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.
A detail camera shot examines rubber being mixed and moulded by heavy machinery. ‘Finished. You’re beautiful. Alas, it took me a while but you have been made properly.’ A young man sings as he is taking a rubber tyre off the machine. Walking through the factory yard and wheeling the tyre alongside, he carries on: ‘And now, off you go on your own, find your master and serve him well, I’m telling you.’ The camera focuses on the tyre with large lettering that reads Baťa and Superb. ‘It’s no easy task as every one of your masters entrusts his life to you,’ the young man warns. And as he starts running with the tyre over a field and down the road leading away from the factory, he cheers up.
At the Museum of Art in Olomouc there is currently an exhibition on central European modernism that anyone with an interest in the topic should attend. The Museum is not a major stop on the network of galleries in central Europe, but it should be, since it has built up a track record of imaginative and engaging exhibitions on twentieth-century art, with a particular emphasis on the exploration of international connections. This event is no exception. As the title suggests, the twenty years between 1908 and 1928 were a period of social and cultural tumult, when traditional ideas and values were either subject to massive revision or outright rejection. The title also indicates an important aspect of the exhibition: that while political events lead us to view 1918 as an artistic and cultural caesura, most of the major innovations in art after the First World War were prefigured by practices set in motion beforehand. It therefore explores the decades either side of the end of the War.