Marie Rakušanová a kolektiv, Bohumil Kubišta a Evropa

Beyond the single-artist study: Bohumil Kubišta and new ways of monographic research in the Czech Lands: Book review

Is it still contemporary to write monographic studies on individual artists? And how would one do so in an engaging manner? These two questions frame the outset of an extensive artist study, whose outcome is Bohumil Kubišta a Evropa (Bohumil Kubišta and Europe). At almost seven hundred pages and weighing approximately four kilograms, the book is a heavyweight in every sense of the word – including the manner in which it seeks to challenge, refresh and extend research on the painter Bohumil Kubišta (1884–1918).

Marie Rakušanová a kolektiv, Bohumil Kubišta a Evropa

A member of the artist group Osma (The Eight), Kubišta started out as an expressionist painter, who began to introduce cubist elements in his work after a stay in Paris in 1910, combined with his broader analytical interests in colour theory, spiritism and psychology. With works such as Kiss of Death (1912), which represent close engagement with international artistic developments and their adoption in line with the artist’s own specific interests, Kubišta is one of the most prominent representatives of Czech modernism in the years before the First World War. As a representative of Czech Cubism specifically, his work has gained an important position in a national canon of modernism. By these specifications alone, a large single-artist monograph on Kubišta would seem to represent the typical rather than the extraordinary: in Czech art history, publications that aim to offer all-encompassing accounts of canonical artists and architects (all almost exclusively male) are a strong feature, with other recent such projects including work such as Karel Teige: Capitain of the Avant-Garde (2018).

Yet rather than being written in alignment with this tradition, which upholds a focus on individual figures and their genial status, Bohumil Kubišta a Evropa is positioned against it. The book’s leading author Marie Rakušanová, has begun this approach with a recent exhibition project, Kubišta – Filla: Plzeňská disputace (2019, reviewed by Marta Filipová on this blog), whose extended catalogue addressed the importance of social networks in the early Czech avant-garde. The present book further bolsters these aims to reconsider Kubišta’s prominence, shifting towards wider European networks with a new approach to understanding the artist and his work in light of recent debates about central European art history, and the relationship between people, objects and events as a model of inquiry. As outlined in the introduction, the book’s main aims are thus twofold: they seek to reconsider Kubišta as an art historical object of study by shifting focus on his networks, his places of travel, and his paintings as independent from the artist’s biography, and embed these elements into a wider framework that challenges the hegemonial position of Paris as a location of modern (specifically, cubist) art, from where other variants developed.

Rakušanová frames this task with an extensive introductory chapter, which offers rich theoretical underpinnings on the basis of two main ideas: Bruno Latour’s actor-network-theory (ANT), where inter-relational networks between people, ideas, objects, and processes are given equal weight; and Piotr Piotrowski’s notion of a horizontal (art) history, which set out to challenge conceptions of artistic centres such as Paris as exerting one-directional  influence  on the artistic production in ‘peripheral’ locations in east central Europe. Rather than presenting Kubišta as a Czech artist who took inspiration from Parisian art to develop his own ‘local variant’ of avant-garde painting in central Europe, the book shifts focus on the networks that facilitated such an exchange and moves beyond one-directional processes in favour of a more multi-dimensional model.

Bohumil Kubista: The Kiss of Death

Bohumil Kubišta: Kiss of Death, 1912, Oblastní galerie, Liberec – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Rakušanová also introduces object-oriented ontology in this context, taking a further step in the aim to ‘decentre’ the dominant role of biography and the figure of the artist by giving equal weight to objects in their own right. While not all of the contributing authors (Marie Rakušanová, Mahulena Nešlehová, Françoise Lucbert, András Zwickl, Anke Daemgen, Eva Bendová, Irena Lehkoživová) address the theoretical frameworks posited in the introduction directly, the essays overall comply by interrogating Kubišta ‘beyond Kubišta’: They move away from an exclusive focus on the painter and his work facilitated, precisely, by a shift of attention towards artworks, exhibitions, and the networks that can be uncovered through them. Leading down various routes, which remain tied together by the extensive theoretical underpinning in the introduction, Bohumil Kubišta a Evropa seeks to exemplify how one might go about reframing some of the more outworn conventions of art historical writing in east central Europe. Compared to Karel Srp’s recent exhibition and catalogue on Kubišta, Zářivý krystal. Bohumil Kubišta a české umění 1905–2013 (2014), for instance, which focused on an extensive retrospective of Kubišta as a ‘father figure’ of Czech modernism, the present book not only takes a decidedly more international approach, it also moves beyond the prominence of the artist-figure with a far-reaching image of culture, politics and philosophical through in late-Habsburg Europe. Given Kubišta’s own astute interest in social relationships and questions of morality, this approach strikes a chord with the artist’s own intellectual engagements and makes it a particularly suitable method to reframing his work specifically.

While the sheer physical volume of the book may seem overwhelming, its structure is well organised and consists of a diverse range of texts and documents that each offer different insights into the artist’s life and work. The most significant aspect of this are longer essays which adhere to the format of a research publication and underline the international collaboration lying at the heart of the book. They cover a diverse range of themes that address both Kubišta’s working practice, as in Mahulena Nešlehová’s essay on Kubišta’s concept of colour (pp.66–87), and a wider conceptualisation of his work within European modernism, such as András Zwickl’s assessment of Kubišta and Cubism in Hungary (pp. 312–329).

