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.
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.
Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s contains a striking chapter on the graphic designer and illustrator Klara Biller (1910–1989). Pete Biller, the artist’s son, recalls the house he grew up in, enumerating its references to Hungarian culture. Living in a bungalow in Stanmore, Middlesex, Klara decorated the interiors with Hungarian folk textiles and pottery by Margit Kovács (1902–1977), a folk-art inspired ceramicist who was hugely popular in Hungary. Klara also owned a few Hungarian paintings, by Pál Molnár-C. (1894–1981) and János Kmetty (1889–1975), but – as her son explains – the art books she bought herself were all on international art, in particular, Paul Klee (1879–1940) or Frans Masereel (1889–1972). Bookshelves in the house were also heavily populated by books on Hungarian history, many discussing the Treaty of Trianon – but these books belonged not to Klara, but to her British husband, Victor Biller, who had developed an interest in Hungary years before he met his future wife in the 1930s. In fact, as Pete Biller’s sensitive account explains, his father nurtured a fascination with interwar ‘official’ Hungary, which must have been alienating to his mother, who was of Jewish descent and had to leave behind her country of birth precisely because of the increasing anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of that official culture and eventually led to genocide. Yet, this issue was never discussed in the family, and although Klara eventually told her sons about their Jewish heritage, she never informed Victor. Her relationship with the culture of her country of origin must have been highly conflicted, but it was a conflict she negotiated silently, within herself. And perhaps with her mother and sister, whose visits after their own emigration in the 1950s prompted Klara to turn towards Hungarian cooking and stock up her kitchen with paprika.
In the nineteenth century, museums of design, industry and the applied arts were intimately connected to ideas about economic, social and industrial progress. Hence, their position in the museum landscape of the time was markedly different from that of museums of fine art. Liberalism, Nationalism and Design Reform: Museums of Design, Industry and the Applied Arts, a new book by Matthew Rampley, Markian Prokopovych and Nóra Veszprémi explores the expectations these institutions faced in the first decades of their existence, as well as their impact. It is shaped by two broad concerns: the role of liberalism as a political, cultural and economic ideology motivating the museums’ foundation, and their engagement with the politics of imperial, national and regional identity of the late Habsburg Empire.
To many, the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 following the traumatic war experience promised a reorganisation of the unjust class system and social and class change became the dream of many leftist artists. Creating a new visual language that would not be elitist and appeal especially to the disadvantaged working classes was an idea promoted by many individuals and collectives from the foundation of the new state. The artistic association Devětsil was born on these principles in 1920. Its key representatives were the young men of Prague and, from 1923, of Brno, who engaged in various artistic forms: painting, sculpture, architecture, design, film, photography, literature, theatre. The choice of the name Devětsil is a mystery. The Czech word refers to a plant, a butterbar, while the literary translation of nine forces could suggest a connection with the nine Greek muses.