Between East and West: The Vienna School and the Idea of Czechoslovak Art

Article excerpt

In 1919, a year after the creation of the Czechoslovak Republic, two influential Czech journals, Volné s nier y (Free Directions) and Umëleckÿ list (The Artistic Gazette) published a debate on the origin of early medieval art and architecture in Bohemia and Moravia.1 The basic question, which also appeared in the title of the polemical articles on this topic, was 'West or East' and reflected the search for the origins of medieval architecture and its affiliation with either eastern or western paradigms in Czech art history. The main cause of this particular debate was a book on the early mediaeval architecture Ravenna that had been published in 1916 and written by Vojtëch Birnbaum (1877-1934), a Czech art historian and a former student of the Vienna Institute of Art History.2 Birnbaum was concerned specifically with the question of origins, not only of the architecture of Ravenna but, more generally, of the early Christian basilicas and rotundas in Bohemia. For him the latter could be traced back to models in western Europe, namely, Italy, France and Germany.3

Discussion of the consequences of his main thesis was delayed due to the effects of the First World War, but the debate was particularly heated in the setting of the newly formed state. The topic was nothing new, though, because in Bohemia, the different arguments on the origin of early medieval art had already been addressed by a number of art historians of Czech or German origin in the nineteenth century. The more famous dispute, however, took place in Vienna in reaction to Josef Strzygowski's book Orient oder Rom (Orient or Rome) published in 1901, which criticised Franz Wickhoff's view that early Christian art was a stylistic development of the art of Rome. Strzygowski had also argued against the assumption, promulgated by, amongst others, Wickhoff and Alois Riegl, that Near Eastern art was dependent on Greek and Roman culture.4 Following the ideas of Viennese teachers, Birnbaum opposed Strzygowski's claims, arguing instead that early Christian architectural forms, and not only those of Ravenna, could indeed trace their origins back to prototypes in Rome, that is, in western Europe, and not in the 'East.'

This was not unilaterally accepted by all Czech scholars, however. To summarize the main points of the argument, Birnbaum's critics accused him of being 'Pragocentric/ prejudiced, and arrogant; above all, he was accused of using a 'German method.'5 The debate that his book provoked was typical of the situation both of Czech art history, and of the broader political and cultural context after the First World War. Specifically, one can read it as a symptom of the political environment of the newly created Czechoslovak democracy.

This article examines the debate prompted by Birnbaum in the light of the broader transformations Czech art history was undergoing. In particular, it considers the continuing legacy of the Vienna School of art history on the one hand and the political milieu of Czechoslovakia on the other. For the question 'East or West' was a topic of concern not only for art historians in Prague, but also for policy makers of the Czechoslovak state.

Czechoslovakia and the Czechoslovaks

The Czechoslovak Republic was declared on 28 October 1918; its borders were confirmed by the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 and its Constitution was adopted in February 1920. The new union of the two dominant national groups, the Czechs and Slovaks, was the result of relatively short negotiations between predominantly Czech representatives and the Entente powers held in the United States and in Paris during 1918. The initial discussions about the domestic composition of the state were marked by constant conflicts with the German and Magyar minorities in the proposed territories. These included attempts to establish German provinces within Bohemia and Moravia, a war between Romania and Hungary fought, in part, over Slovakia, and the redefining of Hungary's borders, ratified at the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, which ceded 'Upper Hungary' (Slovakia) to the new republic, leading to continued resentment and strong nationalistic sentiments in the region throughout the interwar period. …