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.
To many, the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 following the traumatic war experience promised a reorganisation of the unjust class system and social and class change became the dream of many leftist artists. Creating a new visual language that would not be elitist and appeal especially to the disadvantaged working classes was an idea promoted by many individuals and collectives from the foundation of the new state. The artistic association Devětsil was born on these principles in 1920. Its key representatives were the young men of Prague and, from 1923, of Brno, who engaged in various artistic forms: painting, sculpture, architecture, design, film, photography, literature, theatre. The choice of the name Devětsil is a mystery. The Czech word refers to a plant, a butterbar, while the literary translation of nine forces could suggest a connection with the nine Greek muses.
In response to current broader reconsiderations about how art, design and architecture in the First Czechoslovak Republic should be represented, the East Slovak Gallery in Košice is currently exhibiting The Art of Subcarpathian Rus 1919-1938 – Czechoslovak Footprint, which showcases paintings, prints and sculptures from the First Republic’s easternmost region. Built on the premise that artistic life in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, as the region is dominantly referred to in English, proliferated under Czechoslovak administration after 1918, the exhibition, curated by Miroslav Kleban, ties the region’s cultural development to the modernization efforts of the First Republic’s eastern regions.
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