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 in the Habsburg Empire: 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.