Žilina synagogue designed by Peter Behrens

Artwork of the Month, November 2020: The Neolog Synagogue in Žilina by Peter Behrens (1928–31)

In May 2017 a new art exhibition and concert venue opened in the Slovak town of Žilina. The result of a six-year restoration project that had been partly crowd-funded and also partly funded by the EU, the Slovak government and the town council, the building won a number of awards on the basis not only of the quality of the restoration but also for its mobilisation of grass-roots support and funding. Just around the corner from the Puppet Theatre and the substantial municipal theatre, the new centre provided a valuable addition to the cultural life of the provincial town, located some 200 kilometres northeast of Bratislava. The organisation that manages the centre, Truc Sphérique, also organises cultural events in the Stanica Žilina-Záriečie, in the town’s still operational railway station, and provides an instructive example of the productive regeneration of sites as cultural venues.[1]

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Artwork of the Month, October 2020: Still Life with Liebknecht Print by István Dési Huber (c. 1930)

For centuries, the still life was considered as the least prestigious of artistic genres, dismissed by critics as undemanding because it only depicted lifeless objects. Yet, there was always more to still lifes than what immediately meets the eye. Allowing unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated objects, they lent themselves to symbolic compositions; they were well suited for referencing the work of other artists or for creating commemorative images. Rather than just ‘copying’ nature, artists often used the genre to intellectually reflect on the possibility of ‘lifelike’ representation. From the late nineteenth century onwards the still life became a preferred genre for the formal experimentations of avant-garde artists. This article will explore a still life by the Hungarian artist István Dési Huber as an expression of his artistic credo. Enclosing works by two contemporary artists, Käthe Kollwitz and László Mészáros, into its pictorial world, Still Life with Liebknecht Print reflects Dési Huber’s views on artistic tradition, the autonomy of art, as well as the artist’s social role.

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Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, This Is What It Looks Like

Artwork of the Month, September 2020: This Is What It Looks Like, My Child, This World by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (c. 1933)

This is what it looks like, my child, this world, that is what you have been born into, there are those born to shear and those born to be shorn. That, my child, is what it looks like in this world of ours and that of other countries, and if you, my child, do not like it, then you will just have to change it.

Set above a busy photo-collage of a newborn baby surrounded by newspaper cut-outs, these words call out for action in a world of political tension. Together with the images below it, they show a violent and turbulent world in which the baby seems already lost in its first moments of life. Forming part of a series of six photo collages created in Vienna in the early 1930s, This Is What It Looks Like gives a glimpse into anti-fascist photographic work in interwar Austria.

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Artwork of the Month, August 2020: Extase by Gustav Machatý (1933)

In 2019, a new version of Extase, the fabled 1933 movie by Gustav Machatý, won a prize for the best digitally restored movie at the Venice Film Festival. The aim was a faithful restauration of the Czech version, shown at the film festival in 1934. The movie’s rich history is full of scandals, outrage, censorship and Hollywood myths. The gossip focuses on young movie star Hedy Lamarr (then still named Hedy Kiesler), her nude scenes and the supposedly first female orgasm on screen (in a non-pornographic movie). Her illustrious persona and the scandals led to the emergence of an immense body of literature. However, it is the film’s aesthetic and its progressive story about a woman finding her sexual freedom that provides the film’s anchor in the often-forgotten realm of cinematic innovation in Central Europe between the wars. Machatý followed in the steps of filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, F. W. Pabst, or Sergej Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, while expressly tackling the question of female identity. The article follows the narrative of the film and tries to assess the often ambiguous nature of Machatý’s ideas towards emancipation and his pictorial language.

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Artwork of the Month, July 2020: The Black Boy by Helena Johnová (1912–c. 1939)

The Black Boy was the most commercially successful work of the Czech ceramicist Helena Johnová (1884–1962) with nearly 900 sold items of various colour versions. The black figure with exaggerated facial features, however, may well raise eyebrows today, but also a number of questions. These are worth exploring in connection with interwar art and design in Central Europe, as well as with current political issues. The most obvious ones relate to ethnic and gender stereotypes, which still resonate today thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter and #metoo movements. Many people, even academic scholars, argue that the current Czech and, by extension, Central European society has never had problems with racism or sexism, and that therefore issues highlighted by these movements are irrelevant in this geographical and political context. If we look at Johnová’s work more closely, we can, however, point to deep-rooted beliefs that shape today’s understanding of race and racial equality; we can question the assumption that because there were no colonies, there were no stereotypical views of race.

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