Conference report: In the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire?

The first CRAACE conference, ‘In the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire? Art and Architecture in Interwar Central Europe’, took place in the Moravian Gallery, Brno, from 12 to 14 September 2019. With three keynote speakers, five sessions and fifteen papers, the event explored the topic of continuities and ruptures in post-Habsburg Central European art history from several angles, sparking many engaging discussions. This brief report below can only highlight a few of the wider topics that emerged in the course of the three days. (The conference programme can be accessed here.)



Day 1

On the first day, the survival of the old within the new was a recurring theme. The thought-provoking keynote lecture by Pieter Judson (European University Institute, Florence) questioned the traditional narrative that presents the nation states of interwar Central Europe as necessary, progressive successors of the outdated, musty, oppressive Habsburg Empire. Judson stressed that the administration of many of the Habsburg Empire’s crownlands was already in the hands of nationalists before the war, who based their actions on the idea that only ‘modern’ nation states could overcome an ‘outdated’ form of government like a multinational empire. Aside from the nationalists’ joint conviction of the nation state as progressive, the outcome of the war greatly differed from region to region, depending on which local officials were involved. Essentially, Judson argued, the lived experience of most people did not focus on fervent support for a new nation state (as was the case in the metropolises). Rather, people were either simply relieved that the war had finally ended – whatever the outcome – or, on the other hand, were more concerned with the basic struggle for survival in the dire economic situation.

Examining some of the short-lived states that had emerged in 1918–19, Judson noted that, as the names and borders of states changed month by month, everyday life remained possible because local authorities continued to function as they did in Habsburg times. As such, people outside metropolitan centres were far removed from enthusiastic support for the new national governments in both geographical and ideological terms, just as their experiences were far removed from the teleological narrative of Central European nation states after 1918. As Judson suggests, years between the end of the war and the solidification of the new borders were a chaotic, violent time pregnant with many possible outcomes. Only from the subsequent perspective of advocates of the successor states were the later seen as a logical consequence of the Habsburg Empire’s collapse, their narrative being accepted as the ‘natural’ course of events.

The rupture of 1918 was not a decisive break; it was more like the shattering of a tempered glass into myriads of pieces that were nonetheless still held together by some underlying structure. The papers of the first panel, ‘Old and New’, presented some examples of such continuities in art history. Beáta Hock (Leipzig University) argued for the reassessment of traditionalist trends in interwar art – often connected to right-wing political ideologies – as alternate forms of modernism that were just as transnational as the avant-garde. The fact that artistic developments in interwar Hungary drew heavily from Italian influences, for example, brought the importance of transnational cultural affinities to the fore here, based on many Hungarian artist’s affection for the Mediterranean and a shared Catholic heritage.


In this light, Hock also drew links between the ‘conservative’ modernism in Hungary and the Munich School of New Objectivity, emphasising that, as much as there was an international leftist avant-garde, there was an international drive for conservative culture. How the specific conditions of these developments and their reception could be defined was left open, offering a starting point for further explorations of a conservative modernism in the transnational field.

In a discussion of town hall architecture in interwar Czechoslovakia, Jan Galeta (Masaryk University, Brno) demonstrated the remarkably continuous evolution of this building type from historicism to modernism; in other words, even though the new state created new political imperatives, at a municipal level, architects relied on historical forms and typological features to provide a sense of legitimacy. Orsolya Danyi (McDaniel College, Budapest) introduced the Hungarian modernist painter János Vaszary (1867–1939), a key figure in late nineteenth-century modernism, whose post-impressionist style rendered him a popular and firmly established artist after 1918. As Danyi argued, if we look at his teaching activity, Vaszary also remained a progressive figure who encouraged his students to remain constantly engaged with contemporary practices. Underlining the regular exchange between tradition and innovation in official architecture and by conservative and well-established artists, the first panel emphasised the intertwining of the new and the old, in complex shifting circumstances.

In the second panel, the focus of the conference shifted to the social functions of art and their role in identity formation. Marcela Rusinko (Masaryk University, Brno) discussed the relationship between art collecting and social class, exploring the links between the reception of modernism and the rise of a new, bourgeois social elite in interwar Czechoslovakia that replaced the declining nobility. Indeed, this created new configurations, too. Using the spreads of fashionable magazines to illustrate her argument, Rusinko demonstrated how art collecting became part of a new middle-class consumer culture, with magazines even prescribing the correct type of modernist dog: the boxer! As collectors like Vincenc Kramář adopted the lifestyle of well-known art dealers like Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Rusinko’s paper showed that the legitimisation of a new, Czech haute bourgeoisie of lawyers, doctors, gallery owners and writers was manifested in an all-encompassing lifestyle programme, in which art collections played a pivotal role.


