Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution brought an end to four decades of Communist rule, attracting a flood of tourists from around the world—7 million in 1996—and sparking renewed interest in the country’s rich cultural heritage. Closer to Paris than to Moscow, the city of Prague and the people of the Czech lands share Western religious and cultural traditions. That tradition was first broken by Nazi domination in 1938, and then by the imposition of Communist rule in 1948. But in the early years of the century and between the wars, Czech artists were passionate participants and innovators in the movements that transformed the art of the Western world.
The fall of Communist rule in the former Eastern Bloc countries gave historians the freedom to explore the development of modern art more comprehensively. Underknown artists and important regional movements are being examined with fresh eyes and a desire to understand their rightful place in art history. Czech Avant-Garde: Reflections on European Art and Photography in Book Design, 1922–1938 demonstrates the brilliance of Czech graphic design, illustration, photography, and photomontage between the wars, a period that saw a flowering of Czech culture parallel to that of the Weimar Republic. Comprised of approximately 800 books and journals from the collection of Czech scholar and author Zdenek Primus, the exhibition highlights the work of several recognized masters of Czech book design, including Karel Teige, Jindrich Styrsky, Toyen, Ladislav Sutnar, Vít Obrtel, Zdenek Rossmann, and Frantisek Muzika, along with many previously unknown artists.
The Primus Collection is the largest of its kind in the world, encompassing the complete works of Czech avant-garde book production. Most of the artists represented in the collection were members of the avant-garde artists’ union (Devetsíl) from 1928 to 1931, or participated in the Surrealist Group from 1931 to 1938.
Following the outline of the collection, the exhibition is divided into four sections: “Constructivist Design” reveals the strong relationship between Constructivist and postmodern design. Based on the elementary forms of the circle, square, rectangle, straight line, diagonal, and arc, Constructivist book design also drew from related movements such as Suprematism, Neoplasticism, Elementarism, and Functionalism. “Picture Poems of Poetism” shows how artists used free association to create visual poems that incorporated elements of Constructivist design and employed orthogonal forms, photographs, and typography as structural elements. “Isms and the Book” includes graphic design that attempted to adhere to several then-current movements, including Purism, Artificialism, Lyrical Abstraction, and Surrealism. “Photography and Photomontage” shows how photographic techniques became integrated into Czech book design in the early 1920s and then predominated in the 1930s.
Czech avant-garde book design represents a major underknown contribution to 20th-century art, providing insight into many important aspects of artistic production in Europe between the wars. Students of art and graphic design have much to learn about contemporary trends by examining this extraordinary historical collection.
NUMBER OF WORKS: 500
TOUR DATES: February 1997 - February 2000
PUBLICATION: Fully illustrated bilingual book (Curatorial Assistance, Inc., 1997)