Zdeněk Rossmann, The Civilised Woman, poster, 1929

Artwork of the Month, October 2021: The Civilised Woman by Zdeněk Rossmann (1929)

‘In Zurich, the head of a hospital dismissed a female attendant because she had her hair cut short. Would it be possible for the female head of a hospital to fire a male attendant for this reason?’ asked Adolf Loos (1870–1933) in his response to the question ‘Kurz oder lang – männlich oder weiblich?’ (Short or long – masculine or feminine?) posed by the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse in 1928.[1] Subtitled ‘Comments from prominent artists on the women’s fashion crisis,’ the questionnaire appealed to seven respondents – six men and one woman – for their views on the recent trend of women having short haircuts. Loos’s response was the odd one out, because he saw no reason to even ask such question. While it would be a stretch to portray him as a defender of gender equality, Loos’s argument for the short haircut could be seen as part and parcel of his belief in modernity and the practicality of design. All the other respondents were much more critical of the short hair, citing as problems the masculinisation of women, slavery to fashion, or the need to look after a short haircut much more. The actress Lili Marberg (1876–1962) also noted that while she could see the benefits of short hair for sports, it did not go well with evening dresses, which she liked wearing.

The ‘crisis of women’s fashion’ was a phenomenon widely discussed not only in Austria but around Central Europe at this time. At the same time, short hair in the form of the bubikopf (a bob) became a symbol of women’s emancipation, modernity and their liberation from the tradition of the home-bound woman. It, nevertheless, quickly gained new connotations and apart from signifying freedom, the short hair quickly became associated with a lack of femininity, with promiscuity, and even Jewishness.[2]  In Czechoslovakia the symbolic cutting of long hair became the main subject in a poster promoting an exhibition on women’s modernity called The Civilised Woman. The exhibition, which took place in the city of Brno at the end of 1929 and beginning of 1930, tried to put forward a vision of the modern way of dressing for women.

Continue reading

Artwork of the Month, June 2021: Spa Fountain by Zdeněk Pešánek (1936)

The Spa Fountain made its first appearance in the section on Tourism of the Czechoslovak pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937. The Fountain was one of three works displayed in this space by the Czech artist Zdeněk Pešánek (1896–1965), the other two being a set of free standing sculptures celebrating Electricity and a neon advertisement for the Bohemian spa town of Jáchymov, entitled Radium. The Fountain, as well as the other works by Pešánek, were light-kinetic sculptures; they used light, sound and movement in combination with different, and often novel materials. As an artistic movement, kinetism was established in central Europe in the 1920s. Yet, for artists like Erika Giovanna Klien (1900–1957) or František Kupka (1871–1957) the primary medium of kinetism was painting, which allowed them to explore movement and rhythm through colour, shapes and compositions. It was the Russian constructivists Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956) and the multimedia artists Alexander Calder (1898–1976) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) who then translated these effects into sculpture, bringing either controlled or unpredictable movement to an otherwise static medium.

Continue reading

Milada Marešová, A Bride with a Cigarette

Artwork of the Month, December 2020: Bride with a Cigarette by Milada Marešová (1933)

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.

Continue reading

Kubišta – Filla

Kubišta – Filla: Book review

Bohumil Kubišta (1884–1918) and Emil Filla (1882–1953) were two prominent Czech painters of the early 20th century, whose work is the subject of the latest publication by Marie Rakušanová. The Czech-language volume Kubišta – Filla: Plzeňská disputace focuses on the relationship between the two main protagonists and their connections with other people that were friends or colleagues of the artists. This seemingly narrow focus, however, provides an opportunity for the author to examine in detail how radically the Czech art world changed during a relatively short period of time. The relationships that formed fast and dissolved even faster, the quickly established artistic groups with a diversity of aims and membership that never lasted long, prove how rapid the transformation was in the art and society of the time.

Continue reading

Mucha

Mucha for the 21st century: Exhibition review

Two prominent art institutions in Prague are currently hosting two exhibitions of Alfons Mucha that try to place his work in a contemporary context. Although having the same curator, Karel Srp, they take seemingly different approaches. They, nevertheless, share the question as to whether Mucha is relevant today and if so, why and how and in what format his work might best exhibited.

Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) was a renowned graphic artist, applied arts designer, photographer and painter who spent his life partly in Paris, the USA and Bohemia. He is mostly famed for a variety of posters that promoted and advertised a wide range of lush, fin-de-siècle products: drinks, cigarettes, perfumes as well as the theatrical performances Paris based actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923). His oeuvre, however, also included painting, again in a wide range of genres from portraits to murals; as well as photography and design of household items, such as vases, candle sticks and furniture.

Continue reading