Art, Design, and Architecture in Central Europe 1890-1920

TitleArt, Design, and Architecture in Central Europe 1890-1920
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsMestyán, Ádám
Author(s) of reviewed materialClegg, Elizabeth

book. 285 x 215. 250 b/w + 50 color illus.

PublisherNew Haven: Yale University Press
ISSN9780300111200. ISBN-10: 0300111207
Review year


Full Text

That the study of culture conceived as the assemblage of art, architecture, representations and ideas (not in the sense of the sociological-anthropological meanings of “culture” as a net of symbolic actions and signs, although these two concepts may overlap) might be a useful way to discover new aspects of historical times as a supplement of political history or as a valid mode of historical interpretation in itself has its roots in “classical cultural history” (Peter Burke) exemplified by the works of Jacob Burckhardt. The application of this mode of thinking and approach to “Central Europe” is an ongoing process that has in many ways begun with the 1961 classic of Carl E. Schorske (Fin-de-Siècle Vienna – Politics and Culture).

The birth of Urban Studies, Urban History in the United States also gave a further impute to these new ways of discovering the past, which has been accompanied by a growing embarrassment about the boundaries between art history and history per se. The complex relations between the city and history, between built environment and memory are popular research areas today, one of whose eminent thinkers was Christine Boyer in her The City of Collective Memory (1993). Boyer in her complex work shifted the focus from Foucault-inspired research on the disciplinatory aspects of city planning to research of memory and exhibition of the city itself, was rather influenced by the Benjamin-renaissance. 

The Anglo-Saxon scholarly application of all these techniques and debates about city, art and memory to “Central Europe” – a concept which itself has a history, if not histories (see ECE 2005), here, understood as the former territory of the Habsburg Empire at its largest expansion – started in the 1990s. Even before this date, the first book which partly reflected on Schorske was Peter Hanak’s The Garden and the Workshop (in Hungarian 1988), while the firstcomparative, historically informed attempt focusing on architecture was Akos Moravanszky’sCompeting Visions (1998). In Shaping the Great City (1999), edited by Eve Blau and Monika Platzer, the idea was proposed of using the Habsburg monarchy and its cities to investigate the transnational identities and problems as a way to reflect on our contemporary globalization. This use of the Monarchy today both in the successor states and by “external” scholars is mirrored by Peter Stachel’s ironic expression and essay “Franz Joseph Superstar” published in 2006 as part of an edited volume about Central Europe as “kultureller Raum” (Philipp Ther) and its stage-like culture (Schauplatz Kultur – Zentraleuropa).

Placing Elizabeth Clegg’s beautiful book Art, Design & Architecture in Central Europe 1890-1920 into this context reveals it to be a major contribution to scholarship, although the work is not without problems. Clegg, a distinguished art critic and a regular author of the Burlington Magazine, claims that she has “four chief innovations” (p. 4), first, to consider “the region as a whole”, second, to “convey a sense of the overall dynamic”, third, “a structure which is inherently comparative”, fourth, “its regard to five types of specificity: of time [...]; of place; of relevant ‘context’; of [...] illustrated examples; and of critical commentary.” (p. 4-5, italics in the original).

It can be easily seen from the introductory lines that Clegg is not as innovative as she claims to be, although one must admit that she is the first one to write a cultural history of the region with such a scope and using such vast materials. I used the term cultural history to describe it because Art, Design & Architecture in Central Europe 1890-1920 is not only a contribution to art history but to the general landscape of the intellectual history of Central Europe. It is so because throughout her six chapters and the Postscriptum, what is explored is the usage of art (especially the fine arts as urban modes of expressions) as an exploration of the general policies and identity formations of this, in many ways unique period. 

The time-frame (1890-1920) is so vast that one might wonder what really makes these 30 years to be one, coherent period at all (and thus one might argue that during this time a common “Central-Europality” was created and immediately was lost), and Clegg’s choices more or less fit to an art-historical periodization (which, for instance, does not acknowledge the beginning of the WWI as a threshold – p. 191-193, Chapter 5: “1912-1916: Austria-Hungary and the ‘Ultra Modern’”). However, these tensions between the events of political history and the calendar of the history of art could be proven fruitful from a Foucauldian point of view which is looking for ruptures and different times in one time-frame instead of the exclusionist power of political narration. 

