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.
Artistic concepts tend to travel quickly, but they also change during travel. Moreover, they scatter in different directions when affected by certain historical, societal or cultural conditions. The turmoil after the First World War left the newly founded nation states in Central Europe reeling, especially Hungary, which lost a huge part of its territory after the Treaty of Trianon (1920). At the end of the First World War, a part of the Hungarian art scene moved forward from its post-impressionist traditions and followed a neo-classicist upswing that happened in France, Italy, and all around Europe. Often considered a direct reaction to the chaos in post-war societies, the new classicism in Europe evolved differently in every region and is still not fully explored today.
Erzsébet Korb (1899–1925) started her career in the years of the war. She was born in 1899, as the oldest daughter of the well-known Hungarian architect Flóris Korb (1860–1930). He raised his daughters in an artistic environment and later enabled them to follow their careers as painters or dancers. Erzsébet’s talents in drawing and painting were noticed early. Already in 1916, at the age of 17, she exhibited three works at the National Salon in Budapest. Her paintings were heavily influenced by the new classicism. As a young female painter, she altered those tropes and gave them slight nuances. Therefore, most of her female figures show shorter hair and a rather strong body, while men often appear androgynous. Not meant as a direct critique of societal change, but rather driven by formal developments within Hungarian art, her depiction of naked women express deep, heartfelt mourning over a troubled world.
On 25th January 2019 the Belvedere Museum formally opened its exhibition City of Women: Female Artists in Vienna, 1900-1938. The exhibition continues until 19th May. Presenting the work of no fewer than 53 women artists, it is an ambitious project that builds on and extends earlier exhibitions by the Belvedere; despite the unpromising title, The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka (2015-16), for example, was a serious examination of the painters’ oeuvre in the context of changing gender identities and discourses of femininity.
Photography has long been a stepchild of art historical research in Austria, and only few publications, most notably Anton Holzer’s Fotografie in Österreich (Vienna, 2013), have provided comprehensive assessment of this topic. Talks about the first Austrian museum of photography are ongoing, however, and Vienna’s exhibition landscape has started to include an increasing number of photographic exhibitions into its schedule. This year, coinciding with the centenary of the First Austrian Republic in November 1918, several museums in Vienna are focusing on photography in interwar Austria, and offer diverse insights into the medium’s significance at the time.
In 1984 the Czech Institute of Art History commenced publication of a multi-volume history of Czech art from prehistory to the present. It was a massive undertaking, a comprehensive survey that was not completed until 2007, when the final two volumes on art since 1958 appeared. It represented a particular central European tradition in academic publishing, but as with many other such projects, its drawbacks were all too evident. During the 23 years of its gestation, art historical methods had changed considerably, especially given the ideological shifts brought about by the collapse of Communism. In addition, the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993 meant that the meaning of ‘Czech art’ was no longer the same, and the later volumes could be seen as part of the self-redefinition of the new Czech Republic. Despite such caveats, it was still a major work of reference, but it was hampered by one single factor: it was only published in Czech. For linguistic reasons alone, therefore, its potential impact was limited.