István Farkas (1887–1944) was one of the most outstanding painters in interwar Hungary, yet his name rarely comes up in discussions of the period. The reason is probably that his art is hard to categorise. He was not an avant-gardist, but his employment of symbolism and the grotesque also distantiate his paintings from the Post-Impressionism of the Gresham Circle, with whose work they might share some superficial formal characteristics. Farkas never officially belonged to any artists’ group and spent a large part of his working life in Paris. His masterpiece, Madman of Syracuse, seems as isolated in Hungarian art history as its protagonist standing in a desolate, sweltering landscape. Nevertheless, the concepts of continuity and rupture provide us with useful tools that help us situate the painting in the art history of post-imperial Central Europe.
In 2008, the city of Cedar Rapids in Iowa was hit by a terrible flood caused by heavy rainfall and overflown local river. The water reached unprecedented 31 feet above the normal level and flooded nearly 8,000 properties. In financial terms, the losses to property were calculated at $6 billion. But how is a flooded city in the American Midwest linked to an idyllic rural scene by a Czech artist?
On 6 May 1928 the ceremonial unveiling took place of a monument to Ferdinand Lasalle in Vienna. Located in the north-eastern suburb of Brigittenau, and placed in front of the recently built Winarsky Hof, a communal housing project built by the municipality, the monument commemorated Ferdinand Lassalle (1825-1864). A native of the German city of Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), Lassalle had no obvious connection to Austria. He was, however, a leading figure in Socialist politics in the 1840s and 1850s, having been imprisoned for his support for the 1848 revolution. It was in recognition of his commitment to socialist politics that in 1863 he was appointed the first president of the General German Worker’s Association, forerunner of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). It was for this reason that the monument was erected to him in Vienna some 60 years later, for Vienna city council was dominated by Social Democrats, whose social and cultural policies earned the capital the name of ‘Red Vienna.’
2019’s first ‘Artwork of the Month’ focuses on one example of how a ‘nostalgic modernism’ could look in interwar Austria. What it also stands for upon closer analysis is the malleability of the photographic image in turbulent social and political times. Not least, it also helps to introduce a trend of photography in 1930s Central Europe, which seemed to stand in diametrical opposition to the avant-garde experiments of the time: Heimat photography (‘homeland photography’). As it will turn out, the classically composed The Mother could be many things and fit within a series of developments that continued from the fin de siècle to the Second World War.
Our artwork of the month – the first instalment in this new series – is not from the interwar period: it was created in 2008-2009. It has been chosen as an introductory piece because it represents an important aspect of our research in a thought-provoking way. Our project considers Central Europe after 1918 as a shared cultural space, but in doing so it has to deal with the political reality: the newly minted nation states of the region and the new borders drawn between them. These borders – either their enforcement, or, as in the case of Hungary, their fervent contestation – were central to political discourse in all of these countries. The concept of the nation state relies on the idea that the ethnic, cultural and administrative borders of a nation should correspond with each other; this is, however, rarely the case in reality. The new states of Central Europe were not homogeneous either ethnically or culturally. In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, different ethnic groups had not only lived side by side, but also intermingled. After 1918 the population of the region underwent a radical mental shift from imperial multi-nationalism towards ethnic nationalism. Yet, multi-ethnicity was still present, and cultural transfer happened between ethnicities and across borders. What does this curious map tell us about all this? Let’s take a look.