František Kupka: Blue Shape A II, 1919-24

Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe: Catalogue review

In the autumn of 2018, the Museum of Art in Olomouc staged the exhibition Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe. It was subsequently staged at the International Centre in Cracow, the Bratislava City Art Gallery and finally the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs. It was an ambitious and imaginative exhibition, but initially no catalogue was available, only a short inexpensive guide. Now, after some delay, the full exhibition catalogue has been published, in handsome Czech and English-language editions. In its scale and scope – nearly 700 pages in length and with hundreds of images – the volume is not merely meant as an aid to the exhibition, but as a standard work of reference on central European modernism. In fact, although ostensibly based on the exhibition, it is only loosely connected to it; one loses sight of the original exhibition themes and structure due to the many essays on entirely unrelated topics. It therefore is best treated as standalone publication.

Catalogue of the exhibition Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe

Catalogue of the exhibition Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe – photo: Facebook

The weighty tome is a monumental achievement and a goldmine of information. The editor should be congratulated for pulling together such a comprehensive body of material and for co-ordinating the work of so many contributors. It contains illustrations of many artworks that are barely known and many informative essays on different aspects of its topic. The volume is divided into three sections: on (1) general themes relating to the work as a whole; (2) art of the period 1908-1918 and (3) art of the period 1918-1928. Each of the sections on the decades either side of 1918 contains thematic overviews as well as more focused studies on individual countries. Thus, the first section contains, in addition to overviews of the art, political and cultural history of the period in question, useful discussions of the concept of ‘central Europe,’ Constructivism, Cubism and its dissemination, and the central European reception of western European avant-gardes. It also has a useful glossary of terms, artists’ biographies, profiles of groups and organisations, as well as a comprehensive bibliography.

Many of the themes it considers are well established, but it is distinctive in the extensive range of examples it brings to bear on these questions and represents the kind of knowledge that only a team of researchers would be capable of producing. It compares well with other high-profile exhibitions on the same general topic, such as the recent exhibition Beyond Klimt: New Horizons in Central Europe staged at the Belvedere in 2018, and the somewhat older Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation, 1910-1930 held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2002. It is broader in scope than both of these, a reflection of the larger team involved with contributors from some 10 countries.

Years of Disarray 1908–1928 thus has many virtues but it also raises a number of important questions. Perhaps the first relates to the meaning of the term ‘avant-garde.’ It is a much-debated term, and since Peter Bürger’s influential study in the early 1980s we have learnt to be rather more circumspect in our use of it.[1] For Bürger, ‘avant-garde’ signified a questioning of art as an autonomous cultural practice and the project of breaking down the barrier separating art from other forms of social activity. Hence, Picasso was modernist whereas Dadaists such as Duchamp or Raoul Haussmann, with their inclusion of everyday objects, were avant-garde, inasmuch as their works asked what it even means to call something a work of art. We might also wish to take into account Rosalind Krauss’s important critique of the myths of avant-garde originality, which problematises many of the values associated with the avant-garde.[2]

The authors are, of course, entitled to disregard Bürger or Krauss, but given that the meaning of the term is not settled, the volume would have been enhanced if the editor and authors of Years of Disarray had laid out the term’s meaning for the purposes of this book. This is not a merely pedantic issue of definition; it highlights the criteria implicitly shaping the decisions over what to include and exclude from the exhibition. For example, with regard to the period before 1918, ‘avant-garde’ seems loosely interchangeable with ‘modern.’ But for the period after the Great War, there is an undeclared assumption that it relates to a specific set of practices that were shaped by constructivism and a fascination with technology and the dynamism of contemporary society. Abstraction, too, seems to be a prominent feature of the central European interwar avant-gardes. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, except that it would be helpful if it could be explicit, especially as there are many omissions, the logic of which is not clear. The neo-primitivism of the Čapek brothers, for example, is mysteriously absent, for example, as is surrealism. Absent, too, are the many forms of expressionism that persisted after 1918. While many examples of photography, photomontage and typographic experimentations are illustrated, it is curious that the avant-garde embrace of such new media is not addressed head-on, nor its use examined in relation either to the ideas of the new vision or the avant-garde dismantling of art’s autonomy.[3] The editor no doubt had reasons for these exclusions, but an overarching historical narrative explaining the conceptual framework underpinning them would have been enormously helpful.

