Interior view of th exhibition Civilised Woman

Whose modernity is it? A Brno exhibition that highlights the paradox of the interwar ‘civilised’ woman

She was the perfect type of modern girl around 1930, a kind of vague thing between an adult girl and an underage boy, between physical culture and mental exhaustion, between gymnastics and black dance, between classical sculpture and the products of the modern art industry.[1]

Taken from the book Ženy na rampě (Women on the ramp, 1934), this quote by the writer Maryna Fričová  encapsulates the paradoxes of the ideal modern woman as she graced the covers of women’s magazines, featured in movies and presented the latest fashion in interwar Czechoslovakia. Projected on a wall at the entrance to the exhibition Civilizovaná žena: Ideál i paradox prvorepublikové vizuální kultury (Civilised Woman: Ideal and Paradox in the Visual Culture of the First Republic), curated by Martina Pachmanová and Kateřina Svatoňová at the Moravian Gallery in Brno, Fričová’s statement serves as an ideal starting point to an exhibition, which focuses on the Czech type of the modern woman – the ‘civilised woman’ – and her representation in interwar visual culture.

In the sombre, black-panelled hallway leading to the main exhibition rooms, the comment is juxtaposed with a series of magazine covers that give an indication of the many different facets the modern woman ‘as ideal and paradox’ entails. The images on the covers include the most familiar version of the modern woman as sporting a bob, smoking, active and youthful, as well as perhaps more surprising images of stoic farmer’s wives. The installation is simple and very effective, as it helps to introduce visitors to the many different modes of femininity that women in 1920s and 30s Czechoslovakia were confronted with in the illustrated press alone.

Civilised Woman exhibition view

Interior view of the exhibition

The next step in the exhibition expands this overview further with a small section that is one of the show’s best features: a reading corner with three upholstered chairs and a small coffee table introduces literature for and about women, free for the visitors to pick up and browse. Including novels by well-known female writers, such as Marie Majerová’s Naměstí Republiky (1914), as well as entertainment novels and classical texts on art and society connected to the First Czechoslovak Republic, such as Karel Čapek’s Conversations with Masaryk (1935), the selection shows what one might have read at the time about politics, art and culture, and how women were addressed and described in this context. While the positioning of the reading corner between the entrance hallway and the first room might not be inviting enough for a thorough study of all the books on offer, it nonetheless offers a creative and interactive introduction to the topic. At a time where many exhibitions overstep a fine line between ‘visitor engagement’ and making the show an interactive spectacle while forgetting about the exhibits, this is a welcome, simple and effective approach to engaging visitors without being overbearing.

The ‘original’ civilised woman

Leading on from the interwar reading corner, the following three rooms introduce the ideals and paradoxes of the ‘civilised’ woman in interwar visual culture, guided by a range of intersecting themes. They cover exhibitions and fashion, artistic production, modern technology and domestic life. The starting point to this are two exhibitions that represented the cornerstones of the ‘civilised woman’ as an ideal: Civilizovaná žena (1929–1930) at the Aleš Exhibition Pavilion in Brno and Výstava moderní ženy (The Exhibition of the Modern Woman, 1929) at the city’s Trade Fair Exhibition Grounds.

Civilizovaná žena was organised by the textile designer Božena Horneková (1899–1984) and the designers Jan Vaněk (1891–1962) and Zdeněk Rossmann (1905–1984), and primarily focused on woman’s liberation from the constraints of feminine fashion, its main goal being to ‘modernise’ and ‘rationalise’ her. Implicitly, her opposite would be the ‘uncivilised’ and ‘unmodern’ woman, a notion broadly referring to both non-European cultures, as well as earlier historical periods. Presenting a range of new designs by Horneková, from undergarments to coats for every woman, the exhibition went far beyond a concern for fashion alone. Rather, its organisers argued, the rationalisation of a woman’s looks would help her progress in society overall – ‘welcoming the civilised, cultivated and elegantly dressed woman among the ranks of civilised men’.[2]

Given that the curators of the current exhibition chose to title their show in reference to its 1929/30 precedent, it seems appropriate that a whole room is dedicated to it. It takes the form of a lose reassembly of originally exhibited objects, such as models of the designs by Horneková, a selection of erotically charged drawings by the Paris-based Czech artist Josef Šima, and a selection of exhibition views by the Brno photographer Rudolf Sandalo, that were also printed in the original exhibition catalogue. Perhaps the best-known object in the room is the iconic cover of the catalogue of the exhibition by Rossmann. Showing a (male) hand cutting off a woman’s braid in a black and white photograph layered over bright orange background, the poster epitomises what the modernisation of women (in male hands!) meant: it does away with overly feminine fancies, for the ‘civilised woman’ was practical and embracing a modern lifestyle of functionalism and rationality.

