In times of travel bans and with a tourism industry at standstill, one is forced to look for alternative ways of discovery. April’s Artwork of the Month relates to this issue: Columbus in der Slovakei is a cultural travel guide to Slovakia, written for a German-speaking audience yearning to ‘discover and to unearth, to carry back home unlosable treasures of joy’ (9). Almost six hundred pages strong and including over four hundred illustrations and photographs, the publication was instigated, arranged and designed by the Viennese writer, artist and publisher Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski (1888-1961), and published in 1936 by the German-language publisher Eos in Bratislava. Though widely advertised in the Austrian and Prague German radio and press, including praise by Heinrich Mann, it should be noted in advance that the commercial success of the publication was disastrous and almost led its publisher into financial ruin, not least due to the high price caused by the design specifications.
‘The most important elements of modern architecture? Hygiene: air, light, cleansing, airing, heating, artificial lighting.’
With these words the Czech architect and critic Oldřich Starý (1884-1971) sought to identify the central features of the most progressive architecture in the 1920s. Starý’s claim clearly should be viewed in the context of interwar architectural thinking in Czechoslovakia. However, at the time of writing in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic has already cost tens of thousands of people their lives, and has brought advanced economies across the globe to a grinding halt, Starý’s belief in hygiene may well be the object of a renewed interest.
Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s contains a striking chapter on the graphic designer and illustrator Klara Biller (1910–1989). Pete Biller, the artist’s son, recalls the house he grew up in, enumerating its references to Hungarian culture. Living in a bungalow in Stanmore, Middlesex, Klara decorated the interiors with Hungarian folk textiles and pottery by Margit Kovács (1902–1977), a folk-art inspired ceramicist who was hugely popular in Hungary. Klara also owned a few Hungarian paintings, by Pál Molnár-C. (1894–1981) and János Kmetty (1889–1975), but – as her son explains – the art books she bought herself were all on international art, in particular, Paul Klee (1879–1940) or Frans Masereel (1889–1972). Bookshelves in the house were also heavily populated by books on Hungarian history, many discussing the Treaty of Trianon – but these books belonged not to Klara, but to her British husband, Victor Biller, who had developed an interest in Hungary years before he met his future wife in the 1930s. In fact, as Pete Biller’s sensitive account explains, his father nurtured a fascination with interwar ‘official’ Hungary, which must have been alienating to his mother, who was of Jewish descent and had to leave behind her country of birth precisely because of the increasing anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of that official culture and eventually led to genocide. Yet, this issue was never discussed in the family, and although Klara eventually told her sons about their Jewish heritage, she never informed Victor. Her relationship with the culture of her country of origin must have been highly conflicted, but it was a conflict she negotiated silently, within herself. And perhaps with her mother and sister, whose visits after their own emigration in the 1950s prompted Klara to turn towards Hungarian cooking and stock up her kitchen with paprika.
In the 1920s new concepts became prominent across Europe that mingled technology with the idea of the human. The Czech novelist Karel Čapek (upon the suggestion by his brother Josef) was the first to use the word ‘robot’ for artificial lifeforms modelled after humans, in his famous play R.U.R. (1920). Čapek was in fact referring to an old system of forced labour in Central Europe, where the peasantry had to provide the local lords with a certain amount of unpaid labour every year, the so-called robota (work). The pivotal moment of Čapek’s play is the robots’ uprising against their creators, which leads to the extinction of mankind. In the epilogue, however, the robots Primus and Helena develop human feelings for each other, and the former engineer Alquist, one of the last humans alive, declares them the new Adam and Eve.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Max Dvořák the Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague is staging a conference in 2021 on the legacy of the Vienna School of Art History. Click here for the call for papers.
Max Dvořák (1874-1921) was a pioneer of what has subsequently been referred to as ‘art history as the history of ideas’ (Geistesgeschichte). Where art historians had previously been primarily concerned with the evolution of art’s formal languages (the history of style) or with purely factual information about the production of artworks and the lives of the artists who made them, Dvořák sought to anchor the interpretation of artworks in an understanding of the broader cultural and intellectual currents of their time. He stopped short of espousing a social history of art, but he certainly saw the importance of cultural history for the analysis of works of art. Dvořák has since been criticised for relying too much on vague generalisations about the history of ideas as the background to art, but there is no denying that his essays and lectures, especially those published posthumously in the volume Art History as the History of Ideas (Munich, 1924), were enormously influential on younger generations of art historians, who sometimes argued with each other over how best to preserve his legacy.