Exhibition review: Devětsil 1920-1931

To many, the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 following the traumatic war experience promised a reorganisation of the unjust class system and social and class change became the dream of many leftist artists. Creating a new visual language that would not be elitist and appeal especially to the disadvantaged working classes was an idea promoted by many individuals and collectives from the foundation of the new state. The artistic association Devětsil was born on these principles in 1920. Its key representatives were the young men of Prague and, from 1923, of Brno, who engaged in various artistic forms: painting, sculpture, architecture, design, film, photography, literature, theatre. The choice of the name Devětsil is a mystery. The Czech word refers to a plant, a butterbar, while the literary translation of nine forces could suggest a connection with the nine Greek muses.

The art critic and theorist Karel Teige (1900-1951) quickly became the most outspoken theorist of the group. Almost one hundred members included poets, architects, painters, photographers, film and theatre directors, and for a short period of time the actors of the influential Osvobozené divadlo (Liberated Theatre) Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich. There were only three women – Toyen (1902-1980), a female surrealist painter who adopted a gender neutral identity, the dancer Mira Holzbachová (1901-1986) and the columnist Jaroslava Václavková (1905-1978), which is quite telling of the way the interwar avant-garde was formed as a world dominated by men born around 1900. Some of the individuals were also associated with Devětsil more closely than others and over the period of the existence of the association, their views necessarily developed in various directions. What they shared was a leftist political orientation and an attempt to reach the widest possible audience through the variety of artistic activities: exhibitions that included art of the everyday, articles about new art in journals they published, lectures, proletarian poems, novels, film and plays, collages as well as more traditional works of art. Whether they were successful in their effort to change the social system by their activities is, however, a different matter.

The Devětsil exhibition

The Gallery of the City of Prague, in association with the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, currently hosts an exhibition on this important interwar phenomenon. The exhibition could not be located more centrally – the gallery’s home is the Stone Bell House in the Old Town Square. Crowds of foreign and domestic tourists and locals, the widest possible audience, circle the square not only at Christmas but at all times, yet not many venture into the mediaeval building. If they do, and have no prior knowledge of what Devětsil was and who the members were, the installation offers little insight into the main aims of the association: to engage, to appeal, to entertain, to delete the boundary between art and life. It nevertheless presents a wide range of material which demonstrates the large scope of Devětsil activities.

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Column with posters, installation at the exhibition Devětsil 1920-1931

The exhibition starts with an audio-visual experience on the staircase that winds around a tall and lit column of reproduced period advertisements while period music plays in the background. Once you find the door into the display, you encounter a movie and audio recording of a reading. Devětsil worked with images, whether they were visual, auditory, or textual and this is obvious from the first moment. It is a shame that as a visitor, one is left to try and find your own explanation of the presented material and of the quotations on the walls. It is not until the third room that there is some contextual information to what is being presented. It would be great to have some kind of a basic explanation of what Devětsil was right at the start.

The exhibition sticks to a chronological arrangement leading from the early interest in Primitivism, the movement’s main exhibitions and key directional changes through to the surrealist work of Jindřich Štyrský, Toyen and Josef Šíma of the 1930s. Primitivism was one of the early concerns of some of the Devětsil artists in their search for a new language of expression. In the time immediately after the war, many artists turned to primitivist forms of all kinds: they searched for new inspiration in folk, suburban, or exotic artistic expressions, art that they considered unspoilt. The interest in these forms was turned into a more politically motivated task especially in the concept of proletarian art which concerned Teige from the early 1920s. He saw its potential in appealing to the working class and it was in the manifesto of Devětsil published in the movement’s anthology of the same name in 1922 that Teige defined proletarian art and acknowledged the role of the Russian revolution in turning art back to its social mission.[1]

Critical of current popular art that the working class consumed – pulp literature, slapstick comedies, circus, Sunday football matches, and so on – which he saw as poor derivatives of the bourgeois culture, Teige called for proletarian art that contained an element of romantic escapism. The worker should not be presented with art containing the harsh reality they encounter on daily basis, rather the art should be engaging and evoke tropical and distant lands. Throughout the exhibition, some works indeed point to such conception of proletarian art in visual poems, subjects of paintings, or references to popular culture.

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Zdeněk Pešánek’s studies for light-kinetic sculptures, 1929

Teige developed his ideas about art in the everyday life into a programme of Poetism, which he saw not as an artistic movement but more as a holistic attitude to life, a unity of art and life. This should eventually lead to the unity of all art forms and to what he called poetry for the five senses, demonstrated in for example the kinetic art of Zdeněk Pešánek (1896-1965).

