In October 2018, as part of the centenary celebrations of the founding of Czechoslovakia, the Gallery of Modern Art in the Veletržní palác (Trade Fair Palace) in Prague, a constituent part of the National Gallery, rehung its collection of early twentieth-century Czech art. In the place of a chronological arrangement covering the period from 1900 to 1930 is a more thematic display, with the title 1918-1938: The First Czechoslovak Republic. Originally intended to mark a particular moment, it has become a semi-permanent display; hence, a year after its unveiling, it merits a second look.
The inclusion of lesser-known modernisms into art history at large also calls for the introduction of lesser-known artists, and it is often left to smaller, regional galleries to take on this task and produce the groundwork. The recent exhibition Herbert Ploberger: At the Interface between Fine and Applied Art at the Upper Austrian regional gallery in Linz can be understood precisely in this light.
Herbert Ploberger (1902-1977) was one of Austria’s main representatives of New Objectivity painting (Neue Sachlichkeit), a movement that developed in reaction to Expressionism in 1920s Weimar Germany. Stripping paintings bare of personal feeling and emotion, artists of the New Objectivity forged a hyperreality that often bordered on caricature for its brutal and unforgiving depictions of modern life. Continue reading
In 1928 the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Brno featured a pavilion dedicated to a display on the theme of “The Origin of Humans” (Člověk a jeho rod). Organised by the geologist Karel Absolon (1877-1960), it featured recent discoveries of Palaeolithic artefacts from southern Moravia, including the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, a female figurine just as significant as the better-known Venus of Willendorf in the Vienna Museum of Natural History. Pride of place was taken up by a life-size model of a mammoth reconstituted on the basis of found remains. The distinctive pavilion, designed by the modernist architect Jiří Kroha (1893-1974), was demolished, but the mammoth survived and is now housed in the Anthropos Pavilion, the location of an exhibition on human evolution that features much of the material originally on display in 1928.
Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962) is best known as the leading Croatian member of the Vienna Secession before the First World War. A symbolist sculptor who was heavily influenced by the work of Rodin early in his career, he went on to develop a quite distinct expressive, hieratic, sculptural language, which, in keeping with his Catholic upbringing, was often imbued with religious themes and subject matter. Born in Slavonia (in eastern Croatia), he moved to Vienna in 1900 at the age of seventeen, where he studied under Otto Wagner and the sculptor Edmund von Hellmer, gaining his first exhibition with the Secession in 1905, and enjoying the patronage of Karl Wittgenstein. Before the War he moved initially to Paris, then to Zagreb and then Rome. In many respects he can be regarded as a typical representative of the transnational art world of central Europe in the early twentieth century, yet this view runs up against his politics, which were strongly marked by nationalistic beliefs and his commitment to the promotion of Yugoslavism and political independence for the south Slavic peoples. Hence, when he gained international fame, it was as a Yugoslav rather than as a Habsburg subject. He won the grand prix at the Rome International Exhibition in 1911 but, provocatively, he exhibited in the Serb pavilion, with a cycle of sculptures including a depiction of the fourteenth-century legendary Serbian figure of Prince Marko, and a design for a temple commemorating the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Fields. In 1915 he was granted a solo exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – followed by another in the Grafton Galleries in 1917 – and exhibited again in 1919 in a group exhibition of Yugoslav artists in Paris.
In June 1908, 22-year-old Oskar Kokoschka was introduced to the public at the Internationale Kunstschau in Vienna. A student at the Academy of Applied Arts, he exhibited the illustrated book The Dreaming Youths, commissioned by the Viennese Workshops a year earlier (Fig. 1). The book was not well received – as the Wiener Zeitung suggested, one ‘could not see anything more ridiculous’ at the exhibition. It would take another year for Kokoschka to manifest his position as enfant terrible of pre-war Austrian art: at the Kunstschau in 1909, he presented Murder, Hope of Women (Fig. 2). An expressionist play based on the struggle for power between male and female archetypes (the conqueror and the femme fatale), the performance caused so much outrage that its creator only narrowly escaped arrest. For all the scandal it caused, the play traced a significant shift in the artistic trajectory of Vienna 1900: moving away from the flowery decadence of art nouveau towards raw expressionism, a new generation of artists challenged the ideals of their predecessors at the dawn of the Great War. Continue reading