Supplementing these longer essays are brief ‘excursions’, which offer an overview of important exhibitions, such as the 45th exhibition of the Mánes artist association in Prague (1914), organised by the French poet Alexandre Mercereau and showing a wide array of cubist works to a Prague audience for the first time (pp. 342–349). Additionally, the short texts also delve deeper into Kubišta’s engagement with philosophical thought and his interest in psychology, taking a closer look at the books in his personal collection, which included works by Arthur Schopenhauer, the German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, and his teacher, the philosopher Hermann von Helmholtz, who pioneered studies on sensory physiology (pp. 248–254).

The broader contextualisation based on the artist’s material legacy beyond his paintings plays a considerable role in the book overall. It also serves to evidence the artist’s wide interests and cosmopolitanism, which, Rakušanová notes, has long been overshadowed by attempts to claim the artist as ‘Czech,’ doing away with his engagements in German or Habsburg military culture that may have troubled this image (p. 31): following a brief stint in the army 1905–1906, Kubišta decided to follow a military career in the Habsburg army from 1913 onwards and was stationed in Pula (today, Croatia) until his death in the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. In light of a broader overemphasis on Czech resistance to the Habsburg army in the First World War, represented by the figure of Švejk as well as the Czech Legion, Kubišta’s military career has long sat uncomfortably with nationalised accounts of his work. Challenging this narrative, Kubišta a Evropa points towards the cosmopolitan environment of the imperial army as a valuable aspect for understanding Kubišta, which, not least, offered him an opportunity to break free from his lower class background.

As a third significant aspect, the book includes a number of maps, which meticulously trace Kubišta’s movements on different geographical levels. Starting out with ‘Kubišta and Europe’ (p. 32), which traces a biographical overview across different geographical stations in Kubišta’s life, the maps then detail specific instances on city maps in Prague, Pula, Paris and Florence. Taking ‘Kubišta in Paris’ (Bendová, p. 133) for example, Kubišta’s stays in Paris are mapped onto the city, allowing readers to follow where the artists made drawings for his Paris sketchbook (1910), where artists in his social and professional circles would meet for debates, where they lived, and where they exhibited. Demanding some close engagement from the reader to decipher all that is included, the maps are an essential element of the book, as they visualise the vast European network within which the book aims to reframe Kubišta. Indeed, while they only make a fraction of the content, the maps, in line with the introduction, draw everything together.

The vast number of illustrations follow a similar logic, too: paintings, sketches, drawings, maps and photographs are presented in a non-hierarchical manner. New constellations arise not from the close examination of one single painting, but from an amalgamation of different places, people, exhibitions and sketches related to it. In an assessment of Kubišta’s early work in Florence (1906–1907), for example, Rakušanová and Bendová contextualise the artist’s focus on light and colour as a response to the problems of contemporary Italian painting noted by Max Dvořák in a 1905 exhibition review. Tracing the artist’s idiosyncratic interpretation of his Tuscan environment (away from known landmarks, etc.), they suggest that Kubišta, coincidentally, found the same painterly solutions in his work that Dvořák suggested. While the authors refer to collective cultural memory and speculative realism as a theoretical (re)framing for this episode in Kubišta’s life, however, the argument, in the end, hinges mainly on excellent archival work about the artist’s stay in Florence. Thus, while the inclusion of more experimental conceptual frameworks is refreshing, they are not crucial to the argument itself.

The main strength of the book overall is its drive towards a broader contextualisation of Kubišta’s work, both within central Europe and in relation to Paris as a centre of modernism. Challenging a longstanding tendency in central European art historical scholarship to nationalise important artists, the book’s move towards more international perspectives is a welcome development. Something that is perhaps less obvious in this approach, yet nonetheless significant, is the different points of view required to build such an assessment. An important aspect in this light is its collective mode of working – not only because of the wealth of material in different locations, requiring different languages, but also because, in the spirit of the book structure, multiple authors forge a greater variety of viewpoints.

Certainly, Bohumil Kubišta a Evropa is an unusual and ambitious publication in the way in which it strives to combine a traditional topic of art historical research (the single artist study) with an array of new methods to challenge preconceptions about the dynamics of artistic modernism between western and central Europe. The question one must ask in light of the rich theoretical framework which underpins this is, however, if this novel approach helps us to reassess questions of value. Rather than the novel and topical concepts that frame the book, its strength seem to lie in meticulous archival work and an informed revaluation of Kubišta in a wider European context. As a tightly bundled world of information that holds Kubišta at its centre, the book is, indeed, a varied and rich resource on a prominent Czech artist, which offers new research to specialists while giving ample context for students and general readers alike. Yet, quite clearly, the expense and efforts gone into such a publication make it difficult to introduce a similar approach as a general practice – and, thus, it runs danger of replicating certain hierarchies in art history, which it set out to challenge in the first place: who is ‘worth’ being studied to such an extent and why? Does this shift in approach cater to challenging other pressing issues in art history, such as the liminal positioning of women? Leaving these questions to what might follow, Bohumil Kubišta a Evropa can be credited to opening up such questions. In relation to Kubišta, moreover, it can certainly lay claim to being the new ‘ultimate Kubišta sourcebook’.

Julia Secklehner

Marie Rakušanová a kolektiv, Bohumil Kubišta a Evropa (Prague: Nakladatelství Karolinum, 2020)

An abridged Czech version of this text was published in Art + Antiques (April 2021).

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