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.
The Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz, founded in 2003 in the Upper Austrian regional capital, is closely tied to its home city: the name Lentos, coming from the celtic and meaning ‘close by the river’, was the linguistic predecessor to the city’s name ‘Lentia’ during Roman times. The museum’s location by the Danube, housed in a modern building designed by Zurich architects Weber+Hofer, faces and mirrors the city’s Ars Electronica Centre (AEC), a museum dedicated to the electronic arts, on the other side of the river. Together, the Lentos and the AEC buildings have not only served to transform Linz’s industrial riverside into a location of culture, they also visually shift attention away from the Nibelungen bridge connecting the city core to the suburb Urfahr and the Upper Austrian North, leading on to the Czech Republic. Built between 1938 and 1940, the bridge was part of a large national socialist redevelopment project, building on plans Adolf Hitler had first sketched out in the mid-1920s. Today, the Nibelungen bridge still counts as one of the main connectors between Linz and northern Upper Austria – serving as an uneasy reminder of the country’s national socialist past, which the Lentos is now confronting head-on.
In 1927 Kurt Tucholsky published a poem called Das Ideal (The Ideal), in which he pieces together a fantastic wish list for his life including all the money in the world, an endless, but harmless stream of food and alcohol, and his desired apartment. The latter let him see the Alps in the backyard, and Berlin’s Friedrichstraße in the front, with tight-lipped servants, a rooftop tree garden, and 2 ponies, 4 stallions, 8 cars and a motorcycle in the barn. That is what the new Reader in East-Central-European Modernism 1918–1956 edited by Beáta Hock, Klara Kemp-Welch and Jonathan Owen and published online by the Courtauld Institute achieves: an easily accessible resource for an international audience that will serve as an essential point of reference for students and scholars of the field. Bringing together and translating 27 wide-ranging essays, written in Czech, Slovak, Polish or Hungarian, and not available in English before, is a great achievement. The publication was born out of a course on central European modern art and culture in the MA programme at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Whereas there were some anthologies of primary sources, which still could be expanded on in the future, there was simply not a sufficient quantity of secondary literature available for the student. In contrast to the plethora of studies on German or Soviet art in the interwar period, there is still to this day a lack of easily accessible English articles on interwar Czech, Hungarian, or Polish art. This new reader makes good that lack, and the editors should be praised highly for their efforts; there are indeed many stallions in the stable.
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.
The inclusion of lesser-known modernisms into art history at large also calls for the introduction of lesser-known artists, and it is often left to smaller, regional galleries to take on this task and produce the groundwork. The recent exhibition Herbert Ploberger: At the Interface between Fine and Applied Art at the Upper Austrian regional gallery in Linz can be understood precisely in this light.
Herbert Ploberger (1902-1977) was one of Austria’s main representatives of New Objectivity painting (Neue Sachlichkeit), a movement that developed in reaction to Expressionism in 1920s Weimar Germany. Stripping paintings bare of personal feeling and emotion, artists of the New Objectivity forged a hyperreality that often bordered on caricature for its brutal and unforgiving depictions of modern life. Continue reading