Vernacular modernisms, nostalgia and the avant-garde

In the decades before 1918 there was a vibrant debate over the nature of ‘national art.’ For many it was embodied in folk art and culture. Yet by 1914 this idea was increasingly challenged by avant-garde interest in the metropolis. After the War, however, the idea was revisited by societies in a period of crisis. In Hungary, for example, the small town of Szentendre became the site of an important artists’ colony that engaged with rural culture through a modernist lens. The so-called ‘national style’ in 1920s Czechoslovakia developed out of a reinterpretation of folk art, while in Austria, Tyrolean and other regional cultures were valorized as a counterweight to the cosmopolitan avant-garde.

This might be dismissed at first sight as reactionary nostalgia, especially given its sexual politics, that drew on conservative visions of the peasant woman as the (maternal) locus of national identity, seemingly superseded by the ‘new woman’ of the interwar period. Yet folk art continued to be an important artistic resource after 1918. Crucially, it existed in symbiosis with the avant-garde. Industrialized urban life, devoid of national characteristics, was a topic for numerous artists such as Sándor Bortnyik, Josef Čapek and Paul Kirnig, but avant-garde artists also used folk culture imagery, as exemplified by Václav Špála, Lajos Vajda and Ľudovít Fulla. This theme examines the tension between the avant-garde and ‘völkisch’ art and architecture and its role in defining national, metropolitan and regional identities, and their role in interwar sexual politics. It thus highlights the contradictory impulses governing the artistic landscape, in which avant-garde renewal existed alongside cultural and artistic ideas that reached back to the aesthetic and ideological impulses of the Habsburg era.

vaclav spala gooseherdess

Václav Špála: Goosegirl, 1919 – image: