Artwork of the Month, September 2021: The Industrial Exhibition Hall in Hiroshima by Jan Letzel (1915)

In the summer of 2021, the Jaroslav Fragner Gallery in Prague staged an exhibition celebrating the centenary of the setting up of diplomatic relations between Japan and Czechoslovakia. Bearing the title 1920–2020 Prague–Tokyo / Exchanges, Parallels, Common Visions, the exhibition had been delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 restrictions.[1] Its focus was on architecture, and it was testimony to the rich exchange of ideas and practices between Japan and Czechoslovakia (and, subsequently, the Czech Republic). The best-known architects in this story are Antonin Raymond (1888–1976) and Bedřich Feuerstein (1892–1936), who has already been discussed in another post on this site as the architect of the crematorium in Nymburk. Raymond and Feuerstein have benefitted from a ‘rediscovery’ due to new research in the past few years.[2] However, the subject of the Artwork of the Month essay for September is an earlier, less familiar, figure: Jan Letzel (1880–1925) who was in many respects their forerunner. Unknown to many, he was the architect of one of the most famous buildings in Japan: the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Exhibition Hall (1915). Since 1996 it has been a designated UNESCO world heritage site, and has been named the Hiroshima Peace Memorial (or Gebaku Dome), for it is one of the very few structures to have withstood the detonation of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on the 6th August 1945. The building of the Hall falls outside the strict chronological boundaries of the CRAACE project, but it serves as a powerful symbol of the engagement of Czechs and Slovaks with Japan, which began in the late nineteenth century and gained momentum into the mid-twentieth. Consideration of the building also prompts us to reflect on the way that Czech and Czechoslovaks interacted with Japanese culture and the light that casts on Czech and Czechoslovak culture and self-perceptions.

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Artwork of the Month, August 2021: To Arms! To Arms! by Róbert Berény (1919)

In 2018 the Kassák Museum in Budapest staged Everything Is Ours!, an installation by artist Ádám Albert (*1975) that pondered on the visual propaganda of the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic. The small, meditative show was suddenly thrown into the limelight when it was ferociously denounced in the right-wing press for supposedly promoting Communist ideas and violence. The controversy is seen to have led to the resignation of the director of the Petőfi Museum of Literature (the mother institution of the Kassák Museum) not much later.

These events suggest that the Soviet Republic constitutes a highly sensitive and prominent memory site in Hungarian culture, but the ‘scandal’ was in fact something of a surprise. Although the short-lived 1919 Communist regime remains controversial, its memory is much less pivotal today than it was in the first seventy years after its collapse, when it was undoubtedly a cornerstone of political self-identification. In the interwar period, the right-wing Horthy regime held it up as the manifestation of all evil, while under state Socialism it was celebrated as a venerable antecedent. Today, by contrast, right-wing anti-communism has a more immediate counterconcept in the post-1948 regime, while for left-wingers the Soviet Republic’s excess and violence precludes it as an object of identification. Indeed, the most uncomfortable, and at the same time most intriguing aspect of the Soviet Republic is how progressive ideas and a genuine will to bring about positive change, which drew in some of the best – not necessarily Communist – minds of the time, coexisted with unrestrained brutality and diehard dogmatism. The latest study of the events emphasises their chaotic, sometimes accidental nature, and the widely varied ideologies, aims, desires and ambitions of the individuals who made them happen.[1]

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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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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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