Artwork of the Month, June 2022: Numbered Poem No 18 by Lajos Kassák (1921)

This is the first time a work by Lajos Kassák (1887–1967) features as our Artwork of the Month, but many of our previous articles have mentioned the artist’s name. This is due to Kassák’s uniquely central position in early-twentieth-century Hungarian avant-garde culture. He was not just a visual artist, but also a writer, poet, editor, organiser and thinker. Artists as important and diverse as Sándor Bortnyik (1893–1976), János Mattis-Teutsch (1884–1960), or Lajos Vajda (1908–1941) all belonged to Kassák’s circle before continuing on their separate paths. The significance of Kassák’s periodicals and collaborative projects is so great that they can easily steal the limelight from his individual artistic output. This is how Kassák became a recurring background figure on this blog, and it is high time for him to come into focus.

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Still from Karel Plicka's film The Earth Sings

Artwork of the Month, May 2022: The Earth Sings by Karel Plicka (1933)

In 1934, two Czechoslovak films were sent to the Venice Film Festival. The first was Gustav Machatý’s Extase from 1933, which not only brought its protagonist, the young Hedy Lamarr, to fame, but also caused outrage for its explicit presentation of female sexuality. The second film was altogether different: it had no stars, no dramatic narrative arc, no great love story. It was not even a box office success, though critics lauded its artistic value as a ‘film poem’ that, as museum director Josef Polák claimed in the Prague daily Lidové noviny, exemplified ‘what cinema could be when the moving shadows are not simply a commodity’:[1] The Earth Sings (Zem spieva, 1933), written and directed by Karel Plicka (1894–1987), interwar Czechoslovakia’s most influential artist­­-ethnographer.

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Toyen: The Paradise of the Blacks, 1925

Artwork of the Month, March 2022: The Paradise of the Blacks by Toyen (1925)

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a negrophile is ‘someone (especially a white person) who is very sympathetic to or supportive of Black people, their culture, or their rights and interests.’[1] The levels of sympathy and support may, indeed, differ and be open to interpretation. Negrophilia, then, is the attraction to Black culture and Black people, often linked to the fascination of the interwar avant-garde with Africans and African Americans in European metropolises.[2] Between the wars, Black culture became a subject of inspiration, captivation but mostly exploitation by many writers, poets, painters, musicians, or dancers from Paris to Prague.

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Zdeněk Rossmann, The Civilised Woman, poster, 1929

Artwork of the Month, October 2021: The Civilised Woman by Zdeněk Rossmann (1929)

‘In Zurich, the head of a hospital dismissed a female attendant because she had her hair cut short. Would it be possible for the female head of a hospital to fire a male attendant for this reason?’ asked Adolf Loos (1870–1933) in his response to the question ‘Kurz oder lang – männlich oder weiblich?’ (Short or long – masculine or feminine?) posed by the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse in 1928.[1] Subtitled ‘Comments from prominent artists on the women’s fashion crisis,’ the questionnaire appealed to seven respondents – six men and one woman – for their views on the recent trend of women having short haircuts. Loos’s response was the odd one out, because he saw no reason to even ask such question. While it would be a stretch to portray him as a defender of gender equality, Loos’s argument for the short haircut could be seen as part and parcel of his belief in modernity and the practicality of design. All the other respondents were much more critical of the short hair, citing as problems the masculinisation of women, slavery to fashion, or the need to look after a short haircut much more. The actress Lili Marberg (1876–1962) also noted that while she could see the benefits of short hair for sports, it did not go well with evening dresses, which she liked wearing.

The ‘crisis of women’s fashion’ was a phenomenon widely discussed not only in Austria but around Central Europe at this time. At the same time, short hair in the form of the bubikopf (a bob) became a symbol of women’s emancipation, modernity and their liberation from the tradition of the home-bound woman. It, nevertheless, quickly gained new connotations and apart from signifying freedom, the short hair quickly became associated with a lack of femininity, with promiscuity, and even Jewishness.[2]  In Czechoslovakia the symbolic cutting of long hair became the main subject in a poster promoting an exhibition on women’s modernity called The Civilised Woman. The exhibition, which took place in the city of Brno at the end of 1929 and beginning of 1930, tried to put forward a vision of the modern way of dressing for women.

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Artwork of the Month, August 2021: To Arms! To Arms! by Róbert Berény (1919)

In 2018 the Kassák Museum in Budapest staged Everything Is Ours!, an installation by artist Ádám Albert (*1975) that pondered on the visual propaganda of the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic. The small, meditative show was suddenly thrown into the limelight when it was ferociously denounced in the right-wing press for supposedly promoting Communist ideas and violence. The controversy is seen to have led to the resignation of the director of the Petőfi Museum of Literature (the mother institution of the Kassák Museum) not much later.

These events suggest that the Soviet Republic constitutes a highly sensitive and prominent memory site in Hungarian culture, but the ‘scandal’ was in fact something of a surprise. Although the short-lived 1919 Communist regime remains controversial, its memory is much less pivotal today than it was in the first seventy years after its collapse, when it was undoubtedly a cornerstone of political self-identification. In the interwar period, the right-wing Horthy regime held it up as the manifestation of all evil, while under state Socialism it was celebrated as a venerable antecedent. Today, by contrast, right-wing anti-communism has a more immediate counterconcept in the post-1948 regime, while for left-wingers the Soviet Republic’s excess and violence precludes it as an object of identification. Indeed, the most uncomfortable, and at the same time most intriguing aspect of the Soviet Republic is how progressive ideas and a genuine will to bring about positive change, which drew in some of the best – not necessarily Communist – minds of the time, coexisted with unrestrained brutality and diehard dogmatism. The latest study of the events emphasises their chaotic, sometimes accidental nature, and the widely varied ideologies, aims, desires and ambitions of the individuals who made them happen.[1]

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