a city with particularly interesting and turbulent history. Located in western Bohemia, in the 15th century during the Hussite wars it was a centre of Catholic resistance and in the 19th century grew into an important industrial city (a seat of the Škoda works and Pilsner brewery among others) with a substantial German minority. And at the end of the Second World War, it was liberated by the US troops under General Paterson, unlike the rest of Czechoslovakia that was liberated by the Soviets.
The Year 1918 and Art in Pilsen: Czechoslovak Autonomy in the History of Pilsen Art and Life 1914-1938 focuses, like its predecessor, on the artistic scene of the city of Plzeň. While I was not able to visit the exhibition in person, the catalogue gives a good overview of the content and aims set out by the curator Petr Jindra.
The exhibition’s timeline starts with the beginning of the First World War which allows to examine the key event that led up to the creation of Czechoslovakia. The terror of the war is illustrated by photographs of armies marching through the city, diary drawings by local artist and recruit Bohumil Krs (1890-1962) but also by jewellery crafted by soldiers on the battlefields. The year 1918 is taken as the year of a new impulse for cultural life in Plzeň, seen in new magazines, artistic clubs and societies as well as new theatre groups, with which Plzeň is closely associated. It was here that in 1920 the stage designer and puppeteer first introduced his puppet Spejbl, a caricature of petty bourgeois values, which has entertained adults and, in simplified form, children, until today.
An important place in the artistic as well as political life of interwar Plzeň was taken by the competition for a monument to national liberation. The exhibition displayed a few designs and photographs, including the winning project of sculptors Karel Kotrba, Jaroslav Hruška and the architect Bohumil Pícha. It depicts President Masaryk standing next to a row of allegorical figures representing a legionary, mother, daughter and a blacksmith. The history of this monument is also remembered as a document to the unsettled local history – the statue of Masaryk was removed in 1940 by the Nazis, reinstalled after the war and removed again and this time destroyed by the Communists in 1953. Today’s monument is a replica from 1991.
Masaryk and the so-called “Masarykian sentiment” are acknowledged in the exhibition as significant concepts that reflected the “political significance of the time.” In Plzeň, a variety of publications on Masaryk and of his writings supported the image of the President as father of the democratic state. Book publication and book design constitute an important part of the exhibition as they feature many wood engravings and illustrations. This section also features pedagogic literature as well as erotic prints, which the catalogue describes as “openly vulgar eroticism.” These works can, nevertheless, be also seen as an integral part of the modern life in Plzeň.
All in all, the exhibition presented an array of original works of art which were created within the local context or in a dialogue with artists and groups in Prague. Some names of artists feature prominently – the painter and graphic designer František Pořický (1880-1950), Bohumil Krs, and the stage designer and dramatist Josef Skupa (1892-1957) appear many times. Their role in creating the interwar artistic culture of Plzeň seems undeniable. For those who are not familiar with these names, it would have been therefore helpful if the catalogue contained a bit more information on their work, including their biographies.
Le Grand Jeu in Brno
While the authors in the Art in Plzeň exhibition may seem regionally embedded, the Moravian Gallery in Brno is currently showing the work of the interwar avant-garde painter Josef Šíma (1891-1971) who established himself in France permanently in the early 1920s. Even this exhibition, which closes on 24 February 2019, has been made to fit the tide of celebrations of the Czechoslovak anniversaries. The Gallery explains that it is a “part of the celebrations commemorating the 2018 anniversaries of the crucial events in 1918, 1968, and 1993 which were important for Czech statehood.”
Šíma is often credited as one of the most important mediators between French and Czech interwar art even though he is not generally recognized as one of the leading or best known artists. The curators of Josef Šíma: The Road to Le Grand Jeu, Petr Ingerle and Anna Pravdová, are trying to rectify this obscurity and introduce Šíma’s work to the Czech audience.
In Paris, he was one of the founding members of the group Le Grand Jeu which published a journal of the same name. Šíma worked here especially with the poets René Daumal and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte. As is clear from the visual and literary work of the group, they criticised European rationalism and civilisation. Inspired by Indian philosophy, occultism and primitivism, they used various techniques such as drug and alcohol use, sleep deprivation and meditation to penetrate their subconscious and subsequently to create works of art. The collaboration with Le Grand Jeu in the early 1930s constitutes – according to the curators – the core of the exhibition. However, much more is on display here. His early work predating his departure to France, his first years in Paris, features townscapes, portraits, as well as abstraction for the Devětsil group of avant-garde artists. His graphic art, especially book and magazine illustrations shows his close relationship with surrealist and modern poetry in general.
Going beyond the work with Le Grand Jeu, the exhibition shows a selection of his portraits from the late 1920s that were displayed in an exhibition in Paris in 1930. Šíma claimed that he tried to capture in his portraits the internal state of being, rather than the external appearance. His surrealist landscapes from the 1930s which contain dreamy and escapist references to Greek mythology conclude the exhibition in a reminder of the increasingly tense political situation in Europe.
Despite the attempt to present Le Grand Jeu as the centre of the exhibition, it is the entire oevre that sheds more light on Šíma and his journey through the various artistic environments and interactions. Yet presenting him as a product of the interwar post-Habsburg climate which suddenly opened up to international influences is questionable, especially when the exhibition narrative claims that “thanks to the dissolution of Austria-Hungary Czech artists were no longer in a subordinate position and were able to confidently enter into partnerships with avant-garde groups, such as the Great Game or the Surrealist Group.” Such positioning dismisses a whole host of exchanges between Czech and French artists and groups already before 1918. The painters Mucha, Kupka and Filla, to name just a few, settled in Paris for a period of time, while French modern artists often exhibited in Prague.
Both exhibitions, The Year 1918 and Art in Pilsen and The Journey to Le Grand Jeu, nevertheless present new material which is put into the context of the culture of an interwar regional centre and of the European art world respectively in a period that saw an important political and cultural recomposition of Central Europe. And both exhibitions indicate the continuing rise of the importance of locations beyond Prague, whether they were Plzeň or Paris in this period.
The Year 1918 and Art in Pilsen: Czechoslovak Autonomy in the History of Pilsen Art Life (Museum of West Bohemia, Plzeň, 7 September to 4 November 2018)
Josef Šíma: The Road to Le Grand Jeu (Moravian Gallery, Brno. 26 October 2018 to 24 February 2019)