Exhibition review: Enchanted by Africa?

In 1928 the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Brno featured a pavilion dedicated to a display on the theme of “The Origin of Humans” (Člověk a jeho rod). Organised by the geologist Karel Absolon (1877-1960), it featured recent discoveries of Palaeolithic artefacts from southern Moravia, including the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, a female figurine just as significant as the better-known Venus of Willendorf in the Vienna Museum of Natural History. Pride of place was taken up by a life-size model of a mammoth reconstituted on the basis of found remains. The distinctive pavilion, designed by the modernist architect Jiří Kroha (1893-1974), was demolished, but the mammoth survived and is now housed in the Anthropos Pavilion, the location of an exhibition on human evolution that features much of the material originally on display in 1928.

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Enchanted by Africa exhibition poster – source: www.gotobrno.cz

It is perhaps telling that the Pavilion should have been chosen as the site of Enchanted by Africa (Okouzlení Afrikou), an exhibition on the engagement by Czech artists with the material and visual culture of African societies. The central argument, that throughout the 20th century, artists from the Czech lands had a consistent interest in African art, is clearly demonstrated by this show, which is handsomely curated. The range of artists included cover the whole period from 1900 to the present day, and includes contemporary and recent figures such as Pavel Brázda (1926-2017), Jan Švankmajer (*1934) and Jaroslav Róna (*1957). However, the focus of this review are the works of the modernist period from before 1945. The exhibition certainly demonstrates that, due to their active interest in Parisian modernism, key representatives of Czech modernism, such as František Kupka, Josef Čapek and Emil Filla employed many primitivist tropes more familiar from the works of Picasso, Matisse or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Čapek was also a prolific writer, producing works such as the study The Art of Primitive Peoples.[1]

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Enchanted by Africa: installation view – photo: Matthew Rampley

However, mention of the notion of Czech primitivism raises a number of questions one might have wished to be addressed. The exhibition focused on purely visual similarities with African tribal sculptures, or on works in which African subjects were prominent. However, such an understanding of primitivism has been criticised due to its reluctance to address the questions of imperialism and colonial power that lay beneath the apparently innocent artistic interest in African art. This kind of criticism has gained momentum since the mid-1980s, prompted by William Rubin’s 1984 exhibition Primitivism in the 20th Century: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern staged in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Commentators such as Hal Foster attacked the exhibition for its reliance on purely formal issues and its neglect of the socio-political context within which the European encounter with non-European art took place. As a result, Foster argued, an extensive reassessment was needed of the ideological blind spots in traditional accounts of the modernist appropriation of the art of Africa and Oceania.[2]

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Enchanted by Africa: installation view – photo: Matthew Rampley

A similar observation could be made of primitivism amongst the Prague avant-garde featured here. Hence, while, on the one hand, the turn towards extra-European cultures was surely like a breath of fresh air – especially given the introverted and oftentimes chauvinistic nationalism of earlier generations of artists – on the other, it entangled Czech artists in the wider European cultural–political stage. Enchanted by Africa pays little attention to such questions, celebrating, instead, the mere fact that Prague-based modernists shared the same artistic space as their more illustrious counterparts in Paris. Yet as early as 1931 the Surrealists had collaborated with the Communist Party in mounting a forceful critique of France’s imperial policies in Africa with their exhibition The Truth of the Colonies (more usually known simply as the ‘Anti-Colonial Exhibition’), as a riposte to the lavish and large-scale Colonial Exhibition of the same year. There is little sense of such debates in the exhibition under review, which highlights the multiple ways in which African societies functioned as a visual source material.

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Enchanted by Africa: installation view – photo: Matthew Rampley

Yet even if the exhibition lacks the analytical approach one might expect, given the theme, it nevertheless prompts speculation about the place of Czechs in the wider question of anti-colonial and postcolonial politics. This also touches on issues to do with Czech self-perception and ideologies of national identity. Having been ruled by various Habsburg monarchs since the 16th century, Czech nationalism thrived on an ideology of victimhood that saw the nation as governed by Austrian ‘oppressors.’ Hence there arose the stereotype of what the anthropologist Ladislav Holý referred to as the ‘little Czech.’[3] This self-image had deep roots, but in the 20th century perhaps its best-known representative was Jaroslav Hašek’s fictional creation of the early 1920s, Švejk, the conscript in the Habsburg Army whose cultivated obtuseness and low cunning exemplified a kind of passive resistance to the overbearing demands of the Austrian army.[4] Yet the exhibition recalls that this is a misleading picture, for although they never possessed overseas colonies, Czechs had a similar colonial mentality to many of the European imperial states.

