A Search for Identity: Sexuality/Gender and the Crisis of Representation

After 1918, the foundation of new nation states in Central Europe stimulated societies to envision fresh identities, whether infused with politics and national dreams, modernism, or the more private pursuit of happiness. In newly-founded Czechoslovakia, the idea of the New Man became a common theme, and incorporated progressive ideas into the nation building process, especially in regards to female emancipation. The process remained highly contested in Hungary and Austria, where people had to deal with the lost war and a vanished empire. This negative prospect quickly led to nostalgia, nationalism and the restoration of traditional gender roles – an outcome widely seen across Europe in the early 1930s. It is the outcome of an ambiguous era diverged between an ongoing modernization and antithetic conservative politics. Whereas the Fin de Siècle is mostly considered a culture centered on subjectivity and individuality, the interwar period dealt with societal issues on a bigger scale, like public health, sexual education and the fate of displaced groups. The new opportunities after 1918 quickly led people to a feeling of being lost in an overly complicated world, ultimately blurring their identities and helping the rise of identity politics, nationalism and fascism.

While this crisis of representation is a common theme of study for art historians, particularly regarding 1920s portraiture, most of the gender related issues are devoted to cultural or social history. Bringing together both fields remains highly challenging, as questions of quality, canonization and periodization are not easily elucidated, especially for a region mainly influenced by Western art, but then again drawn to their own heritage and the East as well. Female artists such as Helene Funke (1869-1957), Milada Marešová (1901-1987), Erzsébet Korb (1899-1925), and many others received considerable attention, but that has not led to an overarching idea, which pinpoints how the artistic representation of gender and sexuality evolves during the interwar years in Central Europe. All kinds of art forms contribute to this, from design, architecture, photography, cinema, or popular visual culture, to the more traditional techniques of painting or sculpture. Therefore, the theme tries to incorporate identity as a main category of investigation, wherein both male and female perspectives, as well as progressive and conservative styles are embraced. Within this framework, it asks how the representation of gender as a whole can be properly described in Central Europe’s history of art between the wars.


Konštantín Bauer: Doomed, 1927