Transfers of ideas and styles in Central Europe before 1920, by Krisztina Passuth

The main focus of this text lies on two specific network hubs that helped to enable the symbiosis between art and culture in Central Europe: Austria-Hungary and Bohemia, and their similarities and differences.
In this context, the first common point I want to draw upon are the activities of groups that, for a limited amount of time, turn into artistic movements. Their activities are taking the shape of encounters, correspondences between artists as well as public debates and exchanges of publications such as journal articles, almanacs, catalogues, post cards etc. Each movement has a key personality (often a writer or an art critic) who mainly determines the social, aesthetic and stylistic character of the group.

In the Hungarian avant-garde movement, known as “MA” or “activism” from 1919 onwards, this key personality is the writer Lajos Kassák. He is the editor in chief of several avant-garde journals: A Tett1 (Budapest, 1915) and later on MA2 (Budapest, 1916-1919 and Vienna 1920-1925). In Prague, his equivalent is Vincenc Kramář, not an artist himself but an art historian and collector. It is him who promotes radically new art such as Cubism during the modernist movement before 1914. After the war, Karel Teige takes over from him and edits several journals and almanacs in Prague and Brno. It thus becomes apparent that it is artists as well as writers and editors who take over the dominant role in the groups.

 

The movements’ centers before 1919 are always located in cities frequented by free-spirited and dynamic intellectuals from the cities of Bohemia. The initiators mostly remain the same, even though sometimes more radical characters take over. The Hungarian groups are active in their capital city Budapest between 1909 and 1919. However, in 1919-1920, the repressions of the newly established Hungarian Soviet Republic force them to leave their native country and move to Austria, Germany, Russia, France, Slovakia or other. Henceforth, all artistic efforts and the majority of the results that had been achieved up until 1919 and that were in place in Hungary until that date, disappeared. Forced to start off anew in a completely different political and spiritual environment, the situation for Hungarian émigrés is quite different than in Bohemia: Czech intellectuals do not experience such political turmoil and have the advantage to remain in one and the same place, mostly their home towns, thus becoming much freer and developing many international contacts they did not have before the war. In order to better understand the importance and the further development of those groups after 1914, their activity from 1906-1907 onwards has to be analyzed.

 

As for these beginnings, the activities of two groups in Prague and Budapest – which were both called “The Eight”, but had no knowledge of each other’s existence – have to be highlighted. The group OSMA,3 founded in Prague in 1907, has remarkable talents among its members, such as Bohumil Kubišta. The Hungarian group NYOLCAK4  was founded at the end of 1909, yet only bears the name NYOLCAK from 1911 onwards. Its members are equally noteworthy as their Czech counterparts: Róbert Berény, Lajos Tihanyi and Béla Czóbel, among others. Even though the two groups have no contact and are overlooking each other’s existence, they both, in turns, have connections to Paris. Their very separated existences prove that, surprisingly, they were not looking for contacts within Central Europe. And not only groups, but Central European artistic tendencies in general experience a rather isolated existence before World War I, nevertheless trying to build relations with Austria, Germany, Italy and France. The influences of German Expressionism, Italian Futurism and French Cubism reach an international level with their reception in Central Europe, even though the Czech and Hungarian specificities do not gain a similar visibility. (Major intellectual encounters amongst the Eastern European countries only happen at a later date, after the war.)

 

It is noticeable which movement and which characteristic avant-garde style has mainly influenced Czech artists, and which other tendencies have at the same time (before 1914) influenced Hungarian artists. Artists in Bohemia where the first ones to develop an innovative style of their own: the cubist – or cubo-expressionist – style, an autonomous tendency with its own roots, different from French Cubism. This style evolves within thegroup called Skupina Vytvarny Umelcu (the group of the Plasticists), established in the domains of painting and sculpture as well as in architecture and the applied arts. From this point of view Czech Cubism differs from French Cubism which is generally limited to painting and sculpture. Furthermore, the Czech group developed an elaborate theory accompanying this new stylistic tendency, formulated as much by artists (such as the sculptor Otto Gurfreund in his essay “Surface et Espace”) as by theorists (like Vincenc Kramář). The Hungarian artists mainly are influenced by the ideas of Adolf Hildebrand (“Das Problem der Form”, translated into Hungarian in 1911) as well as by Hungarian philosopher-critics, such as Lajos Fülep, György Lukács and Iván Hevesy. The turning point in their intellectual ideas might have arrived at a slower pace in Budapest than in Prague, but its force has not only influenced and dominated painting and sculpture, but literature and music5 as well.
Evidently, the First World War brought a sudden end to the organic evolution of the modernist spirit. This spirit was replaced by political ideas which took an important position among radical intellectuals, such as Lajos Kassák. Kassák founded his journal A Tett during nationalism and in the middle of the war – in an international, modern mindset against war. The Hungarian Avant-garde was born at exactly that moment, thanks to Kassák’s activities and his papers, A Tett and MA. Thanks to these and his activities on a transnational scale, numerous international contacts with Eastern and Western Europe were born. It is the blossoming moment for the Avant-gardes in all domains – which will last for at least one more decade full of excitement.

  1. Translation: “Action”.
  2. Translation: “Today”.
  3. Translation: “The Eight”.
  4. Translation: “The Eight”.
  5. Such as Béla Bartók.

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