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.
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.
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.
The Black Boy was the most commercially successful work of the Czech ceramicist Helena Johnová (1884–1962) with nearly 900 sold items of various colour versions. The black figure with exaggerated facial features, however, may well raise eyebrows today, but also a number of questions. These are worth exploring in connection with interwar art and design in Central Europe, as well as with current political issues. The most obvious ones relate to ethnic and gender stereotypes, which still resonate today thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter and #metoo movements. Many people, even academic scholars, argue that the current Czech and, by extension, Central European society has never had problems with racism or sexism, and that therefore issues highlighted by these movements are irrelevant in this geographical and political context. If we look at Johnová’s work more closely, we can, however, point to deep-rooted beliefs that shape today’s understanding of race and racial equality; we can question the assumption that because there were no colonies, there were no stereotypical views of race.
A detail camera shot examines rubber being mixed and moulded by heavy machinery. ‘Finished. You’re beautiful. Alas, it took me a while but you have been made properly.’ A young man sings as he is taking a rubber tyre off the machine. Walking through the factory yard and wheeling the tyre alongside, he carries on: ‘And now, off you go on your own, find your master and serve him well, I’m telling you.’ The camera focuses on the tyre with large lettering that reads Baťa and Superb. ‘It’s no easy task as every one of your masters entrusts his life to you,’ the young man warns. And as he starts running with the tyre over a field and down the road leading away from the factory, he cheers up.