Prague’s breath-taking riverside location on the Vltava with the Hradčany, Charles Bridge and the Old Town never ceases to excite travellers and tourists alike. Prague has also always been considered a city with a life of its own, with winding streets, dark Gothic architecture and haunting ghosts making it a magical place in literature and art. Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) drew on these and other qualities of the picturesquely situated city in his sixteen Prague landscapes, painted between 1934 and 1938 when he was a refugee in the city and before he emigrated to England. In the 1930s, the city became the hub of emigrants in Europe when the National Socialists seized power in Germany and the political climate in Austria also became increasingly conservative with the rise of Austro-Fascism in 1934. Research often speaks of artists or arts in exile, but how much the artists were really affected by their travel stops is often difficult to assess. Often it was the hardship of political persecution and closing escape corridors that drove the artists from place to place in Europe, without one city in particular sticking in their memory or shaping their artistic practices. Chain migration is the term often used for this. Migration research, which has been enlivened by recent events in art history, is concerned with such cities of arrival, which had a particular influence on the emigrants, but which were often close beforehand through personal relationships.
Artwork of the Month, April 2022: The Manual Workers and the Intellectuals by János Mattis-Teutsch (1927)
Few artists moved between worlds as much as the painter and sculptor János Mattis-Teutsch (1884–1960), who was born in Brașov (Hung.: Brassó, Ger.: Kronstadt), but spent considerable time in Budapest, Bucharest, Munich, Paris and Berlin. This demonstrates the mobility of artists in Central Europe before and after the First World War, but it especially showcases the variety of artistic developments that ran throughout Europe since the early twentieth century. No matter which influence he followed, Mattis-Teutsch aimed at expressing the inner spirit of the human soul. He was close to Expressionist, spiritual and, later, Constructivist tendencies, on which he always put his own stamp, with a desire to unite ethical and aesthetic values. Reconciliation is also the theme of the painting presented here, The Manual Workers and the Intellectuals (1927), which marks a seldom-noted phase of his work towards the end of the 1920s, when the social aspirations of his art came into their own particularly strongly. Following artists such as Sándor Bortnyik (1893–1976), he sought to add a human touch to Constructivism. His ethereal figures represent generally human principles for a ‘New Man’ who was to move in the idealised space of a new society. The term ‘New Man’ gathered a wide variety of utopian ideas for the transformation of the human being in the interwar period, and found frequent expression in art.
Oskar Kokoschka: Expressionist, Migrant, European
In June 1908, 22-year-old Oskar Kokoschka was introduced to the public at the Internationale Kunstschau in Vienna. A student at the Academy of Applied Arts, he exhibited the illustrated book The Dreaming Youths, commissioned by the Viennese Workshops a year earlier (Fig. 1). The book was not well received – as the Wiener Zeitung suggested, one ‘could not see anything more ridiculous’ at the exhibition. It would take another year for Kokoschka to manifest his position as enfant terrible of pre-war Austrian art: at the Kunstschau in 1909, he presented Murder, Hope of Women (Fig. 2). An expressionist play based on the struggle for power between male and female archetypes (the conqueror and the femme fatale), the performance caused so much outrage that its creator only narrowly escaped arrest. For all the scandal it caused, the play traced a significant shift in the artistic trajectory of Vienna 1900: moving away from the flowery decadence of art nouveau towards raw expressionism, a new generation of artists challenged the ideals of their predecessors at the dawn of the Great War. Continue reading
Artwork of the Month: Madman of Syracuse by István Farkas (1930)
István Farkas (1887–1944) was one of the most outstanding painters in interwar Hungary, yet his name rarely comes up in discussions of the period. The reason is probably that his art is hard to categorise. He was not an avant-gardist, but his employment of symbolism and the grotesque also distantiate his paintings from the Post-Impressionism of the Gresham Circle, with whose work they might share some superficial formal characteristics. Farkas never officially belonged to any artists’ group and spent a large part of his working life in Paris. His masterpiece, Madman of Syracuse, seems as isolated in Hungarian art history as its protagonist standing in a desolate, sweltering landscape. Nevertheless, the concepts of continuity and rupture provide us with useful tools that help us situate the painting in the art history of post-imperial Central Europe.
Beyond Klimt: New Horizons in Central Europe
Gustav Klimt remains undoubtedly the best known artist from Vienna and, along with Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner and Koloman Moser, largely defined the public image of Vienna as a centre of modern art, design and architecture. Yet his fame has also been a problem, completely overshadowing the many other artists active in the Austrian capital in the early twentieth century. Worse, still, his death in 1918, which coincided with those of Schiele, Wagner and Moser, seemed to symbolise the artistic and political demise of Vienna.