A Reader in East-Central-European Modernism: Book Review

In 1927 Kurt Tucholsky published a poem called Das Ideal (The Ideal),[1] in which he pieces together a fantastic wish list for his life including all the money in the world, an endless, but harmless stream of food and alcohol, and his desired apartment. The latter let him see the Alps in the backyard, and Berlin’s Friedrichstraße in the front, with tight-lipped servants, a rooftop tree garden, and 2 ponies, 4 stallions, 8 cars and a motorcycle in the barn. That is what the new Reader in East-Central-European Modernism 1918–1956 edited by Beáta Hock, Klara Kemp-Welch and Jonathan Owen and published online by the Courtauld Institute achieves: an easily accessible resource for an international audience that will serve as an essential point of reference for students and scholars of the field. Bringing together and translating 27 wide-ranging essays, written in Czech, Slovak, Polish or Hungarian, and not available in English before, is a great achievement. The publication was born out of a course on central European modern art and culture in the MA programme at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Whereas there were some anthologies of primary sources, which still could be expanded on in the future, there was simply not a sufficient quantity of secondary literature available for the student.[2] In contrast to the plethora of studies on German or Soviet art in the interwar period, there is still to this day a lack of easily accessible English articles on interwar Czech, Hungarian, or Polish art. This new reader makes good that lack, and the editors should be praised highly for their efforts; there are indeed many stallions in the stable.

Reader cover

If you are looking for an advanced theoretical framework for the study of modern central European art, you have to jump through many hoops to find something as satisfying. For the editors, it is no small feat to have navigated thick layers of theory in their short introduction. Titled ‘Towards a Minor Modernism?’ it provides the outline for a number of new approaches. The text ostentatiously starts with Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s famous and often-cited text, the 1975 essay ‘Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature,’ which promoted the deterritorialization of all discourses and the strengths of the marginal, the thinking in-between. Acting on behalf of Kafka’s lived experience of multiple cultural identities and languages, the text aims to provide a blueprint for a diverse interpretation of central European art. Whether suitable as a vantage point or not, the editors sadly didn’t manage to connect these new ideas to the articles assembled in the reader in closer detail and therefore to the wider history of the reception of central European art. Although it would probably have led to a different book and project, it would have made sense to discuss broader issues in separate comments or smaller chapters in between the older articles.

The still compelling thoughts, discussed in the introduction, are split in half between a brief research history from Stephen A. Mansbach to Timothy E. Benson, and a critical account on ‘Isms’ in modernist art, national identity and canonization. Mansbach’s mission in the early 1990s was to provide a differentiated image of East Central Europe, fighting back the Cold War-infused view of a monolithic Eastern bloc. For that, he described the art in the region as a plethora of hybrid forms that perceived Western artistic influences as a source for their own local needs and search for national identity. In short, with chapters divided into the Czech Lands, Poland and Lithuania, the Baltic States, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, Romania, and Hungary, the question arose as to whether this would ultimately bring back a nationalist view of art history – and whether subsequent scholars should pursue an international or a more regional/national focus.

The editors rightfully question basing the geography of central European modernism on that framework of nation states and highlight the importance of ‘cross-border flows and connections as well as of itinerant biographies.’ It is the ‘supra- and transnationality’ of artists and concepts involved that helps define the character of central European art, they argue. To undertake a transnational analysis is not a small task; one can look to the difficulties involved in parallel efforts to do the same with, for example, German Expressionism, where there were dilemmas in balancing international and regional identities. These kinds of endeavours often end up in merely parallel national narratives rather than genuinely transnational studies.[3] To sum up the approach here: the editors put forward an image of a liberal, artistically progressive exchange on a smaller regional level in central Europe, yet it seems that national frameworks still predominate in the writing of art history of the region.[4] To some degree influenced by Piotr Piotrowski’s idea of a horizontal art history, geographic and discursive hybridity is the ideal promoted by the editors, and it provides new ideas and poses interesting questions.[5] Yet this is arguably only one side of the story; the anthology pays no attention to nationalist ideas in central European art, which have to be, although often neglected, considered a central force in much modernist art of the period.

The selected essays, 27 in total, show how complex these hybrid processes are, but without any further commentary, their distribution and selection is hard to judge. Czechoslovakian and Polish subjects dominate the selection; only four articles are related to Hungarian art. Although many include transnational movements, almost all of them operate from a national perspective. Given that the articles range from 1981 until 2019, it seems excusable that not all fulfill the projected goal of a transnational perspective yet. However, most of the articles originate in the mid-2010s and come from active scholars in the field, so one might have hope for some divergence from these nationalized patterns of research. Most contributors are based in the capital cities of Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw, underpinning a further sense of centralization. The editors arranged the essays in a loosely chronological order, with subjects covering a timeline from 1918 to 1956, and so the themes reach from the end of the First World War through the interwar period, the Second World War and the years after 1945, providing some welcome thoughts on the continuity of modernism, even with socialist realism. The main topics are: (1) discussions of abstraction and of various realisms; (2) analyses of gender representation; (3), the role of institutions, from museums to exhibitions, and maybe most importantly, (4) historiographies of modernism. Chapters cover traditional arts of painting and sculpture, and industrial design, film, photography, typography, and intermedia phenomenon. The selection surely reflects the editor’s personal network, but they succeeded in bringing together established as well as younger art historians, and with that, they present some of the most recent research, rather than falling back onto old staples.

