Published  24/11/2023

Hej Rup! The Czech Avant-Garde

Hej Rup! The Czech Avant-Garde

This show is full of revelations – cubism in furniture, a love for tubular steel designs and a self-sufficient village for workers are just a few of those that mark the Czech art world as presented here

Tubular steel furniture collection within the exhibition Hej Rup! The Czech Avant-Garde at the Bröhan Museum, Berlin. Installation design: Katleen Arthen. Photo: Sabine Schereck.

Bröhan-Museum, Berlin
12 October 2023 – 3 March 2024


After the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin staged the grand and ambitious show Retrotopia: Design for Socialist Spaces earlier this year, looking at what happened behind the iron curtain between the 1950s and 1980s, Hej Rup! – the Czech Avant-Garde can be regarded as a prequel focusing on the Czech art scene from 1918 to 1938.

While Retrotopia left the visitor simultaneously overwhelmed and at a loss, the Bröhan-Museum’s exhibition is well conceived and insightful. Curators Tobias Hoffmann and Julia Meyer-Brehm cover a wide range of artistic outlets, such as fine art, photography, furniture design and architecture, and they also put the pieces into an art historical context and highlight what is idiosyncratically Czech about them. The show is a great introduction to the rich but often overlooked artistic activities of a country at the heart of Europe.

Installation view, Hej Rup! The Czech Avant-Garde, Bröhan Museum, Berlin. Installation design: Katleen Arthen. Photo: Sabine Schereck.

For the relatively small institution of the Bröhan-Museum, which is dedicated to art nouveau, art deco and functionalism, this exhibition is a major achievement considering 90% of the 300 items on display, including wooden desks, chairs, lamps and paintings were brought over to Berlin from the Czech Republic and are shown here for the first time. The pioneering work of the museum fittingly reflects the high spirits and zest for action that drove the Czech avant garde artists when Czechoslovakia was founded as a new democratic state in 1918. The future was theirs and the aim was to create a modern Czech identity.

That is also where the exhibition sets off: Czech intellectuals proclaiming their idea of “poetism”, which meant overcoming the boundaries of the different creative disciplines and incorporating art into everyday life. At its centre was the Odeon publishing house, where the avant-gardists shared their ideas with the world.

Installation view, Hej Rup! The Czech Avant-Garde, Bröhan Museum, Berlin. Installation design: Katleen Arthen. Photo: Sabine Schereck.

At the Bröhan-Museum this comes wonderfully to life through a kiosk with a large shop-like window, which invites the visitor to explore rows of magazines. This construction is surrounded by sketches of the personalities who made up that circle of intellectuals. The exhibition also cleverly dedicates a room to the preceding period, that is the turn of the 19th century, where the Czechs’ unique way of adopting major European art movements becomes already visible. Cubism, originating in France and mainly applied in paintings, was here also translated into furniture and architecture.

Josef Gočár. Cubist desk from the furnishings of the ophtamologist Jan Deyl, 1913. Realisation: Prague art workshops (PUD). The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague.

So, it is a marvel to see a wooden desk and chairs in a cubist style. Architect Josef Gočár designed the desk with a chair in 1913, and Pavel Janák’s wooden chair with red furnishing was made in 1912. Large photos depict where cubism was integrated into architecture by Otakar Novotný in Prague in 1921. The furniture here is surrounded by cubist paintings and sculptures. This is done to great effect: the visitor can sense how the artworks resonate with one another and evoke a cubist world. Interestingly, there is no mention of art nouveau, which was also popular in Prague at the turn of the 19th century. Its fluid lines inspired by nature and captured in graphics, facades, wooden furniture and metalwork stand in stark contrast to cubism, which acts like a counter movement to art nouveau.

Pavel Janák. Cushioned chair. Realisation: Prague art workshops (PUD). The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague.

Fast forward to the visions of cutting-edge architecture and interior design. Czechoslovakia was home to two Werkbund Associations, each pursuing different ideals. One focused on the crafts, similar to the one in Austria, the other saw the future in technology and industrialisation. In 1928, they organised a joint exhibition in Brno. In this context, a housing estate designed for the common man was built on the outskirts of the city. Photos and floor plans give an idea of these innovative, still modern-looking buildings, clearly influenced by the Bauhaus. Similar in design with straight functional lines and no frills that would suggest a hint of decoration is another landmark building: the villa Tugendhat in Brno dreamed up by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the industrialist Fritz Tugendhat. It highlights the contrasting types of customers for which this architecture was conceived.

Installation view, Hej Rup! The Czech Avant-Garde, Bröhan Museum, Berlin. Installation design: Katleen Arthen. Photo: Sabine Schereck.

From the exterior to the interior: the collection of tubular steel furniture here is impressive, mainly chairs of various models, but also tables, desks and even a cantilever shelf, although its stability is questionable. It is not a piece to hold heavy books. Regardless, it conveys how much Czechs embraced this new functional, minimalist design. Most of the pieces were made in about 1930, yet they do not look out of date.

Another remarkable section showcasing how visions of a better future were turned into reality is the Bat’a project in Zlín, which goes back to the shoe manufacturer Tomáš Bat’a. He built a housing estate for his employees in 1925, which included a house and a garden for each family. For this, his architect, František Lydie Gahura, followed the garden city movement. But there was more: the building complex also incorporated the factory as well as a cinema, a shopping centre, a school, a hospital and a house for people to gather. This was, effectively, like a small town. Gahura wrote in 1933: “The boss believes that a person who lives in a house with a garden is more stable because they prefer to work or relax in their garden rather than hanging out in bars or actively participating in politics.” This concept was so successful that it was recreated outside the country, for example in East Tilbury in England. There, Bat’a opened a shoe factory in 1933 and the attached company town became known as “Bata-ville”. Although the factory closed in 2005, there is a Bata heritage centre with listed buildings from that period. This detail is not mentioned in the exhibition, but it demonstrates the impact that progressive Czech ideas had worldwide.

Between these sections spanning cubism to a tailor-made town, the exhibition offers a glimpse of the many genres and styles the Czech avant garde engaged in: surrealism in fine arts, experiments in photography such as photomontages, and collages reminiscent of those by Hannah Höch. Even the concept of the liberated theatre is touched on through photos and videos. The exhibition takes its name from the 1934 film Hej Rup!, the title of which translates as: “Workers, let’s go!”

Seen from a wider perspective: while the visual artists mainly responded to the avant garde movements in France, those engaged in architecture and design followed the German lead. Yet, what makes Czech artists of that period distinct is their political engagement and strong cooperation with one another across the disciplines.

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