Artwork of the Month, January 2021: Japan – The Land of Contrasts by Alice Schalek (1925)

‘How much does the Austrian President Masaryk receive as his salary?’[1] Alice Schalek (1874–1956) was asked this question by a Japanese reporter in Tokyo during her journey there in 1923–24. Perceptions changed a lot after the First World War. The enterprising and renowned traveller Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850–1937) had evidently been more successful with his countless diplomatic trips and obtained more publicity than the actual leaders of the first Austrian Republic, such as Karl Renner (1870–1950) or, later, Ignaz Seipel (1876–1932). And this might as well describe Schalek’s mission and the purpose of her trips: venturing into political affairs and social events in foreign countries and utilising them to promote herself (and, to a lesser extent, the interests of Austria). For this, the journalist and photographer Schalek literally had to explore new ways of entrepreneurship, especially as a woman travelling the world on her own.

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Milada Marešová, A Bride with a Cigarette

Artwork of the Month, December 2020: Bride with a Cigarette by Milada Marešová (1933)

Sitting in a full, white dress in front of a brick wall and a grove of cypress trees, a bride is looking straight out of the painting at the viewer. At first glance, she is not a typical bride. Although she wears more traditional long gloves, and clutches a fan in one hand, her veil is falling slightly from her head and reveals prominent red hair which contrasts with her greenish skin. We can only imagine that under the veil she has a bubikopf, a haircut typical for the ‘new woman’ look. Her face and expression dominate the painting. Her remarkable, raised eyebrows and bright red lips add to the defiant look she is casting. Yet most striking of all is the cigarette the bride is holding in her right hand.

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Awakening, gobelin by Noémi Ferenczy, 1926-27

Noémi Ferenczy: An Artist in Changing Times

If we organised a poll in Hungary to find the best-known twentieth-century Hungarian woman artist, Noémi Ferenczy (1890–1957) would probably be the strongest contender. She is arguably also the best-known applied artist; one of the few positioned in the mainstream canon as autonomous artistic personalities. Ferenczy was, indeed, an outstanding practitioner of her craft. Credited with introducing the art of gobelins to Hungary, she employed the technique to create a unique, self-contained pictorial world. Her artistic creativity has been highlighted by numerous studies and exhibitions, most recently by the retrospective organised at the Ferenczy Museum Centre in Szentendre and the accompanying extensive, bilingual catalogue-monograph authored by Emőke Bodonyi.[1] This article will focus on how Ferenczy made her way in the turbulent political conditions of early- and mid-twentieth century Hungary. She was a woman, daughter of a well-known artist, a committed Communist, a strong personality who wished to work alone and make a living from her craft. Her career and reputation were shaped – sometimes helped, sometimes hindered – by these aspects, as well as by the radical political and cultural shifts that marked Hungary’s twentieth-century history.

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Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, This Is What It Looks Like

Artwork of the Month, September 2020: This Is What It Looks Like, My Child, This World by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (c. 1933)

This is what it looks like, my child, this world, that is what you have been born into, there are those born to shear and those born to be shorn. That, my child, is what it looks like in this world of ours and that of other countries, and if you, my child, do not like it, then you will just have to change it.

Set above a busy photo-collage of a newborn baby surrounded by newspaper cut-outs, these words call out for action in a world of political tension. Together with the images below it, they show a violent and turbulent world in which the baby seems already lost in its first moments of life. Forming part of a series of six photo collages created in Vienna in the early 1930s, This Is What It Looks Like gives a glimpse into anti-fascist photographic work in interwar Austria.

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Artwork of the Month, July 2020: The Black Boy by Helena Johnová (1912–c. 1939)

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.

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