Years of Disarray 1908–1928. Avant-gardes in the Central Europe
The exhibition examines conditions and specifics leading to the birth of modern art in the individual successor states of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The principal impulse behind the start of this project was the awareness of continuing disconnection of the history of art itself from the European context and the essential need to gain a more profound insight into the history of culture in the individual states of the European territory as a fundamental prerequisite of our own history.
The Years of Disarray exhibition will be staged in the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary in 2018–2020. At each institution it will be adjusted to the national environment.
The concept of the exhibition
1918 was a year of a crucial change in the geography of territory sometimes described as “Central Europe”. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and formation of new states had a significant impact on external as well as internal life of its inhabitants and was also reflected in the sphere of fine art: it influenced the communication of artists, affected their personal and political attitudes, played a part in the change of themes and emergence of new formal approaches.
Years of Disarray exhibition will be focused on sources and manifestations of this dramatic change in the period covering the final decade of existence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the first decade of the successor states. It will take into consideration the events in Berlin where many artists found exhibiting and publishing opportunities, and in Paris that continued to be the “city of light” for them and in which many artists had lived for longer periods of time or drew inspiration from its stimuli. Created by artists themselves, a busy network of contacts spread within the changing social developments in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and subsequently in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Poland and Yugoslavia. It interconnected the individual centres of modern art, such as Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Krakow, Košice, Ljubljana, Lviv, Bucharest, Novi Sad. Collaboration took place by means of touring exhibitions, various magazines, extensive mutual correspondence, journeys of individual artists and sometimes their forced exile.
The birth of the modern Central European citizen impacted his three principal traits based on the legacy of philosophical reflection of modern times – relationship to the body, soul and spirit that underwent a major change. Each of them was strongly reflected in works of art thanks to which it is retrospectively possible to deduce the way the artist perceived himself and identify where he was finding his confidence and where, by contrast, his doubts were growing deeper, what was familiar to him and what he was confronted with. The works of art thus became the points of intersection with multiple meanings that did not have to be perceived merely from the perspective of their belonging to a style or a movement or their significance in the development of art.
The Lonely Self
In 1908, art scenes in all the capitals of Austria-Hungary changed significantly. In Vienna, Budapest and Prague new artistic groups emerged, defining themselves against the approaches of older generations. They condemned both lingering impressionism, considered the last redoubt of modern art, and Jugendstil for its emphasis on the decorative. Self-portrait became the leading genre with portrait as the expression of inner-directed glances, revealing hidden aspects of the psyche. The chaos of expressionism and fauvism represented the feelings of the modern man: loneliness, egocentrism, sexuality, narcissism.
The counterpoise to self-portrait was the representation of female and male nudes in natural settings, concentrated in the motif of bathing that was dominant in Central-European art in 1909–1913. It appeared in Czech, Hungarian, German and Austrian painting. Its wide influence was inspired by Paul Cézanne who shortly after his death in 1906 was unanimously declared the “father of modern painting”.
Opening up between the painful representation of the self, in which artists saw themselves as both messiahs and sufferers, and the depersonalised representation of the other in the form of male or female nudes (often interchangeable as if some universal third person), lay the realm of the soul. This introduced into visual art an interest in narrative, excluded from impressionism for its improper literariness – a quality that modern art was supposed to avoid. Many artists were strongly attracted by philosophers, especially Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, but also by the psychologicalnovels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and plays of Henrik Ibsen.
The Order of Forms
The year 1912 was of major importance for the development of cubism and its dissemination across many cities in Central Europe. Cubism was no longer a purely Parisian trend. It quickly came to overshadow fauvism and expressionism. From the development perspective it was regarded by contemporary artists as the latest and most important new framework for art. Artistically and institutionally, Central Europe was well prepared to receive cubism..
The outbreak of the First World War interrupted the dispute about cubism and brought considerable change in the personal lives of artists, many of whom had to join the army. Artists from Austria-Hungary and Germany who lived in France found themselves in a difficult situation: they were immediately declared enemy aliens, interned and their properties seized. The only possibility open to them was to join the volunteer legion, in which they could fight against Austria-Hungary side by side with the French army. Although their activities as visual artists on the front were inevitably limited by the war, some of them immediately or very soon started to draw scenes from the trenches, grenade explosions, the injured being carried away.
Man, City, Machine
The rapid renewal of modern art after 1918 was characterised by focus on the city and the factory. Industrial civilisation was preferred to country life. Lingering expressionism, cubism and futurism were quickly rejected by a younger generation who subscribed mainly to constructivism. The pre-war representatives of modern art were already regarded almost as “classics” and their influence post-1918 was challenged by younger artists who arrived with bold declarations about the building of the new world and the necessity to overcome all pre-war “isms”, which were now rejected as formalist and psychologising.
People of the Sun
Feelings of alienation were counterbalanced by the idea of the creation of a new man, standing at the threshold of a renaissance of humanism. The idea was associated with relationship to the Sun as the age-old source of life and energy. On the one hand, there were the New Adam and New Eve of Čapek’s R.U.R., robots endowed with human qualities who were “born” in the factory as the latest type of machines, while on the other there were the first people in an imagined dawn of history, represented by the dancing or copulating couple of man and woman. Art works summed up the ideas of the new foundation of the world.
The Analogy of Nature
The path to the complete acceptance of abstract expression was blocked by an obstacle precisely identified by František Kupka in 1912 – the imitation of nature. Modern art aimed to transcend nature in order to achieve its own purity. After 1918, non-objective art encountered a major rival in the abstract plans of synthetic cubism, whose contours still retained a relation to outer reality. Three possible roads opened up before the modern art of the 1920s: synthetic cubism represented a path between abstraction and surrealism. It became the main trend of modernism.
Important impulses were brought into the post-1918 visual arts by abstraction, specifically its constructivist and suprematist form, which found wide acceptance with the new generation that arrived on the art scene in the last years of the Great War. While before 1914 the protagonists of abstract art had not tied their work to a political programme or ideology, after the October Revolution in 1917 the avant-garde openly married its programme with communist ideals and efforts to build a new state entity on the Soviet model.
In the early 1920s the pioneers of the avant-garde announced the end of the traditional framed picture. They proposed new possibilities corresponding to modern life, modern technologies and the requirement for the social accessibility of art. They turned their attention to mechanical production, exemplified by the printing machine, the film camera, the projector.
Typography was prominent among the fields taken up by the avant-garde from the mid-1920s, because it could unify various elements into a complex composition. Modern publications had to be attractive and visually communicative, accessible to every reader. To achieve this effect the simplest visual elements were employed, visual signals serving as an international language, able to express the character of the time.
A Shared World
The young radically tuned generation of artists that emerged in the Central European cities in the early 1920s brought with it a wave of new art magazines. Their creation was mostly due to prominent personalities who were able to inspire and sometimes intentionally direct the group movement of their contemporaries.