National Histories, Imperial Memories: Representing the Past in Interwar Central Europe

In the successor states of the Habsburg Empire, official narratives of history tended to downplay the imperial context and highlight the continuous, distinct history of the nation. Nevertheless, while 1918 was undoubtedly a watershed moment, it did not suddenly obliterate the shared past. The built and artistic heritage of the Empire was still present and had to be dealt with, whether through appropriation, destruction, or reinterpretation. The nationalities of the former Empire were in constant interaction with each other, whether politically allied or opposed, and they still lived together in multiethnic territories such as Slovakia or Transylvania. Commemorations and representations of the national past were conceived with an eye on the ‘others’. Remembrance was polyphonic, with different groups forming their own narratives, even if these were not always officially recognised.

The seminar series National Histories, Imperial Memories will examine how visual culture in interwar central Europe engaged with the shared imperial past. It will feature papers on topics ranging from the postwar fate of pre-1918 public monuments and built heritage to  representations of the past in film, and from commemorations of war to idealised depictions of rural life.

The events will take place on Zoom, every fortnight starting on 21 September 2021 and concluding on 14 December 2021. The sessions will begin at 18.00 CET.

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Artwork of the Month, July 2021: Logo of the Salzburg Festival by Poldi Wojtek (1928)

One of Austria’s most established cultural highlights each summer is the Salzburg Festival of music and drama. Taking place annually since 1920, the festival was the brainchild of the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929) and the director Max Reinhardt (1873–1943), who sought to give a new lease of life to Austrian culture after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. In his ground-breaking analysis of the festival’s early days, the historian Michael P. Steinberg has shown that Hoffmannsthal conceived of the event as an affirmation of a new Austrian identity, which aimed to merge a cosmopolitan outlook with a deep Catholicism and sense of greater German identity.[1] This sense of ‘national cosmopolitanism’ as a new Austrian culture was also anchored in the turn away from the old imperial capital Vienna – located Austrian identity instead in Salzburg, a former independent prince-archbishopric and Baroque city in the Austrian alps. The festival thus manifested a different kind of modernity in Austrian interwar culture – one that embraced conservatism and nationalism as a significant part of its post-imperial identity.

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Artwork of the Month, June 2021: Spa Fountain by Zdeněk Pešánek (1936)

The Spa Fountain made its first appearance in the section on Tourism of the Czechoslovak pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937. The Fountain was one of three works displayed in this space by the Czech artist Zdeněk Pešánek (1896–1965), the other two being a set of free standing sculptures celebrating Electricity and a neon advertisement for the Bohemian spa town of Jáchymov, entitled Radium. The Fountain, as well as the other works by Pešánek, were light-kinetic sculptures; they used light, sound and movement in combination with different, and often novel materials. As an artistic movement, kinetism was established in central Europe in the 1920s. Yet, for artists like Erika Giovanna Klien (1900–1957) or František Kupka (1871–1957) the primary medium of kinetism was painting, which allowed them to explore movement and rhythm through colour, shapes and compositions. It was the Russian constructivists Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956) and the multimedia artists Alexander Calder (1898–1976) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) who then translated these effects into sculpture, bringing either controlled or unpredictable movement to an otherwise static medium.

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Women of the Viennese Workshops: Exhibition review

What would an exhibition look like that exclusively acknowledged women’s contributions to modern design? A possible answer to this question can currently be found at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna, where Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte puts the work of the Viennese Workshops (Wiener Werkstätte, WW) design company’s female artists and designers in focus. It is the first large show at the MAK since its reopening after the lockdown, having had to be postponed for over six months. The accompanying publication Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte, was already published in 2020, offering an introduction to topics such as toy design, ceramics and training in thematic essays, as well as biographies of all the WW’s female artists whose details could be traced.[1]

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Artwork of the Month, May 2021: The Church of St. Anthony of Padua by Gyula Rimanóczy (1931–34)

In the western suburbs of the 2nd district of Budapest, on Pasaréti Square, is one of the more striking examples of interwar modernist architecture in Hungary: the Franciscan Church of St. Anthony of Padua. The innovative nature of the design is apparent if we compare it with other churches built in Hungary shortly before, such as the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Győr of 1929, or the Church of St. Emeric in Balatonalmádi (1930). We can also gain a sense of the striking addition it made to the cityscape when we view it in its environs, a low-density neighbourhood of villas. It is commonly regarded as one of the most important churches built in interwar Hungary, and as evidence of the embrace by the Hungarian Catholic church of modernity. Consecrated in October 1934, it might have been the first example of functionalist church architecture in Hungary, had it not been for the tumultuous process of its approval that delayed its completion. As a result, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by Bertalan (1901–1971) and Aladár Árkay (1868–1932) is generally held to have that distinction.

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