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.
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.
The latest issue of the Journal of Art Historiography (No 22, June 2020) contains articles by two CRAACE researchers, Marta Filipová and Julia Secklehner.
In her article ‘The Czech Vienna School and the Art of the “Small People”‘, Marta Filipová examines the discipline of art history in interwar Czechoslovakia and its Austro-Hungarian legacies, paying particular attention to questions of modernity, class, and folk art and design. The article focuses on the attitudes of the Vienna School’s followers to folk art and primarily examines the writings of the Czech art historians Zdeněk Wirth (1878-1961) and Antonín Matějček (1888-1950). Their attention to art created by ‘the small people’ of villages and the countryside had clear parallels in the theories of Alois Riegl. Both Czech art historians, however, developed Riegl’s views further. Aware of the impact of modernity and industrialisation on art production, they related folk art to a specific class and the social, economic and ethnic changes in the Czech lands in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The text therefore scrutinises their reasons for the continued concern with folk art in the light of the legacy of the Vienna School.
In the same issue, Julia Secklehner published a report on the conference ‘Questions of Periodisation in the Art Historiographies of Central and Eastern Europe‘, held at the New Europe College – Institute for Advanced Study in Bucharest between 30 November and 1 December 2019.
In times of travel bans and with a tourism industry at standstill, one is forced to look for alternative ways of discovery. April’s Artwork of the Month relates to this issue: Columbus in der Slovakei is a cultural travel guide to Slovakia, written for a German-speaking audience yearning to ‘discover and to unearth, to carry back home unlosable treasures of joy’ (9). Almost six hundred pages strong and including over four hundred illustrations and photographs, the publication was instigated, arranged and designed by the Viennese writer, artist and publisher Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski (1888-1961), and published in 1936 by the German-language publisher Eos in Bratislava. Though widely advertised in the Austrian and Prague German radio and press, including praise by Heinrich Mann, it should be noted in advance that the commercial success of the publication was disastrous and almost led its publisher into financial ruin, not least due to the high price caused by the design specifications.
‘The most important elements of modern architecture? Hygiene: air, light, cleansing, airing, heating, artificial lighting.’
With these words the Czech architect and critic Oldřich Starý (1884-1971) sought to identify the central features of the most progressive architecture in the 1920s. Starý’s claim clearly should be viewed in the context of interwar architectural thinking in Czechoslovakia. However, at the time of writing in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic has already cost tens of thousands of people their lives, and has brought advanced economies across the globe to a grinding halt, Starý’s belief in hygiene may well be the object of a renewed interest.