In assembling the different objects related to the 1929/30 exhibition, the curators replicate the paradoxes inscribed in it. This is most evident in the juxtaposition between the modern woman as the wearer of practical fashion on the one hand and as an elusive erotic fantasy in Šima’s artworks on the other. Alongside this contrast, panels introduce the mixed responses to the show, including the following paragraph from an open letter to Vanek by Milada Kříženecká-Dubská, published in the magazine Přitomnost:

Now add all sorts of faces, expressions, and temperaments to these different figures – factors that can in no way be reduced to any standard. Maybe you can imagine […] the horror if all women would be ‘civilised’ following your recipe!

The current exhibition challenges the rationalised female ideal put forward by the original Civilizovaná žena exhibition, by showing that neither the organisers, nor the objects on display formed a comprehensible model because of the paradoxes embedded within them. From its first conceptualisation in 1929 onwards, this suggests, the ‘civilised woman’ was elusive and contradictory.

The second exhibition explored in the show, Výstava moderní ženy (1929), was wider ranging, with a distinct political note to the modern woman ideal. It was supported by the Ministries of Education and Trade and organised by a group of women headed by Ružena Schützová, director of the Vesna women’s  vocational college in Brno, and took a broad approach to the role of modern woman in Czech society, with sections on ‘Education’, ‘Public and Professional Life’, ‘Women and Children’s social and health care’, ‘Household’ and ‘Fashion’. The current display showcases various objects from the 1929 show, including photographs and plans for architectural designs of Hana Kučerová-Záveská’s ‘room for an independent woman’ (1929), more fashion designs and a range of objects for beauty and health care. This includes a curling iron dangling from the ceiling; it is tempting to see this object, which looks like some kind of torture instrument, as an ironic comment on the painful requirements of women’s beauty.

Civilised Woman exhibition interior

Interior view of the exhibition

More importantly still, the fact that the exhibition of 1929 was mounted with ministerial support underlines that the positioning of the modern/civilised woman was part and parcel of the self-fashioning of the new Czechoslovak state as a place of progress and democracy. Seen in this light, the reprised version of 2021 continues Martina Pachmanová’s contribution to the exhibition Budování státu (The Building of the State), staged in 2015 at the National Gallery in Prague, in which she focused on the role of practices of display in the formation of the new state.[3] To a general audience, however, such an idea and its cultural implications might not be familiar. At that point, the narrative of this show becomes perhaps an inkling too academic. The wall text provides a lot of information, including both historical framing and reactions to the 1929 exhibition, but it assumes a lot of prior knowledge on the part of its readers.

The modern woman and her time – then and now

It is at this point, too, that the exhibition misses an opportunity to engage in some more self-reflection about women’s ideals today. Given that the historic exhibitions Civilizovaná žena and Výstava moderní ženy represent the main entry point into the current one, it might be asked: ‘If the interwar exhibitions formulated an idea of the modern woman that reflected the society of the First Czechoslovak Republic, what Zeitgeist does the current exhibition respond to in relation to women in contemporary society?’

The introductory panel states that the exhibition’s focus on ‘the fine and often complicated web of relations between modernisation and women’s emancipation […] hopes to highlight their relevance – or challenges – for our present time.’ Its examination of how the ‘civilised woman’ was presented between the wars shows notable parallels with the tasks still expected of women in contemporary mainstream society: to be well-informed and educated, working in a trained profession, well and practically dressed, sexually confident, yet also still to be responsible for house, home and children. In this sense, too, the exhibition could be related to many contemporary discussions, including ‘Me too’, questions of social and racial injustice, the rising gap of gender inequality laid bare by the Covid-19 pandemic and the constraints of women’s low- or unpaid care work. This considered, the exhibition indeed picks up on issues familiar to contemporary audiences, yet the way it does so is slightly elusive.

For example, the curators chose to add interventions by contemporary artists, including the video installation ‘Where have I been all my life’ (2021) by Milena Dopitová (*1963). Known for a focus on social themes in her work, as well as questions of gender, Dopitová is a well-chosen addition to the show. Yet because her video installation, which focuses, among other things, on women working on an assembly belt, is not contextualised, it is difficult to position it in relation to the demands of women at work and women’s work in the historical part of the show.

