Milada Marešová, A Bride with a Cigarette

Artwork of the Month, December 2020: Bride with a Cigarette by Milada Marešová (1933)

Sitting in a full, white dress in front of a brick wall and a grove of cypress trees, a bride is looking straight out of the painting at the viewer. At first glance, she is not a typical bride. Although she wears more traditional long gloves, and clutches a fan in one hand, her veil is falling slightly from her head and reveals prominent red hair which contrasts with her greenish skin. We can only imagine that under the veil she has a bubikopf, a haircut typical for the ‘new woman’ look. Her face and expression dominate the painting. Her remarkable, raised eyebrows and bright red lips add to the defiant look she is casting. Yet most striking of all is the cigarette the bride is holding in her right hand.

Milada Marešová, Bride with a Cigarette, 1933

Milada Marešová: Bride with a Cigarette, 1933, private collection © Milada Marešová / heirs

The enigmatic Bride with a Cigarette is a painting by the Czech artist Milada Marešová (1901–1987), which she completed in 1933. Marešová is one of the many female artists from Czechoslovakia that do not often appear in the history of modern interwar art and therefore have stood on the margins of art history. Her work has recently been publicised by the Czech art historian Martina Pachmanová, but despite her efforts Marešová has not yet found place in the art historical discourse.[1] One reason for her obscurity when compared to her male counterparts from the interwar period and their avant-garde abstraction is her mode of depiction. Her interest in figurative forms of expression and realism with which she depicted various aspects of contemporary society could be seen in the light of the New Objectivity and magic realism of the 1920s and 1930s. The second reason is, indeed, her gender. Even though the topics of gender and realism in the modern art of central Europe have been explored much more recently, the question of the relative obscurity of Marešová and her female peers recalls Linda Nochlin’s provocative question ‘why have there been no great women artists?’ This short text will explore some possible answers to the deliberately motivated question.

Social critique

Marešová was one of the first women to study fine art in Prague after the First World War. For a long time, women students were only admitted to decorative and applied arts subjects for which they were supposedly better predisposed. While at the Art Academy, Marešová visited Germany and Paris and settled on a language of expression which combined the verism of New Objectivity with primitivism, especially that of Henri Rousseau, whose work had been well known to Czech artists. Marešová’s oeuvre is quite broad; she became a successful stage designer and illustrator whose work ranged from children’s books, miniature home cinema slide series and magazine pictures to drawings in her autobiography The Waldheim Idyll.[2] The book is composed of writing and sketches from prison: she was jailed during the Second World War for her role in the resistance and for her political caricatures. Both her drawings and paintings are full of observations of different social situations, people’s behaviour, and different stages of life. For her depictions of social topics she has been compared to George Grosz and Otto Dix as well as Käthe Kollwitz,[3] whose criticism of social injustice in central Europe of the interwar period was recently discussed by Nóra Veszprémi on this blog in relation to Still Life with Liebknecht Print by Istvan Dési Huber.

More locally, Marešová’s work – both her social themes and mode of depiction – has parallels in many Czech illustrators and caricaturists, like Vojtěch Tittlebach (1900–1971) or Adolf Hoffmeister (1902–1973), who passed critical comment on various political and social situations. Similarly, in the mid-1920s, the Czech artistic group HoHoKoKo, otherwise known as the Social Group, consisting of four male artists, the painters Karel Holan (1893–1953), Miloslav Holý (1897–1974), and Pravoslav Kotík (1889–1970) and the sculptor Karel Kotrba (1893–1938), depicted scenes from the everyday lives of ordinary people. For this, the artists attempted to revive a more classical, yet sufficiently modern visual language. In the works of these artists, as well as in that of Marešová, we find a deep interest in working-class society. Such interest was not unique to artists who opted for a more realistic language and in the same period it could be found in works by, for example, the representatives of the Devětsil group. Although they shared a leftist political orientation, an interest in the everyday and in using primitivist forms, their visual language was often criticised for not being comprehensible enough for wider audiences.

Karel Kotrba: Allegory of Building, Return and Industry, 1924

Karel Kotrba: Allegory of Building, Return and Industry, 1924, former Legio Savings Bank, Prague – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yet the social themes in Marešová’s work, and the simplifying execution close to caricature and primitivism, are formal and slightly crude similarities with other artists that do not diminish her originality. Marešová’s paintings are full of more or less explicit psychological tensions that provide an unflattering commentary on interwar society. Bride with Cigarette is one of a number of works by Marešová that depict a single figure of a woman, focusing on her psychological state. The artist explored, in similar fashion, the different stages of women’s social and family status in paintings such as The Widow (1930), A Pregnant Woman (1934), and another version of The Bride (1928). In all of them, the dominant figure of the woman is depicted alone, capturing different kinds of losses that come with the change of their state, whether it is the loss of a husband, innocence or life as a single person. Putting women into such a spotlight was important for recognition of their roles in society. In Bride with a Cigarette, however, the seriousness is merged with a pinch of underlying humour visible mostly in the bride’s blasé attitude and almost provocative facial expression.

