Exhibition review: The First Czechoslovak Republic

In October 2018, as part of the centenary celebrations of the founding of Czechoslovakia, the Gallery of Modern Art in the Veletržní palác (Trade Fair Palace) in Prague, a constituent part of the National Gallery, rehung its collection of early twentieth-century Czech art. In the place of a chronological arrangement covering the period from 1900 to 1930 is a more thematic display, with the title 1918-1938: The First Czechoslovak Republic. Originally intended to mark a particular moment, it has become a semi-permanent display; hence, a year after its unveiling, it merits a second look.

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Installation view of the exhibition The First Czechoslovak Republic – photo: Matthew Rampley

At first sight the Gallery and its curators Anna Pravdová and Lada Hubatová-Vacková should be congratulated for this imaginative curatorial project. The arrangement that used to occupy the space on the third floor and had been in place since 2000 was problematic in a number of ways. It was organised around the work of individual painters and sculptors, thus contributing to the mythology of the modern artist. In addition, there was a questionable division between ‘Czech’ and ‘foreign’ art, in which works in the important collection of, for example, Picasso and Braque, were located separately, despite their evident importance for the development of Czech Cubism. Conversely, the paintings of František Kupka (1871-1957) were exhibited amongst those of other Czech modernists, even though his contribution to the Prague art world was negligible; as a young man he travelled to Paris to study at the Académie Julian and stayed in the French capital, making it his home. The nationalistic values of that older approach have now been discarded, a decision evident in the other new displays of the National Gallery; the new display 1796-1918: Art of the Long Century, for example, shows works by Klimt, Munch, and Schiele alongside those of Luděk Marold (1865-1898), Luisa Max-Ehrlerová (1850-1920) and Max Švabinský (1873-1962).[1]

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The First Czechoslovak Republic, installation view – photo: Matthew Rampley

In The First Czechoslovak Republic, this conscious decision to move away from the earlier focus on Czech painters and sculptors only can be seen from the very beginning, where the first section is devoted to the Gallery of Modern Art, founded in 1902, as a prelude to the main story focused on the decades after 1918. Here we are reminded of the fact not only that modern and contemporary art was thereby given official institutional recognition and support (the Gallery received financial support from the Habsburg Emperor himself) but also that it collected examples of modern art from across Europe, as well as by local artists. Hence, the section includes paintings and sculptures by Max Pechstein, Oskar Kokoschka and Wilhelm Lehmbruck, amongst others, alongside works by Prague-based artists. An additional section showcases the significant collections of French modernist painting and sculpture amassed in the early twentieth century, drawing attention to the pivotal role that Paris played as a focus of interest for self-declared progressive and modern Czech artists. A German emphasis is clear, too; we are reminded that the Modern Gallery had a separate section for German-Bohemian artists – and that institutional division is recreated in the rehang here. Later, there is also a section on the short-lived Prague Secession, founded in 1928 by German-speaking artists in the capital of the new state. This reflects a recent significant shift in thinking about the art of Czechoslovakia and the Czech lands, which traditionally ignored art by the many non-Czech minorities. It also creates an interesting point of dialogue in the overall display, for at the entrance to the gallery spaces the viewer is confronted by a sequence of sculptures of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, First President of the Republic. Masaryk has since become a lieu de mémoire for Czechs, but the other ethnic groups of interwar Czechoslovakia viewed him with some degree of ambivalence. As Mary Heiman has suggested in her provocative study Czechoslovakia, the State that Failed, the Czechs who dominated the new Republic had a high-handed and intolerant attitude towards the minorities of the new state.[2]

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Installation view from the exhibition The First Czechoslovak Republic – photo: Matthew Rampley

This reference to the Germans is part of a wider openness and rethinking of the art world of the First Republic (although, as I note later, there are limit to this). Traditionally, histories of Czechoslovak (and even Czech) art focused almost exclusively on Prague. Even if, as Derek Sayer has put it, Prague was ‘capital of the twentieth century,’ it was not the only significant art centre in Czechoslovakia.[3] Consequently the exhibition has separate sections devoted to Brno, Zlín, Bratislava, Košice and Uzhhorod. Of these, Brno has long been renowned, although more for its architecture than for its art, but critical attention to the others is still developing. The Gallery will hopefully make a useful contribution to wider public understanding of the cultural dynamics of interwar Czechoslovakia, although one might have wished for more in-depth coverage. The status of the new republic as a small-scale recreation of the Habsburg Empire, with tensions between its various ethnicities, Czechs, Slovaks, Jews, Hungarians, Roma, Germans and Ukrainians, is glossed over.

Bratislava, Košice and Brno are reasonably well represented as art centres, including a reminder that the celebrated Exhibition of Contemporary Culture of 1928 in Brno was not an unmitigated success: the artwork displayed there was criticised for its conservative character. But the sections on Uzhhorod and Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia were schematic. The emphasis was very much on their status as a repository of folk culture and pastoral imagery, an approach that would not have looked out of place in the 1930s, even though, as we have explored in previous posts, the modernist identity of Uzhhorod has now been well established, albeit as part of the ‘civilising mission’ of the Prague administration.

