Czech Modern and Contemporary Art
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0117
- LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
- LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0117
The term “Czech Republic,” although officially valid since 1993, is used to describe the region of the Czech lands of the Bohemian Crown—comprising Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia—which was a part of the Habsburg monarchy between the 1760s and 1848. The development of modern 19th-century Czech art was influenced by a strong movement for national self-determination. Romanticism intensified nationalistic impulses in art and in the Czech language. During the mid-19th century, a number of cultural institutions emphasizing Czech nationalism were created, including the National Museum, the National Theatre, and the Mánes Association of Artists. The first Czechoslovak Republic was formed in 1918 after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose majority population was Czech and whose minority population was German. The avant-garde group Devětsil was founded in 1920. According to the critic and artist Karel Teige, the Czech avant-garde was marked by a central tension between poetism (representing the human psyche’s irrational nature) and constructivism (characterized as the psyche’s rational side). During the 1920s and 1930s, Czech architecture embraced a version of international constructivism, at that time called functionalism. During this period, artists’ contacts with Paris increased; for example, the surrealists Jindřich Śtyrský and Toyen divided their time between Paris and Prague. After the rise of the Nazi regime, German nationalism in the Sudetenland (the border lands between Bohemia and Germany) escalated. The Treaty of Munich (1938) and the subsequent Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland precipitated the expulsion of thousands of Czechs. The Nazis established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1939. Restrained modernism was represented during the Second World War by the groups Sedm v říjnu (Seven in October) and Skupina 42 (Group 42). Though surrealist language was forbidden during this period, artist groups exploring surrealism, including the Ra Group (Skupina Ra), worked underground. The postwar expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia fundamentally changed the national population in Czechoslovakia. After 1948 the influence of socialist realism increased. During the mid-1960s (often called “the thaw”), the ideological cultural landscape relaxed, and in the late 1960s a number of new impulses appeared, including emotively colored constructivism and action art, as seen in the group Aktual. In 1968 the Soviet Army occupied Czechoslovakia. The ensuing normalization instigated purges in the Communist Party, the renewal of censorship and prohibition of many exhibitions, the abolition of many civic institutions, and increased control of public life. During the 1980s, postmodern tendencies began to appear in Czech art. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, contemporary Czech art joined the global art world network; however, only a few individuals, such as Jiří Kovanda, Kateřina Šedá, and David Černý, have been featured in prominent museums.
In order to discern the specific problematic within major themes in Czech modern art, it is necessary to understand the ways in which the historical context in the Czech lands informs the modern cultural landscape, (such as the Hussites, the Battle of White Mountain, anti-reformation, and recatholization), as discussed in Sayer 1998 and Fawn and Hochman 2010. Not until the 1990s did a number of books and exhibition catalogues in English appear concerning the history of 20th-century Czech art. Examples include Bydžovská, et al. 1995 and Bydžovská, et al. 1998. Wittlich 2010 presents important themes dealing with the beginnings of modern art in the Czech Lands: the reception of the Edvard Munch exhibition in Prague in 1905, the relationship of August Rodin and Czech sculpture, and the establishment of Czech painting at the turn of the century. Gryglewicz 1992 studies Central European modernism through the lens of common interests and themes, emphasizing the characteristic Central European spirituality, which the author sees as typical also of Czech art. The typical codes of Czech culture, the Czech national character, and Czech myth are analyzed more deeply, using the example of literature, in Macura 2010.
Bydžovská, Lenka, et al. Czech Modern Art 1900–1960: The National Gallery in Prague, Modern Art Collection, the Trade Fair Palace. Prague: Národní Galerie, 1995.
A catalogue of the first permanent collection of works of Czech modern art on display from the National Gallery in Prague in the Trade Fair Palace, with an emphasis on the personalities, avant-garde techniques, and artists on the periphery of the Western art history canon. Suitable as an introduction to the study of Czech art.
Bydžovská, Lenka, et al. Czech Art 1900–1990: from the Collections at the Prague City Gallery, House of the Golden Ring. Prague: Prague City Gallery, 1998.
A look at modern Czech art from the collections of the Prague City Gallery, from the viewpoint of the representation of dreams, myths, and ideals, the emphasis of distortion and the implementation of mirroring, and the ability to capture utopian moments in Czech art of the given period. An attempt at a nonlinear understanding of Czech modern art of the 20th century.
Fawn, Rick, and Jiří Hochman. Historical Dictionary of the Czech State. 2d rev. ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.
This second revised edition is a useful handbook for beginners wishing to study not only Czech art, but also Czech culture and possibly other areas of life. Chronology and hundreds of entries.
Gryglewicz, Tomasz. Malarstwo Europy Środkowej, 1900–1914: Tendencje modernistyczne i wczesnoawangardowe. Kraków, Poland: Rozprawy Habilitacyjne Nr. 239/ Uniwersytet Jagielloński, 1992.
This book traces the cosmopolitan and universalistic tendencies in painting in Central Europe through style and spiritual approach (“spiritualized cubism,” “the apocalyptic city”), independent of the categories of nationality and state. Lengthier summary in German. Takes an original approach, avoiding the traditional mode of analysis of examining the relationship of modernism and nationality.
Macura, Vladimír. The Mystifications of a Nation: The “Potato Bug” and Other Essays on Czech Culture. Translated and edited by Hana Píchová and Craig Cravens. Foreword by Caryl Emerson. Introduction by Peter Bugge. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.
Semiotic essays on the character of the Czech national revival, on the nature of Czech myth. and on the culture under Communism. English translation of the texts by a leading Czech literary scholar.
Sayer, Derek. The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
The complexity of the area of Bohemia and Moravia as the middle of Central Europe is, according to the author, a source of profound and sometimes even comical reflections of the modern situation, as shown by writers such as Franz Kafka or Jaroslav Hašek. Countless artistic, cultural, and political references and extensive documentation, all of it interconnected with an emphasis on the history of the everyday. Very instructive introduction to the concept of “Czechness.”
Wittlich, Petr. Horizonty umění. Prague: Karolinum Praha, 2010.
The collected articles of one of the most significant Czech historians of modern art. Includes fundamental texts on the history of Czech modern art, decadence, Jan Preisler, Edvard Munch and Czech art, and Medardo Rosso and Czech sculpture. Important for beginners, for advanced students, and for other interested persons.
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