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.
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.
In the autumn of 2018, the Museum of Art in Olomouc staged the exhibition Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe. It was subsequently staged at the International Centre in Cracow, the Bratislava City Art Gallery and finally the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs. It was an ambitious and imaginative exhibition, but initially no catalogue was available, only a short inexpensive guide. Now, after some delay, the full exhibition catalogue has been published, in handsome Czech and English-language editions. In its scale and scope – nearly 700 pages in length and with hundreds of images – the volume is not merely meant as an aid to the exhibition, but as a standard work of reference on central European modernism. In fact, although ostensibly based on the exhibition, it is only loosely connected to it; one loses sight of the original exhibition themes and structure due to the many essays on entirely unrelated topics. It therefore is best treated as standalone publication.
The Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz, founded in 2003 in the Upper Austrian regional capital, is closely tied to its home city: the name Lentos, coming from the celtic and meaning ‘close by the river’, was the linguistic predecessor to the city’s name ‘Lentia’ during Roman times. The museum’s location by the Danube, housed in a modern building designed by Zurich architects Weber+Hofer, faces and mirrors the city’s Ars Electronica Centre (AEC), a museum dedicated to the electronic arts, on the other side of the river. Together, the Lentos and the AEC buildings have not only served to transform Linz’s industrial riverside into a location of culture, they also visually shift attention away from the Nibelungen bridge connecting the city core to the suburb Urfahr and the Upper Austrian North, leading on to the Czech Republic. Built between 1938 and 1940, the bridge was part of a large national socialist redevelopment project, building on plans Adolf Hitler had first sketched out in the mid-1920s. Today, the Nibelungen bridge still counts as one of the main connectors between Linz and northern Upper Austria – serving as an uneasy reminder of the country’s national socialist past, which the Lentos is now confronting head-on.
In 1927 Kurt Tucholsky published a poem called Das Ideal (The Ideal), in which he pieces together a fantastic wish list for his life including all the money in the world, an endless, but harmless stream of food and alcohol, and his desired apartment. The latter let him see the Alps in the backyard, and Berlin’s Friedrichstraße in the front, with tight-lipped servants, a rooftop tree garden, and 2 ponies, 4 stallions, 8 cars and a motorcycle in the barn. That is what the new Reader in East-Central-European Modernism 1918–1956 edited by Beáta Hock, Klara Kemp-Welch and Jonathan Owen and published online by the Courtauld Institute achieves: an easily accessible resource for an international audience that will serve as an essential point of reference for students and scholars of the field. Bringing together and translating 27 wide-ranging essays, written in Czech, Slovak, Polish or Hungarian, and not available in English before, is a great achievement. The publication was born out of a course on central European modern art and culture in the MA programme at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Whereas there were some anthologies of primary sources, which still could be expanded on in the future, there was simply not a sufficient quantity of secondary literature available for the student. In contrast to the plethora of studies on German or Soviet art in the interwar period, there is still to this day a lack of easily accessible English articles on interwar Czech, Hungarian, or Polish art. This new reader makes good that lack, and the editors should be praised highly for their efforts; there are indeed many stallions in the stable.