Born in Hungary, achieving international fame in Germany, and concluding his tragically short life in the USA, László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) was an artist from interwar central Europe who is still recognised as one of the most significant innovators of modernism worldwide. Working across different media – painting, graphic design, photography, film, sculpture – he produced a multifaceted oeuvre that was, nevertheless, centred firmly on his key concerns: light and movement in modern art, the new artistic avenues opened up by modern technology, and the complex tensions of modern life. The artwork examined in this article, Dynamic of the Metropolis, was a seminal work that summed up the early years of his career. It combined his avant-garde inspirations, his interest in Constructivism and typography, with his attraction to modern technologies such as photography and film. It also elucidated issues that preoccupied him from the early 1920s: the tensions between modern humanity and the natural environment, between technology and the biological limitations of humans.
When it comes to continuity and rupture, the long career of János Vaszary (1867–1939) is certainly emblematic. He was born in 1867, the year of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise, and died in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War. He lived through the 1896 Millennium celebrations, when the self-confident Hungarian state marked its 1000-year existence, the First World War, the collapse of Austria-Hungary, two revolutions and a counterrevolution, the political shifts of the Horthy regime. Meanwhile, he went from being the talented nephew of an archbishop and an indisputable member of the establishment to being attacked and pushed out of his professorship for his liberal and modernist views. The evolution of his art, too, can be characterised as a series of ruptures: he started under the influence of Symbolism and Naturalism, developed a colourful post-impressionist style by the early 1900s, then abandoned it around 1910 for a new style based on anti-impressionist principles and an interest in the avant-garde. His wartime experiences turned him into an expressionist painter of misery; then, in the 1920s, he transferred his agitated Expressionism to peaceful, mundane subject matter as his palette brightened up. Influenced by his stays in Paris, he took on the light touch and urban themes of the École de Paris, and finally developed a characteristic method of colourful small brushstrokes, which he mostly used to depict pleasant beachside and garden scenes.
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.
The artwork of the month for June 2020 is A Walk Through the Metropolis by Erika Giovanna Klien (1900–1957). It is perhaps the most ambitious and imposing example of the short-lived Viennese art movement known as ‘Kinetism’ that flourished in the early 1920s. Executed in gouache on paper, it consists of seven one meter-square panels laid alongside each other resulting in a work that is seven meters in length. The city it depicts is a site of thrilling, dynamic encounters, between the spectator and the physical environment, between buildings, and between the spectator and unspecified others on the street. The metropolis is a place of life and energy, and the work communicates, too, a sense of urban noise. Yet who was Klien, and what was Kinetism?