The need for such conceptual clarification is most apparent in the treatment of Austria, which raises the question, too, of the meaning of the term ‘central Europe’ in this project. There is a useful survey of the history of the idea of central Europe, although one would really have wished for a clearer sense of what this tricky concept means in this book. At some point it seems to have been decided that Austria is not really part of central Europe – even though Germany and Romania are (but not Bulgaria). Its absence in the section covering the period before 1918 is especially baffling, especially given the extensive discussion of artistic relations to Paris and Berlin. Its near invisibility in the section covering the period after 1918 is intriguing, since it raises broader questions. Aside from a few passing references to figures such as Egon Schiele and Anton Kolig, the only serious discussion of Austria is in an essay on kineticism in the 1920s. This has recently been ‘rediscovered’ and promoted as the one Austrian ‘avant-garde’ movement between the wars, but its inclusion here is awkward both because it offers a highly partial picture of interwar Austrian art and also because it draws attention, once more, to the fact that Austria is otherwise not included (a chapter on Lajos Kassák makes almost no reference to his exile in Vienna).[4] Yet, despite the political collapse of Austria-Hungary in 1918, Vienna continued to be integrated into central European artistic networks, even though its status was somewhat diminished. The treatment of the Austrian capital stands in contrast to that of Berlin and Paris, each of which, rightly, have dedicated chapters. The discussion of Paris by Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel is particularly illuminating; whereas, before 1914, many artists gravitated towards Paris and were trained there, they found it considerably less welcoming in the 1920s. French nationalism and cultural chauvinism – even on the part of many so-called ‘progressive’ artists – meant that Hungarians, Czechoslovaks, Poles and others met with indifference or even hostility. Instead, Berlin took over as the major art metropolis, building on the extensive links that Herwarth Walden, founder of the magazine and gallery Der Sturm, had already cultivated prior to the War.

František Kupka: Blue Shape A II, 1919-24 - displayed at Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe

František Kupka: Blue Shape A II, 1919-24, collection of Robert Runták – photo:

One might thus have wished for more on Vienna and, in this context, it is worth noting that Moscow, too, is only a very marginal presence. Given the embrace of Communism and Marxist cultural politics by so many of the artists featured in this volume, this is particularly striking. Avant-gardism was nothing if not deeply political. Occasionally its political commitments could veer towards Fascism, as in Mussolini’s Italy, but, in general, it was Marxist and, at least in the 1920s, many artists were transfixed by the image of Moscow and the Soviet Union. The limited coverage of this topic reflects, perhaps, a wider reluctance on the part of the contributors to talk about politics except in the most general way. Politics always takes place in the background in the essays in this book, it is seldom examined as intrinsic to the works themselves. Yet the very title of journals such as Kassák’s Munka (Work, 1928-1939) and organisations such as Družstevní práce (Co-operative work, 1922-1957) signified a conceptual and ideological engagement with the Marxist category of labour. In contrast, Years of Disarray tends to skirt around the cultural politics of constructivism, for example, which was rooted in materialist conceptions of production, history and aesthetics, or the contradictions between Karel Teige’s embrace of Poetism – a form of aesthetic transfiguration – and his commitment to materialism in his essays on architecture.

Some sharper and more focused editing would also have strengthened the publication, since it is, in a way, curiously unfocused. In the articles covering the decade before 1918 Prague and Czech artists dominate the discussion but this means much repetition of material and ideas from one essay to the next. Judicious editing might have created space for discussion of other topics that were unaccountably missing; Poland is amply covered in the second half of the book, for example, but there is next to no discussion of the Cracow-based Młoda Polska (Young Poland) and the Sztuka art group, despite their international prestige and prominence. The choice of some articles seems a little arbitrary, too; we learn about Romanian magazines, but not about Romanian Dadaism, for example.[5] We learn about Košice as a modernist city (using the regrettably reified notion of ‘Košice modernism’), which is presumably intended to explore the role of regional centres, but it would have been useful to examine the practices and politics of regionalism more widely, since Košice was not so different from cities such as Brno, Plzeń, Bratislava, Salzburg, Ljubljana or Cracow. The Zagreb-based journal Zenit is examined, but Belgrade is only mentioned in passing – despite the reference to the Yugoslav context. Zagreb could also have featured in the discussion of regionalism – alongside Košice – but one suspects it is treated here as a result of a projection back of its contemporary status as a capital city in its own right.

