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.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Max Dvořák the Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague is staging a conference in 2021 on the legacy of the Vienna School of Art History. Click here for the call for papers.
Max Dvořák (1874-1921) was a pioneer of what has subsequently been referred to as ‘art history as the history of ideas’ (Geistesgeschichte). Where art historians had previously been primarily concerned with the evolution of art’s formal languages (the history of style) or with purely factual information about the production of artworks and the lives of the artists who made them, Dvořák sought to anchor the interpretation of artworks in an understanding of the broader cultural and intellectual currents of their time. He stopped short of espousing a social history of art, but he certainly saw the importance of cultural history for the analysis of works of art. Dvořák has since been criticised for relying too much on vague generalisations about the history of ideas as the background to art, but there is no denying that his essays and lectures, especially those published posthumously in the volume Art History as the History of Ideas (Munich, 1924), were enormously influential on younger generations of art historians, who sometimes argued with each other over how best to preserve his legacy.
In the autumn of 2018, the Museum of Art in Olomouc staged the exhibition Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe. It was subsequently staged at the International Centre in Cracow, the Bratislava City Art Gallery and finally the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs. It was an ambitious and imaginative exhibition, but initially no catalogue was available, only a short inexpensive guide. Now, after some delay, the full exhibition catalogue has been published, in handsome Czech and English-language editions. In its scale and scope – nearly 700 pages in length and with hundreds of images – the volume is not merely meant as an aid to the exhibition, but as a standard work of reference on central European modernism. In fact, although ostensibly based on the exhibition, it is only loosely connected to it; one loses sight of the original exhibition themes and structure due to the many essays on entirely unrelated topics. It therefore is best treated as standalone publication.
A detail camera shot examines rubber being mixed and moulded by heavy machinery. ‘Finished. You’re beautiful. Alas, it took me a while but you have been made properly.’ A young man sings as he is taking a rubber tyre off the machine. Walking through the factory yard and wheeling the tyre alongside, he carries on: ‘And now, off you go on your own, find your master and serve him well, I’m telling you.’ The camera focuses on the tyre with large lettering that reads Baťa and Superb. ‘It’s no easy task as every one of your masters entrusts his life to you,’ the young man warns. And as he starts running with the tyre over a field and down the road leading away from the factory, he cheers up.
In the small town of Nymburk, some 55 kilometres to the East of Prague, sits one of the more unusual examples of interwar architecture in Czechoslovakia: the town crematorium. Built between 1922 and 1924, it is a plain rectangular main building – the ceremonial hall – with cylindrical front and back. Thanks to its plain unornamented forms, its low rectangular base, and a flat overhanging rectangular roof, it strikes the viewer like an exercise in the exploration of elementary geometry. This impression is reinforced by the portico around the sides and front, consisting of squat, plain columns. Everything about the building appears mis-proportioned. The portico columns seem too wide for their height, and the height (and that of the ground storey) appears to be out of proportion to the rest of the building. The upper part of the ceremonial hall thus looms over the storey below. In addition, the distance of the columns from the rest of the building gives it a squat appearance, as if it had in some sense been compressed by some enormous weight. We might dismiss this unprepossessing structure as a misconceived design, except that it is highly revealing not only about developments in architecture in Czechoslovakia, but also about social and cultural developments in Czechoslovak society.