Marcela Rusinko presents her paper

Ingrid Halászová (University of Trnava) presented on the fate of aristocratic art collections in interwar Czechoslovakia focusing on the example of the House Pálffy, outlining the strategies that different family members chose to cope with the new political circumstances. In Czechoslovakia, aristocrats were seen as remnants of the imperial past left behind by a nation state that built its identity on notions of the new and modern. Hence their possessions could be declared public property if deemed historic monuments of national significance. Not only were traditional practices of patronage and collecting interrupted, but some artefacts were either moved abroad or simply sold at auction by wealth families such as the Pálffy dynasty before the new state authorities could seize them. Artworks became hostages in the disputes between the new administration and the older aristocratic families and the implication of this, especially in Slovakia, where those families were Hungarian, have still hardly been explored.

Klára Prešnajderová (Slovak Centre of Design, Bratislava) discussed how the Bratislava School of Arts and Crafts (ŠUR) contributed to the Czechoslovak nation-building project. Prešnajderová pronounced the rapidly growing importance of the ŠUR through its links to the chamber of commerce and emphasised its progressive stance towards the education of a local multi-ethnic population with art classes for children and multi-lingual evening classes. With its close ties to commerce and adoption of the latest educational principles, Prešnajderová argued, the ŠUR played a pivotal role in the dissemination of progressive thought, raising the profile of Bratislava as a cultural hub in line with the ideals of the new Czechoslovak state.

Continuing the thought of reinvention of the old in symbiosis with the new, the case studies of the second panel showed that the progressive stance so strongly emphasised in Czechoslovak state ideology did not represent as radical a rupture as proclaimed. Particularly when it came to cultural policy, there was a complex process of negotiation with pre-existing structures and practices.

Day 2

To start off the second day, the conference ventured onto the terrain of art historiography. The keynote lecture by Milena Bartlová (Academy of Art and Design, Prague) examined how the story of Czech interwar modern art was constructed in art history writing after 1945. The lecture provided fascinating insight into cultural politics under state socialism. Across the new communist states, Bartlová argued, the modernist legacy became a contested issue. Concentrated on debates about formalism, only a few direct links to modernism were allowed, leaving the bulk of interwar artistic production aside as a sign of capitalist degeneration.

The problems with art historical storytelling raised by the keynote also resonated in the third panel, which focused on the presentation of national art histories at international exhibitions. Discussing exhibitions of Hungarian art in the US in the 1930s, Samuel Albert (Fashion Institute of Technology, New York) showed that the history of Hungary and its art was described as a ‘struggle for self-preservation’ in the catalogue of a 1930 show initiated by the Hungarian state and held at the Smithsonian Institution, and compared its approach to a 1935 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, which was more organically rooted in the museum’s own collecting activities. By examining the involved agents, Albert’s paper stressed that different modes of national representation were on display, depending on who directed its selection: While the Hungarian authorities stuck to a thoroughly conservative approach with artists approved of by the regime, the Brooklyn Museum aimed to set itself up as a slightly more progressive gateway for Central European art in the United States.

In her paper on the 1930 Official Exhibition of Austrian Art in Warsaw, Irena Kossowska (Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń) assessed the role of stereotypical notions of the supposedly ‘moderate’ character of Austrian modernism in both the conception and the reception of the show, while examining the political context of the exhibition in the post-Habsburg space. With artists such as Franz Wiegele or Rudolf Wacker, regionalism in interwar Austrian art was shown to define its image abroad, muting the broader developments of the art scene at home.


The theme of Austrian identity was continued in Matthew Rampley’s (Masaryk University, Brno) paper on exhibitions of religious art in interwar Austria, which also returned to some of the themes of the previous day: the relationship between old and new and the connections between a moderate, traditionalist modernism and right-wing ideologies. Beginning with the elaborately staged Catholic Day in 1933, Rampley focused on the (in-)tangibility of German-catholic culture within interwar architecture. While it is often stated that there was no Austro-fascist architecture, Rampley showed that projects such as Clemens Holzmeister’s Seipel-Dollfuss memorial church offered architectural solutions for the Catholic-authoritarian tradition the regime built upon. Building on continuities between byzantine influences and the ‘Heimatstil’ in relation to artists Desiderius Lenz and Adolf Hölzel, Rampley’s paper traced elements of eastern spiritualism, authoritarianism and western Catholicism in Austro-fascist architecture, implying that Catholic modernism, which the state tried to promote, had more in common with strands of the avant-garde than many would care to admit. Altogether, the third panel emphasised the influential position of moderate and reactionary modernisms on the international stage, showing that, when it came to national representation, even though they were motivated by conservative ideologies, such modernisms had multiple connections with, rather than standing in direct opposition to, the avant-garde.

