New exhibition presents fresh perspective on Czechoslovak interwar art

New Realisms

An exhibition called New Realisms opened in Prague City Gallery on Wednesday, offering a fresh perspective on visual culture and art in Czechoslovakia between 1918 and 1945. It presents works by well-known artists, such as Otto Guttfreund and Jan Zrzavý, alongside artists from the German, Slovak and Hungarian-speaking minorities. I discussed the exhibition with one of its curators, Ivo Habán, and I first asked him to explain the term New Realisms:

“The term New Realism is connected with the overall atmosphere in Europe after World War I. It was connected with ideas about the possibility of new life and fairer society and there were paintings depicting for instance ‘new Adam and new Eve’.

“It is also connected with the art scene. The term was used by art theoreticians, including Czech art critic Karel Teige. He used it in connection with the painting of Czech painter František Muzika Factory in Vrané from 1921. You can see this painting at the start of our exhibition as a concrete example of the so-called Modern Realism.”

Czechoslovak interwar art has been exhibited many times before. What makes your exhibition unique? What makes your perspective different?

“We try to take a less canonical view of the Czechoslovak art scene in the interwar period. Our approach is more connected with lesser known authors. We also focused more on the regions.

“What is new is the possibility to see, side by side, Czech, Slovak, German and Hungarian-speaking artists and also female artists, who created modern realistic artworks or used this modern realist approach to express the reality at the same time but in different places.

“So it is not the usual linear view of Czech art history. Of course there was some main line focused especially on French culture. However, aside of this main direction, there were several other branches of modernity and that’s what we focus on.”

Can you mention at least some of the names of these artists who represent ethnic minorities or some of these solitary artists who worked within the borders of former Czechoslovakia?

“Of course the exhibition presents some very well-known names, such as the writer Karel Čapek, who was also an amateur photographer, sculptures by Otto Guttfreund or paintings by Milada Marešová.

“But side-by-side, we also present the Silesian painter Paul Gebauer, or Slovak painter Edmund Gwerk. We also present painters from north Bohemia, especially from Liberec, who were connected to the Dresdner scene, or Erika Streit, who was connected with Teplice.

“Those German or Hungarian speaking artists are mostly forgotten and we are trying to bring them back to the story of the multicultural Czechoslovak art scene.”

What also makes your exhibition unique is the range of art that you exhibit - there are over 300 artworks on loan. How long did it take you to prepare this exhibition?

“The exhibition is based on research supported by the Czech Science Foundation. It was the work of an international team of Czech, Slovak and American researchers. Following this research, we wanted to prepare an exhibition which would be friendlier to the public.

“We present paintings, sculptures, drawings, works on paper, but we combine these traditional media with photographs and film. And that’s what makes this exhibition really unique.”