Inter-war Modernism in the Collections of the Gallery of West Bohemia in Pilsen

27/04/2016 to 18/09/2016
výstavní síň Masné krámy
Alena Pomajzlová
Petra Kočová

The collection of interwar art is one of the most important parts of the collections of the Gallery of West Bohemia in Pilsen. The exhibition presents almost a hundred artworks (paintings, sculptures, drawings) created in the 1920s and 1930s by over twenty leading Czech artists.

The exhibition constitutes a follow-up to the successful project presenting the Gallery’s quality collection of Czech Cubism in 2009. The inter-war period is marked by a variety of styles and includes both works by pre-war cubists (whose paths later parted) and those by young artists leaning towards Primitivism, Civilism, Magic Realism and Surrealism. This art, in the 1920s often idyllically tinged, was supplemented in the 1930s by references to the imminent danger of war, reflected in expressionism and emphasis on the meaning of a work of art and its appeal.

Artists represented in the exhibition: Josef Čapek, Emil Filla, Otto Gutfreund, František Janoušek, Alfréd Justitz, Georges Kars, Rudolf Kremlička, Milada Marešová, Josef Šíma, František Tichý, Toyen, Antonín Procházka, Václav Rabas, Václav Špála, Jan Zrzavý and others.

Inter-war Modernism
This exhibition presents the art of the 1920s and 1930s from the collections of the Gallery of West Bohemia in Pilsen. It is worth noting that the term “inter-war modernism” used for its title is not, in fact, a recognised name for a specific style of art. The works grouped into this category actually tend to have very little in common. This is due to the fact that the period of the 1920s and 1930s was highly dynamic, a time in which various styles of art replaced one another, transcended their own boundaries or even merged entirely. Individualistic modern art, so prominent in the pre-war era, continued to develop; some artists inclined more towards the international avant-garde, others sought modernism in a new take on classical values, while a number of them simply followed their own paths. All of them, however, without question, categorically rejected conservative approaches and their empty, hollow clichés. The painters and sculptors adhering to the inter-war modernism thus, despite various outward differences, subscribed to the same progressive and innovative tendencies, which were to resonate throughout the inception of modern European art.

“The Obstinate” group and diversified modernism
The Obstinate [Tvrdošíjní] was a group active during the years 1918–1924. Its members upheld and maintained an individualistic take on modern art, without inclining to any specific style. The only thing that held them together was, in the words of Josef Čapek, seeking “modern artistic expression”. The means, however, were various. For Čapek, for example, the path lay within the constructivism and nakedness of a painting, in its order and distinctive style. Jan Zrzavý tended to “primitive” morphology and spiritually-oriented art, Václav Špála and Rudolf Kremlička preferred visual qualities of painting. Art critic and theorist Václav Nebeský characterized the group’s individualistic art as “diversified modernism”. It is as if these words foreshadowed the nature of the entire upcoming inter-war period.

Primitivism and the return to order
The beginning of the 1920s marked the first questioning of art autonomy as defined prior to the First World War. Demand arose for comprehensible content – works that concentrate upon figurative art in adherence to the motto “a return to order”. Form does not, however, go back to descriptive naturalism, but to “primitivism”, a simplicity and naivety typical of unschooled or folk artists. Henri Rousseau’s work was a great inspiration; the Modern Gallery in Prague even bought his self-portrait Myself: Portrait – Landscape for its collections in 1923. Surprisingly enough, both representatives of the avant-garde, such as the Devětsil group (e.g. František Muzika) and artists leaning more towards tradition and continuity of artistic expression (Karel Holan, Miloslav Holý) adopted primitivism. Further, some works (Milada Marešová) refer to the German “New Objectivity” [Neue Sachlichkeit] while naïve classicism, like that of Antonín Procházka active in Brno, remains quite rare.

Modernity and tradition
Early 1920s primitivism began to escalate, moving towards sentimentality and utopian idyll; most artists were not slow to abandon it shortly thereafter. Devětsil inclined towards the international avant-garde following the “Bazaar of Modern Art” exhibition (1923). Other artists turned towards the values of traditional painting and sculpture, in which they sought new ways of modern expression. The sculptor Otto Gutfreund typifies the change. At the beginning of the twenties, he abandoned the cubist sculptures of the pre-war period, and went through a short phase of colourful “civilism” sculptures in order to mine modernity from within classical figure statues. Similar classicism-reminiscent tendencies may be found in painting of the second half of the twenties. It is represented in the works of Rudolf Kremlička, Alfred Justitz and Jiří/Georges Kars. A specific place is taken by the recently discovered works of Svatopluk Máchal and the enhanced reality of circus scenes by František Tichý.

Pure visuality
The term “pure visuality” was first used by the art historian and theorist Vincenc Kramář with reference to emphasis on painterliness and visual quality in paintings. It includes works following fauvism, as well as those expanding pre-war cubism by a painterly element. The fauvist style is represented by Václav Špála who abandoned his previous cubist attempts and in a series of landscapes fully concentrated on the connection of bright, colourful tones and dynamic handwriting. On the other hand, Emil Filla remained faithful to cubism, but paid good heed to the colour component in painting. He employs impasto layers and expressively deforms shapes or, in contrast, reduces the colour scheme and concentrates upon the visual effect of subtle white lines. His work accumulated a following of younger artists (František Muzika, for example), for whom cubism helped establish the laws of form in modern painting.

Painting as recollection
The end of the 1920s was marked by a steady inclination towards surrealism. Its first stages appeared in the imaginary landscapes of Jan Zrzavý, František Muzika and Josef Šíma, who completely abandoned immediate visual perception in favour of capturing the impression left in the mind in the form of recollection. Landscapes ceased to be reproductions of nature as seen by the naked eye and became magical, newly-created realities. This is especially true of the “sign” landscapes of Josef Šíma. Similar stimuli, perhaps encapsulated in “a turn towards one’s own soul”, gave rise to the paintings of Jindřich Štyrský and Toyen. These unified poetry and painting, the compositions consisting of fragments of things and abstract forms rising from the surface of the canvas as if from the depths of memories. Štyrský and Toyen termed this distinctive style, which originated during their stay in Paris, “artificialism”. Their work moved more towards surrealism following the international “Poesie 32” exhibition, and both joined the newly-established Surrealist Group in 1934.

Second expressionism
In direct correlation with the threat from Nazi Germany, a great deal of art became politicized, with artists choosing both metaphorical and open ways to illustrate the current situation. The urgency of their artistic statements is often intensified by expressivity and deformations. Jan Bauch returns to motifs of suffering and death derived from Christian iconography in his paintings employing distinct colours, František Janoušek creates a series of surreal visions with a chaotic combination of distorted figures and shapes that refer to destruction, termination, and death. Josef Čapek remains true to a more comprehensible figuration, but follows the style of Edvard Munch with increasingly expressive, dramatic paintings. The metamorphosis from the surrealist deformation of the early 1930s to the taut expression of symbolic themes inspired by ancient myths is manifested in the works of Emil Filla.


The catalogue presents the exhibited works in art-historical essays and in a chapter dedicated to the history of gallery acquisitions. Hence, it is an important step towards the appreciation of the collections of the Gallery of West Bohemia in Pilsen and at the same time, it is a valuable foundation for future more detailed research on the interwar artworks in the country.