Max Dvořák and the Vienna School of Art History

To mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Max Dvořák the Institute of Art History of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague is staging a conference in 2021 on the legacy of the Vienna School of Art History. Click here for the call for papers.

Max Dvořák (1874-1921) was a pioneer of what has subsequently been referred to as ‘art history as the history of ideas’ (Geistesgeschichte). Where art historians had previously been primarily concerned with the evolution of art’s formal languages (the history of style) or with purely factual information about the production of artworks and the lives of the artists who made them, Dvořák sought to anchor the interpretation of artworks in an understanding of the broader cultural and intellectual currents of their time. He stopped short of espousing a social history of art, but he certainly saw the importance of cultural history for the analysis of works of art. Dvořák has since been criticised for relying too much on vague generalisations about the history of ideas as the background to art, but there is no denying that his essays and lectures, especially those published posthumously in the volume Art History as the History of Ideas (Munich, 1924), were enormously influential on younger generations of art historians, who sometimes argued with each other over how best to preserve his legacy.

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František Kupka: Blue Shape A II, 1919-24

Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe: Catalogue review

In the autumn of 2018, the Museum of Art in Olomouc staged the exhibition Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe. It was subsequently staged at the International Centre in Cracow, the Bratislava City Art Gallery and finally the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs. It was an ambitious and imaginative exhibition, but initially no catalogue was available, only a short inexpensive guide. Now, after some delay, the full exhibition catalogue has been published, in handsome Czech and English-language editions. In its scale and scope – nearly 700 pages in length and with hundreds of images – the volume is not merely meant as an aid to the exhibition, but as a standard work of reference on central European modernism. In fact, although ostensibly based on the exhibition, it is only loosely connected to it; one loses sight of the original exhibition themes and structure due to the many essays on entirely unrelated topics. It therefore is best treated as standalone publication.

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Artwork of the Month, January 2020: The Nymburk Crematorium by Bedřich Feuerstein and Bohumil Slama (1922-24)

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.

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The First Czechoslovak Republic: Exhibition review

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.

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Enchanted by Africa? Exhibition review

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.

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