Almost all of the essays can be considered as very useful for their respective field – and the texts are meant to be used in short bursts as an easy-accessible resource of case studies. Most of them were produced for very different occasions and under different circumstances, e.g. for an exhibition catalogue, chapters from stand-alone books or contributions for a journal. To balance those discrepancies, some were revised or even written for the purpose of the reader. Despite their overall efforts, this idea of a profoundly edited or ‘curated’ reader invites scrutiny of the editors’ decision not to address broader methodological issues, and it also warrants a more articulative disclosure of the selected topics and scholars.

Marie Rakušanová’s account of the origins of Cubism offers a very elaborate view of perception and other philosophical concepts that accompanied the style’s genesis on an intellectual level. It is also long tale of lost heritage and broken records. The outcome of the essay, which first appeared in the Czech art journal Umění in 2017, is somewhat ambivalent and can stand pars pro toto for the reader as a whole.[6] The problem narrows down to the question: Is cubism Czech? When even Czech art historians failed to reconnect to pre-war concepts after 1945, there is indeed a sense of loss and something important falling into oblivion. To no one’s surprise, the tradition of the October based writers focused on the linguistic, perceptual side that Rosalind Krauss and others found in interwar Paris. They ignored the Czech debates, such as those voiced in Vincenc Kramář’s writings, where they would have found concepts of similar range. Conversely, Kramář and other Czech authors stressed spiritualism and biographical reasoning in the approach to ‘their’ cubism, which ultimately defines their identity.

Kubista Saint Sebastian

Bohumil Kubišta: Saint Sebastian, 1912, National Gallery, Prague – photo: Webumenia

A longer commentary section could have discussed the overarching issues posed by Rakušanová’s article in much greater detail. Why is it still felt necessary to lay claim to the style, like the older nationalised debates about the origins of Gothic? When and where was Cubism exactly on a high note in Europe? The article is a prime example, too, of the thin line between saving one’s own national tradition, and the hidden desire to be as good as the Western world – and in the end, despite the most noble efforts, it comes through as a bit defensive. It may be necessary to reclaim and retell a lost theoretical heritage but why not ignore the supposedly canonized and outdated Western theory for once?

Andrzej Turowski’s article on parasitism addresses the issue of how foreign styles have changed when imported into central Europe. Following Mansbach, the article discusses how Polish Formism adopted new European art movements in the early 1920s and transformed them. The Formists (Formiści) targeted Futurism as their preferred Avant-garde style. This also served to mask the still dominant Romantic-Expressionist tradition in Poland, and helped the artists to appear more modern when facing the international scene. This is what Turowski considers a strategy of parasitism, the hijacking of a foreign style for the use of something else. Turowski’s term almost gives it a subversive tone, one that outwits the dominant art world of western Europe. Formism not only hid the old-fashioned romanticist fantasies, but also served as an entry point for the Polish art scene to the international avant-garde in the early 1920s. Cubism was already regressing, and the most recent Constructivist practices haven’t been popularized enough to be considered. Turowski’s article helps to understand the Polish Formists’ strategy of mimicry in an already differentiated and saturated field.


Leon Chwistek: Łódź, 1919, National Museum in Cracow – photo: Wikimedia Commons

A further article by Turowski on biomorphism in 1930s Polish art, operates on a much smaller scale. It considers Władysław Strzemiński’s rhythmic physiology of vision, which describes the viewer’s eyes running along the drawn lines, and accompanies his later works and functions as a theory of psychophysical energies. The amoeba serves as its archetype, directed against the clean machine aesthetics of Functionalism / Constructivism. For Turowski the end of almost all artistic utopias in the 1930s, whether left wing or moderate, led to the search for the subjective and the physical body. Katarzyna Kobro, who is widely known for her constructivist figures, associated her sculptures with physicality and sexuality, changing to organic forms in 1933/34 as well. Turowski’s complements Luiza Nader’s neuroaesthetic reading of Strzemiński’s war drawings, and both efforts provide insight to important aesthetic shifts in the 1930s, which could serve as a subset for further discussion.

The anthology also includes a close group of essays on questions of gender and sexuality. Martina Pachmanová’s article on the forced education of women’s taste in Czechoslovakia discusses the long-lasting influence of Adolf Loos’ essay ‘Ornament and Crime.’ Waldemar Baraniewski’s examination of Katarzyna Kobro und Maria Jarema, the latter also a sculptor and member of the Polish Avant-garde, conveys the same feeling as Marie Rakušanová’s essay about Czech Cubism – that of a lost heritage. Because most of their abstract sculptures were lost, there is next to no tradition of this kind of work in Polish sculpture, and the neglect of both female sculptors by art historians help reinforce that aberration. Júlia Cserba’s account of the cross-dresser Anton Prinner is more anecdotal, focusing on his fabulous life as a factotum of the avant-garde in Paris. All three essays might have warranted an additional critical comment on how gender tropes change, when crossing borders, and how they influence canonization as a matter of their blurred identities.

