In 1927 Kurt Tucholsky published a poem called Das Ideal (The Ideal), in which he pieces together a fantastic wish list for his life including all the money in the world, an endless, but harmless stream of food and alcohol, and his desired apartment. The latter let him see the Alps in the backyard, and Berlin’s Friedrichstraße in the front, with tight-lipped servants, a rooftop tree garden, and 2 ponies, 4 stallions, 8 cars and a motorcycle in the barn. That is what the new Reader in East-Central-European Modernism 1918–1956 edited by Beáta Hock, Klara Kemp-Welch and Jonathan Owen and published online by the Courtauld Institute achieves: an easily accessible resource for an international audience that will serve as an essential point of reference for students and scholars of the field. Bringing together and translating 27 wide-ranging essays, written in Czech, Slovak, Polish or Hungarian, and not available in English before, is a great achievement. The publication was born out of a course on central European modern art and culture in the MA programme at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Whereas there were some anthologies of primary sources, which still could be expanded on in the future, there was simply not a sufficient quantity of secondary literature available for the student. In contrast to the plethora of studies on German or Soviet art in the interwar period, there is still to this day a lack of easily accessible English articles on interwar Czech, Hungarian, or Polish art. This new reader makes good that lack, and the editors should be praised highly for their efforts; there are indeed many stallions in the stable.
Framed by soft hills and picturesque huts, November’s Artwork of the Month transports us to the countryside of eastern Czechoslovakia in a painting by Anna Lesznai (1885-1967). Born and raised as the daughter of an ennobled Hungarian-Jewish family in Körtvélyes, then Upper Hungary, Anna Lesznai was one of the core female members of the Hungarian pre-war avant-garde. In the context of the Arts and Crafts revival at the turn of the twentieth century, which found enthusiastic reception in late-Habsburg Hungary, her craftwork gained much attention, alongside her poetry and fairy-tales for children. However, Lesznai also produced graphic designs, painted, taught at Dezső Orbán’s Atelier art school in Budapest in the 1930s and successfully participated in a number of exhibitions. Forced to emigrate after the rise of the Horthy regime because of her involvement in the Hungarian Republic of Councils in 1919, Lesznai lived between Vienna and the family estate in Körtvélyes (from 1920 Hrušov, Czechoslovakia; part of Slovakia since 1993). Based on an interest in folk art and peasant culture from the region, which she had begun to study in the early 1900s, Lesznai produced numerous watercolours in the 1920s and 30s which focused on life in the villages surrounding her estate and received enthusiastic reception when exhibited in Vienna.
Artistic concepts tend to travel quickly, but they also change during travel. Moreover, they scatter in different directions when affected by certain historical, societal or cultural conditions. The turmoil after the First World War left the newly founded nation states in Central Europe reeling, especially Hungary, which lost a huge part of its territory after the Treaty of Trianon (1920). At the end of the First World War, a part of the Hungarian art scene moved forward from its post-impressionist traditions and followed a neo-classicist upswing that happened in France, Italy, and all around Europe. Often considered a direct reaction to the chaos in post-war societies, the new classicism in Europe evolved differently in every region and is still not fully explored today.
Erzsébet Korb (1899–1925) started her career in the years of the war. She was born in 1899, as the oldest daughter of the well-known Hungarian architect Flóris Korb (1860–1930). He raised his daughters in an artistic environment and later enabled them to follow their careers as painters or dancers. Erzsébet’s talents in drawing and painting were noticed early. Already in 1916, at the age of 17, she exhibited three works at the National Salon in Budapest. Her paintings were heavily influenced by the new classicism. As a young female painter, she altered those tropes and gave them slight nuances. Therefore, most of her female figures show shorter hair and a rather strong body, while men often appear androgynous. Not meant as a direct critique of societal change, but rather driven by formal developments within Hungarian art, her depiction of naked women express deep, heartfelt mourning over a troubled world.
When we look at an artist’s work, we see it through a glass, darkly: whether we like it or not, we are influenced by its previous interpretations. After they die, some artists are turned into icons of artistic, social, or political movements and become entangled with them to such an extent that it profoundly affects the way their works are seen. The Hungarian artist Gyula Derkovits (1894–1934) is an especially complex case. Derkovits was the son of a cabinetmaker and began training in that profession before taking up painting; after finishing three years of primary school, he never gained a formal education. Despite making a name as an artist and finding a number of patrons, he struggled to make a living from his art and had dire money problems by the last years of his life. Furthermore, as a committed left-winger, he was involved with the Communist movement – illegal in the interwar period – and depicted the struggles of the working class in his paintings, while satirising the bourgeoisie. Thanks to all this, Derkovits was easily appropriated by the Communist regime from the 1960s onwards. His pictures were everywhere, and so was his name: among other things, a state-run art gallery, a housing estate in the town of Szombathely, as well as a grant for young artists were named after him.
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