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Exhibition posters from 1920s Košice at the exhibition The First Czechoslovak Republic – photo: Matthew Rampley

The Gallery nevertheless deserves credit for its provision of a more representative selection of works, which has involved loans from elsewhere. The foregrounding of sites is part of a wider approach, too, which, instead of the previous arrangement of styles, movements and individuals, presents institutions, organisations and exhibitions as some of the more significant milestones. For sure, some groups, such as Devětsil (‘Butterbur’) and Tvrdošíjni (‘The Obstinate Ones’) garner considerable attention, but other themes include the Topič Salon, the Rudolf Weinert auction house, the Mánes Association and key exhibitions it hosted such as Poetry 1932,  the First Surrealist Exhibition of 1935 and the joint exhibition of Emil Filla (1882-1953) and Sculpture from Africa and Oceania, held the same year. Design co-operatives, such as Odeon and Družstevní práce (Co-operative Work) are also presented; rather imaginatively, the displays take the form of shop fronts, indicating the commercial orientation of these groups of designers. Finally, a special mention should be made of the presentation of Zdeněk Pešánek (1896-1965). Some thirty years earlier than the celebrated American sculptor Dan Flavin, Pešánek was experimenting with florescent lights in the 1930s as a sculptural medium, resulting in a striking oeuvre that has yet to receive the critical attention it deserves.

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Installation from the exhibition The First Czechoslovak Republic – photo: Matthew Rampley

Overall, therefore, The First Czechoslovak Republic is a novel and thoughtful attempt to reframe interwar art. It is a pity, therefore, that the curators did not take advantage of the opportunity to go even further in departing from traditional norms. It was notable that photography was almost completely absent. This is all the more striking given that, internationally, interwar Czechoslovakia is known above all for the work of photographers such as Josef Sudek, František Drtikol (1883-1961) and Jaroslav Rössler (1902-1990). Photography was central to surrealism as well as to Družstevní práce, which relied on the artfully staged photographs of Sudek to market its products in the pages of magazines such as Panorama. The reason for this omission may be an arbitrary institutional one; photographs are mostly held by the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, but it may also reflect a rather more conservative conception of art. Indeed, its absence is all the more ironic, given that it was precisely in the 1920s and 1930s that the identity of art as an autonomous cultural practice came into question.

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Display of industrial design at the exhibition The First Czechoslovak Republic – photo: Matthew Rampley

One can broaden this observation; although the sections on Družstevní práce and Odeon feature examples of industrial and graphic design, they still form only a small proportion of the material exhibited. Yet in parallel with the case of photography, there were lively debates over the place of art within the wider economy of visual culture. Here we gain only a very brief glimpse of an issue that could, arguably, have been given more prominence.

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Installation view of the exhibition The First Czechoslovak Republic – photo: Matthew Rampley

Absent, too, is serious examination of gender. In 1929, the year after the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture, an exhibition was staged in Brno on the theme of the Modern Woman, and it was accompanied by a catalogue, The Civilised Woman. This was the culmination of a debate that had occupied the attention of many artists, and the role of women as artists was a much-discussed topic. It is unfortunate that this is missing alongside the general under-representation of women artists.

Finally, while each section was clearly introduced, with informative panels and contextual photographs guiding the visitor, the same could not be said of the display of individual works of art. Minimal information was given about each one, when frequently it was not self-evident what one was to make of its presence there. Ironically, in the older hang, one at least had a sense of its place as an example of a particular style or movement or part of an artist’s oeuvre. Because The First Czechoslovak Republic chose a more adventurous narrative, more work was needed to help the viewer understand the paintings, sculptures and other works being exhibited. In this respect the accompanying catalogue was a missed opportunity; replicating the exhibition, it would have benefitted enormously from the inclusion of some longer essays that explored the issues at greater length. Like Art of the Czech Lands, the volume published by the Institute of Art History and reviewed earlier on this blog, the potential gains from this exercise in rethinking the presentation of interwar art from Czechoslovakia were undercut somewhat by the lack of more extensive discussion and analysis. Despite such criticisms, the curators have managed to reframe how one might approach the topic and, in so doing, have brought certain myths into question, not least of which is the traditional view that modernism in Czechoslovakia was primarily the business of its Czech-speaking inhabitants, its other groups reduced to the status of onlookers. A year after its opening, it is still fresh and presents many surprises and unexpected new perspectives.

Matthew Rampley

1918-1938: Privní Republika / The First Czechoslovak Republic (National Gallery, Prague, Veletržní palác, on view from 2018)

[1] The date 1796 refers to the founding in Prague of the Picture Gallery of the Patriotic Society of Friends of Art, the ancestor of the National Gallery.

[2] Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia, the State that Failed (London and New Haven, 2009).

[3] See Derek Sayer, Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (Princeton, 2013).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/QSY25

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