For in contrast to the other newly created or reconstituted states of east central Europe such as Poland and Yugoslavia, after 1918 the Czechoslovak government actively sought to create a global consular and diplomatic presence; improbably, in some quarters it was even proposed that Czechoslovakia should take over the former German colony of Togo in order to claim its place among the European colonial powers.[5] We might regard this as an incidental historical detail, but it is revealing about an attitude that pervaded the visual arts, too, including the willingness to adopt the discourse and practices of European primitivism. Although it is not included in the exhibition, Josef Čapek’s painting African King (1920) exemplifies this most clearly.

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Josef Čapek: African King, 1920, National Gallery, Prague – photo: ngprague.cz

Indeed, it has been widely noted that the Czechs in particular had a semi-colonial mindset towards the rest of the new state they helped establish in 1918. The distant territory of Ruthenia became the focus of a civilising mission between the Wars, an outlook that, as has already been discussed in this website, led to a project of urban modernisation and building in cities such as Uzhhorod.

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Enchanted by Africa: installation view – photo: Matthew Rampley

As Mary Heimann has argued, and not without some controversy, the Czech administration in general had a high-handed attitude towards the other ethnic groups in Czechoslovakia, one of the factors which, she notes, was partly responsible for the disaffection amongst many Slovaks with the new state they co-created.[6] Even before 1918, far from being an oppressed minority, Czechs were some of the most active participants in the project of Habsburg imperialism. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the only proper colony of Austria-Hungary, Czechs were prominent in the imperial administration, supplying, for example, some of its most important architects. During the First World War a significant role was played in Habsburg relations with the Ottoman Empire by the orientalist Alois Musil (1868-1944), a native of the provincial town of Vyškov near Brno, who was charged with countering the activities of Lawrence of Arabia in the Arab peninsula.[7]

If we take a deeper historical perspective, even before the Habsburg Empire took over the administration in 1878, Czech artists such as Jaroslav Čermák (1831-78) travelled to the western Balkans, including Bosnia, in order to create picturesque, exoticising images of local cultures that were in every way comparable to the orientalist paintings of the Islamic world of artists such as Delacroix or Gérôme. And just as works by these latter figures have been criticised for their implication in and furtherance of colonial attitudes, so the same observation can be made of Čermák and his Czech contemporaries.

It would be unfair to criticise the exhibition for not attending to this complex historical background, especially as goes far beyond the limited theme of Czech artists’ fascination with Africa. At the same time, however, it is pity that, by concentrating on mostly biographical details and formal comparisons, it missed the opportunity to explore the question of what was and remains at stake in the Czech encounter with global cultures beyond the concern with its immediate European neighbours.

Matthew Rampley

Okouzlení Afrikou / Enchanted by Africa (Moravian Museum, Anthropos Pavilion, Brno, 1 May 2019 to 30 January 2020)

[1] Josef Čapek, Umění přírodních národů (Prague, 1938).

[2] Hal Foster, ‘The “Primitive” Unconscious of Modern Art,’ October 34 (1985) pp. 45-70.

[3] Ladislav Holý, The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation: National Identity and the Post-Communist Social Transformation (Cambridge, 1996).

[4] Jaroslav Hašek, Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války (Prague, 1921-23). Translated into English as The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War, trans. Cecil Parrott (London, 2005).

[5] Jaroslav Olša, ‘Českoslovenští diplomaté v černé Africe, 1918–1955: Počátky budování sítě československých zastupitelských úřadů na jih od Sahary,’ Mezinárodní Vztahy 40.2 (2005) pp. 90-105.

[6] Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia: the State that Failed (London and New Haven, 2011).

[7] Theodore Procházka Sr., ‘Alois Musil vs. T. E. Lawrence?’ in Archív Orientální 63 (1995) pp. 435-39; Ernest Gellner, ‘Lawrence of Moravia: Alois Musil, Monotheism and the Habsburg Empire,’ Times Literary Supplement , 19 September 1994, p. 12.

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