In the small town of Nymburk, some 55 kilometres to the East of Prague, sits one of the more unusual examples of interwar architecture in Czechoslovakia: the town crematorium. Built between 1922 and 1924, it is a plain rectangular main building – the ceremonial hall – with cylindrical front and back. Thanks to its plain unornamented forms, its low rectangular base, and a flat overhanging rectangular roof, it strikes the viewer like an exercise in the exploration of elementary geometry. This impression is reinforced by the portico around the sides and front, consisting of squat, plain columns. Everything about the building appears mis-proportioned. The portico columns seem too wide for their height, and the height (and that of the ground storey) appears to be out of proportion to the rest of the building. The upper part of the ceremonial hall thus looms over the storey below. In addition, the distance of the columns from the rest of the building gives it a squat appearance, as if it had in some sense been compressed by some enormous weight. We might dismiss this unprepossessing structure as a misconceived design, except that it is highly revealing not only about developments in architecture in Czechoslovakia, but also about social and cultural developments in Czechoslovak society.
In October 2018, as part of the centenary celebrations of the founding of Czechoslovakia, the Gallery of Modern Art in the Veletržní palác (Trade Fair Palace) in Prague, a constituent part of the National Gallery, rehung its collection of early twentieth-century Czech art. In the place of a chronological arrangement covering the period from 1900 to 1930 is a more thematic display, with the title 1918-1938: The First Czechoslovak Republic. Originally intended to mark a particular moment, it has become a semi-permanent display; hence, a year after its unveiling, it merits a second look.
In 1928 the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Brno featured a pavilion dedicated to a display on the theme of “The Origin of Humans” (Člověk a jeho rod). Organised by the geologist Karel Absolon (1877-1960), it featured recent discoveries of Palaeolithic artefacts from southern Moravia, including the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, a female figurine just as significant as the better-known Venus of Willendorf in the Vienna Museum of Natural History. Pride of place was taken up by a life-size model of a mammoth reconstituted on the basis of found remains. The distinctive pavilion, designed by the modernist architect Jiří Kroha (1893-1974), was demolished, but the mammoth survived and is now housed in the Anthropos Pavilion, the location of an exhibition on human evolution that features much of the material originally on display in 1928.
Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962) is best known as the leading Croatian member of the Vienna Secession before the First World War. A symbolist sculptor who was heavily influenced by the work of Rodin early in his career, he went on to develop a quite distinct expressive, hieratic, sculptural language, which, in keeping with his Catholic upbringing, was often imbued with religious themes and subject matter. Born in Slavonia (in eastern Croatia), he moved to Vienna in 1900 at the age of seventeen, where he studied under Otto Wagner and the sculptor Edmund von Hellmer, gaining his first exhibition with the Secession in 1905, and enjoying the patronage of Karl Wittgenstein. Before the War he moved initially to Paris, then to Zagreb and then Rome. In many respects he can be regarded as a typical representative of the transnational art world of central Europe in the early twentieth century, yet this view runs up against his politics, which were strongly marked by nationalistic beliefs and his commitment to the promotion of Yugoslavism and political independence for the south Slavic peoples. Hence, when he gained international fame, it was as a Yugoslav rather than as a Habsburg subject. He won the grand prix at the Rome International Exhibition in 1911 but, provocatively, he exhibited in the Serb pavilion, with a cycle of sculptures including a depiction of the fourteenth-century legendary Serbian figure of Prince Marko, and a design for a temple commemorating the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Fields. In 1915 he was granted a solo exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – followed by another in the Grafton Galleries in 1917 – and exhibited again in 1919 in a group exhibition of Yugoslav artists in Paris.
This is the second in our Artwork of the Month series to focus on Clemens Holzmeister (1886-1983). (See the previous one here.) The modest church building, now known as the parish church in the 15th Vienna suburb of Rudolf-Neufünfhaus, was one of his most important state commissions undertaken between the wars. Continue reading