Bringing the margins to centre

by Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

Organised by the Courtauld’s Professor Sarah Wilson, ‘Drawing on the sidelines’ was a conversation between the South African artist William Kentridge, the art historian András Szántó, the Director of the Animation Academy at Loughborough University Paul Wells, and Professor Wilson, about the the Hungarian painter and animator György Kovásznai (1934-1983) in particular, and the role of political artists in marginalized and isolated societies in general.

The parallels between Kentridge and Kovásznai’s works, an attention to mining movements as creative inspiration and a sign for political action for example, provided intriguing starting points to the discussion. Is it possible that societies which operate under heavy censorship and limit civil liberties are the key to artistic freedom? This was one of the questions the discussion centred on. As Kentridge explained, when his native South Africa was internationally boycotted, the Johannesburg art scene was nonetheless thriving. Why? Because he and his peers were not under the pressure to create something that related to the international art scene and their ‘great artistic forefathers’. Rather, they could fully focus on their own ‘emergency of making’, reacting to the restrictive world they lived in without having to worry how their work would be perceived in the wider cultural community.

William-Kentridge-in-conversation

One particular way this development manifested itself in East Central Europe, Wells argued, was through animation. While the medium today is largely known through pop-culture giants like Disney, Wells pointed out that animation, as is slowly being uncovered, was also used in the fine arts, particularly in East Central Europe. Next to Hungary, where Kovásznai lived and worked, there was a surge in puppet theatre in socialist Czechoslovakia for example, which could operate as a critical force of culture and class consciousness within the popular sphere. Particularly in reference to caricature, animation has a longstanding relation to the fine arts, Wells highlighted, not at least considering cubist experiments. Humour, in animation as in caricature, can function as a means of ventilation in oppressive societies, and for precisely that reason was not always as strictly censored as may be assumed – thus affording artists a greater liberties of expression through the ambivalence inherent in ‘a good joke’. Animation as a form of ‘marginalised fine art’ could operate in those oppressed societies of the 1970s and 1980s as a new form of expression among artists, articulating their own social utopia.

Another, unpredicted, aspect was Kovásznai’s use of gender in his work in reference to a brief piece of animation about the artist, which was shown at the beginning of the discussion. In the film, a number of women with large breasts were shown, which provoked the question how and why the female body was used as a means of mediation for political issues, poignantly highlighted by Professor Tamar Garb (UCL). To a large part, this issue remained unexplored, highlighting the fact that, when uncovering ‘forgotten’ artists like Kovásznai, basic frameworks first need to be established before considering their wider significance in society – including gender. There clearly was a shift towards the erotic in critical works created under oppressive regimes, which some art historians, like Martina Pachmanová in the Czech Republic, have begun to uncover – making it only a matter of time until Kovásznai’s work will also be taken under the lens of gender politics…

The gender question highlighted the crux of the conversation on the whole: there is an entire Central European avant-garde, which still remains to be explored. As Wilson emphasised, Central Europe is so close by, yet remains a ‘riddle to be opened’. As a region of so much cultural and linguistic variety that has long been marginalised for its ‘political otherness’, its ‘rediscovery’ through the likes of Kovásznai and the recent attention paid to fine-arts animation at Loughborough paves the way for a more inclusive art history and may just change the way we perceive those societies on the whole.

The exhibition ‘Kovásznai – A Cold War Artist. Animation. Painting.’ is shown at Somerset House 3-5 March 2015.

The cityscape as national battleground: Brno/Brünn and the avant-garde

by Julia Secklehner (PhD student)

Matthew Rampley’s lecture ‘Brno: city of the avant-garde’ was introducing part of a current research project on Central European Modernism, which shifts the focus from Habsburg metropolises like Vienna and Prague to more regional centres that often developed their own approaches towards modernism and identity formation. Rampley’s example of Brno was particularly interesting in this context: Brno, now the second-biggest city in the Czech Republic, is located only 80 miles north of Vienna. It was the third biggest German city in the Habsburg Empire. Rampley focused on architectural developments in the city in the 1880s, when Brno was dominantly German ‘Brünn’, and in the interwar years, when it became the second city of new Czechoslovakia, strongly defined through progressiveness and modern life. Architecture, Rampley showed, is a particularly interesting way to assess how Germans and Czechs asserted national hegemony against each other, clearly visible from the ways the city was structured and re-structured.

Vladimir Karfik - Bat'a Department Store, Brno (1931)

Vladimir Karfik – Bat’a Department Store, Brno (1931)

In the early 1880s, Brno was redeveloped in reference to Vienna’s Ringstraße, including a broad boulevard circling the city’s core, dotted by buildings of cultural and political significance, like the German theatre (1882) and the Moravian design museum (1883) in typical Habsburg, historicist styles. However, as Czech national consciousness grew and members of Czech society became increasingly influential (Brno was a merchant city), they reacted to these architectural assertions of German hegemony with their own buildings, like Vladimír Fischer’s Cyril and Methodius Foundation (1913-15). As such, the national dichotomy between Czechs and Germans could be traced along the city’s architecture- even though these divisions blurred when considering social backgrounds: many architects, whether native Czech or German speakers, trained in Vienna, with one of the city’s most famous sons being Adolf Loos, a German-speaker who took on Czechoslovak citizenship after 1918, but lived in Vienna for most of his life. The mixed architecture of late Habsburg Brno/Brünn thus also represented its mixed population, whose mixed identities often betrayed the official nationalisms proclaimed as the Habsburg Empire crumbled.

In contrast to this complex German-Czech dichotomy, interwar Brno presents a rather different image, as Rampley highlighted: while struggling initially to find a language of avant-garde architecture as clearly expressed as in Prague’s rondo-cubism, the city soon functioned as an architectural showcase for the progressive new state. Relating the talk to the 2015-16 Prague exhibition ‘Building of a State’, Rampley emphasised a Czech drive to forge an architecture that would match its ambitions as ‘the island of democracy’ in interwar Central Europe. In an attempt to ‘czechify’ Brno, buildings were torn down and re-modelled, emphasising functionalism and modernity with buildings like the Bat’a Building, which represented mass consumerism and modern culture through simple form. Another, even more telling example was the Vesna school for women, which joined the progressive vision of the educated New Woman with modern architecture.

Interwar Brno was also host to a number of exhibitions, like the ‘Exhibition for contemporary culture’ in 1928, and the ‘Industrial exhibition’ in 1929, making the city a prime example for modern Czechoslovakia on an international scale. Despite the importance of modernist architecture as an assertion of national progressiveness, however, attention to regional arts and crafts persisted: there was an exhibition of Slovak arts and crafts in Uherské Hradiště (1937) for example, and the Slovak architect and folkorist Dušan Jurkovič continued to enjoy great popularity as a creator of vernacular developments like the spa town Luhačovice. One problematic aspect in this context is still the fact that Brno and its surrounding areas were by no means only Czech in the interwar years. The question remains as to the influence German and Jewish members of the population had on the cityscape before largely being erased in the 1940s. Did the aim to ‘czechify’ Brno not bring a reversed hegemony with it? How was the Habsburg legacy dealt with in a city that stood so clearly ‘in-between’?

Overall, Rampley created a multi-faceted image of Brno as a regional centre, which persisted with influences from Vienna, Prague and regional idiosyncrasies alike. More importantly, he showed that there is still a wealth of arts and culture to discover in an area that has all too long held a marginalised position between ‘East’ and ‘West’. With its legacy of Jewish, German and Czech heritage, Brno remains an important location for a shared cultural space in Central Europe – one example of many that highlights just how complex the region is and how much of it still remains to be explored, particularly now that nationalism is on the rise again.