New woman

Independent women were nothing unique in the Czechoslovakia of the interwar period. General suffrage was achieved with the creation of the new state and women could participate in the first elections in 1920. Yet despite some newly acquired freedoms, women still lacked a status equal to their male counterparts. They were only slowly penetrating the public sphere, taking up public roles and getting access to gainful employment outside of the home. Where they could achieve a degree of freedom and emancipation was in the adoption of the new woman look and lifestyle. In central Europe, the new woman as a positive ideal was related to emancipation and the liberation of women, to non-traditional womanhood, but not necessarily to feminism.[4] The image of a new woman was that of an educated, middle-class, intelligent, employed and young woman, who also looked after herself. The aesthetic dimension was often prominent in the way new women embraced modernity represented by the latest fashion and haircut.

A page from Eva. Časopis moderní ženy

A page from Eva. Časopis moderní ženy 6.3 (1933) p. 12.

The bride who smokes can indeed be seen as a new woman who defies the traditional role of a wife and the femininity which comes with it. Women’s smoking became more widespread and visible in the interwar period as another sign of modernity and the embrace of the new woman look, one of the most prominent examples being Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden from 1928. In Marešová’s Bride with a Cigarette, smoking is an intimate activity, which evokes seeking pleasure that may not be completely compatible with the domestic duties of a wife. Moreover, the combination of a cigarette and the innocent whiteness of the bridal dress could also be read as provocative and sexualised. The image of a smoking woman indeed symbolised female modernity but it also quickly became mediatised and adopted in various adverts, photographs or films, often by male designers and artists. For instance, a short article in the women’s magazine Eva from the same year that Bride with a Cigarette was finished, acknowledged the connection between smoking and sexual appeal. Written by a male contributor, the article argued that ‘a cigarette and tasteful smoking is one of the charms with which a modern woman appeals to us men.’[5] In Gustav Machatý’s Extasy (1932), which has been discussed on this blog by Christian Drobe, enjoying a cigarette served as an extension of the main protagonist’s orgasm. Women’s emancipation through smoking was therefore quickly appropriated into the mainstream, albeit artistic, sexualisation of the female body.

Observing people

The Bride with a Cigarette, however, challenges this appropriation by the distinctive defiance of the female subject. Yet the thematic diversion from the norm contrasts with the painting’s execution, which contains references to artistic tradition especially in the chosen colours and composition. The colour scheme is rather subdued and limited to shades of white and blue with a few accents. The dark green trees echo in the green skin, and the orange wall complements the hair. The reason for this colour choice is unclear and one can only speculate, especially about the unusual green shade of the skin. Is this Marešová’s comment on the effects of smoking?  Is it a part of her magic realism imagination? Or is the bride a personification of the ‘žába’, a frog, which was a colloquial Czech term used for single women?[6]

As regards the composition, the figure is central to the painting and is reminiscent of an established arrangement of the Madonna and a child, only that here the child is missing. The reference to the Madonna is supported by what looks like a seaside background, the flatness of which is reminiscent of early Renaissance paintings. Moreover, the cypress trees often grow in warm climate of the Mediterranean Italy, southern France and Greece where many early modern religious paintings were set. In Central Europe, exotic trees and the seaside may be taken as signifiers of distance, they symbolise foreign countries, which many people can only dream of. As such they often appear in paintings of surrealism and magic realism. The dreamy landscapes not only with cypress trees but the sea and boats of the Czech painter Jan Zrzavý (1890–1977) could be used here as a parallel to Marešová’s interest in the symbolic background. Zrzavý also often depicted religious figures in front of hills, plants and the vast sky, placing emphasis on the emotional state of the main protagonist in their solitude.

Milada Marešová: Charity Bazaar, 1927

Milada Marešová: Charity Bazaar, 1927, Kunstforum Ostdeutsche Galerie, Regensburg, on loan in the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin © Milada Marešová / heirs – photo: The Moravian Gallery in Brno

The melancholic loneliness shared by Marešová’s work is, however, not limited to the depictions of single individuals like the bride or other female figures. Even the people who, in her paintings, seem to be engaged in a dialogue either seated in cafés or in busy urban places, are strangely lonely. Some of the artist’s earlier works that preceded Bride with a Cigarette depict such places full of people. Dancing rooms, bazaars, train stations, and street corners of Paris or Prague provide an opportunity for Marešová to critique the limits and sincerity of social contact. Charity Bazaar from 1927, for instance, focuses on the Parisian social life full of empty gestures, fake smiles and suspicious looks.

