Our Artwork of the Month in April 2020 was Columbus in der Slovakei (1936), a cultural travel guide by Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski (1888–1961) that introduced Slovak modern art, architecture and, mainly, folk culture to the unaware German-speaking reader. This post is a follow-up: though Columbus was a financial disaster, and almost drove its publisher EOS-Verlag into ruin, Rochowanski pursued the idea of publishing more travel guides of the same sort. Writing to various institutions and government agencies across Europe, he proposed travel guides to the Czech Lands, the Sudetenland, Austria, and the Netherlands in the late 1930s, all of which were rejected amid growing political tensions and a dire economic situation. However, the author eventually succeeded after the Second World War, publishing a cultural travel guide to Austria with the Österreichische Buchgemeinschaft (Austrian book club) in 1949. At this point Austria, whose population had eagerly supported National Socialism, yearned to reinvent itself in an effort to overcome the past, and officials such as Chancellor Karl Renner focused on promoting an Austrian identity that was separate from that of Germany. Against this background, Rochowanski’s second travel guide, Unser Land mit unsern Augen (Our Land with our Eyes), shows that the theme of continuity and rupture, which the CRAACE project focuses on around 1918, recurred around the historical break of 1938–1945. Given that the book had already been written in 1938 but was only published later, as its epilogue reveals, it raises some important questions about new beginnings and a lingering past, which bring to light striking continuities in Austria before and after 1945.
Not long ago, this blog featured a review of Their Safe Haven, a book that explores the life and work of fourteen Hungarian artists who settled in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. One of them, George (György) Mayer-Marton (1897–1960), became a senior lecturer at Liverpool College of Art, and received several commissions to decorate churches in England with murals. The Crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Rosary in Oldham is now under severe threat. The church has been closed since 2017, and the artwork is at risk of being damaged by vandalism, water leaks, as well as by the eventual demolition or redevelopment of the building. The artist’s great-nephew, Nick Braithwaite, is leading a campaign to save the mural with the support of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has issued an appeal to restore the work and have it listed as a protected monument.
The artwork of the month for June 2020 is A Walk Through the Metropolis by Erika Giovanna Klien (1900–1957). It is perhaps the most ambitious and imposing example of the short-lived Viennese art movement known as ‘Kinetism’ that flourished in the early 1920s. Executed in gouache on paper, it consists of seven one meter-square panels laid alongside each other resulting in a work that is seven meters in length. The city it depicts is a site of thrilling, dynamic encounters, between the spectator and the physical environment, between buildings, and between the spectator and unspecified others on the street. The metropolis is a place of life and energy, and the work communicates, too, a sense of urban noise. Yet who was Klien, and what was Kinetism?
In the 1920s new concepts became prominent across Europe that mingled technology with the idea of the human. The Czech novelist Karel Čapek (upon the suggestion by his brother Josef) was the first to use the word ‘robot’ for artificial lifeforms modelled after humans, in his famous play R.U.R. (1920). Čapek was in fact referring to an old system of forced labour in Central Europe, where the peasantry had to provide the local lords with a certain amount of unpaid labour every year, the so-called robota (work). The pivotal moment of Čapek’s play is the robots’ uprising against their creators, which leads to the extinction of mankind. In the epilogue, however, the robots Primus and Helena develop human feelings for each other, and the former engineer Alquist, one of the last humans alive, declares them the new Adam and Eve.
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.