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.
Monuments are intended to be permanent, but their lives are often cut short by the turbulent events of history. In Central Europe this is a well-known phenomenon. Political change in this region tends to involve a transformation of urban scenery, such as the removal of Communist public sculptures after 1989 or the toppling of Prague’s Marian column in 1918. For whatever reason it happens, the defacement, destruction or replacement of monuments is integral to their function. They are not aesthetic objects that invite contemplation, but political ones that participate in public discourse, and consequently the response to them is also political. The destruction of the Marian column was a spontaneous act of the revolutionary crowd; in other cases, it is the government that directs the removal of old monuments and the setting up of new ones. In the course of the last hundred years, each political regime has imposed its own memory politics on urban spaces. Some city squares, those with a greater symbolic importance, underwent many transformations as the decades passed.
Budapest’s Kossuth Square is a case in point. Situated in front of the Neo-Gothic Parliament building designed by Imre Steindl (1839–1902) and flanked by other governmental buildings, it is a prime location for the self-representation of the state. For the same reason, it also attracts anti-government demonstrations. Throughout its 120-year existence, it has been home to various different public monuments, which came, went – and sometimes returned.
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.