Red Vienna book cover

The Key to Red Vienna: Book review

The year 2019 saw the centenary of the creation of Red Vienna, in other words, the period of majority municipal government of the Austrian capital by the Social Democratic Party. The term ‘Red Vienna,’ which was in fact coined by a Christian Socialist opponent, has long functioned as a placeholder for Vienna’s progressive city administration as well as, more generally, the left of centre cultural and intellectual life that flourished in the 15 years between 1919 and 1934, when the newly installed dictatorship of Engelbert Dollfuss (1892–1934) brought it to a halt.

However, beyond this general summary, how might we characterise Red Vienna and what does it mean for us in the present? Undoubtedly, its most visible monuments are the communal housing blocks that were constructed around the city: the so-called Ringstrasse of the proletariat. These have been the subject of intense interest and study, especially the Gargantuan Karl-Marx-Hof (1927–33) designed by Karl Ehn (1884–1957), and, as one of the main locations of the brief civil war fought in February 1923, a highly important lieu de mémoire.[1] Another example, the Winarsky Hof, has been mentioned on this blog in an article discussing the monument to Ferdinand Lassalle erected there. Yet ‘Red Vienna’ was a much more complex phenomenon, and it is this complexity that the anthology edited by Rob Macfarland, Georg Spitaler and Ingo Zechner, Das Rote Wien / The Red Vienna Sourcebook, attempts to convey.

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Kubišta – Filla

Kubišta – Filla: Book review

Bohumil Kubišta (1884–1918) and Emil Filla (1882–1953) were two prominent Czech painters of the early 20th century, whose work is the subject of the latest publication by Marie Rakušanová. The Czech-language volume Kubišta – Filla: Plzeňská disputace focuses on the relationship between the two main protagonists and their connections with other people that were friends or colleagues of the artists. This seemingly narrow focus, however, provides an opportunity for the author to examine in detail how radically the Czech art world changed during a relatively short period of time. The relationships that formed fast and dissolved even faster, the quickly established artistic groups with a diversity of aims and membership that never lasted long, prove how rapid the transformation was in the art and society of the time.

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Mucha

Mucha for the 21st century: Exhibition review

Two prominent art institutions in Prague are currently hosting two exhibitions of Alfons Mucha that try to place his work in a contemporary context. Although having the same curator, Karel Srp, they take seemingly different approaches. They, nevertheless, share the question as to whether Mucha is relevant today and if so, why and how and in what format his work might best exhibited.

Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) was a renowned graphic artist, applied arts designer, photographer and painter who spent his life partly in Paris, the USA and Bohemia. He is mostly famed for a variety of posters that promoted and advertised a wide range of lush, fin-de-siècle products: drinks, cigarettes, perfumes as well as the theatrical performances Paris based actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923). His oeuvre, however, also included painting, again in a wide range of genres from portraits to murals; as well as photography and design of household items, such as vases, candle sticks and furniture.

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Neighbours: An Austrian-Czech History Book: Book review

Relationship status: it’s complicated. Summarised in the vernacular of the virtual age, Austrian-Czech relations have long been characterised as uneasy, bolstered by a range of stereotypes established across the past centuries – the Czech as the beer-swelling yokel ‘Václav’, the Austrian as the kaisertreu snobbish brute, or a country bumpkin with right-wing sentiments. Rather than to divulge in these exaggerated characterisations any further – which are often malicious, sometimes humorous, and occasionally contain a grain of truth – Neighbours: An Austrian-Czech History Book draws attention to the joint history of the two countries in a decidedly more positive light.

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Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s: Book review

Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s contains a striking chapter on the graphic designer and illustrator Klara Biller (1910–1989). Pete Biller, the artist’s son, recalls the house he grew up in, enumerating its references to Hungarian culture. Living in a bungalow in Stanmore, Middlesex, Klara decorated the interiors with Hungarian folk textiles and pottery by Margit Kovács (1902–1977), a folk-art inspired ceramicist who was hugely popular in Hungary. Klara also owned a few Hungarian paintings, by Pál Molnár-C. (1894–1981) and János Kmetty (1889–1975), but – as her son explains – the art books she bought herself were all on international art, in particular, Paul Klee (1879–1940) or Frans Masereel (1889–1972). Bookshelves in the house were also heavily populated by books on Hungarian history, many discussing the Treaty of Trianon – but these books belonged not to Klara, but to her British husband, Victor Biller, who had developed an interest in Hungary years before he met his future wife in the 1930s. In fact, as Pete Biller’s sensitive account explains, his father nurtured a fascination with interwar ‘official’ Hungary, which must have been alienating to his mother, who was of Jewish descent and had to leave behind her country of birth precisely because of the increasing anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of that official culture and eventually led to genocide. Yet, this issue was never discussed in the family, and although Klara eventually told her sons about their Jewish heritage, she never informed Victor. Her relationship with the culture of her country of origin must have been highly conflicted, but it was a conflict she negotiated silently, within herself. And perhaps with her mother and sister, whose visits after their own emigration in the 1950s prompted Klara to turn towards Hungarian cooking and stock up her kitchen with paprika.

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