Similarly, the room dedicated to the exhibition of modern women includes a work by contemporary artist Ondřej Přibyl (*1978). Taking inspiration from a model of an x-rayed woman’s body shown at Výstava moderní ženy, as is explained, Přibyl replicated the idea by layering different scans of a female body. An x-ray photograph, the image can be read both as a commentary on the ‘transparent woman’ constantly under societal scrutiny, and a reflection of the historical exhibition’s interest in women’s health.  Compared to the wealth of historical material, however, these contemporary interventions appear somewhat dwarfed and, more importantly, rather add more complexity to the exhibition and its relation the contemporary than to elucidate it further. In this sense, while the exhibition’s relevance to our present time informs its wider narrative, no doubt – its relation to contemporary challenges is an implicit exercise than an open statement.

Beyond the avant-garde: Diving into the ‘popular’ and ‘moderate’

The sigificance of Civilizovaná žena and Výstava moderní ženy as foundational events for a discussion of women’s roles and identity between the wars is explored in the following rooms through wider thematic points of focus. These include her representation in art and popular media, the importance of sport and health culture and, finally, the home. These are addressed with a similarly diverse range of materials as in the previous rooms, including not only painting and sculpture, but also newspaper caricatures, photographs, and film. Some highlights in this selection are the colour-glazed female ceramic heads by Helena Johnová (1884–1962), as well as the porcelain sculptures by Josef Kubiček (1890–1972). The latter are particularly fascinating in the way they initially appear to be fairly conventional decorative elements, especially in their positioning on beautiful, mirrored cylindrical forms featuring in each exhibition room. Yet, on second glance, they subtly and humorously capture aspects of women’s modern identity, such as the cutting short of one’s hair (a nice, if only implicit, link to the iconic cover of the Civilizovaná žena catalogue), and new professions such as the telephone operator.

Display at the Civilised Woman exhibition

Display at the exhibition with ceramic head by Helena Johnová

Kubiček’s sculptures also confirm the exhibition’s broader argument about the image of the ‘civilised woman’ in artistic production: beyond avant-garde circles, which, with the somewhat lonely exception of Toyen (Marie Čerminová, 1902–1980) were almost exclusively male, the image of the modern woman in the public sphere was also shaped by more moderate artistic representations, which included a greater range of female artists. Admittedly, the paintings put on show to underline this, such as Věra Jičínská’s (1898–1961) Self-portrait with a cigarette (1926) or Josef Multrus’ (1898–1957) Juliš Café (1930) might not represent the most advanced art of their time, however, within that, they confirm that the ‘civilised woman’ might have been an avant-garde invention, but one that quickly was quickly adopted in Czech mainstream and middle-brow art and visual culture.

The most nuanced image is a small painting by Milada Marešová (1901–1987), The Box Office (1934), a rare instance of an image showing a more diverse image of women of different ages, as well as social status. Indeed, the ‘civilised woman’ otherwise appears quite clearly as a middle-class phenomenon in a society that understood itself to be in line with western European ideals. That Czechoslovak society was following a western image is addressed in a filmic travelogue, Six Women in Search of Africa (1936), which followed the Aero Blue team of women pilots and technicians on their journey to Algeria and Morocco. As the wall text suggests, the civilised woman, in conjunction with modern technology, was complicit in attempts to show Czech superiority over non-European societies. This is an important point to make and, overall, it could have been integrated further, given the fascination with modern ‘primitive’ dance practices evident in the popularity of Josephine Baker, for example, who is represented in a caricature by Adolf Hoffmeister. One should add that the exhibition catalogue by Martina Pachmanová, adds further context to these issues – even though the question remains whether it would not be necessary to offer a more accessible approach to such a timely topic within the exhibition itself.

Who makes Czechoslovakia’s modern women? Whom do they represent?

One broader question that the exhibits bring to mind is who actually created the idea of the ‘civilised woman’. Generally, the exhibition in the Moravian Gallery has a good balance of male and female artists and designers, and this makes a refreshing difference from many exhibitions which are still too focused on men. Yet the issue of gender is not yet entirely resolved. For example, the very idea of the ‘civilised woman’ came from a male designer: Vaněk. In the cutting of the braid on the cover of the exhibition catalogue, too, as in the ceramic sculpture by Kubiček, it is a man who, quite literally, modernises the woman.

Interior view of th exhibition Civilised Woman

Interior view of the exhibition

It is also evident from the advertisements by the Bat’a company in the show that men played the decisive role in constructing the civilised woman’s image. Despite her modern look, the woman is mainly a model – displaying modernity, rather than acting it out in her own right. Certainly, this did not mean that women had no say in the creation of the civilised woman: the exhibition gives ample room to figures such as Horneková, the writer Milena Jesenská (1896–1944), the humanitarian efforts of Alice Masaryk (1879–1966) and the artworks by Marešová. At the same time, the exhibition conveys betrays how very much men shaped the image of the new woman as a figure of modernity. This paradox might have been more emphatically underlined if it had been presented explicitly.

