Mucha

Mucha for the 21st century: Exhibition review

Two prominent art institutions in Prague are currently hosting two exhibitions of Alfons Mucha that try to place his work in a contemporary context. Although having the same curator, Karel Srp, they take seemingly different approaches. They, nevertheless, share the question as to whether Mucha is relevant today and if so, why and how and in what format his work might best exhibited.

Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) was a renowned graphic artist, applied arts designer, photographer and painter who spent his life partly in Paris, the USA and Bohemia. He is mostly famed for a variety of posters that promoted and advertised a wide range of lush, fin-de-siècle products: drinks, cigarettes, perfumes as well as the theatrical performances Paris based actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923). His oeuvre, however, also included painting, again in a wide range of genres from portraits to murals; as well as photography and design of household items, such as vases, candle sticks and furniture.

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Rudolf Sandalo: Vesna Trade School for Women by Bohuslav Fuchs, Brno, 1931

On Photographing Modern Architecture: The Studio of Rudolf Sandalo

Since May 2018 a touring exhibition has been taking place of work from the photographic studio of Rudolf Sandalo (1899–1980). With an impressive and informative bi-lingual catalogue that includes high quality reproductions of nearly 280 photographs, it is worth trying to visit it at the City of Prague Museum, where it is still due to be on display.[1] Sandalo is little known outside of the Czech Republic, but he is noteworthy as the author of an extensive portfolio of photographs of the modern architecture that was built in Brno in the 1920s and 1930s. Almost single-handedly, he shaped the present-day image of the city as a major centre of central European modernism. This exhibition is important, not only for its attention to an oeuvre of great significance for Brno and Czechoslovak interwar culture, but also for the wider questions it raises about modern architecture and the role of photography in shaping how we see it.

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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, July 2020: The Black Boy by Helena Johnová (1912–c. 1939)

The Black Boy was the most commercially successful work of the Czech ceramicist Helena Johnová (1884–1962) with nearly 900 sold items of various colour versions. The black figure with exaggerated facial features, however, may well raise eyebrows today, but also a number of questions. These are worth exploring in connection with interwar art and design in Central Europe, as well as with current political issues. The most obvious ones relate to ethnic and gender stereotypes, which still resonate today thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter and #metoo movements. Many people, even academic scholars, argue that the current Czech and, by extension, Central European society has never had problems with racism or sexism, and that therefore issues highlighted by these movements are irrelevant in this geographical and political context. If we look at Johnová’s work more closely, we can, however, point to deep-rooted beliefs that shape today’s understanding of race and racial equality; we can question the assumption that because there were no colonies, there were no stereotypical views of race.

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Neighbours: An Austrian-Czech History Book: Book review

Relationship status: it’s complicated. Summarised in the vernacular of the virtual age, Austrian-Czech relations have long been characterised as uneasy, bolstered by a range of stereotypes established across the past centuries – the Czech as the beer-swelling yokel ‘Václav’, the Austrian as the kaisertreu snobbish brute, or a country bumpkin with right-wing sentiments. Rather than to divulge in these exaggerated characterisations any further – which are often malicious, sometimes humorous, and occasionally contain a grain of truth – Neighbours: An Austrian-Czech History Book draws attention to the joint history of the two countries in a decidedly more positive light.

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