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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The First Czechoslovak Republic: Exhibition review

In October 2018, as part of the centenary celebrations of the founding of Czechoslovakia, the Gallery of Modern Art in the Veletržní palác (Trade Fair Palace) in Prague, a constituent part of the National Gallery, rehung its collection of early twentieth-century Czech art. In the place of a chronological arrangement covering the period from 1900 to 1930 is a more thematic display, with the title 1918-1938: The First Czechoslovak Republic. Originally intended to mark a particular moment, it has become a semi-permanent display; hence, a year after its unveiling, it merits a second look.

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