What social and political role did modern art and art criticism play in the Czech lands during the first half of the twentieth century? Marta Filipová’s new book (Routledge 2019) assesses this question with close analysis of five themes (Modernism, The People, Society, Identity, Traditions), which show just how closely the construction of modern Czech art was intertwined with national, social and political interests. By considering Czech art writing and criticism across a timespan leading from the Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition of 1895 until the Second World War, the book highlights the central role of Czech national identity in the formulation of Czech modern art and, in turn, the ways in which Czech art and artistic discourse sought to confirm and redevelop national identity.
Expanding and connecting concepts of nationalism and modernism, Filipová presents modern art as a constituent in the formation of Czech identity, which constantly negotiated between tradition and manifold concerns to represent a modern and forward-looking nation. Tracing the shifts and the continuities that this process involved, the book presents a series of case studies about artists, events and exhibitions, which emphasise the integral role of modernism/modernity and national identity in discussions about Czech culture from the late nineteenth century onwards.
While commitment to the Czech nation found almost unchallenged consensus among art historians after the long struggles against Habsburg rule, the approaches by which this was seen to be manifested in culture led to a diverse range of debates. Including analyses of the role of the Manifesto of Czech Modernism (1895), a “national style” of Czech architecture in relation to figures like Josef Gočár and Dušan Jurkovič, and the shifting perception of art for “the people” in the discussions of the Čapek brothers and the Devětsil group of artists, Filipová shows that the roles of progress and tradition were constantly renegotiated when it came to definitions of a national art. Assessed chronologically within the frame of themed chapters, the book thus underlines that, while the goal to define and/or to produce a “modern Czech art” was shared by many Czech cultural figures since the nineteenth century, its definitions varied widely and depended not only on the time in which ideas were formulated, but also on class, gender, and an artist/writer’s proximity to or distance from the government, in both spatial and political terms. In doing so, the book nuances the discourse on the historiography of Czech art and offers the first critical assessment of what these debates meant within a broader picture: defining the role of art within the construction of a nation state.
Throughout, Filipová’s book emphasises the necessity to look closely to detect subtle shifts in the development of modern art in the Czech lands, which continually evolved in response to – or in dialogue with – social and political change. Not least, its focus on the central debates about historical frameworks in a national art history and its continued impact from the late nineteenth into the mid- twentieth century also correspond closely with some of the core questions of the CRAACE research project at large.