In 2019, a new version of Extase, the fabled 1933 movie by Gustav Machatý, won a prize for the best digitally restored movie at the Venice Film Festival. The aim was a faithful restauration of the Czech version, shown at the film festival in 1934. The movie’s rich history is full of scandals, outrage, censorship and Hollywood myths. The gossip focuses on young movie star Hedy Lamarr (then still named Hedy Kiesler), her nude scenes and the supposedly first female orgasm on screen (in a non-pornographic movie). Her illustrious persona and the scandals led to the emergence of an immense body of literature. However, it is the film’s aesthetic and its progressive story about a woman finding her sexual freedom that provides the film’s anchor in the often-forgotten realm of cinematic innovation in Central Europe between the wars. Machatý followed in the steps of filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, F. W. Pabst, or Sergej Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, while expressly tackling the question of female identity. The article follows the narrative of the film and tries to assess the often ambiguous nature of Machatý’s ideas towards emancipation and his pictorial language.
In the 1920s new concepts became prominent across Europe that mingled technology with the idea of the human. The Czech novelist Karel Čapek (upon the suggestion by his brother Josef) was the first to use the word ‘robot’ for artificial lifeforms modelled after humans, in his famous play R.U.R. (1920). Čapek was in fact referring to an old system of forced labour in Central Europe, where the peasantry had to provide the local lords with a certain amount of unpaid labour every year, the so-called robota (work). The pivotal moment of Čapek’s play is the robots’ uprising against their creators, which leads to the extinction of mankind. In the epilogue, however, the robots Primus and Helena develop human feelings for each other, and the former engineer Alquist, one of the last humans alive, declares them the new Adam and Eve.
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.
Artistic concepts tend to travel quickly, but they also change during travel. Moreover, they scatter in different directions when affected by certain historical, societal or cultural conditions. The turmoil after the First World War left the newly founded nation states in Central Europe reeling, especially Hungary, which lost a huge part of its territory after the Treaty of Trianon (1920). At the end of the First World War, a part of the Hungarian art scene moved forward from its post-impressionist traditions and followed a neo-classicist upswing that happened in France, Italy, and all around Europe. Often considered a direct reaction to the chaos in post-war societies, the new classicism in Europe evolved differently in every region and is still not fully explored today.
Erzsébet Korb (1899–1925) started her career in the years of the war. She was born in 1899, as the oldest daughter of the well-known Hungarian architect Flóris Korb (1860–1930). He raised his daughters in an artistic environment and later enabled them to follow their careers as painters or dancers. Erzsébet’s talents in drawing and painting were noticed early. Already in 1916, at the age of 17, she exhibited three works at the National Salon in Budapest. Her paintings were heavily influenced by the new classicism. As a young female painter, she altered those tropes and gave them slight nuances. Therefore, most of her female figures show shorter hair and a rather strong body, while men often appear androgynous. Not meant as a direct critique of societal change, but rather driven by formal developments within Hungarian art, her depiction of naked women express deep, heartfelt mourning over a troubled world.