Artistic capital, revived

Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History, by Derek Sayer, Princeton University Press, RRP£24.95/$35, 656 pages

‘Hotel Bat’a, Zlín’, a 1930s photomontage by an anonymous artist

In 1968 New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged a blockbuster exhibition, Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage, put together by William Rubin, an authoritative curator. The show included 331 works, not one of them by a Czech artist. Yet Prague had been a flourishing centre of avant-garde art, especially surrealism, between the two world wars – second, arguably, only to Paris.

As Derek Sayer observes, the absence of Czech art from such an important retrospective testifies to the black hole of western consciousness into which Czech culture vanished after the 1948 communist coup. What makes the omissions poignant is that 1968 was the year of the Prague spring, the peaceful challenge to communism that was cut short by a Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion. Surrealist art, driven underground during the previous 20 years, briefly resurfaced, as did other expressions of artistic freedom. Soon, however, the Moscow-installed masters of Czechoslovakia snuffed it all out, forcing dissident intellectuals into manual jobs and giving the country, as Sayer comments, “the best-educated stokers, garbage collectors, and window-cleaners in the world”.

Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century is an erudite, comprehensive, well-illustrated and witty account of Czech art, design, architecture, literature and music in an era – stretching roughly from Czechoslovakia’s creation in 1918 to the end of the second world war – when few in Paris, Berlin, London or even New York would have thought of the Czechs as not being part of western civilisation. The book’s principal achievement is to restore the Czech avant-garde to its rightful place at the heart of interwar European culture, a position from which it was ejected first by the Nazi dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39 and later by the advent of communism.

Sayer, a professor of cultural history at the UK’s Lancaster University, is the author of The Coasts of Bohemia, a much-praised 1998 book that traced the evolution of the Czech national identity down the centuries. In his latest work he gently forewarns readers that Czechoslovakia’s 40-year spell behind the Iron Curtain, which did not end until the 1989 Velvet Revolution, means that “most of the artists discussed in this book will be unfamiliar to most anglophone readers”.

This is, of course, unlikely to be true for novelists such as Jaroslav Hasek and Franz Kafka, and perhaps even Karel Capek and Jiri Weil: a wide range of the last pair’s fictional works has appeared in English long after their deaths. Yet Sayer is the perfect guide to lesser-known painters, composers and architects whose exciting powers of invention matched their unconventional lives: men such as Karel Teige, an editor and graphic designer who was the leading theoretician of Czech surrealism, and women such as Marie Cerminova, otherwise known as Toyen, an artist who used the masculine gender for herself and whose erotic drawings were unusually daring even for the interwar period.

Unlike their self-consciously serious French counterparts, some of whom, such as Louis Aragon, became hardline communists, many Czech surrealists were down-to-earth types whose mischievous humour and lack of pretension recall the Good Soldier Svejk, the anti-hero of Hasek’s 1923 novel. They might have struck revolutionary poses but their preference for erotic rather than dialectical materialism usually won the day. It is probably no coincidence that Ecstasy, a 1933 film that featured the world’s first nude role, was a Czech production.

Avant-garde intellectuals such as the poets Vitezslav Nezval and Jaroslav Seifert – who in 1984 won the Nobel Prize in literature, the only Czech laureate so far – did employ leftist political rhetoric, but the majority placed a higher value on individual freedom and artistic self-expression. The Nazi menace to Czechoslovakia and its neighbours loomed ever larger after Adolf Hitler seized power in 1933, and it was agonisingly difficult for the Czech avant-garde to make a firm choice between political commitment and artistic creativity.

Ultimately, this was the issue that split the European surrealist movement. Ilya Ehrenburg, the Soviet writer, despised the surrealists for “spending their inheritances or their wives’ dowries” and for being “too busy studying pederasty and dreams” to do an honest day’s work or confront Nazism. For most Czech surrealists, however, as for André Breton, the outspoken leader of the French movement, the real problem was the darkness of Stalinist communism, which was much too murderous, not to mention puritanical, for their taste.

Sayer derives his book’s title from “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century”, an essay written in the 1930s by Walter Benjamin, the German Marxist philosopher and critic. Sayer writes: “Prague’s location, as close as one can come to the centre of Europe, has ensured that its inhabitants have been buffeted by all the cross-currents of European modernity ... It is the enduring imprint of the night on all the beauties of the modern world that qualifies Prague as a fitting capital for the twentieth century.”

Yet the crucial point about the Czechs is that they lived in a small country, one rendered even smaller by its split in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Sayer quotes Milan Kundera, the author who went into French exile in 1975: “Small nations haven’t the comfortable sense of being there always, past and future; they have all, at some point or another in their history, passed through the antechamber of death; always faced with the arrogance of the large nations, they see their existence perpetually threatened or called into question ... ”

The achievements of Prague’s creative artists were remarkable precisely because the 20th-century Czech experience was so scarred by violence, loss of sovereignty and denial of personal freedoms. Sayer cautions that Prague’s modern history exposes “the grand narratives of progress for the childish fairy tales they are”. But in this book he has succeeded in bringing back to life a golden avant-garde era that not long ago was in danger of being written out of history altogether.

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

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