Additionally, the question remains which women the ‘civilised’ woman was intended to represent. In terms of class, the answer appears rather obvious, for even though the section dedicated to work does include consideration of the difficult working conditions of women factory workers with an excellent series of woodcuts by Helena Salichová, the fashion designs, sports activities and interiors predominantly address the middle classes. Of course, the civilised woman is no exception in this case – a similar model prevailed in the concept of the modern woman promoted in other European countries too. As the exhibition notes briefly, comparable models include la femme nouvelle in France and the German Neue Frau. Yet what also differentiates the civilized woman from her neighbours is the fact that she seems to represent the female ideal of a single group – the Czechs – in a multi-ethnic, multi-national country. Pachmanová acknowledges this in the catalogue and, while only touching on it briefly, refers to studies of the Slovak model for example, while suggesting that Czechoslovakia’s Germans adopted the Neue Frau ideal from the Weimar Republic.[4] It therefore remains an open question as to just how inclusive the ‘civilised’ woman was as a state-supported model of femininity in a multi-ethnic state. Given Brno’s diverse heritage especially, which is slowly being rediscovered and addressed, some further consideration of this might give further intriguing insights into the way the ‘civilised’ woman was part of a larger state-forming venture of Czech modernity.

Sketching an ideal, emphasising the paradox: a bitter end

The final room of the exhibition, which then allows visitors to leave through a black velvet curtain, closes with a return to hearth and home. The strongest impression of this is given by an almost life-sized sculpture titled Washerwoman (1923) by Jan Lauda (1898–1959), showing a woman brushing the floor of the gallery. Like no other work, it visualises the exhibition’s conclusion that ‘despite all the changes in the wake of the war […] the home was the place assigned to the women by the First Czechoslovak Republic’s education and propaganda’. To some extent, the decision to place the topic of domesticity and housework at the end of the exhibition gives a bitter ending to what seemed an exciting prospect of modernisation – liberation – at the start of the show. Precisely for this reason, however, it is a clever stroke: underlining the fact that much of the public rhetoric concerning modern womanhood was, in the end, no more than a slightly revamped packaging for old gender roles, the final room visualises this better than any other. Aside from being modern, the civilised woman is, still, required to be traditional, to bring up and educate the children, organise the household and ensure that everything runs smoothly ‘in the background’. The double burden, it seems, has a long tradition.

The last room of the Civilised Woman exhibition

Interior view of the exhibition with Jan Lauda’s sculpture Washerwoman (1923)

This is certainly a timely exhibition, and it follows several other recent exhibitions in central Europe that focus on women in the context of modern art and cultural production. The show Toyen: The Dreaming Rebel at the National Gallery in Prague is one example, Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna, another. As a part of the wider drive to bring attention to the roles and achievements of women in a formative period of central European art, society and politics, Civilizovaná žena takes a genuinely fresh viewpoint with a wide-angled approach that disrupts divisions between high and low art, art, design, performance and architecture. The danger of this approach is, of course, that few things can be addressed with the depth and consideration that they ought to, and the exhibition does inevitably tap into some of these pitfalls. Nevertheless, Civilizovaná žena is still an important, engaging exhibition – a ‘must-see’ for its efforts to trace the importance of the ‘civilised woman’ in interwar visual culture comprehensbly. Returning to the question of the exhibition’s relevance today, it certainly underlines that much work is still to be done: visitors might well find that ideals akin to the ‘civilised woman’ are still part of our visual culture today and need to be addressed.

Julia Secklehner

Civilised Woman: Ideal and Paradox of the Visual Culture of the First Czechoslovak Republic (Moravian Gallery, Brno, 8 October 2021 to 10 July 2022)

A Czech version of this text was published in Art + Antiques (November 2021).

[1] Maryna Fričová, Ženy na rampě, (Prague: Šolc a Šimáček, 1934).

[2] Jan Vaněk, ‘Žena konečně civilizovaná’, in Civilizovaná žena/zivilisierte Frau (Brno, 1929/30), p. 11.

[3] Martina Pachmanová, ‘Výstavní praktiky státu: Export československého umění,‘ in Budování státu: Representace Československa v umění, architektuře a designu, eds. Milena Bartlová Jindřich Vybíral (Prague, 2015), pp. 282–325. See also Martina Pachmanová ed. Z Prahy až do Buenos Aires: Ženské umění a mezinárodní reprezentace melziválečného Československa, (Prague, 2014).

[4] Martina Pachmanová, Civilizovaná žena: Ideál i paradox prvorepublikové vizuální kultury, (Prague, 2021), p. 14.

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