Artwork of the Month, April 2021: Family Portrait (The Keller Family) by Ernst Nepo (1929)

Ernst Nepo‘s Family Portrait (The Keller Family) is considered one of the most important social portraits in Austrian art between the wars. In it, the Innsbruck architect Wilhelm Keller (1886–1934) and his wife Anni stage their social self-image and idea of education through their daughters.[1] On first sight, the painting presents itself as a sharp photographic snapshot.[2] In contrast to previous interpretations, however, the aim here is not merely to observe this style and its pretended spontaneity, but to consider the way the work also indicates new ideas of childhood and youth in the interwar period. What image of the adolescent appears, with the girls Ditta and Dora larger than life in front of the viewer? What role do they have within their family? Moreover, what do the architectural toys indicate?

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Artwork of the Month, January 2021: Japan – The Land of Contrasts by Alice Schalek (1925)

‘How much does the Austrian President Masaryk receive as his salary?’[1] Alice Schalek (1874–1956) was asked this question by a Japanese reporter in Tokyo during her journey there in 1923–24. Perceptions changed a lot after the First World War. The enterprising and renowned traveller Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937) had evidently been more successful with his countless diplomatic trips and obtained more publicity than the actual leaders of the first Austrian Republic, such as Karl Renner (1870–1950) or, later, Ignaz Seipel (1876–1932). And this might as well describe Schalek’s mission and the purpose of her trips: venturing into political affairs and social events in foreign countries and utilising them to promote herself (and, to a lesser extent, the interests of Austria). For this, the journalist and photographer Schalek literally had to explore new ways of entrepreneurship, especially as a woman travelling the world on her own.

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Artwork of the Month, August 2020: Extase by Gustav Machatý (1933)

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.

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Artwork of the Month, March 2020: The New Adam / The New Eve by Sándor Bortnyik (1924)

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).[1] 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).[2] 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.

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A Reader in East-Central-European Modernism: Book Review

In 1927 Kurt Tucholsky published a poem called Das Ideal (The Ideal),[1] 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.[2] 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.

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