Her first chapter is sanctified to a historical introduction and the argument of the whole idea of the book. Here, she coins the concept of “multi-centricity” which means that the Monarchy – despite centralization – did have regional capitals which were interconnected with railway-lines (p. 26-27). These eight cities (Vienna, Brno, Prague, Cracow, Lemberg, Budapest, Ljubljana, Zagreb) are her units of comparison which are – according to her interpretation – not only connected by the infrastructure but also by a “topographical identity” (p. 26-28), a “visual identity” (29-40) and an “institutional identity” (p. 41-47). Of course, these identities also separate these cities that are already challenged by the centralizing efforts of Vienna.

Sometimes it is not exactly clear if Vienna and the central bureaucracy are to be blessed or cursed for these efforts, for instance, in the second chapter on the Secession one might think that Viennese artists started something very important providing an (imperial) framework for new inspirations (p. 53), while it remains undecided if it was exactly this that overshadowed the regional capitals. This ambiguity is valid also for the chronology of individual chapters because the 1890s-1900s-1910-1910s-“1917 and beyond” periodization seems not to be really grounded given the huge number of artefacts compared. Thus, in the same fabric of “imagined empires” (p. 145-189) one can find the formation of Skupina in 1911, the progressive Prague “Group” of artists (which “evolved its principal external reference points in Paris and in Berlin”, p. 163) and the Nyolcak, the Hungarian artists’ group which although was internationalist enough, but was very “internalist” at the same time (p. 173-177). One may wonder what these groups and works of art really had in common given the different inspirations, intentions, tensions, persons and institutions.

Although in every chapter the sub-chapters embrace all the eight cities, the relations between them are not thoroughly explored. Sometimes Clegg’s “comparative” method amounts to no more than merely putting together large amount of data and presenting it to the reader. In such a way, when the overall question (or conclusion?) is not really related to the data one finds interesting ideas about, for instance, “reinventing Central Europe” after 1917 of which Lajos Kassak with his MA journal would be a part (p. 245-251) together with the Zagrebian Proljetni Salon (p. 257-260) – though Clegg does not provide enough evidence that these artists would have been interested in maintaining and re-forming the idea of Central Europe (or Mitteleuropaas it was called in these years à la Naumann).

Probably the real diversity and complexity of Clegg’s materials posed an obstacle to finish her book with an overall conclusion which might also be due to the fact that she does not aim toexplain. In the Postscriptum she enumerates “four aspects of the ‘post-imperial perspective’” (p. 267). First, a new “bi-partite division of Central Europe” (of losers – Austria, Hungary, and winners – Poland, Czechslovakia etc, p. 268), second, an “international confusion [...] to the cultural identity of [...] new, composite or newly reconstituted entities” (p. 269), third, in Austria and Hungary a new interest and redefinition of the “nation in a more positive spirit” (what Clegg thinks to be “positive” remains mysterious) by reorganizing public collections (p.270-271), and finally an “international rivalry for the cultural patronage of post-imperial Central Europe” between France and Germany (p. 272).

Certain implicit questions remain without an answer in the book. After all, what can the idea of Central Europe profit from such an immerse comparison of representations and built artefacts? Does it serve as a discursive legacy of today? What has remained from this world? Was thisone world at all? Is Central Europe a post-imperial nostalgia that was born after the post-imperial condition was already over? But there is also a more fundamental question: what can we prove with the help of images, or more precisely, with works of art? How and to what extent can we use images/works of art as historical documents? Does the difference between images and works of art apply here, the way Hans Belting maintains? If there is a special Central European character of works of art in this period – which is, after all, the major claim of the author – then was it an imperial one? Can we regard these marks as a style or as a “local” expression of something international? Can we regard the communality of these marks as resistance or as the opposite: expressions of internal colonization?

All these questions escaped the attention of Clegg, although knowing the immense reconstruction efforts needed to present this once flourishing cultural complex, this hiatus is understandable. Clegg’s work could serve as a possible starting point for discussion between Central European and non-Central European historians and art historians with an always keen focus on the present. Its comparative spirit is exemplary – one can only wish that she will have followers who would translate this spirit into an organized research agenda.