Interior view of th exhibition Civilised Woman

Whose modernity is it? A Brno exhibition that highlights the paradox of the interwar ‘civilised’ woman

She was the perfect type of modern girl around 1930, a kind of vague thing between an adult girl and an underage boy, between physical culture and mental exhaustion, between gymnastics and black dance, between classical sculpture and the products of the modern art industry.[1]

Taken from the book Ženy na rampě (Women on the ramp, 1934), this quote by the writer Maryna Fričová  encapsulates the paradoxes of the ideal modern woman as she graced the covers of women’s magazines, featured in movies and presented the latest fashion in interwar Czechoslovakia. Projected on a wall at the entrance to the exhibition Civilizovaná žena: Ideál i paradox prvorepublikové vizuální kultury (Civilised Woman: Ideal and Paradox in the Visual Culture of the First Republic), curated by Martina Pachmanová and Kateřina Svatoňová at the Moravian Gallery in Brno, Fričová’s statement serves as an ideal starting point to an exhibition, which focuses on the Czech type of the modern woman – the ‘civilised woman’ – and her representation in interwar visual culture.

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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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Rudolf Sandalo: Vesna Trade School for Women by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1931

On Photographing Modern Architecture: The Studio of Rudolf Sandalo

Since May 2018 a touring exhibition has been taking place of work from the photographic studio of Rudolf Sandalo (1899–1980). With an impressive and informative bi-lingual catalogue that includes high quality reproductions of nearly 280 photographs, it is worth trying to visit it at the City of Prague Museum, where it is still due to be on display.[1] Sandalo is little known outside of the Czech Republic, but he is noteworthy as the author of an extensive portfolio of photographs of the modern architecture that was built in Brno in the 1920s and 1930s. Almost single-handedly, he shaped the present-day image of the city as a major centre of central European modernism. This exhibition is important, not only for its attention to an oeuvre of great significance for Brno and Czechoslovak interwar culture, but also for the wider questions it raises about modern architecture and the role of photography in shaping how we see it.

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We Are Awarding PhD Studentships

The CRAACE (Continuity/Rupture: Art and Architecture in Central Europe 1918-1939) team is inviting applications from those interested in undertaking PhD research at the Department of Art History, Masaryk University, Brno.

Proposals are particularly encouraged from students with an interest in modernism from the first half of the 20th century, focusing on central and east-central Europe. This may be about topics in the history of art, design and architecture, art criticism and theory, as well as the historiography of art. Students will be able to write their research dissertation in English or Czech.

Successful candidates will receive a studentship of CZK 24,000 per month. They will also be eligible for additional support in meeting research costs.

The submission period for applications is: 1 August – 30 November 2020, for enrolment in Spring 2021.

Applicants will need to apply to Masaryk University through the usual application procedure, including a formal research proposal. The details can be  found here: https://www.phil.muni.cz/en/studies/doctoral-degree-study-programme/how-to-apply

Successful applicants will be expected to register for the programme by 1 March 2021. Funding will be available until the end of 2023.

For an initial informal discussion, please contact: Prof. Matthew Rampley, rampley@muni.cz.

More information on the CRAACE project can be found here: https://craace.com

For more information on the Department of Art History see here: https://arthistory.phil.muni.cz/

Metaphors of Progress: Hygiene and Purity in Czechoslovak Architecture

‘The most important elements of modern architecture? Hygiene: air, light, cleansing, airing, heating, artificial lighting.’[1]

With these words the Czech architect and critic Oldřich Starý (1884-1971) sought to identify the central features of the most progressive architecture in the 1920s. Starý’s claim clearly should be viewed in the context of interwar architectural thinking in Czechoslovakia. However, at the time of writing in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic has already cost tens of thousands of people their lives, and has brought advanced economies across the globe to a grinding halt, Starý’s belief in hygiene may well be the object of a renewed interest.

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