Bohumil Kubišta (1884–1918) and Emil Filla (1882–1953) were two prominent Czech painters of the early 20th century, whose work is the subject of the latest publication by Marie Rakušanová. The Czech-language volume Kubišta – Filla: Plzeňská disputace focuses on the relationship between the two main protagonists and their connections with other people that were friends or colleagues of the artists. This seemingly narrow focus, however, provides an opportunity for the author to examine in detail how radically the Czech art world changed during a relatively short period of time. The relationships that formed fast and dissolved even faster, the quickly established artistic groups with a diversity of aims and membership that never lasted long, prove how rapid the transformation was in the art and society of the time.
The book itself is presented as a catalogue of an exhibition of the same name that took place in the summer of 2019 in Plzeň, authored by Rakušanová and curated by Petra Kočová. The subtitle The Pilsen Disputation may suggest that Filla and Kubišta spent some time in the city in an intellectual or artistic confrontation. Such geographically specific confrontation, however, only took place at the exhibition which consisted mainly of paintings from the collection of the Gallery of West Bohemia in the city of Plzeň and the work of Filla‘s and Kubišta‘s fellow artists. However, because of its small, A5 format, rather untypical for exhibition catalogues, and because it mentions the exhibition only in the Foreword, it may be better to think about the book as an independent publication. Moreover, the reproductions of the paintings are rather small and the main emphasis falls on the text. We can therefore see the volume as a very dense, readable and approachable supplement to the exhibition.
The two artists, Filla and Kubišta, met at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and they both were members in the artistic group Osma [The Eight] founded in 1907. Their work therefore developed out of very close personal and artistic contact. It was Filla’s continued fascination with Picasso’s painting and Kubišta’s joining the Austro-Hungarian army that contributed to the eventual breakup of their friendship, which ended in Kubišta’s death from the Spanish flu in 1918.
Rakušanová closely follows the relationships and the connections of the two artists. In so doing, she traces the social and cultural dispositions of the so-called habitat of both artists that influenced their work in a substantial way. She builds her argument on the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, according to whom individuals operate in specific social fields which are created by educational institutions, professional environment and social circles. These fields then produce not only economic, but also social, cultural and symbolic capital. Such an approach is highly applicable to the Czech art scene of the early 20th century where, for artists to thrive, it was crucial to belong to a group, whether artistic or other, and where personal connections really mattered. The author, for instance, describes Kubišta’s social aspirations and his attempts at stepping out of the constraints of his lower-middle class background despite the financial problems his lifestyle brought. Seeing these efforts as naïve, his friends and colleagues often criticised Kubišta for his behaviour.
The fields of the different relations and changes in them are visualised in the book in diagrams that show the names of the individual participants, mainly artists, art critics and art historians. These are connected by either full or broken lines that suggest full or partial relationships they had between each other. The charts that appear in the book at regular intervals show the gradual distancing of Kubišta and Filla, who eventually entered separate social fields. The diagrams also illustrate one important issue, unfortunately not mentioned in the book: the field of Czech modernism, and hence the entire Czech artistic world of the time, was a male world with only a few exceptions. There is no doubt that it was men who had the most cultural and economic capital, but the absence of women is really striking and would merit commentary.
Generally speaking, too, such diagrams are often more problematic than helpful because they end up selecting a limited number of figures and leaving many out. What is the methodology for choosing the names here? As these diagrams are not discussed anywhere in the book, the interpretation of the suggested relationships (as well as actually finding out who these various people were) is left to the reader. In this context, the famous schematic chart of the origins of modern art by Alfred H. Barr comes to mind. It has often been subjected to criticism for its reductive, formalist approach, its simplifying view of modern art relations and omissions. These are omissions of artists outside of the main artistic centres, as well as of female artists, which is a similar issue in the presented book. And this criticism could also be extended to the diagrams in the Kubišta – Filla volume.
All in all, by paying close attention to the relationship between the main protagonists, the painters Kubišta and Filla, and their interactions within various social, cultural, economic and symbolic fields, Rakušanová’s text adopts a new approach towards this fairly well-known period of modernism in Bohemia of the early 20th century. The approach makes a contribution to knowledge about the personal and artistic ambitions of the two modernist artists and their circles, and to the understanding of how many institutions that were crucial for the shaping of modern art were run.
This review was previously published in Czech in Dějiny a současnost 6 (2020).
Marie Rakušanová, Kubišta – Filla: Plzeňská disputace: Zakladatelé moderního českého umění v poli kulturní produkce [Kubišta – Filla: Plzeň Disputation: Founders of Modern Czech Art in the Field of Cultural Production] (Plzeň, 2019)