Translator's introduction: El Greco in Prague: modernism and the reception of an Old Master
Emil Filia (1882-1953) was one of the leading modernist painters working in Prague before the First World War. Following a conventional artistic training at the Academy of Fine Art in the city at the beginning of the twentieth century he was, like many of his generation, deeply impressed by an exhibition of work by Edvard Munch in Prague staged in 1905 by the Manes Union of Fine Artists, the leading artistic association of the time. The impact of Munch was evident almost immediately, and starting from 1907, when he painted The Reader of Dostoyevsky, Filia produced a series of works that mirrored the visual lexicon and formal language of the Norwegian artist, intensifying the gloomy symbolist themes of the latter to an almost unbearable degree. Anxious to avoid the limitations of the provincial art world of Prague, he avidly consumed the most advanced artistic practices of the major art centres of the time, culminating in a quite personal appropriation and interpretation of Cubism. He was also a author of essays in art history and criticism, writing on subjects as diverse as Byzantine art, Caravaggio, Daumier, Rembrandt, Impressionism, Munch and, of course, El Greco.2
Although a member of the Mânes Association, Filia was active in the formation of other avant-garde artistic groups, which eventually led to open conflict with Mânes. The first was Osma (The Eight), which he helped found in 1907, and which included other prominent exponents of Czech Cubism, including Bohumil Kubista (1884-1918) and Antonín Procházka (1882-1945). Eater, in 1911, he formed a successor group called the Skupina vÿtvarnÿch umëlcû (The Group of Fine Artists). Skupina also published its own journal, the Umëleckÿ Mesicnik (Art monthly) between 1911 and 1914, and it is from the first volume of that journal that Filla's article on El Greco is taken.
The artists of Skupina did not have a coherent ideology, and this is clear from the pages of the journal, which feature an eclectic range of articles on contemporary by Czech and foreign authors, as well as essays on art history, literary reviews and poems. The choice of visual material in the journal was equally broad, ranging from contemporary art, architecture and design to old masters, African, pre-Columbian and prehistoric art. For all its lack of coherence, this eclecticism revealed how the artists positioned themselves, as exponents of art as a global practice that transcended traditional spatial and temporal categories. It is this interest in the art of the past that makes Filla's essay of significance, for it reveals how a contemporary artist (as opposed to an art historian) made sense of history.
Naomi Hume has recently suggested that the Skupina artists were distinctive precisely in their concern with the history of art, and in this they were strongly informed by the Vienna School.3 A close reading of Filla's article reveals obvious traces of Vienna School thinking; the most striking is his repeated reference to the artistic will (zrule umeleckä) which is a direct Czech translation of Riegl's 'Kunstwollen'. Filla's interest, too, in how El Greco treated spatial relations, bears more than a passing resemblance to Riegl's exploration of figure-ground relations in Late Roman Art Industry. It may seem improbable that a modernist painter writing in an avant-garde periodical would be familiar with a text on a hitherto marginalised art historical topic, but as Hume argues, Skupina artists do appear to have been readers of quite minor writings by Vienna School authors, and work by Riegl had already appeared in Czech translation in other modernist publications; in 1908 the architectural journal Styl had published portions of his essay on monument protection and Pavel Janák, later one of the leading representatives of Cubist architecture in Prague, had also published an article in the same issue advocating the adoption of Riegl's ideas in the treatment of the historic district of Malá Straná in the city. …