Artwork of the Month, July 2020: The Black Boy by Helena Johnová (1912–c. 1939)

The Black Boy was the most commercially successful work of the Czech ceramicist Helena Johnová (1884–1962) with nearly 900 sold items of various colour versions. The black figure with exaggerated facial features, however, may well raise eyebrows today, but also a number of questions. These are worth exploring in connection with interwar art and design in Central Europe, as well as with current political issues. The most obvious ones relate to ethnic and gender stereotypes, which still resonate today thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter and #metoo movements. Many people, even academic scholars, argue that the current Czech and, by extension, Central European society has never had problems with racism or sexism, and that therefore issues highlighted by these movements are irrelevant in this geographical and political context. If we look at Johnová’s work more closely, we can, however, point to deep-rooted beliefs that shape today’s understanding of race and racial equality; we can question the assumption that because there were no colonies, there were no stereotypical views of race.

Helena Johnová: The Black Boy, 1912

Helena Johnová: The Black Boy, 1912, Moravian Gallery, Brno

Johnová was born in 1884 in the town of Soběslav in south Bohemia. She studied at the School of Art and Design in Prague and trained as a ceramicist with the designer and sculptor Michael Powolny (1871–1954) at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. She exhibited at the Werkbund in Cologne in 1914, and her work was displayed in Paris at the Exposition international des arts decoratifs et industriels modernes in 1925 and at the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Brno in 1928. Before the First World War she co-founded the Keramische Werksgenossenschaft in Vienna with two other female artists, Rosa Neuwirth (1883–1929) and Ida Schwetz-Lehmann (1883–1971). After 1918 she moved to Czechoslovakia, where she worked for various local companies, such as the Moravian Institute for Folk Art, the Slovak ceramics producer in Modra near Bratislava and the cooperative Artěl, which she had co-founded in 1908. Similar to the Wiener Werkstätte, Artěl specialised in crafts and design of a new style that would draw on local handicraft traditions. Their toys, glass, pottery textiles, or jewellery were meant to elevate the taste of the general public, but given their high price, they remained unattainable for many. Johnová also exhibited and sold her work via two of the biggest design organisations of interwar Czechoslovakia, Krásná jizba (The Beautiful Room) and Svaz československého díla (The Association of the Czechoslovak Werkbund).

Johnová’s career also expanded to include teaching. In 1919 she was appointed professor at the School of Art and Design in Prague, which, despite its lack of university status at the time, was an important institution. A number of teachers and students associated with the School were or became prominent artists and designers in Czechoslovakia. Johnová established a new department of ceramics at the School and worked there until her forced retirement in 1942. She was a successful designer, her work sold widely and for more than average prices. Her oeuvre was also broad, ranging from ornamental and decorative containers to portraits and large-scale ceramic objects, such as fireplaces and fountains.

Glazed abstraction

The largest portion of her work comprises smaller decorative and utility objects meant for the home, such as allegorical and religious statuettes and vases with motifs of flora and fauna. Her emphasis on colour and organic forms in her ceramics makes her work stand out especially when compared to the more austere porcelains of designers, such as Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976) or Pavel Janák (1882–1956), whose work formed a canon of interwar modern design in Czechoslovakia. However, in the late 1920s, Johnová also designed several tea sets with simplified and geometrical forms. Successful at the time (one even featured on the cover of the Panorama, a journal promoting good design), this aspect of her work was ultimately marginalised in favour of her more decorative objects.

Helena Johnová: White coffee set, 1927

Helena Johnová: White coffee set, 1927, The Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague.

It is, after all, the glazing that makes Johnová’s designs expressive and memorable. Making several copies of the same object allowed her to experiment with different colour schemes and shapes, some creating an abstract effect on her figures, especially on her portraits.

