One of interwar Czechoslovakia’s best-known younger artists, Toyen (1902–1980, born Marie Čermínová) had a long and productive career – first as a member of the interwar avant-garde Devětsil group, then as a founding member of the Prague surrealist group, and finally as a core member of André Breton’s Paris surrealist group. Through almost five decades and many stylistic shifts, Toyen forged a remarkable and unusual career, not least because of her important role as a woman central to, rather than peripheral to, three important creative groups. Works such as the moody and lyrical abstractions of her Artificialist period, and surrealist paintings such as Dream (1937) and Eclipse (1968), have assured Toyen’s significance in the contexts of both the Czech and the international avant-garde. In recent years, Toyen has also become a figure of interest for the international trans community, due to the artist’s gender-ambiguous self-styling.
What would an exhibition look like that exclusively acknowledged women’s contributions to modern design? A possible answer to this question can currently be found at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna, where Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte puts the work of the Viennese Workshops (Wiener Werkstätte, WW) design company’s female artists and designers in focus. It is the first large show at the MAK since its reopening after the lockdown, having had to be postponed for over six months. The accompanying publication Women Artists of the Wiener Werkstätte, was already published in 2020, offering an introduction to topics such as toy design, ceramics and training in thematic essays, as well as biographies of all the WW’s female artists whose details could be traced.
Ernst Nepo‘s Family Portrait (The Keller Family) is considered one of the most important social portraits in Austrian art between the wars. In it, the Innsbruck architect Wilhelm Keller (1886–1934) and his wife Anni stage their social self-image and idea of education through their daughters. On first sight, the painting presents itself as a sharp photographic snapshot. In contrast to previous interpretations, however, the aim here is not merely to observe this style and its pretended spontaneity, but to consider the way the work also indicates new ideas of childhood and youth in the interwar period. What image of the adolescent appears, with the girls Ditta and Dora larger than life in front of the viewer? What role do they have within their family? Moreover, what do the architectural toys indicate?
Sitting in a full, white dress in front of a brick wall and a grove of cypress trees, a bride is looking straight out of the painting at the viewer. At first glance, she is not a typical bride. Although she wears more traditional long gloves, and clutches a fan in one hand, her veil is falling slightly from her head and reveals prominent red hair which contrasts with her greenish skin. We can only imagine that under the veil she has a bubikopf, a haircut typical for the ‘new woman’ look. Her face and expression dominate the painting. Her remarkable, raised eyebrows and bright red lips add to the defiant look she is casting. Yet most striking of all is the cigarette the bride is holding in her right hand.
In 2019, a new version of Extase, the fabled 1933 movie by Gustav Machatý, won a prize for the best digitally restored movie at the Venice Film Festival. The aim was a faithful restauration of the Czech version, shown at the film festival in 1934. The movie’s rich history is full of scandals, outrage, censorship and Hollywood myths. The gossip focuses on young movie star Hedy Lamarr (then still named Hedy Kiesler), her nude scenes and the supposedly first female orgasm on screen (in a non-pornographic movie). Her illustrious persona and the scandals led to the emergence of an immense body of literature. However, it is the film’s aesthetic and its progressive story about a woman finding her sexual freedom that provides the film’s anchor in the often-forgotten realm of cinematic innovation in Central Europe between the wars. Machatý followed in the steps of filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, F. W. Pabst, or Sergej Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, while expressly tackling the question of female identity. The article follows the narrative of the film and tries to assess the often ambiguous nature of Machatý’s ideas towards emancipation and his pictorial language.