One striking aspect of the volume is the tension between, on the one hand, the emphasis on the transnational orientation of the avant-garde and, on the other, the number of contributions that use contemporary national boundaries as their basic framework. The result is a sequence of parallel stories that seem to undermine the idea of artistic boundary-crossings. This is particularly notable in the section on art after 1918, and is reinforced by the fact that Polish authors write about Polish art, Romanians about Romanian art, Croats about Croatian art, and so forth. One might hope that the avant-garde might be a model for art historical practice, in which the national frame is no longer the automatic point of reference, and when being based in Prague, Budapest, or Warsaw, for example, does not mean that you are limited to writing about Czech, Hungarian or Polish modernism. Some questionable national myths also surface. We learn, for example, that Hungary was ‘liberated’ from Austrian rule in 1918; or that modernism came to an end with the Horthy regime (even though, in fact, many of those who fled Hungary in 1919 eventually returned, including Kassák); that avant-gardism was especially associated with transnational exile (despite the fact that Kassák failed to engage with Austrian artists during his Viennese exile and mostly cultivated contacts with the Hungarian diaspora across central Europe).

Lajos Kassák: MA Book: Poems - - displayed at Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe

Lajos Kassák: MA Buch: Gedichte (MA Book: Poems), 1923, Petőfi Museum of Literature – Kassák Museum, Budapest – photo:

Finally, one might have wished for a sense of how the authors of this anthology engaged with topics and issues that have been more central to the recent study of the avant-garde. These might include, for example, sexual politics. The essays discuss the work of a number of female artists, such as Erika Giovanna Klien, Marianne Ullmann and Toyen, but the specific issue of women and art is not explored, even though it was a much-debated subject between 1908 and 1928. One might consider, too, the ambivalence towards bourgeois culture; sociological studies have examined how the avant-garde both rejected it while embracing a kind of alternative professionalism that mimicked bourgeois attitudes and practices. Avant-garde reactions to commodity culture have also been a recurring focus of analysis; on the one hand, the avant-garde distanced itself from capitalist production, but at the same time Taylorist notions of work were adopted and formal practices, visible in constructivist abstraction, for example, ended up functioning as a form of branding. In addition, fashion and design became a topic of considerable interest for the avant-garde. There was the fascination, too, with Americanism and jazz, which spills over into the question of attitudes to black and African culture. These may not have been as important in much of central Europe as in Germany, for example, but jazz was a recurring preoccupation in Vienna (in the work of Carry Hauser, for example, or Ernst Krenek’s jazz opera Johnny spielt auf), and New York was clearly the template of urban modernity for Erika Giovanna Klien or in Czechoslovakia, where skyscrapers loomed large in the imagination of many architects.[6]

The publication of Years of Disarray is undoubtedly a welcome event, following on from the highly successful exhibition, but it would undoubtedly have greater impact if it had a more sharply defined purpose, with more strategically chosen essays that engaged not only with some of the more important issues of relevance to the contemporary study of the avant-garde, but also with challenging task of what it even means to talk about the central European avant-gardes.

Matthew Rampley

This review was previously published in Czech in Art Antiques:

Karel Srp, ed., Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe (Olomouc: Muzeum Umění Olomouc and Arbor Vitae, 2018)

[1] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis, 1984). Originally published in German in 1974, it was published in Hungarian translation as Az avantgárd elmélete (Szeged, 2010) and in Czech as Teorie avant-gardy a Stárnuti moderny (Prague, 2015).

[2] Rosalind Krauss, ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde,’ in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA, 1985) pp. 151-70.

[3] As a point of contrast with this volume see Matthew Witkovsky, Foto: Modernity in Central Europe 1918-1945 (London, 2007).

[4] See the Wien Museum exhibition catalogue Monika Platzer and Ursula Storch, eds, Kinetismus: Wien entdeckt die Moderne (Vienna, 2006) and the Belvedere exhibition catalogue, Gerald Bast and Agnes Husslein-Arco, Wiener Kinetismus: Eine bewegte Moderne / Viennese Kineticism: Modernism in Motion (Vienna 2011).

[5] On Romanian dada see Tom Sandqvist, Dada East: The Romanians of Cabaret Voltaire (Cambridge, MA, 2006) and Roland Prugel, Im Zeichen der Stadt: Avantgarde in Rumänien 1920-1930 (Vienna, 2008).

[6] This has recently been explored in Petr Vorlik, Český mrakodrap (Prague, 2015).

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/F7S2P

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