Helena Johnová: Portrait of Naděžda Melniková-Papoušková, 1927-28

Helena Johnová: Portrait of Naděžda Melniková-Papoušková, 1927-28, Moravian Gallery Brno

Johnová depicted only women, with the exception of one boy, and her busts include her friends, family, and a few commissions, which move her work beyond ornamental decoration, so often seen as the reserve of women designers and artists. The bust of Naděžda Melniková-Papoušková (1927–28), made in at least two versions, is an example of an almost expressionist approach to the figure where the uneven, in places leaking glaze adds to its emotional effect.

Johnová’s portraits seem very personal. Her friend Melniková-Papoušková (1891–1978) was an art historian from Russia who married the Czech historian Jaroslav Papoušek and settled in Prague. Her main academic focus was on folk art, craft and glass painting, which were themes that Johnová was also interested in. In 1953, Melniková-Papoušková published one of the few articles on Johnová’s interwar work that drew on local folk art. These were especially figures from different ethnographic regions in various colourful costumes.

Johnová’s interest in figures is also visible in three casts of a half-nude woman, executed between 1927 and 1928, all with different glazing. It is a classical looking figure holding a band in a contrasting colour to the whiteness of the body in two of the cases. The third version bears the inscription 1928 on the band, as it was made for and exhibited in the School of Art and Design pavilion at the Exhibition of Czechoslovak Culture in Brno in the same year. This one is the most expressive. The brown glazing of the hair drips down across the face and body, creating a contrast to the otherwise classically conceived subject.

Helena Johnová: Female figure, 1927-28

Helena Johnová: Female figure, 1927-28, Moravian Gallery Brno

Black or white

Most striking of all is Johnová’s sculpture of The Black Boy, measuring 13 cm, which depicts a black person with a tall and oversized turban, dressed in overalls with bulky, onion-shaped trousers and a scarf around the waist. In all the colour versions, each piece of the garment has a different bright colour, mostly red, blue or yellow, while the turban is often white with a small, regular geometric pattern. The figure carries a tray with a cup and kettle under a tea cosy. First designed in 1912, the figure was reproduced in Vienna and Czechoslovakia until the 1940s in many variations which were made in small batches and glazed by the artist. Within Johnová’s work, the Black Boy is the only depiction of a non-white person, yet it remains the most popular.

The Black Boy can be, and has been, interpreted as an innocent representation of the exotic origin of cocoa or coffee which the figure is bringing. Much literature on Johnová mentions that her choice of a black person was partly made to capitalise on the contrast the black colour created with the porcelain white. This and the fact that the statuette of a black servant was inspired by the character of Mohammed, the page boy from Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier that premiered in Vienna in 1911, reveals a lot about the attitude towards black people in the early 20th century. In the imagination of many, blackness and servitude were closely related and often juxtaposed with whiteness and wealth.

Exoticism and orientalism were an important motivation too. In Austria Hungary and Bohemia before 1918, non-European people, whether from Africa, Turkey, China or elsewhere, were fairly uncommon but they did exist. They often played the role of a curiosity, or even decoration for the wealthy. Most were anonymous servants and only exceptionally became as prominent as Abraham Petrovich Hannibal (1696–1781), the great grandfather of Alexander Pushkin. In the Habsburg Empire, Angelo Soliman (1721–1796) from today’s Nigeria became a member of the Viennese cultural elite as a Freemason. At the same time, however, after his death in 1796 he was stuffed and displayed as a savage in an allegorical and symbolic representation of the jungle in a natural history display in Vienna.

Non-white people were commonly treated as a spectacle and frequently shown at large national and international exhibitions and world’s fairs across the globe. In Prague, the Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition in 1895, for instance, featured an American bar with ‘two blacks to serve the guests and for their amusement,’ as well as ‘fully civilised,’ ‘full-blooded Indian from the Kickapoo tribe, …, clad in a festive dress of his tribe’ brought to Prague by a Czech émigré from Chicago.[1] Similarly, the 1908 Jubilee Exhibition in the same city included a display of an Abyssinian village with traditionally clad villagers, most probably inspired by the success of Carl Hagenbeck’s human zoos, whose exhibits of Somalis, Lapps, Patagonians and Eskimos were brought from Germany to Prague. In all of these instances, non-white people were treated as an object of display and as a primitive other to the civilised spectator.

In Central European art, visual references to ‘exotic cultures’ were frequent and ranged from Renaissance and Baroque sculptures of ‘Moors’, such as those by Ferdinand Maximilian Brokoff (1688–1731) at the Morzin Palace in Prague, to popular interwar graphic design and painting. Only recently did Toyen’s (1902–1980) Black Paradise from 1925 sell for a record price. Apart from servitude, black people were ordinarily associated with the trade and promotion of foreign and exotic products, such as coffee or cocoa. In Vienna, the coffee house and seller Julius Meinl, for instance, featured the ‘Meinl Moor’, designed by Joseph Binder (1898–1971) in 1924, as a young black man wearing a prominent round earring and a fez. The headwear especially could be seen as a marker of an Oriental and Muslim origin of the character, often linked with pre-Atatürk Turkey, despite the fact that the fez was made in the Bohemian town of Strakonice. For its problematic associations with racism, slavery and forced labour at coffee plantations, the original, highly stylised Meinl logo was redesigned several times and it was only in 1999 that it gave up the black colour of the face in favour of the red colour of the entire logo. Seemingly innocent imagery of blackness therefore became widespread globally even in countries that never had colonies or had them only for a little while, normalising such depictions. The Black Boy’s popularity across Austria and Czechoslovakia is a striking illustration of this.

Modern artists were also interested in peoples from distant countries and combined elements of ethnography and anthropology with romanticised, exoticised imagination aimed at artistic renewal. Often such an approach created a hierarchy between the alleged primitivism of the distant lands on the one hand and European art, culture and society on the other. In interwar Czechoslovakia, designers and artists frequently used references to native forms, colours and ornaments in jewellery, textiles, and pottery. It was a practice typical of a number of Artěl members, with some using the motives of black people in glass figures (such as Jaroslav Brychta, 1895–1971) or sculpture (for instance Otto Gutfreund [1889–1927] in his Cotton Picker of 1921). Josef Čapek (1887–1945) used references to what he called ‘the art of the primitive people’ in response to the interests of Picasso and other French artists. His book of the same name focused on the native art of Africa, Oceania and America which for him contained certain expressive beauty that he also transferred into his own paintings. Yet it is his more popular and wider audience reaching illustrations that should be mentioned in this connection, as they became part of the more general attitude to the exotic that became embedded in society. For instance, Čapek’s illustrations for Eduard Bass’s book on the fictional football squad, Klapzuba’s Eleven, depict native Africans with exaggerated facial features, using similar stereotypes as Johnová and other contemporary artists.

Josef Čapek: Illustration in Eduard Bass, Klapbzuba’s Eleven, 1926

Josef Čapek: Illustration in Eduard Bass, Klapbzuba’s Eleven, 1926

Johnová, too, focused on external signs of otherness translated into the exaggerated shape of the clothing and contrasting colours in her Black Boy. In her case, moreover, the adoption of blackness was not based on an attempt to search for new, unspoilt artistic forms free of academic conventions, but rather it seems to be motivated by the need to increase the decorative effect of the figures. This allegedly unpoliticised decorativeness, however, does not make them innocent. They fit into the stereotypical, subliminal understanding of black people as servants and exoticised spectacles, embedded in Central European art and attitudes. Today the concern for ‘decolonising’ art, so often seen as a matter just for countries with colonies in their past, can therefore be easily extended to countries that harboured similar thinking. Johnová might not have intended The Black Boy as racist, it nevertheless adopted wide-spread tropes about ‘exotic’ others, adding to their proliferation.

Marta Filipová

[1] J. R. Vilímek, Vilímkův průvodce Výstavou národopisnou českoslovanskou, Prague, 1895, 74.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/M4T8N

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