Milada Marešová: In an Algerian café (Colonial exhibition), 1931

Milada Marešová: In an Algerian café (Colonial exhibition), 1931, private collection © Milada Marešová / heirs

Marešová created several paintings with views of different aspects of Parisian life as she experienced them in the early 1920s.

Milada Marešová: Two Black Boys (Colonial exhibition), 1931

Milada Marešová: Two Black Boys (Colonial exhibition), 1931, private collection © Milada Marešová / heirs

She came back to the French capital in 1931 and visited the Exposition coloniale internationale, an event that brought together subjects and objects of the French colonial rule. Marešová once again depicted various figures and situations in numerous ink drawings that were published in the illustrative weekly Pestrý týden. The drawings place emphasis on the difference of the non-European participants in the exhibition visible in their different clothes, skin colour, physical features or performative activities like parading camels or tea ceremonies. Most of the drawings also provide a critical commentary on the exoticising and exploitation of such individuals; the children look distinctly undernourished and sad, while waiters in native garments serve coffee and tea to the white Parisians in a contrast of cultures and race.

 

Exhibited yet still unknown

What Bride with a Cigarette shares with the drawings from the colonial exhibition is the careful observation of the subject, often exaggerated in a way reminiscent of magazine caricatures. In this way, the painting of the bride fits within the work that responds to life critically and it also stands out as a commentary on women’s position in contemporary society. The realistic language Marešová opted for, however, led to her paintings being side-tracked and left her on the margins of accounts of interwar modernism especially after WWII. Marešová did enjoy a few exhibitions during her lifetime as well as later. She first exhibited together with her friend Vlasta Vostřebalová-Fischerová (1898–1963) in 1925 and held a solo exhibition in the gallery Aventinum mansarda in Prague in 1930, which received positive and enthusiastic reviews. She held a few more solo exhibitions in the interwar period but after the Second World War it was not until 1986 that an exhibition of her work was held, in Brno. In 2008, Martina Pachmanová organised a large retrospective exhibition in the Moravian Gallery and, in 2015, in the town of Litomyšl in eastern Bohemia.[7] These days, however, Marešová’s painting, drawings and illustrations are still little known despite the concerted efforts of Pachmanová and a few others to rediscover her work.

As a female artist, Marešová was not exactly written out of art history: she has remained part of it but, apart from these few exhibitions, she is still often overlooked. Her marginalisation could therefore be attributed not only to her gender and to the often unconscious historic bias against female artists but also to the fact that she did not associate with the avant-garde. Indeed, more and more publications have recently looked at the interwar period in a more holistic way and acknowledged that the avant-garde co-existed alongside a whole range of other artistic tendencies, including realism and historicism. Yet even one of the latest books, Nové realismy, to focus on realistic tendencies in interwar Czechoslovakia that parallelled New Objectivity, only mentions Marešová in passing and includes a handful of her paintings which are not discussed at all. Marešová nevertheless proves that there indeed have been great female artists in central Europe and, at the same time, there have been institutional and intellectual weaknesses, to quote Nochlin, preventing them from being properly recognized. Writing the history of art today, however, requires a lot of conscious effort to bring these artists back from oblivion and make them visible again. Looking at the complexity and range of Marešová’s work, including Bride with a Cigarette, it should nevertheless be worth it.

Marta Filipová

[1] Martina Pachmanová, Milada Marešová: malířka nové věcnosti (Brno and Prague, 2008); Milada Marešová, Domácí biograf / Home Cinema, ed. Martina Pachmanová (Řevnice and Prague, 2009).

[2] Milada Marešová, Waldheimská idyla (Prague, 1947).

[3] Karel Hornych, ‘Výstava Milady Marešové v Aventinské mansardě,’ Ženský svět 34.11–12 (1930) p. 201.

[4] Karla Huebner explored this topic in relation to visual imagery in Czechoslovakia in ‘Otherness in First Republic Czechoslovak Representation of Women,’ in Competing Eyes: Visual Encounters with Alterity in Central and Eastern Europe, eds Dagnosław Demski, Ildikó Sz. Kristóf and Kamila Baraniecka-Olszewska (Budapest, 2013) pp. 440–460.

[5] Tr-Ant, ‘Kouření se zakazuje,‘ Eva. Časopis moderní ženy 6.12 (1933) p. 12.

[6] Karla Huebner, ‘Girl, Trampka, or Žába? (Girl, Tramp, or Froggie?) The Czechoslovak New Woman,’ in The New Woman International: Representations in Photography and Film from the 1870s Through the 1960s, eds Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco, foreword by Linda Nochlin (Ann Arbor, 2011) pp. 231–251.

[7] Pachmanová, Milada Marešová.

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