Małgorzata Sears’s article about the Polish group Rytm and its classicism as a reaction to the new government policy of Sanacja, the dictatorial regime under Józef Piłsudski and Edward Rydz-Śmigły, in power from 1926 to 1939, is, surprisingly, one of the few articles directly concerned with politics on a national level. Naturally, articles about the history of exhibitions provide a similar perspective, because they present a nation’s identity abroad. Hana Rousová’s article on the rushed hanging of two abstract paintings by František Kupka in 1925’s Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts doesn’t fully reveal the supposed outrage that those two artworks inflicted in an otherwise conservative environment. Kinga Bódi on the other hand provides good insight into the Hungarian exhibitions at the Venice Biennales of 1928 and 1948. Julianna P. Szűcs’ discussion of the School of Rome examines the entangled, yet important, Italian influences for Hungarian painters, whereas Lenka Bydžovská shows the same level of affection towards the famed French journal Documents and Georges Bataille amongst the Czech surrealists. All of these articles appear as traditional studies of influence– and mostly succeed with it.

There are a number of instructive articles on individual artists between the wars, including Katarína Bajcurová’s study of Ludovit Fulla in Slovak modernism. András Zwickl, Katalin Bakos, Ágnes Kusler and Merse Pál Szeredi examine Gyula Derkovits (an artist previously featured on our website) in comparison with contemporary social photography. Zsófia Kiss-Szemán’s essay on Cyprián Majerník provides the same level of detailed art historical analyses. In short, half of the articles function very well as a resource for specific topics. They offer considerable insight to a broader international audience, although the actual reasoning behind the selection of these specific artists is open to question; at the very least, it is not addressed by the editors.

Majernik Don Quijote

Cyprián Majerník: Don Quixote, 1943, Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava – photo: Webumenia

The final couple of articles examine the transition to the Second World War and provide an understanding of why socialist realism after 1945 was not necessarily the end of modernism, a claim which could have evoked a wider historiographic discussion of continuity and rupture. Agata Pietrasik’s article on Marian Bogusz explains how a certain sense for aesthetic survival saved the artist, as he planned a utopian city for artists, while imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp. Dorota Jarecka provides an interesting perspective on Zbigniew Dłubak’s photo series The Magellan Heart (Serce Magellana), in which he mirrors early colonial history with his life in the post-war ruins of Europe. Again, the question of selection comes up. Tomáš Pospiszyl’s analysis of Jiří Kolář’s early collages is fruitful, but other artists of the late 1940s may have been more relevant.

The design for the reader’s cover was taken from Zdenek Rykr’s oeuvre, whose achievements as a stage designer and entrepreneur throughout Europe were brought to the fore by Vojtěch Lahoda in this volume. First, the artist still deserves more attention, not only for his advertisements or his paintings, but also as a cross media performer. With that jack-of-all-trades in mind, perhaps one could push the concept of the reader even further and provide regular translations for accomplished articles, as the journal Art in Translation already does. The Courtauld Reader further advances this idea, and we can hope that it is the first step of a longer term process.

The new Reader in East-Central-European Modernism 1918-1956 succeeds in providing a younger generation of international students and scholars with a textual basis of hard to reach secondary literature. The percentage of differentiated, insightful current articles is high, although most of them contain straightforward case studies. Moreover, they mostly fall into the usual national categories. Even that could serve the reader well, if the rationale for the selection was explained in greater detail and connected to the overarching problems in the field. Most contributions do not, ultimately, exemplify the transnational art history that the editors propose. Scholarship on modern central European art will have to take new routes, and subsequent discussions will need to differentiate and pursue that goal even further.

Christian Drobe

[1] Theobald Tiger, “Das Ideal”, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, 31 July 1927, No 31, p. 1256.

[2] Timothy Benson, ed., Between Worlds: A Sourcebook on Central European Avant-Gardes (Cambridge, MA, 2002).

[3] See Isabel Wünsche, ed., The Routledge Companion to Expressionism in a Transnational Context (New York, 2019).

[4] Matthew Rampley, “The Construction of National Art Histories and the ‘New’ Europe”, in Matthew Rampley et al., eds., Art History and Visual Studies in Europe, Transnational Discourses and National Frameworks (Leiden, 2012), pp. 231-246.

[5] Piotr Piotrowski, “Toward a Horizontal History of the European Avant-Garde”, in Sascha Bru et al., eds., Europa! Europa? The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent (Berlin, 2009), pp. 49-58.

[6] Marie Rakušanová, “Je kubismus, který je český, světový? Případ Kubišta”, Umění 65.5-6 (2017), pp. 474-500.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/63F8Q

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply