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.
What social and political role did modern art and art criticism play in the Czech lands during the first half of the twentieth century? Marta Filipová’s new book (Routledge 2019) assesses this question with close analysis of five themes (Modernism, The People, Society, Identity, Traditions), which show just how closely the construction of modern Czech art was intertwined with national, social and political interests. By considering Czech art writing and criticism across a timespan leading from the Czechoslavic Ethnographic Exhibition of 1895 until the Second World War, the book highlights the central role of Czech national identity in the formulation of Czech modern art and, in turn, the ways in which Czech art and artistic discourse sought to confirm and redevelop national identity.
In 2008, the city of Cedar Rapids in Iowa was hit by a terrible flood caused by heavy rainfall and overflown local river. The water reached unprecedented 31 feet above the normal level and flooded nearly 8,000 properties. In financial terms, the losses to property were calculated at $6 billion. But how is a flooded city in the American Midwest linked to an idyllic rural scene by a Czech artist?
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.
In 1984 the Czech Institute of Art History commenced publication of a multi-volume history of Czech art from prehistory to the present. It was a massive undertaking, a comprehensive survey that was not completed until 2007, when the final two volumes on art since 1958 appeared. It represented a particular central European tradition in academic publishing, but as with many other such projects, its drawbacks were all too evident. During the 23 years of its gestation, art historical methods had changed considerably, especially given the ideological shifts brought about by the collapse of Communism. In addition, the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993 meant that the meaning of ‘Czech art’ was no longer the same, and the later volumes could be seen as part of the self-redefinition of the new Czech Republic. Despite such caveats, it was still a major work of reference, but it was hampered by one single factor: it was only published in Czech. For linguistic reasons alone, therefore, its potential impact was limited.