The exhibition indeed tries to make references to wider visual culture and Devětsil’s challenges to the traditional notions of art as that of so-called high art. The room dedicated to the influential 1923 exhibition Bazaar of Modern Art in Prague and Exhibition of New Art that took place a year later in Brno revisits some of the objects placed in the shows originally: a ball bearing, a hairdresser’s dummy head, a life belt, a mirror.

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Works from The Bazaar of Modern Art exhibition, 1923

Teige himself called for an end of the old practice of exhibitions that placed works of art in the archaic ‘mausolea’ of museums. Instead, he demanded that exhibitions should express modern life with all its aspects of artistic and non-artistic objects. ‘New art will no longer be art’ was a bold proclamation of the Soviet avant-gardist Ilya Ehrenburg adopted by Teige in his article for the Devětsil anthology in 1922. This, of course, was a challenge to the established notions of how exhibitions should look like back then as it is now. Even though this room cautiously becomes one of the more adventurous spaces, the rest of the exhibition is structured conventionally and displays individual media or topics room by room: film, painting, graphic design, architecture, stage design, causing the interdisciplinarity and multimedia interest of Devětsil to be somewhat lost or not explored properly.

Beyond Prague

The exhibition also shows that Devětsil was not limited to Prague. Brněnský Devětsil (the Brno Devětsil) founded in 1923 only lasted for four years but made an important mark in modern culture too. The members included the graphic artist Zdeněk Rossman (1905-1984), the photographer Jaroslav Rössler (1902-1990) and the poet and film critic Artuš Černík (1900-1957). A large exhibition at the Moravian Gallery in 2014 revived knowledge of this branch of Devětsil, which gets a brief mention in the latest exhibition too particularly in a display the Brno-based publications. One of them, the journal Pásmo (Zone), the name of which comes from a poem by Apollinaire, was an important international platform for poetry and prose, articles on art, theatre, film and reproductions of works of art.

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Installation view: poster inviting to Le Corbusier’s lecture on modern architecture in Prague, 1928

The internationality of Devětsil is a topic that could have generally been explored more in the current exhibition. Indeed, there are a few visual and textual references to the artistic world outside of Czechoslovakia. For instance Man Ray’s photographs are shown here as important for Teige who considered them as pictorial poems which expanded the definition of poetry (no further explanation provided), El Lissitzky gets a nod in an advertisement for the Soviet Coal Trust pavilion from 1928 by the architect Jaromír Krejcar (1895-1950), and a poster for Le Corbusier’s lecture ‘on modern architecture with illuminated images’ is displayed in a niche.

However, Devětsil was very well networked into the wider interwar artistic circles across Europe through personal links, exhibitions and translations. Many of these appeared in journals such as Revue Devětsilu (Revue of Devětsil), an issue of Život 2 (Life) or Disk (Disk) or in separate editions. These are displayed in the graphic design sections featuring innovative typographical work of Vít Obrtel (1901-1988), Jindřich Štýrský (1899-1942), Teige or Otakar Mrkvička (1898-1957). The international activities of the movement included lectures and exhibitions by, for instance, the Hungarian art group MA, the Ukrainian artist Alexander Archipenko and a number of Bauhaus lecturers. The connections with the Bauhaus via, for example, Kurt Schwitters, the architects Hannes Mayer or Walter Gropius and with Paris through Breton or Apollinaire were more than an adoption of their ideas, it was a two-way exchange. A number of Devětsil architects participated in Bauhaus exhibitions, Teige lectured there for a while, while artists such as Josef Šíma (1891-1971), Štýrský and Toyen had intimate links with Paris where they exhibited and lived. Their work features here quite prominently, but the connections are missing.

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A display of book covers at the exhibition Devětsil 1920-1931

Equally, if not more, important was the fascination with Soviet Russia which took various forms: visual works, poetry, creative writing and film celebrated the Russian revolution and the new social order. Ideas of Russian constructivism played a significant role in the search for a direction of the avant-garde theatre in Czechoslovakia which for a brief period of time joined forces with Devětsil. The stage designs by for instance František Muzika (1900-1974), and Antonín Heythum (1901-1954), shown in the exhibition as part of the Theatre section, provide a sense of how experimental their approach was.

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Model of Jaromír Krejcar’s Olympic Palace, Prague, 1923

Krejcar’s architectural designs suggest another international link. The Olympic department store in Prague with its neon adverts, which is here reconstructed as a large-scale model, makes references to the metropolitan landscape of American cities. This vision of what progressive architecture should look like partly falls within the fascination with unreachable distant lands and partly suggests how global the understanding of modern culture was in the interwar period. The political ideal might have been in Soviet Russia, but artistic interest in progress was not limited by politics or geography.

