"New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde Art and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection"

Article excerpt

"New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde Art and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection" Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. November 6, 2011-February 5, 2012

In the opening years of the twentieth century, the city of Prague hosted exhibits on Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Italian Fumrism, German Expressionism, and Cubism. Czech artists absorbed fully the lessons of the machine age, revealing beauty in functional design and finding wisdom in advertising posters. With the Nazi occupation in 1939, however, Czech modern art virtually disappeared as artists fled persecution as "degenerates." It has only been since the fall of Communism that we have been able to rediscover this particular area of modernism.

"New Formations," which takes its name from the 1927 Artificialism manifesto published by Jindrich Styrsky and Toyen (Marie Cerminova), opens with a watercolor by Karel Teige. City by a River (1918) is a delicate work in which walls, roofs, and bridges are reduced to a mosaic of blue and rust. Like so much of Teige's art, it is an amalgam of influences-here, Czech cubism and the mannered figuralism of Purism. Its most conspicuous feature, however, is the eloquent use of white space. Teige demonstrates that, in art, what is inferred by the viewer is just as essential as die artist's intentions. City by a River is actually a harbinger of just the sort of visual metaphor that Teige and the artists of the collective Devetsil would explore so successfully in the coming years.

"Devetsil" has two meanings in Czech: it refers to the butterbur flower as well as, literally, "nine forces" suggesting the nine Muses and their concentrated energy. Over the years of its existence (1920-1931), Devetsil included some 100 artists and influenced Czech literature, photography, theater, architecture, film, typography, art theory, and criticism. Teige was Devetsil's primary theorist, defender, and practitioner. What differentiated Devetsil from the prevailing movements of die day was Teige's optimism and his confidence in the edifying effects of urban scenes like the music hall and the cinema. "The proletariat does not need images of a crushing reality," he wrote, "but a reality and an illusion that inspire and encourage.... Writers of moralizing Communist nursery rhymes do not excite and cannot expect success."

"New Formations" includes all thiitry volumes of Teige's Revue de Devetsil (ReD) whose covers from 1927-1930 announce an ambitious program of poetry, architecture, art, and theory. We see no interior pages, but the covers show Teige's characteristic typography and graphic design, as well as innovative overprinting and photographic reproduction. We take magazine cover design for granted today, but it was Teige who thought to pair, for the first time in Czechoslovakia, poetry (Jaroslav Siefert's Paris) with photography (mass-produced postcards of familiar Parisian sites).

Among Teige's prodigious output, Alphabet from 1926 stands out. Its twenty-five spreads combine Vitezslav Nezval's witty verses with Milca Mayerova's charming dance compositions. Alphabet began as a performance at Devetsil's Liberated Theatre widi Nezval reading-"with g I'm sure we'll all agree/ come dioughts of the lasso and die saddle/ Over the pampas the cowboys roam free/ while I eat sirloin from Argentine cattle"- while Mayerova struck poses in accompaniment. …