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.
Krásná jizba, translated as “The Beautiful Room”, was a Prague based institution which advanced modern design in interwar Czechoslovakia. Founded in 1927, it was behind the promotion and sale of homeware products, such as dining and tea sets, glassware, furniture, and textiles, which put emphasis on functionality and aesthetic appearance together with their affordability. The newly refurbished Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague recently focused on this organisation in an extensive exhibition titled Krásná jizba dp 1927-1948: Design for Democracy, which closed on 3 March 2019. The curator, Lucie Vlčková, and her team presented the work of many designers, photographers and artists, including Ladislav Sutnar, Josef Sudek, Ludvika Smrčková, Toyen, or Antonín Kybal, indicating the extensive range of production of this key institution.
For eleven years, from 1928 to 1939, the School of Arts and Crafts in Bratislava (Škola umeleckých remesiel – ŠUR) was the hub of a budding Slovak modernism. Founded amid an economic crisis in a small city, the conditions for the ŠUR were not favourable – and yet, supported by the sheer determination of its director Jozef Vydra, it thrived as a public school that was, pronouncedly, not concerned with modern art but modern life. The first international exhibition about the ŠUR in the post-socialist era was shown at the city museums of Zwickau and Leverkusen and at the Bauhaus Dessau foundation in 1998, accompanied by a rich catalogue. While presenting an important initiative in unearthing the history of the ŠUR, the exhibition and catalogue, bearing the title Das Bauhaus im Osten (‘The Bauhaus in the East’), was conceptualised in close relation to Germany’s most legendary art school, over-emphasising the link between the two, at the cost of ignoring others. Twenty years on and in time for the ŠUR’s 90th birthday (as well as the Bauhaus centenary), the Slovak Design Museum puts a corrective lens on the school’s history with an exhibition in the spaces of the Historical Museum in Bratislava Castle.