Devětsil’s wider cultures

Inevitably, the questions of the wider international culture of the art world in the interwar period bring up a comparison which is further strengthened at the very start of the Devětsil exhibition.  The opening quotation from an anonymous author published in Pražské pondělí (The Prague Monday Paper) in late 1920 features on the wall of the first room reads ‘The age has divided in two. Behind us remains the old time, which is condemned to molder in libraries, and in front of us sparkles a new day.’[2] The reference to a divided age recalls the disruptive force of the Great War which not only redrew the political map but ended many artistic tendencies. It also evokes another exhibition that is currently on display at the Janus Pannonius Múzeum in Hungary after being shown in Olomouc, Krakow and Bratislava (reviewed here). Rozlomená doba / Years of Disarray made the international aspect of Central European avant-gardes explicit and showed that ideas of what a new visual language should look like were often shared across larger geographical areas. In Prague, however, the transnational aspect of the movement and the avant-garde remains underexplored.

Overall, there are many suggestions the exhibition makes or assumes but they are often not addressed. The promotional material for the exhibition starts with a reference which seems to set out its tone. It is to the ‘first and only exhibition of Devětsil’ which took place thirty years ago and a goal to present new research findings. Yet it remains unclear what these are whether or not you saw the exhibition in 1986 and are able to compare. Indeed, original works are presented here and the inclusion of many forms of design (stage, graphic but for some reason not interior or furniture) as well as the Brno branch has to be commended. At the same time, a lot is missing. The lack of interest in Devětsil’s literature which only features as book covers can be ascribed to (but not excused by) the focus on primarily visual and auditory material. However, it is the politics of Devětsil that could have been reflected on much more. The association’s members were some of the most radical leftists of the day. Many were members of the Communist Party and it is not a coincidence that the ardent communist journalist, Julius Fučík (1903-1943), was a Devětsil member. The political stances indeed reflected in their work, including the topics they depicted, the way they understood art and in their interest in the notion of proletarian art and culture. Many of the journals they published, especially ReD, were highly critical of the social policies of the contemporary government and the political system in Czechoslovakia and several articles were removed by censors. The reason for the lack of engagement with these topics in the exhibition is open to scrutiny, but it may be the continued difficulty to find an appropriate discourse to examine the relationship between interwar art, class and the communist ideology.

The approach adopted raises the crucial question as to who the exhibition is for. With little contextual information throughout the display that would explain the basics, the general public may not find it very engaging or informative. Indeed, the curators may have decided not to overtheorize the display with excessive information, but then it could be left up to the visitor to decide whether or not to read explanatory notes.

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Installation of Karel Teige and Vítězslav Nezval’s Alphabet

Of course, there is also a catalogue that can be purchased to further one’s knowledge but an exhibition should be self-sufficient to be understood. This is also the reason why the catalogue is not reviewed here. The original playfulness of Devětsil’s art and its shows is also somewhat lost. The objects are presented in a traditional way on walls, stands and in cupboards, the very idea Devětsil tried to challenge. I am not calling for a trivialising of the exhibits but many of the works invite themselves to be much more interactive and engaging. Vítězslav Nezval’s (1900-1958) and Karel Teige’s visual poem Alphabet, which was famously performed by the dancer Milča Mayerová, does not have to be presented as a static chandelier. Providing a couple of costumes for visitors to dress into with guidance on how to perform the individual letters could create an opportunity of public interaction which leads to social media which leads to better outreach. But this also leads back to the question who the intended audience actually is.

Overall, the exhibition shows that Devětsil was full of strong individuals who experimented with different media with which they tried to address contemporary issues in society, culture and politics. It was a complex movement, in which Karel Teige’s theories came to be dominant. A visit is certainly recommended, but reading about Devětsil first is a must.

Marta Filipová

Devětsil 1920-1931 (Prague City Gallery, 11 December 2019 to 29 March 2020)

[1] Jaroslav Seifert, Karel Teige, Devětsil: Revoluční sborník (Prague: Večernice V. Vortel, 1922).

[2] The translation, as it appears in the exhibition, appeared in Derek Sayer, Prague. Capital of the Twentieth Century. A Surrealist History (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013), 199. More idiomatic translation is provided by Alexandra Büchler in “Statement,” Between Worlds. A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930, ed. Timothy O. Benson and Éva Forgács (Cambridge, Mass.-London: LACMA-MIT Press, 2002), p. 240, which reads: “Our age has been split into two. Behind us are left the old times, condemned to being turned into dust in libraries; before us sparkles a new day.”

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/4KTV5

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