This striking ceramic head, nearly 28 centimetres in height, depicts a young woman wearing a slanted fashionable cap, counter-posed with a green flower in her hair. It was executed by Vally Wieselthier (1895–1945) and is one of many female heads she produced for the Wiener Werkstätte in the late 1920s. Indeed, not only did Wieselthier produce distinctive ceramic heads of this kind; many other artists associated with the Wiener Werkstätte, such as Gudrun Baudisch (1907–1982), Hertha Bucher (1898–1960) and Erna Kopriva (1894–1984) made similar heads. Baudisch, in particular, executed a number that are sometimes difficult to distinguish from those by Wieselthier.
This is the first time a work by Lajos Kassák (1887–1967) features as our Artwork of the Month, but many of our previous articles have mentioned the artist’s name. This is due to Kassák’s uniquely central position in early-twentieth-century Hungarian avant-garde culture. He was not just a visual artist, but also a writer, poet, editor, organiser and thinker. Artists as important and diverse as Sándor Bortnyik (1893–1976), János Mattis-Teutsch (1884–1960), or Lajos Vajda (1908–1941) all belonged to Kassák’s circle before continuing on their separate paths. The significance of Kassák’s periodicals and collaborative projects is so great that they can easily steal the limelight from his individual artistic output. This is how Kassák became a recurring background figure on this blog, and it is high time for him to come into focus.
In 1934, two Czechoslovak films were sent to the Venice Film Festival. The first was Gustav Machatý’s Extase from 1933, which not only brought its protagonist, the young Hedy Lamarr, to fame, but also caused outrage for its explicit presentation of female sexuality. The second film was altogether different: it had no stars, no dramatic narrative arc, no great love story. It was not even a box office success, though critics lauded its artistic value as a ‘film poem’ that, as museum director Josef Polák claimed in the Prague daily Lidové noviny, exemplified ‘what cinema could be when the moving shadows are not simply a commodity’: The Earth Sings (Zem spieva, 1933), written and directed by Karel Plicka (1894–1987), interwar Czechoslovakia’s most influential artist-ethnographer.
Few artists moved between worlds as much as the painter and sculptor János Mattis-Teutsch (1884–1960), who was born in Brașov (Hung.: Brassó, Ger.: Kronstadt), but spent considerable time in Budapest, Bucharest, Munich, Paris and Berlin. This demonstrates the mobility of artists in Central Europe before and after the First World War, but it especially showcases the variety of artistic developments that ran throughout Europe since the early twentieth century. No matter which influence he followed, Mattis-Teutsch aimed at expressing the inner spirit of the human soul. He was close to Expressionist, spiritual and, later, Constructivist tendencies, on which he always put his own stamp, with a desire to unite ethical and aesthetic values. Reconciliation is also the theme of the painting presented here, The Manual Workers and the Intellectuals (1927), which marks a seldom-noted phase of his work towards the end of the 1920s, when the social aspirations of his art came into their own particularly strongly. Following artists such as Sándor Bortnyik (1893–1976), he sought to add a human touch to Constructivism. His ethereal figures represent generally human principles for a ‘New Man’ who was to move in the idealised space of a new society. The term ‘New Man’ gathered a wide variety of utopian ideas for the transformation of the human being in the interwar period, and found frequent expression in art.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a negrophile is ‘someone (especially a white person) who is very sympathetic to or supportive of Black people, their culture, or their rights and interests.’ The levels of sympathy and support may, indeed, differ and be open to interpretation. Negrophilia, then, is the attraction to Black culture and Black people, often linked to the fascination of the interwar avant-garde with Africans and African Americans in European metropolises. Between the wars, Black culture became a subject of inspiration, captivation but mostly exploitation by many writers, poets, painters, musicians, or dancers from Paris to Prague.