CFP: Faith and Religion in Central European Art and Architecture, 1918-1939: the Dark Side of Modernism?

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Faith and Religion in Central European Art and Architecture, 1918-1939

The Dark Side of Modernism?

CRAACE workshop, 2425 September 2020

Belvedere, Vienna

One of the most marked aspects of 20th century modernism was the search for the spiritual. Figures such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Kupka and Feininger all saw their practice as a quest for forms that might give visible form to mystical and spiritual absolutes.

This has long been a recognised part of the landscape of modern art and architecture. A much less examined feature has been the involvement of organised religions, particularly churches, in modernist practice after the First World War. Indeed, between 1918 and 1939 churches acted as one of the most powerful ideological and cultural-political forces in central Europe. Not only the Catholic Church, but also the various orthodox and evangelical churches, gave impetus to the demand for a revival of ‘spiritual’ values, or helped mobilise ‘spiritual’ values in furtherance of political and ideological ends.

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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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Artwork of the Month, November 2019: Slovak Lourdes by Anna Lesznai (1924)

Framed by soft hills and picturesque huts, November’s Artwork of the Month transports us to the countryside of eastern Czechoslovakia in a painting by Anna Lesznai (1885-1967).  Born and raised as the daughter of an ennobled Hungarian-Jewish family in Körtvélyes, then Upper Hungary, Anna Lesznai was one of the core female members of the Hungarian pre-war avant-garde. In the context of the Arts and Crafts revival at the turn of the twentieth century, which found enthusiastic reception in late-Habsburg Hungary, her craftwork gained much attention, alongside her poetry and fairy-tales for children. However, Lesznai also produced graphic designs, painted, taught at Dezső Orbán’s Atelier art school in Budapest in the 1930s and successfully participated in a number of exhibitions. Forced to emigrate after the rise of the Horthy regime because of her involvement in the Hungarian Republic of Councils in 1919, Lesznai lived between Vienna and the family estate in Körtvélyes (from 1920 Hrušov, Czechoslovakia; part of Slovakia since 1993). Based on an interest in folk art and peasant culture from the region, which she had begun to study in the early 1900s, Lesznai produced numerous watercolours in the 1920s and 30s which focused on life in the villages surrounding her estate and received enthusiastic reception when exhibited in Vienna.

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Artwork of the Month, August 2019: Prague Cathedral by Josef Sudek (1926–27)

This highly atmospheric photograph is an image of the nave of Prague’s St. Vitus cathedral, framed by an arch on the north aisle, the vantage point of the viewer. Bathed in the streaming sunlight is the south aisle, partially occluded by the nave columns. The photograph, taken some time in 1926 or 1927, is part of a portfolio of images of the cathedral which Josef Sudek persuaded the design and publishing co-operative Družstevní práce (Co-operative Works) to publish. Continue reading

Vox Populi in the Age of Motorways and Graffiti: The Marian column in Prague today

It is August and the family gathers in the summer house located in south Moravia. We start discussing current affairs in the evening and the obvious topics of Czech and British politics dominate as usual. This is followed by the inevitable complaints about the state of the motorway between Prague and Brno which has been in constant repairs for years and the end is not in sight. Someone suggests that perhaps a crew of guerrilla builders should finish the repairs on the motorway overnight. This is a reference to a guerrilla cleaner who recently, of his own accord, removed an illegal graffiti from the Charles Bridge in Prague. The National Heritage Institute had put together a several week long plan for the removal work which for them required a careful and laborious work under close supervision. Instead, one morning the graffiti is simply gone, cleaned by high pressure steam by a Mr Černý, an independent contractor. Continue reading