We are moving to Brno

In April 2019 the project is moving to Masaryk University in Brno. Here are answers to some of the questions you might have.

So you’re moving…

It is an exciting new phase for the project which will be expanded and enriched by the move. The university and the city have both interesting history which in many respects resonates with the project. This year, the university that takes the name of the first Czechoslovak president celebrates one hundred years since its foundation. Its creation was the culmination of a long campaign by the city for a university to meet its needs, where, until then, the only institutions of higher education had been the German Technical Academy (1849-1945) and the Czech Technical Academy (founded in 1899, now the Technical University). Masaryk University was opened with, initially, four faculties: Law, Medicine, Science, and Arts. The Department of Art History opened in 1927.

How does that link to the project?

There are many continuities in the history of the University and the Department. Although it owes its creation to the fall of Austria-Hungary – before 1918 the German-speaking city council had been resistant to the idea – it was, in other respects, a product of the Habsburg Empire. The Department was founded by Eugen Dostál (1889-1943), who had studied in Vienna under Max Dvořák (1873-1921), one of the leading members of the Vienna School of art history. With a concern for rigorous formal analysis, Dostál saw himself as continuing the intellectual legacy of his teacher and, like many members of the Vienna School, combined work on historical artistic practices with an interest in contemporary art. After a hiatus caused by his premature death, his student Albert Kutal (1901-1976) was appointed professor in 1948, a post he held until 1971. Like Dostál, Kutal combined an interest in medieval art with a concern for contemporary practices; his membership of the Group of Fine Artists in Brno (Skupina výtvarných umělců, Brno) meant that he was closely associated with some of the leading modernist artists of Czechoslovakia. The Vienna connection continued, for it has been suggested that Kutal’s work paralleled that of Otto Pächt, an important representative of the Vienna School between the wars.[1]

The direct influence of Vienna may now be a distant memory, but the Department of Art History in Masaryk University has continued its tradition of distinctive scholarship, with recent and current areas of particular focus including late antique and early medieval art, Baroque and Enlightenment art and culture, art collecting, and visual theory.


Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Villa Tugendhat, Brno, 1928-30 – photo: Karelj, Wikimedia Commons

And what about Brno?

The city of Brno has a particular pertinence for our project. Throughout the Habsburg era it had a mixed German, Czech and Jewish population; due to its geographical proximity to the imperial capital it was frequently referred to as a suburb of Vienna. It had numerous social, artistic and wider cultural ties to the metropolis, but as the centre of an increasingly self-confident and assertive Czech culture, it formed a microcosm of the broader dynamics of political, artistic and cultural change that are at the heart of our inquiry. In addition, after 1918, Brno came into its own as a significant centre in its own right. The best-known example of this is the Villa Tugendhat designed and by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1928 and 1930. A UNESCO world heritage site, the Villa recently gained renewed attention in the anglophone world thanks to Simon Mawer’s best-selling novel The Glass Room published in 2009, recently turned into a film.

Surely there’s more than the Tugendhat?

Yes, the Villa Tugendhat was part of a much larger phenomenon in interwar Brno, where the city became an important centre of modernist architecture. Even while part of the Habsburg Empire it had a significant architectural pedigree: both Adolf Loos (1870-1933) and Jan Kotěra (1871-1923), the ‘father of Czech modernism,’ were born there, while Dušan Jurković (1868-1947), pioneer of vernacular modernism, made it his base in 1905. After 1918, local figures such as Bohuslav Fuchs (1895-1972), Arnošt Wiesner (1890-1971) and Jindřich Kumpošt (1891-1968) turned Brno into a distinctive site of avant-garde design.


Bohuslav Fuchs: The architect’s house, Brno, 1927-28 – photo: palickap, Wikimedia Commons

Thus, in 1928, the year work began on the Villa Tugendhat, Brno architects built the ‘New House’ (Nový Dům) estate, an experiment in new forms of housing that was inspired by the Weyssenhof estate that had been erected by the Werkbund in Stuttgart the year before. The Nový Dům estate coincided with the staging of the major ‘Exhibition of Contemporary Art and Culture’ in Brno in the purpose-built exhibition halls, which themselves constitute a notable step in the development of twentieth-century architecture. Held to celebrate 10 years of Czechoslovak independence, the exhibition demonstrated the extent to which the embrace of modernism and the avant-garde in design reflected the broader political and ideological visions of the municipality and, ultimately, the new state.


Arnošt Wiesner: Interior of the Café Esplanade, Brno, 1925-26 – photo: BAM

‘Brno functionalism’ has entered the lexicon of architectural history, and its place in Brno’s heritage is now well established, thanks in part to the peerless photographs of many of its major examples by Rudolf de Sandalo (1869-1932). More recent initiatives such as the Brno Architectural Manual have helped disseminate it to a wider audience today.


Bohuslav Fuchs and Josef Polášek: The Eliška Machová Student Dormitory of the Vesna Profession School for Women, Brno, 1930, in a photo by Rudolf de Sandalo – source: fostinum.org

We look forward to being able to work with our new colleagues in Brno to build on their work and expand it further in the light of our transnational interests. Our first public event will be an academic conference ‘In the Shadow of Empire?’ at the Moravian Gallery in Brno this September.

Matthew Rampley

[1] Ján Bakoš, ‘Otto Pächt and Albert Kutal: Methodological Parallels,’ Umění, LXII.5 (2014) pp. 406-422.

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