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.
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.
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.