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.
The artwork of the month for June 2020 is A Walk Through the Metropolis by Erika Giovanna Klien (1900–1957). It is perhaps the most ambitious and imposing example of the short-lived Viennese art movement known as ‘Kinetism’ that flourished in the early 1920s. Executed in gouache on paper, it consists of seven one meter-square panels laid alongside each other resulting in a work that is seven meters in length. The city it depicts is a site of thrilling, dynamic encounters, between the spectator and the physical environment, between buildings, and between the spectator and unspecified others on the street. The metropolis is a place of life and energy, and the work communicates, too, a sense of urban noise. Yet who was Klien, and what was Kinetism?
In August 1936 the young Hungarian artist Lajos Vajda (1908–1941) was intensely excited about the new artistic programme he was devising with his friend, the painter Dezső Korniss (1908–1984). The two of them had spent the last two years roaming the picturesque small town of Szentendre and its vicinity, exploring the diversity of local vernacular culture and drawing everything they found interesting. It was now time for a synthesis: time to define their artistic goals based on this research. As Vajda explained in a letter to his future wife, the artist Júlia Richter (1913–1982, from 1938 Júlia Vajda): ‘Our starting point is that it is impossible to create without tradition, and in our Hungarian circumstances that tradition can only be Hungarian folk art. … What we want is more or less the same as what Bartók and Kodály have achieved in music.’ This meant delving deep into vernacular culture to find its essence, its core elements, in order to revitalise modern art by reconnecting it to an organic tradition.
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.
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.