After lunch (the delicious food provided by Café Morgal merits a special mention here) the conference reconvened for the fourth panel, ‘City Identities’. Across the three panel presentations, the reinterpretation of architectural styles and ideas after 1918 was at issue, showing not only that concerns for continuity were strongly embedded in interwar Central European architectural thought, but also the dangers of this practice. The first speaker, Dániel Veress (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest), showed how the Hungarian architect József Borsos (1875–1952) borrowed motifs from other Hungarian architects engaged in creating a national style in order to synthesise a decorative modernism: as Veress argued, only Borsos was able to translate the trends of vernacular modernism successfully in Hungary after 1918. This raised an important question reoccurring throughout the conference: How can specific elements of different influences in Central European art be described properly, and what were the solutions put forward to modernise historicism after the First World War?

Vendula Hnídková (University of Birmingham / Institute of Art History, Prague) explored the afterlife of a nineteenth-century idea – the garden city, as conceived of by Ebenezer Howard – in interwar Czechoslovakia, where Howard’s urban idyll provided the basis for a company town (Zlín, the town built to house the workers of the Bata shoe factory) and – in the 1930s – for planned segregated housing for the unemployed. As Hnídková argued, the continuous reinterpretation of Howard’s idea in Czechoslovakia led to a disregard of his utmost principles (that of the smaller, village-like town) and ultimately transformed the original social utopia of the garden city into a garden ghetto.

András Zwickl (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest) discussed Cathedral Square in Szeged, Hungary; a symbolic space constructed in 1928–1930, in a town central to the self-representation of the Horthy regime. A curious blend of modernism and historicism, the Cathedral and its surroundings were meant to proclaim Hungarian cultural superiority and hence, Zwickl argued, represented a symbol for the hope of Hungary’s “resurrection” after the country lost 2/3 of its territories in the peace treaties concluding World War I.

After the day’s proceedings, conference participants were invited on a guided walking tour of Brno City Centre, led by Don Sparling.

Day 3

On the final day, keynote speaker Enikő Róka (Kiscelli Museum, Budapest) traced the fraught relationship between nationalism and art in Hungary, exploring how ideas such as social Darwinism or the “degenerate”, “unhungarian” nature of modern art surfaced and resurfaced in the nineteenth century and in the interwar period. Showing a variety of political posters, as well as works such as Nándor Lajos Varga’s prints on Hungarian history, Róka discussed the Hungarian regime’s complex approach to modernist form and historical content, juxtaposing it to the resurgence of nineteenth century history painting as representations of the ‘true’ image of Hungary. The lecture concluded with some poignant examples from present-day Hungary which demonstrated the survival of interwar political and visual rhetoric and showed surprising continuities between official art policies of then and now.



Enikő Róka presenting her keynote lecture

In the first paper of the final panel, James Koranyi’s (Durham University) discussion of the Romanian German artist Stefan Jäger (1877–1962) also traversed period boundaries, exploring how Jäger’s 1910 triptych depicting German immigration into the Banat gained new meanings and a new life in the interwar period, and how it prefigured Jäger’s 1951 triptych, which commemorated the deportation of Germans from the region after 1945. In line with shifting borders and political regimes, Koranyi showed, Jäger’s triptychs helped to support different notions of Germanness in the region, which were continuously reinvented across the first half of the twentieth century.

Jesse Siegel (Rutgers University, New Jersey) focused on the art historian Otto Kletzl who – as one of the organisers of the interwar Prague Secession – played a crucial role in the construction of a Sudeten German artistic movement, which envisioned the cultural ‘rejuvenation’ of German Bohemia as part of a transnational network. Siegel’s talk raised the question as to whether conservative organisations such as the Metznerbund or the Prague Secession were able to create something new or whether they focused on preserving the past. Presenters and audience members were once more confronted with the question how regional identities in shifting nation states impacted on artistic production and thought.

To conclude, Ádám Németh (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest) examined the pre-WWI origins of interwar Hungarian Neo-baroque architecture through the writings of Iván Kotsis (1889–1980), who promoted the architect Gyula Wälder (1884–1944) as a pioneer of a Neo-Baroque based on local Hungarian, instead of German precedents. Interpreting Wälder’s Neo-baroque as a Hungarian national style, Kotsis used Wälder’s reactions against the interest German building practices in Hungary, even though, Németh argued, Wälder’s architecture also fit with the concerns of the German and Austrian Heimatschutz movement of the time.

We ended the last day of the conference with a walking tour led by Zuzana Ragulová among the numerous and well-preserved interwar modernist villas in Brno’s ‘Masaryk Quarter’ (Masarykova čtvrť) and a visit to the Villa Stiassni by the architect Arnošt Wiesner. We had a lot to talk about and much to ponder: the conference had brought to the fore many correspondences and parallels between the new nation states of interwar Central Europe. Of these, four main questions reoccurred:

  • What frameworks shaped official, regional and cultural perceptions of continuity or rupture?
  • How can the reception of different influences in interwar Central European art and architecture be critically assessed and analysed?
  • What was the role of regional art scenes in the context of shifting nation states?
  • What changed the perception of those art scenes when presented abroad?

We hope that the contacts made at the conference and the discussions we had will provide fertile ground for such explorations in the future.



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