“Czech Modernism: 1900–1945”

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

To most Western viewers, the history of Czech Modernism has been inaccessible and almost invisible. Czechoslovakia, hemmed in by a language barrier discouraging communication and translation, was further isolated and repressed after the Nazi occupation in 1938. But this exhibition documents a cosmopolitan milieu in which Czech artists not only traveled, trained, lived, and exhibited in Western capitals, but constantly initiated and sponsored exhibitions of vanguard international art in their own country with promptness and perspicacity. These exhibitions were well-attended, publicized, and debated. Notable foreign artists and intellectuals visited Prague frequently, and Czech artists, whether expatriates, returnees, or native residents, selectively assimilated and transmuted major developments elsewhere in Europe with a purposeful intensity inspired by a belief in art’s redemptive powers, its capacity to meet psychological, spiritual, and social needs.

Yet, as the catalogue essays establish, and the work in the exhibition attests, modernity and Modernism were very ambivalent coordinates in Czechoslovakia. Consider Frantisek Kupka’s famous Red and Blue Disks, 1911, arguably one of the earliest abstract paintings. Produced in Paris, where Kupka lived in proximity to the Puteaux Cubists, the work was partly inspired by Kupka’s interest in Eugène Chevreul’s theory of color—its shifting optical effects are generated by dynamically expanding arcs of strong, translucent primary hues. It has traditionally been associated with French Orphism. But now presented among other Czech works, and in the company of his own Cosmic Spring I, 1913–14, and in the context of catalogue remarks on Kupka’s interest in Bohemian traditions, his lifelong epiphonal elaboration of circular imagery from the embryonic to the celestial, his involvement in mediumistic practices and the occult, and his untranslated writings on the fundamental sexuality of his cosmological scheme, we can acknowledge the heat as well as the light of his work. Similarly fascinated with nature and its forms, the graphic artist Vojtech Preissig produced a strange smack-dab transfer painting called Zrozen Zeme (Birth of the world, ca. 1936), literally a reverse-duplicated two-panel painting of autumnal patterns suggesting leaves, the cycle of seasons, and an infinite chain of being extending far beyond his early exercises in Art Nouveau ornamentation.

Both painter Bohumil Kubista and sculptor Otto Gutfreund are revealed here as impassioned explorers of Cubist spatial dynamics. Kubista’s theoretical interpretation of Cubism produced his principle of penetrismus, in which the fracturing of solid forms represents the breakdown between mind and matter. In Hypnotizér (Hypnotist) and Vrazda (Murder), both 1912, figures appear to be assaulted by constructions of bladelike shards, offering images of both symbolic and narrative drama. Gutfreund, who studied with Emile-Antoine Bourdelle in Paris, insisted that he only balanced baroque movement with Cubism’s planar divisions, but his little-known Embracing Figures, 1912–13, is so psychologically and erotically charged that we fall under the spell of Cubism’s emotive as well as kinesthetic powers. In the mid ’20s Zdenek Pesánek made glass-and-neon kinetic sculptures that he called “luminodynamics,””constructions whose configurations were commissioned to complement the designs of Czechoslovakia’s most advanced architects. Under the influence of Surrealism in the ’30s, Pesánek’s work becomes increasingly anthropomorphic; his use of transparency and internalized illumination impart a literal radiance and aura to the sensuous torsos he conceived, a significant innovation in the history of sculpture in the interwar period.

Two painters in particular represented Czech Surrealism in the exhibition, Jindrich Stryský, and Marie Cermínová, known as Toyen. In Paris in the mid ’20s, the couple initiated an early parallel to French-based Surrealism; they dubbed their movement “Artificialism.” By 1936 Stryský, who was also known for his collages and photography, painting in a more veristic mode, made his dreamlike notations, formerly soft and tonal, look palpably solid and threatening. In Trauma Zronzení (The trauma of birth, 1936), it is as though the cosmic monism of Kupka and Preissig had imploded, scattering across the black field spectral chunks of former entities—a glove, a drifting embryo, talons, teeth—like specimens from a nightmare, a kind of dooms- day diagram of what was to come in just a few years. Indeed, soon after, with the signing of the Munich Pact in 1938 and the outbreak of World War II, came the constriction of this fertile period. By 1944, the eerie wasteland featured in Toyen’s Hide! War! serves as this artist’s withering lament for aborted promises and a broken world.

Joan Seeman Robinson